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Why email newsletters still work — and how you can make yours better

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The email newsletter model comes from some very humble roots, yet has grown into a powerful business model. As the former CEO of DailyCandy, I got firsthand experience on what works — and doesn’t — for email newsletters.

DailyCandy launched in 2000. We borrowed from the direct mail business to create a model based on email newsletters, and shared daily tips about local stores and restaurants. Thirteen years later, a lot has changed but I still think that email newsletters can be a viable business model. Here are tips for anyone trying to build a successful newsletter today:

  • Entertain and inform. This strategy builds and supports the voice of the publication, and that builds and sustains the brand. At DailyCandy, even if our users didn’t shop at or eat at the places we wrote about, they always ended each read with a smile — that kept them opening our emails. Of course, some brands and topics lent themselves to creative copy more than others. One of our more popular examples of this “entertainment factor” was dubbed IROD, an interesting massage device that was tethered to your iPod. I don’t know how many devices the manufacturer ended up selling, but the topic generated buzz and entertained readers.

  • Be brief. Newsletters should get their point across in 150 words or less. People today skim rather than read, and reading email is no exception. Thrillist recently got me hooked on a automatic home beer maker in just 106 words (yes, there was an additional video, but the content was short and sweet).  No long lists of specs, parts, pieces…just a simple what and why. In the early days of DailyCandy, we developed a template of sorts (e.g., great hook, better kicker) to ensure that each of our newsletters hit the key points, but was still a short read.

  • Stick to one topic. Long lists of items about different topics don’t sustain reader attention and don’t have the same brand impact as focusing on one individual item of interest. If you do send out lists, feature one topic prominently and try to stick to quality curation. People want to be told what’s hot and are happy to leave the trend-sorting to the experts. InsideHook’s fall personal audio guide is a great example of this type of quality curation: There are dozens of headphones and bluetooth speakers on the market today, but InsideHook surfaced the best and made my job as a reader (and consumer) easier. Red Tricycle‘s kids-focused email newsletter also does a nice job of this (check out Beyond the Boring Lunch Box).

  • Leverage non-email channels for delivery. Email is not the only channel to consumers — and it shouldn’t be the only way for your content to reach them, either. Facebook (s FB) accepts full posts (although paid promotion may be necessary) and Twitter can link back to your site’s archives. When measuring your reach, these channels need to measured and added to your total list sizes (though some brands will limit advertising on them). Mobile should be a priority too. BrightNest, for instance, has a solid, well-designed mobile app that lets users organize, manage and maintain everything in their house.

While the email newsletter model has changed and adapted to the times, it’s continued to thrive. People love curated content, and they appreciate the lean-back experience of having interesting information delivered to them. I’m confident that there will always be a place for the newsletter in any digital content strategy.

Pete Sheinbaum is founder and CEO of LinkSmart, a Boulder, Colo.-based company that helps web publishers develop, engage and manage their audiences through in-content text links. Follow him on Twitter @sheinbaum.

10 Responses to “Why email newsletters still work — and how you can make yours better”

  1. The only problem with this post is that it address e-mail as a content delivery system. What if you are looking to drive traffic back to your site, for either content consumption or purchase? If that’s the case, would including content in the manner of Daily Candy or Thrillist really be the best examples to model your newsletter after?

    • Immanuel Nwachukwu

      Assuming you too receive email newsletters enough to compare among them. From you experience would you recommend a more appropriate model than DailyCandy’s?

      Mind you, I’m not even sure what is meant here “in the manner of DailyCandy”, but from what I understand from this article, their manner seems pretty solid start to build a newsletter to drive traffic.

  2. Rupert Waddington

    Great article! As a wordsmith who helps businesses to create communication with real impact, this is exactly what I urge them to do. You can ‘fancy up’ your presentation etc as much as you like – but unless your words themselves connect and engage immediately, powerfully, drawing people in, making it impossible to stop reading, then you’re wasting your time. Great to hear it explained so convincingly.

    Rupert Waddington,

  3. Thank you Paul, absolutely agree with you on the crucial importance of email for discovery and delivery of content. I’m familiar with the business models of websites and print publications, wondering how that compares with email newsletters?


  4. Thank you. That was informative.

    I do send out some targeted emails, and I also receive some. There’s one I receive in particular that is rambling, makes controversial statements and can only be described as a train wreck. I do sometimes read it, however, if I have time, just for entertainment value. I almost wonder if that’s the intent!