With the rise of the digital sphere, has come new ways to create and consume content. One which has gained particular popularity in recent months is the email newsletter. Sometimes disregarded as a dated method of communication, the newsletter has risen to new heights with the introduction of regular inbox drops from big-name journalists and celebrities alike. Here, freelance writer and digital editor, Helen Brown, who launched her own weekly newsletter – Lunch Hour Links – with journalist Miranda Thompson in March 2016, examines the trend – and provides tips and tricks for starting your own.
“The last time I was this excited about an email was 1998!” reads one of the glowing endorsements on The Ann Friedman Weekly, a links-based roundup of journalist Ann Friedman’s writing and must-reads from across the web. In 2017, email newsletters are bigger than ever before - and finding particular popularity among young women.
While we’ve already embraced the movement in its traditional formats, such as magazine-style mailouts (Stylist’s sister Emerald Street), shopping roundups (DailyCandy, which spearheaded the editorial newsletter phenomenon in 2000 and ran until 2014), listings (Urban Junkies), and news briefings (theSkimm), more recently it’s the personal take on the mailout that’s flourishing. “People like people more than brands,” says Friedman. “The big thing that works about my newsletter is that it’s created by one human being and reflects one human being’s point of view.”
As well as Friedman’s 26,000 subscribers, there’s the Lena Dunham-backed Lenny Letter, a weekly collection of think pieces and interviews that reaches over 500,000 readers. Writer Dolly Alderton has just signed a book deal inspired in part by her weekly email, The Dolly Mail, which is filled with essays, recipes, links and other vignettes. “When you have your own writing platform, you can just write about what's on your mind,” says Alderton. “I chose a newsletter format as I love writing letters and emails and it felt like a more personal way of delivering content to an audience.”
In the age of social media overwhelm, the throwback simplicity and intimacy of email has a new-found appeal. Digital influencer Emma Gannon, who started her own weekly email, The Emma Gannon Weekly, in January 2016, explains: “Having had a public blog for over seven years, starting a newsletter felt like going back to those early days with a small community of readers. It feels like a safe space, away from public social media sites that can often leave you feeling quite vulnerable.”
That safe space is important. Amy Jones, a video producer living in London, swapped blogging for her newsletter, Jimsy Jampots, in June 2016, and soon started using it to write personal updates about her struggles with depression and anxiety.
“I'm trying to talk more about mental health, and my newsletter seems like a safe place to do it because it goes straight into inboxes,” she says. “I've had people say they look forward to it each Thursday because it makes them feel less alone.”
Read more: Expert tips on how to beat writer's block
The email format is conducive to fostering a relationship with readers, agrees Alex Sheppard of General Musings. “If my readers have a comment, they email it directly to me, and that dialogue feels special. No matter how many subscribers some of my favourite newsletters have, they read like a little note just for me.”
If you do attract thousands of subscribers, you might make some money from it. “In 2015, I switched to sending my newsletter with MailChimp, which costs money - and I had to figure out a way to monetise,” explains Friedman. “I came up with the idea of including tweet-length classified ads in each edition and decided to offer a paid version of the newsletter, wherein people who pay me just $5/year will get a hand-drawn pie chart every week. Between both of these revenue streams, the newsletter is now a meaningful portion of my income.”
Ready to start your own newsletter? It couldn’t be easier. Here’s our step-by-step guide to getting your word out…
Five steps to starting your own newsletter
1. Plan your format and sending schedule
The most popular types of newsletter currently include personal essays, links to things around the internet, and those that cater to a specific audience, like teen-oriented Clover Letter. Once you’ve decided what format (or combination) suits you best, think about how often you want to send your email. You might choose to stick to a weekly schedule so that your subscribers know exactly when they will receive your newsletter in their inbox, or decide to have no schedule at all so that there is no pressure.
2. Choose your platform
The go-to platforms for creating a personal newsletter are TinyLetter and MailChimp. If you’re just starting out, TinyLetter is easy to navigate (requiring little to zero coding experience) and free, although you can’t hugely alter the look of your email and subscribers are restricted to 5,000. If you grow your list beyond that number, or have some coding experience and want more control over design, MailChimp might be a better choice - but going with this option will cost you at least $10 (£8) a month if you have thousands of subscribers or want to use premium services (like scheduled delivery by time zone).
3. Build your first email
If you choose to go with a straightforward text format, building your first email should be quite simple. Most newsletter editors will include a paragraph toolbar with familiar options for text editing and options to include pictures or gifs. If you decide to delve into the code (for example, to embed music or podcast players) try a free Codecademy HTML course to build your skills.
4. Grow your following
Your chosen newsletter provider will have an online signup form that you can share with people before and after you send your first email - friends, family and colleagues are a great place to start. The beauty of email is that people can forward it (don’t be afraid to encourage this), so your subscriber numbers will grow naturally. Some newsletters (like The Ann Friedman Weekly) offer paid-for classifieds where you can advertise your newsletter to like-minded subscribers, and you can also try cross-platform promotion from your social media accounts. Although don’t get too caught up in the numbers - the average TinyLetter email has just 265 subscribers.
5. Understand your analytics and financing options
Once you have some subscribers and you’ve sent your first email, there are a few ways to find out how many people opened it. Depending on which newsletter platform you’re using, you will find this information on your dashboard or by clicking on one of your sent emails. The unique open rate is the percentage or number of people who opened your email, and the total or gross open rate includes people who opened it more than once. The click rate is the number of people who clicked on a link in your email. These figures can be good for showing to advertisers or brands interested in partnerships if you do eventually decide to monetise your email - the higher the numbers, the better (high click rates are especially attractive to advertisers).
Seven of the best newsletters written by women
Looking for inspiration? Sign up for these
1. Clover Letter
Who’s it written by? Former magazine writers Liza Darwin and Casey Lewis
How often? Daily
What is it? A news and culture-based dispatch primarily aimed at teens, but don’t let that put you off - it’s excellent.
Sign up: cloverletter.com
2. So far, I’ve had no complaints
Who’s it written by? Caroline Crampton, assistant editor at the New Statesman
How often? Every Friday
What is it? Excerpts from some of the best-written articles of the week, plus wide-ranging recommendations from TV to upcoming events. There’s also a ‘compulsory medieval thingamabob’ each time.
Sign up: tinyletter.com/nocomplaints
3. Coffee & TV
Who’s it written by? Ruth Curry, a writer and editor living in Brooklyn
How often? Sporadically
What is it? A personal essay-style email which fuses a review of a coffee shop with a deep dive into a TV show. Surprisingly personal and insightful considering the subject matter.
Sign up: tinyletter.com/coffeeandtv
4. ...The fuck is this?
Who’s it written by? Bim Adewunmi, senior culture writer at Buzzfeed News
How often? Sporadically
What is it? Beautifully written tales of living in New York as an expat. Feels like pages of your favourite novel arriving in your inbox out of the blue.
Sign up: tinyletter.com/bim
5. 10 Things by Claire and Erica
Who’s it written by? Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo, founders of the online marketplace Of A Kind
How often? Every Monday
What is it? 10 recommendations ranging from interesting reads to tried-and-tested recipes and in-the-know beauty finds. The kind of things you might hear about at a dinner party hosted by your coolest friend.
Sign up: ofakind.com/pages/newsletter
6. Emerald Street
Who’s it written by? A team of writers at Stylist’s sister brand, Emerald Street
How often? Daily
What is it? A magazine-style email with shopping features, event listings, book reviews and lots more. Look out for the Sunday long reads written by weekend editor Anna-Marie Crowhurst - in recent months she’s written about coping with grief, being an introvert and achieving her childhood dreams.
Sign up: emeraldstreet.com
7. Lunch Hour Links
Who’s it written by? London-based editors Helen Brown and Miranda Thompson
How often? Every Monday (Tuesday following a bank holiday)
What is it? A weekly selection of links to keep you interested and inspired while you’re eating your lunch. Expect articles, books, podcasts, design and more.
Sign up: tinyletter.com/lunchhourlinks