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The four things that define a good newsletter

Illustrated by explaining just how crap my own newsletter is.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

What makes a great newsletter? We're still figuring that out, but there's enough good research and evidence out there about engaging people via email to make it clear I'm doing something very wrong. People never respond to mine like those over-excited folks in the lead image…

Like many people who work in education and training, sometimes my courses amount to “do what I say, not what I do”. I was reminded of that during the first week of my newsletters course, while I was describing the key characteristics of a successful newsletter. It dawned on me that almost every single characteristic I described of is entirely absent from the newsletter you get when you hit the “subscribe” button here.

Let me explain exactly how I’m publishing a rubbish newsletter:

Lack of regularity means lack of habit formation

When is an email newsletter going to arrive? If it just turns up when it turns up, I have to really love it to leap straight to it in my crowded in-box. On the other hand, if I can rely on it being in my in-box at a particular time, I can build it into my routine. If I do that often enought, it becomes a habit — and thus I become a loyal reader.

I read the Media Roundup newsletter every morning over coffee because I can rely on it being there. I usually read through Kevin Anderson’s newsletter early in the afternoon because that’s when it turns up. It's a great way of easing myself back into work after lunch.

So, by failing to publish regularly, OM&HB misses the chance of becoming a habit in your reading. It's not a vital plank of your information day. Fail.

No structure, no sense of familiarity

An email that has a reliable structure — look at the excellent Dense Discovery for example — becomes a familiar, comforting read. You know what to expect, and you know what your favourite bit of the email is, be it, for example, the cartoon halfway down, or the competition near the end. This is, simply, magazine thinking applied to newsletters. Readers can get familiar with newsletters in the same way they get familiar with magazines.

Additionally, the structure serves to make it easier for me to create (or would, if I had one). Find three stories to link to, give context, and then publish? Easy! Should I do a piece of analysis, or a links round-up, or a piece of advice? Hard!

By failing to adhere to any regular structure, OM&HB is both harder for me to create, and difficult for you, the reader, to get comfortable with. Fail.

What’s your value proposition?

The Vox Sentences newsletter is easy to understand: the most important news digested for you. Matt Navarra’s Geekout newsletter is truly every piece of social media news from the week just gone. If that’s what you want, you subscribe. Easy.

OM&HB is… well, stuff around the intersection of journalism and publishing that I happen to find interesting. Basically, the core proposition is probably me, personally. If you value my insights into publishing, you subscribe. If you truly value them, you become a paid subscriber.

If not, well…

Who’s your audience?

Am I writing for journalists? Members of the creator economy? Publishers? Publishing technology geeks? Um… maybe them all? That’s the problem: if I don't know who the “newsletter” is for, how can they know it’s for them?

Contrast, if you will, with, say, the Politico London Playbook: a morning email for those who are so deep in Westminster politics that a detailed guide to all the issues and events floating around each day is a must-subscribe to them.

With a clear sense of the audience, the author can deliver a product that hits their needs exactly.

So, yes, OM&HB by email is a crap newsletter, by my own standards. Now, I do have an excuse, or, at least, so I tell myself. I’m not really signing you up for a newsletter. You actually sign up for a blog post delivered in newsletter style. And, if you pay, to support my work and get access to subscriber-only posts and resources. None of that means that I couldn't do better than this, if I put my mind to it.

Indeed, if you’re delivering newsletters as a key part of your job in publishing, marketing or journalism, you better be paying a whole bunch more attention to what I say than what I do.

And, ironically enough, one of the best ways of doing that is by subscribing to my (crap) newsletter.


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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.