One of the most successful startup stories of last year launched out of a simple email newsletter. If you don’t currently have an email newsletter, this should scare you.

It means that your competitor could launch an email newsletter, build relationships with subscribers, form a community around the newsletter’s premise, and win the hearts and minds of all your customers. And you’d be left in the dust.

On July 12, actress Lena Dunham announced the impending launch of her own email newsletter, Lenny. A few days later, BuzzFeed declared that this newsletter was an attempt to build community through emails. But that assertion misses all of the work that happens in between sending a few emails and building a thriving community.

In response, CMX member and Red Tricycle community and marketing manager Sara Olsher started a rousing discussion about the difference between email newsletters and communities. During the course of this conversation, it became apparent that a bridge between newsletters and community can be built.

Let’s talk about how to make email work for you on the road to building community. Email newsletters are a great starting point, but they won’t get you all the way to community’s true business potential. Building loyal customer communities make your business indestructible. It’s time you leveraged those blasé newsletters into business-changing tools.

3 Ways to Use Email Newsletters as Community Tools

There are really only three ways to use email newsletters as community starting points.

  1. Relationship building and deepening
  2. Ambassador programs
  3. Showcasing community stories

Relationship Building and Deepening

Email newsletters — when well-executed — build trust. What does well-executed mean? Depending on your community members’ needs, it could be entertaining, informative, insightful or thought-provoking.

Before people even subscribe, you have to build a certain level of trust, which forms the basis of a future relationship. Securing a spot in someone’s inbox requires a level of trust that a Twitter follow doesn't require. With that trust, you have the ability to build relationships. These relationships are then the basis of a community.

Take a look at your subscribers. Then reach out to a few of them. Start a two-way conversation. Get to know what their needs are, what they dream about, what they enjoy in your newsletter. Make the conversation about them. Then talk to another subscriber. Over time, you’ll emerge with a framework of what your subscribers’ needs are and how meeting one another in a community will help them do what they love — better.

This is exactly what Product Hunt did. It started an email newsletter with close friends and eventually word spread. Then one of its members built an app with them, connecting all the subscribers in one central place.

The Atlantic’s Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal echoes this sentiment, “I have an intimate and intense relationship with people who get my newsletter every day.”

It also means that your newsletters will meet your subscribers’ needs more and more over time. You can’t simply dump links in a newsletter and hope they build trust. You have to create content that gets at the heart of your subscribers’ pain points.

Ambassador Programs

One of the most effective ways that companies can build community from email is through launching ambassador programs for their subscribers. This is precisely what companies like The Fetch and The Skimm have done.

The Skimm has 4,000 “Skimm’bassadors” and the goal of the program is to “grow theSkimm base organically, develop a community, give back to those individuals who have helped us get this far. Skimm’bassadors share the word about the newsletter and get together for events like 'Sip and Skimms.'”

Similarly, The Fetch launched an ambassador program to give its local subscribers the power to curate happenings in their cities and get together for events like Dinner Conversations. They congregate in a Facebook group, where they can get to know one another better and share inspiration. This strong community allowed founder Kate Kendall to succeed in crowdfunding the newsletter in 2014 with over 300 backers.

Showcasing Community Stories

Email newsletters can reflect what is already happening in your community. It is a way to tie your community to your content strategy.

You can showcase happenings in your community: birthdays, tips from members, and accomplishments. This is another way of deepening already existing relationships among your community members.

This is something the Skimm does in every newsletter, celebrating its ambassadors and subscribers on their birthdays and big accomplishments, as seen below:

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Don't Get Caught in a Dead End

Email newsletters are nowhere near dead. But they certainly can be a dead end and a waste of energy if you are not using them to accomplish business goals beyond shallow click-throughs. If your open rates are flagging and you’re not seeing the results you want, it’s likely time to take your strategy to the next level.

Email newsletters by themselves do not build community, but they're a great starting point. If you haven’t taken this step yet, you're leaving the door open for the competition to win your customers' hearts, minds and loyalty.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Loco Steve