The dreaded newsletter: Create one you don’t hate

Too often, a business newsletter feels like the adult equivalent of those thank-you notes your parents made you write after your birthday. You know you have to say something, but what? We’ve all felt the agony of feeling trapped indoors, knowing that the sooner you find a way to thank grandma for the bike, the sooner you’ll get to go out and ride it. I think this early experience may be why people believe in writer’s block.

But there’s a big difference between the newsletter and the thank-you note: Grandma will actually read what you wrote. Most newsletters wind up in the digital trash, unopened.

Full disclosure: that’s why I resisted publishing a newsletter for so long. And I still don’t. I call it “Occasional Flashes of Brilliance” instead. And only half of that brilliance winds up unopened in the digital trash. My open rate averages just shy of 49%, which is pretty respectable compared to corporate newsletters that struggle to get to one-third, according to Hubspot.

Apparently I know what I’m talking about, newsletter-wise. So here’s my advice.

Two newsletter mistakes

I see two big mistakes when it comes to corporate newsletters, often interconnected.

The first is the “it’s September, so let’s talk about back-to-school” approach. Yes, you’re right to tie your newsletter to current events. But try to go beyond the Hallmark card aisle.

The second is the “well, I think the executive would want to say…” approach. I understand that newsletters are not high on anyone’s to-do list—except for the person whose job it is to write them, poor soul. But if something’s going out under the executive’s name, it should have the executive’s fingerprints on it somewhere.

Fingerprints? Yes, because they’re unique to each person. And that’s how you solve both of those problems—you talk to the executive. It only takes 10 minutes tops to ask a question and get a story. Or schedule 30 and go in with a bunch of questions—that can take care of your newsletter copy for an entire quarter.

The key is to go into those conversations with editorial ideas already sketched out. “Do you have a story about…” a vacation trip gone awry? Something unexpected you learned from your mother? Your favorite Halowe’en costume—either one you’ve worn or one you saw. (You don’t have to avoid seasonality altogether; just find more creative ways to approach it.)

Stories give you fresh angles

Stories are the “secret sauce” behind every great communication. Once you’ve got them, set to work on an unexpected subject line. Remember, people get literally thousands of emails a week at work (sometimes more than a thousand a day), so give them a subject line that will make their glazed-over eyes pop open.

My most-opened Flashes of Brilliance so far have been: “For the Birds” (63%!), “Brains & James Bond” (60%) and “So you want to give a TED Talk?” (49%—that was a no-brainer: everyone wants to give a TED Talk) and I thought for sure I’d hit with “The love child of a rapper and a policy wonk” but that barely got to 35%. And I add the identifier “An Occasional Flash of Brilliance” after the text, not before. No matter how catchy your subject line is, no one will open an email with the subject “HR Monthly Newsletter.”

If you want to see my Occasional Flashes of Brilliance in action, hit the button and I’ll add you to my list. I’m releasing the next one tomorrow.
Keep in touch. Subscribe to Elaine’s Occasional Flashes of Brilliance.

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