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4 Strategies to Design and Curate Emails That People Will Actually Read

BRITTANY JEZOUIT - FEB 6, 2017

If 2016 was the year of the newsletter, 2017 will be the year of curation. These days, email has evolved from a transactional conversation tool to an essential component of publishing and media. There are only a handful of publications that I still read directly from the source; instead, I rely on email to push the content directly to my inbox.

Many declared 2016 the year of the newsletter, with media and news organizations redoubling their focus on newsletters and email as a primary source of content. Here are a few examples:

As a self-confessed newsletter enthusiast – I even spend my free time writing a weekly newsletter for fun.

With so much content being created, the role of email has evolved to focus more on curation, and on filtering through the noise. So, how can you make sure your newsletter holds its spot in crowded inboxes – and grabs the attention of your readers?

While there’s no magic formula, here are a few of my favorite email newsletter styles, trends, and formats I’ve used in my own writing – and ones that keep me subscribed, reading, and clicking:

1. Like a letter to your friends: add a personal introduction

Personal introductions from The Cohort (left) and The Modern Desk (right).

My inbox is full of marketing promotions, work updates, and other impersonal messages; an actual, personal email from a real human being – like a friend or family member – stands out.

Some newsletters have capitalized on this by dedicating an entire section with a personal letter in the introduction of their email. This makes it less of a standard marketing message and more like a thoughtful note from a friend. It’s a direct, up-front reminder that, hey, a real person wrote this for me. I’ve never met Katie Hawkins-Gaar (Poynter’s The Cohort), David Remnick (The New Yorker Sunday), or Kai Brach (Modern Desk), but through reading the personal introductions in their regular newsletters, I’m pretty sure we would get along if we ever met in real life.

How to do it: An intro can be a short and sweet recap of what’s in the email, like in WNYC’s Hodgepod, or long and personal, like in Lena Dunham’s LennyLetter. Choose one person to write the intro to maintain consistency and form a relationship with your readers, or switch things up with a rotating intro from different writers and editors each week, like in Fusion’s newsletter strategy.

2. Bookmarks & bullet-points: share your link list

It’s the first rule of conversation and of content marketing: don’t spend all of your time talking about yourself. Playing the role of content curator means more than just sharing all the articles you published on your own blog this week.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” ― Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

A newsletter from Really Good Emails (left) and Creative Mornings (right) highlight content from other publications, instead of their own.

My favorite examples of this are Creative Mornings’ Fun stuff to click on section of their newsletter, which summarizes links in quick one-liner form, and The Verge, which has bulleted sections called On the Verge for articles they’ve written, and Off the Verge for articles published elsewhere. Really Good Emails, the email-about-email, includes a section of related links from top stories in other publications.

Using an email template makes it easy to build different sections for your newsletter while maintaining a clean, consistent look.

How to do it: The bonus of this approach is that it’s easy, as long as you plan ahead a little. Start compiling links throughout the week – I add links from Slack and my Feedly to a running Google doc – so that you have a list that’s ready to go by newsletter send-time.

3. Over-simplify: Make it super short

Newsletters are an inherently visual medium, and there’s a lot of potential for imagery, fancy formatting, and eye-catching colors. Sometimes, though, simpler is better.

Recently, when we tested out a few different formats for one of our emails at Envato, we found that some of our best-performing emails were the most stripped-down ones – particularly when highlighting our free files of the month. A header, a button, and a clear CTA is a good formula for an effective email, especially if it’s used as a break from your usual format. You can do the same for your newsletters by using an attention-getting headline, a short snippet of copy and a CTA to read more.

Sometimes, simple is better, especially when you have a clear action to highlight.

How to do it: Headline, button, and maybe an image or a description. Don’t overthink it!

4. Hand-drawn images and photo snapshots: color in the details

I pay $5/year just to get access to the hand-drawn pie charts in The Ann Friedman Weekly, a newsletter/digest from journalist Ann Friedman with over 25,000 subscribers. It’s not because the pie charts are beautiful works of art – in contrast, they look like they might have been scribbled hastily on the back of a notebook. But as media becomes increasingly focused on authenticity, and less on super-polished and refined content, a quick personal touch can take your communications to the next level.

You don’t have to be an artist: hand-written notes, like this quick drawing I made for an article on the Envato Blog about design headlines of the week, add authenticity to your communications strategy.

How to do it: Grab a piece of paper and doodle a few notes to illustrate your main points, or write out a compelling quote in big letters. Add a photo from your week or even a screenshot from your Snapchat (or your organization’s Snapchat account). Photos from Instagram, embedded Tweets, or quick videos can also add a unique media component.

Wrap up

For more ideas on how to make your email strategy stand out, check out our tips for email marketers, browse through eye-catching email templates to use, or read about lessons Campaign Monitor learned from creating a new customer journey tool.

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