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Write the emails you want to see in the world
👉 not the ones you *think* other people will want to see
Hi - Ian here.
This is a very different email to the one I planned to write.
You see, I’ve been analysing different types of email newsletter to try to identify which type works best for different types of customers and situations.
A fledgeling taxonomy of newsletters
You’ll find 4 main formats of email newsletter out there “in the wild”.
The first is the in-depth article. Trung Phan is a master at this over at SatPost, leading with a well-researched 2,000-3,000 word article on tech or business each week. At Zero to Marketing, Andrea Bosoni does a brilliant and detailed case study each month of one website and how he’d grow it.
The second common format is the digest. This is a curated list of some of the most interesting articles or resources the author has spotted recently, usually with a short commentary on each. Tim Ferris’s 5-Bullet Friday is an example of an eclectic, multi-topic digest based simply on what Tim has found interesting that week. Sunday Snippets from Ali Abdaal is much more focused - in this case on productivity.
The third popular format is snackable tips. These newsletters are designed so that you can get a quick tip or insight in a few minutes or less - perfect for busy people wanting a quick injection of new ideas. James Clear’s 3-2-1 newsletter is one of the originals in this format with 3 ideas from James, 2 quotes from others and 1 question to ponder. Thomas McKinlay’s Ariyh shares 3 minute practical marketing recommendations based on the latest scientific research.
The fourth format is the conversational email. With this style of newsletter, the tips and ideas are shared in more of a conversational style using personal stories, anecdotes or analogies (rather than the facts and figures driven approach of the in-depth article). Sairam Krishnan’s CMO Journal is a great example of tips and ideas for startup marketing illustrated through personal experience and opinion. Tim Denning’s Unfiltered is a very personal take on how to live a more fulfilled, freer life. Conversational emails can build a sense of personal relationship between the author and reader. And as we know from psychology, the use of stories to make a point is often more persuasive than hard data.
And, of course, some newsletters combine formats. Scott Galloway’s No Mercy/No Malice manages to include data-rich in-depth articles and conversational storytelling at the same time. Many newsletters that lead with a main article include a shorter digest section at the end too.
Matching formats to audiences
You’ll have guessed where this is going by now. Surely it makes sense that different formats are more suitable for different audiences and different goals?
For example, does a "snackable" read-in-5-minutes-a-day style work best for busy business people who would struggle to take time out of their day to read a longer newsletter?
Does an in-depth article style of newsletter work best to establish credibility to move potential buyers closer to being ready to pull the trigger?
Or do conversational emails work better to establish relationships and that "peer to peer" feel that would make a reader feel comfortable about hiring you?
I spent rather a long time sketching out the kind of nice, pretty matrices of email formats, audiences and goals that any consultant would have been proud of.
But in the end, I realised there was something way more important than any theoretical match between format and audience.
What happens in the real world
In the real world, the main reason newsletters fail isn’t a lack of match with a potential audience.
It’s simply that the author runs out of steam. They write a few issues and then it just becomes too much hard work.
So the most important factor in deciding what type of newsletter to create is simply what type of newsletter you enjoy creating.
Because even if the numbers tell you that 64% of your audience prefers a comprehensive, in-depth newsletter - if you hate writing them then they're not going to get done.
Far better to aim for the smaller % of the market that prefers whatever email type you prefer to write.
Because those emails will get done. Not the emails you think people might want to read.
That doesn’t mean I’m decrying the importance of market research or customer focus by any means. Or underestimating the importance of “the first rule of marketing” - namely that you are not your customer and you should be very wary of projecting your preferences onto them.
But the reality for most small businesses and solo creators is that there will be a big enough, reachable market for whatever our preference is. We don’t need to reach huge markets or anywhere near the majority of potential customers. The small little sliver of the market that happens to be in tune with us will be enough.
So why did I say at the very start "write the emails you want to see in the world?"1
Because I've found that almost universally, the emails you like to read are the emails you like to write.
I've got huge folders of unread issues of big comprehensive emails where I was impressed by the first one I read, but just didn't have the time or energy to read many more of them.
And I never got the sense I had a relationship with the writer. They were writing at me, not talking with me.
I have more unread folders full of "5 minute tip" emails too. They sound like a great idea but I rarely get anything meaningful from them so I stop reading.
In the end I always come back to the emails I get where someone a few steps ahead of me shares their insights in a way where I feel part of their world. Not talked down to. Not lectured.
Those are the emails I like to read, and they're also the emails I like to write. Or at least hope to.
You might be different, of course.
You might love those big encyclopaedic emails. Or you might love all the links to interesting new resources you can go off and investigate. Or something you can read quickly and move on.
My advice is that whatever you like to read, pay attention to it. See if you enjoy writing in a similar style.
If you enjoy it, you'll do it.
And no matter what type of email works best for your audience in theory, the one that works best in the real world is the one you actually do.