What to write in a newsletter?

An NGO came to me today with a newsletter and they asked me for feed-back on it. I thought I would share the conclusions from my feed-back.


First, let’s start with common traps:

  • It’s a common trap to write a long text.
  • It’s quite a natural thing to start speaking about the future. Promises.
  • It happens a lot to have this very weird idea that people want to read your text.
  • You may think people just want to know how you are doing. How are things going, how’s everything?
  • When speaking of yourself you should speak positive things, right?
  • „You should focus on avoiding typos” – this sounds right, doesn’t it?
  • Let’s design things better. Better. Even better-er. So they say.

How do I see the things above?

  • Write as briefly as possible. Focus on reducing things. Always be merciless with this question – „Is this affirmation really necessary?” There are usually whole paragraphs to be cut, and then sentences, and then words. Reduce the texts and photos to a minimum. On the other hand, don’t cut too much. If you want so sell a product, show me a photo of the product. If you have a story, have an accompanying photo. If videos are relevant to the context, use them. Other than that focus on cutting things. There is no minimal or maximum you should aim for. Even a small text can have too much text and a long newsletter can have plenty of useful information and be catchy. Focusing on reducing things to the right (that is minimal) size will probably do miracles.
  • Yes, you should at times speak of the future. Do say how good participants will feel at a workshop you’ll organize. Do say that if people call you, you will be there for them, happy, joyful, with curiosity and openness. Do tell them that by using your products they’ll have this special feeling of … But, most of the times, focus on the past and balance the future with the past. Give ratings of previous workshops. Say how others felt when they were at your place. Give numbers which prove that your products have qualities.
  • A very important point is that people don’t want to read your newsletter. Most likely, the process will rather be this: they open their email and either they know from previous experiences what your newsletter looks like, or they have a hint by the subject line / sender that this is a newsletter, in fact. Based on both previous experiences and current mood, they’ll first question the need to actually open the email, instead of deleting it. If they do decide to open it, they might run into the technical problem of not seeing the photos in it. Using one of the two solutions for this (opening the newsletter in browser or asking the software to display the images), they might overcome this. At this specific point, when they read the newsletter, they are most likely very eager to have it done quickly. They will most likely only scan your newsletter, instead of reading it. Anyhow, even if they do read it, they stand under the pressure of time and other emails and other tasks, and will probably be in a hurry. The point of all this is that people don’t want to read the newsletter, they want either a rewarding experience („Ah, so cool products”, „Hmm, look what they’ve launched!”, „What a lovely photo, and the story behind it is incredible”), or they actually want to do other things – buy stuff, send the email to other people, call you, order something, go to an event. Reading the email is probably the worst type of action a user might have. It might actually be better to put some of the larger blocks of text in the newsletter in a different place (your blog / your web site), and link to it. A newsletter is meant usually for scanning, for going through things quickly, and taking action – not for reading. For this purpose, I’d suggest dividing the newsletter into sections, each with a specific goal (call to action). For example, have a section with „come to our event”, illustrate this with a story, put a photo and perhaps a video, and end or start that section with a call to action – „come to us”. Another section could be focused on making people buy things. Have a photo, perhaps a video (a link to it in a separate window), perhaps a small text describing it. And say specifically – „do this and that to order the products”. In my opinion, it is a good idea to think of your newsletter specifically on call-to-actions: visit us, call us, subscribe to another newsletter ours, send the current newsletter to others, buy from us, recommend us to other, help us with this and that.
  • Some people put in newsletter information such as „how are we doing?”. In my opinion, this should be reduced to a very small line of text – „we’ve won a competition, see a photo, this is the link, go see it if you’re interested”. That’s it, a text similar to this and that’s it. Don’t detail on the competition, where it took place, how did you feel, who are you grateful for this to happen, give only a small piece of information, with a link. On the other hand, this piece of information should also have a call to action. „As you see, we did good so far. Why don’t you help us do even better by …” / „You saw our annual report. This year we’ll do better. Help us in this by …”. Another point of this is that people do want to hear stories. But real, authentic stories, with a catch. „I want to tell you something which was interesting and happened these three weeks. We did this and that. And the part which really struck us was …”. Do be human, and do have something to share and tell. But make it a story. How to tell stories? There’s a literature on that. I like this book on the matter – „101 Healing Stories: Using Metaphors in Therapy” – in English and in Romanian. Reading and telling jokes also helps on this process, from my experience.
  • About speaking positively, and only positively in a newsletter. I’d much rather vote for „keep it real”. Put photos of real people. If you tell a story, tell it as an actual story – with facts, with negative things, with problems. Actual stories are usually not focused on answering this question – „What do you do well?” / „How would you praise us?” / „What positive things do you have to say about us?”. I don’t have an answer to what a real story is, but if you have a newsletter in which everything is focused on „We’re so great!”, sometimes people might not buy into it.
  • Should you correct typos? It depends on what you want. If you want to be considered to be „the ones who don’t write newsletters with typos”, yes. But I give you some alternatives to consider when answering the question of whether you should correct them or not:
    • There are automated spell checkers for English and even for Romanian texts written with diacritics. I rarely need to go beyond that. A newsletter is almost never the case to proofread further.
    • You have a tendency to think that people will read your text letter by letter. Have this statistic – for 1,000 subscribers, there are most likely 10-40% people who will open the newsletter and actually read it, and out of those people a vast majority will do it so rapidly that they will not notice the typos.
    • For those (most likely, few) people who do notice the typos – there are typos and there are flagrant mistakes. I can type a word poorly (invert letters, skip letters), and this is easily forgiven, or I can use poor words or have a bad grammar, or plainly write poorly. The typos are most likely easily to pass by.
    • The newsletter subject line should have a much more importance than if you have 5 typos. Much more. People most like decide whether to read a newsletter or not mostly on the subject line. Also, what you put in the newsletter, and the structure of it, are all much more important than typos. Even 5 of them.
    • Priorities in a newsletter:
      1. Subject line.
      2. Focusing on having an as-small-as-possible text.
      3. Focusing on having a clear call to action for everything you put in a newsletter. Everything you put in a newsletter should be able to answer either „what do I want with this text directly?” or „how does this help directly helps me in another call to action?” (for example, a story which helps a call to action to buy something).
      4. Telling stories. Good ones (which is not the same as „positive ones”).
      5. Putting the newsletter online. To me, this is so obvious, that it’s hard to put it as a point. Of course, if you put an enormous effort into designing and creating a newsletter, you will put this text online somewhere, won’t you? At times, I see people not doing this.
      6. Speaking in plain language. Write like you talk. No fluffy things. Plain, common language.
      7. Using appropriate photos.
      8. Applying this principle: A video is better than a SlideShare presentation, which is better than a photo, which is better than a text, which is better than nothing at all. So, use mostly videos and photos and SlideShare presentation, but do use text, also.
      9. Balancing the future with the past. Use both – say what happened, and promise something.
      10. Using numbers for persuasion.
      11. Think that more and more people will start reading your newsletter on a mobile phone. How long does it take to load your 5-photos newsletter on a mobile text? How big is the font of the text? How easy is it to scan the newsletter on a mobile phone?
      12. Typos are not in the priority list. They’re just not a priority to me. Sorry, they’re mostly irrelevant to me, as long as the text is readable, it’s fine with me. Grammar and structure and vocabulary – yes, it matters, but for this reading the text 5 times is pointless. You just write correctly the first time.
    • The biggest priority of a newsletter is often ignored – create it and send it. The thing is, if you start to focus on typos, and small things, and tiny irrelevant details, and write long texts, the whole process becomes unpleasant to you. And you don’t like it, and it takes a lot of time. And, at the end of the day, if you aren’t good at setting priorities (a text on this in Romanian), you will look at what you did, and you will feel good – you wrote a lot, you analyzed each small problem, and you re-read the texts a few times, and did lots of trials & errors, and your texts are now written with the perfect language, no typing error whatsoever. Looks good, right? The problem with this is that it drains your energy, and pleasure, and happiness, and you don’t feel like writing another newsletter in two weeks, and consider that this process takes the soul and passion in you, and you really 100% don’t like to do this so often. And, when occasions arise, you find lots of excuses and pleasure in not writing the next newsletter, and postponing it, and you will stop finding pleasure in sharing things. And this is a much bigger problem. How do I solve this? I almost never send manual newsletters, I try to automate things as possible – whenever I post something on my blog, the next day a newsletter goes to all my subscribers. That’s it. They get very good speed of delivery, timely information, and I get nothing of the unpleasant part (bureaucracy) of composing newsletters. I just post on the blog, and things go out automatically, and the news is from yesterday, not 3 weeks away. Even in occasions when I do send newsletters manually, I focus mostly on speed (send it quickly after the text is ready, focus on delivering the text quickly) and frequency (keep a good frequency, most of the times a few times a month is good), not on minor things like typos. Unfortunately, even if most of the time the focus should be on delivering the newsletter quickly after and event and doing this quite often, sometimes this is ignored. When it is ignored for correcting typos, it’s even worse.
  • Regarding design, my tips would be – keep things simple and non-bureaucratic. Maximum frequency – change the template 5 times at the beginning, then change it again after 6 months, then only change the template one per year or less often. Regarding photos – find a photo, edit it, put it. It should be a simple process. Not – find a photo, change it, change it, find another one, improve it, remove it. Think that out of 500 subscribers you will most likely reach something like 100 people. I work hard on solving things well the first time. Yes, I change and shift, but try to focus on repeating the change itself. Most of the times, colors don’t matter. If they do matter, they matter the first few times you set and create the template. On the other hand, focusing on the things above (frequency, subject line, see the list above) does matter. My personal newsletters on olivian.ro and olivianbreda.com have a white background, light blue titles and dark grey text (see example). And they’re fine just like that, to me. What to write, how to write well, how to improve what I say – this does matter. I prefer to have the energy and passion to write better, instead of focusing on the bureaucracy of improving the template.
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