Letters From the Editor: Ann Handley on the Underrated Value of Newsletters

February 4, 2019

During her entertaining and wide-ranging Oct. 9 General Session at the PRSA 2018 International Conference in Austin, Texas, Ann Handley discussed an oft-underappreciated tool: e-newsletters.

For this storytelling issue, we wanted to hear more about her pro-newsletter views. Here’s what the Boston-based content strategist and digital marketer had to say.

Why are you a champion of newsletters?

Yes, I am. Here’s why I believe in the power of email newsletters even more strongly today:

  • An email newsletter is the only place where individuals — not algorithms — are in control. So, what if we leaned into that inherently personal space?
  • Most companies today use their email newsletter as a distribution strategy. What if we focused not on the news but on the letter?

In January, I relaunched my personal newsletter as a way to talk directly to my audience. It’s taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t in content and in communications.

I think the best email newsletters are also a kind of proxy for the best communications in 2019.

Are these a little old-fashioned in these high-tech times? Should we be creating Snapchat channels?

I know what you’re thinking. “Email? Is this 1999 or 2019? Isn’t this the age of Facebook Live and Instagram Stories and Snapchat?” 

I’m not saying you should ignore those places where your audience is and where you have the resources to engage them. But you don’t own any of those social platforms. You are vulnerable to their whims and shifts in their own business priorities. However, you do own your email list and database.

What’s more: When people read your posts on Facebook, they are interacting with Facebook. But when they read your newsletter, they are interacting with you.

Creating a newsletter can be as simple as tweaking a word and updating links. Does this mean we’re taking our readers for granted?

This hurts my heart. I don’t know whether this kind of practice is rooted in taking readers for granted.

But, companies who do not put more time, effort and attention into their newsletter programs are missing out. Newsletters are a vastly important method of communicating with the people who have already decided they want to hear from you.

You’ve talked about the human appeal of newsletters. Why do you think people respond more to something created by a person than by an algorithm?

Algorithms are great at optimizing all sorts of things. But there are limitations. Algorithms can’t create with the kind of necessary craft, art and emotion that spell the difference between mediocre and truly great marketing.

What are some key things to keep in mind if you’re trying to write an effective newsletter?

  • Focus on the letter more than the news. Your letter should feel more like a letter than a distribution strategy.
  • Find your Doris. Warren Buffett’s annual “Letter to Shareholder” goes out to thousands of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. But he writes it to one person: his sister, Doris. So, who is your Doris? Who are you writing to? Who is the one person your newsletter is helping? 
  • Create a recognizable voice. The best newsletters have a recognizable point of view. A newsletter that comes from you should not sound like it could easily come from me.

Do you have tips for creating that “letter” portion of the newsletter?

A few years ago, my daughter overheard me being interviewed for a podcast. She mentioned later that she knew it was a professional call because, she said, “you were using your ‘marketing’ voice.” It made me laugh at the time, but it also made me wonder why I had a different voice in that professional setting — especially one I wasn’t even aware of.

A lot of communications pros have developed that kind of writing voice. It’s not a fake voice — but it’s not as warm and authentic as it could be.

So, write to Doris, because that will help keep your voice conversational, warm and loose. Shed your “MarCom” voice and put a little more of you into it: your likes, your loves, your weirdness, your obsessions, your own emotions, character and humor.

You might be thinking that you can’t do that — because isn’t a professional voice neutral? No. Not in a newsletter. Some of the best email newsletters I read use voice and personality to great effect, and they are still 100 percent professional.

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



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