How to Build a Great Newsletter, According to 4 FreelancersBy Danielle Corcione July 28th, 2016
Whether or not you believe blogging is dead, one relic of the early internet certainly isn’t: email.
Email—and newsletters specifically—remains one of the most consistent ways to build a loyal audience, whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a freelancer just getting started. On social media, your work is often lost in a sea of posts. Meanwhile, blogs have largely disappeared as people’s browsing behavior’s goes mobile. Newsletters, on the other hand, have seen something of a renaissance.
Free services like Tinyletter and MailChimp allow anyone to send personalized newsletters to an audience. If you don’t have one already, setting one up is likely on your to-do list.
To learn how freelancers can build a successful newsletter, I interviewed four established freelance writers who send one out every week: Ann Friedman of The Ann Friedman Weekly, Mridu Khullar Relph of The International Freelancer, Emma Cossey of The Freelance Lifestyle, and Stacey May Fowles of Baseball Life Advice.
Friedman is a freelancer who has written for New York magazine, The Los Angeles Times, and The New Republic. She runs The Ann Friedman Weekly, a compilation of her own writing and what she’s read. Paying subscribers ($5 a year) also receive an exclusive, normally humorous, pie chart every week, a format she started with The Hairpin five years ago. She also sells classified ads (text only, 280 characters or fewer) to feature in each email.
Friedman is skeptical that she’d have as many subscribers if her newsletter was made up solely of her own work—something she thinks everyone should consider when creating a newsletter.
“It started as a way for me to compile what I’d done in the past week, and also to catalog what I’d consumed,” she told me. “I believe that the work you make is informed by what you take in. … I think one reason my newsletter works is that I’m trying to serve people with a lot of links and other good stuff beyond my own work.”
Friedman originally launched with Tinyletter, but the service can only handle up to 5,000 subscribers. Once her subscribers grew, she switched over to MailChimp. Although there isn’t a subscriber cap to MailChimp, the service charges a fee for high-volume lists.
Some of her subscribers are even the clients that pay her. Friedman recommends that freelancers try their best to get the people assigning them work on the email list.
“It’s a nice promotional bonus for publications that assign me work,” she said. The newsletter serves as a consistent reminder that you’re working—and you’re available for future projects.
Mridu Khullar Relph
Over the last 13 years, Mridu Khullar Relph has written for top publications like The New York Times, Time, and CNN. She runs The International Freelancer, a how-to blog for freelancers living outside of the United States, and sends a weekly newsletter of the same name.
“The newsletter provides stories from the trenches, for writers who are looking ahead five years,” she explained. Her newsletter offers a different tone compared to her advice-oriented, public blog—namely, she gets much more personal, a focus that allows her to connect with readers in a more intimate way.
“As someone who has lived on four continents, I’m showing there are still challenges, despite successes,” she said.
Relph also stressed that consistency is critical to maintaining a successful newsletter. When you send a newsletter out every week, you develop a expectation—once it’s there, you have to fulfill it. She sends her newsletter out every Thursday.
“It’s a consistent weekly deadline,” she said. “I have regular clients, but I’ve been sending a newsletter for years.” As a result, she sometimes writes newsletters weeks in advance when she knows she might need to prioritize client work.
Emma Cossey is a career and life coach for freelancers. Her blog, The Freelance Lifestyle, aims to provide practical advice and support for both new and tailored freelancers. Before concentrating on coaching, she freelanced with the Discovery Channel, Maclean’s, Groupon, and many more.
Her newsletter, which has the same name as her blog, features similar content. “My purpose isn’t just promoting my work, but it’s important for me to give them as much information as I can every week,” she said.
One of the most critical aspects of managing her newsletter is using her email service provider, or ESP, to its full potential. “I love MailChimp, especially how it brings in to IFTTT [If This Then That, a conditional statement service],” she stressed. (IFTTT helps connect MailChimp to other channels, such as Google Drive, Gmail, and Slack.) “It’s a great tool to start with because you send test campaigns and see the clicks.”
ESPs also have features that let you see who opened your newsletter and at what time, among other useful tools. MailChimp, for example, offers A/B testing, which helps you improve open rates by sending different variations of your newsletter to designated groups of subscribers. Once the newsletters go out, you can see which one performed best by examining open-click reports.
Another advantage of email lists, according to Cossey, is how they allow you to easily survey your audience. “Ask people what they want to be reading from you,” she said. “They might already be signed up, so inquire about what they want more of.”
Stacey May Fowles
Stacey May Fowles is a freelance writer and novelist whose work has appeared in outlets like The National Post, Vice Sports, and Deadspin. Her forthcoming book—inspired by her newsletter, Baseball Life Advice—will be released in spring 2017.
Baseball Life Advice is a compilation of what she’s read, what’s she written, “baseball feelings” she’s having, and, of course, an obligatory picture of a baseball player with an animal.
Stacey started her newsletter to create community around her unpublished work. “I didn’t see a lot of my kind writing in sports media,” she said. “It was writing I wanted to do, that I wasn’t finding a home for at the time.”
When she writes about domestic violence, women’s representation, and other feminist issues in sports, she often experiences pushback from publishers and readers. Her newsletter provides a less public venue to write about these issues, while also allowing her to build an audience that appreciates her niche.
By creating an intimate space for sports fans, she’s also been able to promote other women writers as well. “In the realm of sports writing, because voices that aren’t white male aren’t heard that much, it’s great to curate something that isn’t the front of sports media,” she said.
If you haven’t started a newsletter yet, it’s important to consider your motivation—otherwise, you may just be wasting your time.
“Think about what your goals are and how that newsletter will help you achieve those goals,” Relph said. ” A lot of people start newsletters without understanding what they’re hoping to gain from that. Are you trying to get more clients? Readers? Customers to buy your book?”
So figure those details out first—then get retro and start emailing.