very crowded mailbox
PHOTO: Samuel Zeller

I receive too many emails from brands. The frequency is high and the relevance low.

I get product offers when I’m not in the market to purchase and content offers with no relevance to my role. If I recall opting in to a company’s emails, I respectfully unsubscribe. Otherwise, I click “block” or “report as spam.”

Email marketing has become a dirty word, but we can make things better. To regain the trust of subscribers, email marketers can look to the ideals and practices of the old-fashioned personal newsletter.

Personal Newsletters

Ann Handley, chief content officer at MarketingProfs, recently relaunched her personal newsletter, Total Annarchy. She said the newsletter is for people “who share my love of writing and books, but also marketing, content and business. They might not identify as ‘writers,’ but they can become better and sharper writers with encouragement, practice and tools.”

The newsletter enables Handley to share content and engage with readers. She calls it “personal connection at scale.”

In a prior CMSWire piece, I detailed the downsides of too much marketing automation and quoted marketing consultant Mark Schaefer, who said marketers can “end up creating consumer hate at scale.”

Email marketing can create personal connection at scale or consumer hate at scale. It’s time to ask yourself this question: “Which end of the spectrum am I on?”

Let’s take a look at ways you can rethink your email marketing.

Related Article: Marketers: Stop Abusing Your Email Lists

Re-Evaluate the Mission of Email

A lot of brands approach email marketing by building a large list of subscribers and then sending out a steady stream of offers about their content, which details their products and services. Personal newsletters are different. They’re a nice concept to model, since they begin from more simple and pure goals.

Handley noted the best emails are written from one person to another, about something the recipient cares about.

“I write each issue like a letter to a friend, and I want them to be delighted by my letter,” she said. “I’ve always loved getting and receiving letters. Growing up, I had a million pen pals. I guess I’m trying to replicate that at scale.”

You probably use email to drive clicks, leads and revenue. What if you aspired to have emails delight your readers and create joy? What if, instead of creating a pipeline and generating revenue, you looked to create brand affinity, satisfaction and loyalty?

In a response to a post on the Content Marketing World blog seeking readers’ thoughts about “Words We Love to Hate,” Handley took issue with the term “email blast.”

“Email is one of my favorite marketing and communication tools,” she wrote. “It’s immediate and personal and intimate. It allows us to build an audience who wants to hear from us. But things fall apart pretty quickly if we don’t treat our audience with respect.”

What if, instead of “email blasts,” you sent your subscribers “love letters?”

Write Copy That’s Exclusive to the Email

Do you feature recent blog posts in your newsletter? You can finish the email text in five minutes if you just include the title, a few sentences from the opening paragraph and the link.

But that’s too easy, and “easy” rarely wins. As Handley said, “I think people can tell when you put your heart and soul into something — and when you don’t.”

Make each email special by writing exclusive longform content for it. Handley uses longform writing to tell a story in the introduction of each of her newsletters. In a recent issue, she told the story of Ronald Clark, who had access to many books as a child because his father worked as a custodian in the New York Public Library.

This image shows just a portion of Ann’s captivating introduction:

shelf esteem
 

“The essay I write at the start of each newsletter is usually a personal story that puts the newsletter’s topic and themes in a bigger context,” she explained. “I want readers to get to know me as a person. Not as a ‘marketer,’ a ‘speaker’ or an ‘author.’”

Related Article: Want to Build Community? Try an Email Newsletter

Re-Evaluate the Metrics

If I have convinced you to re-evaluate the mission of your email marketing, then you’ll need to define a new set of metrics to track. Here are some of the metrics that marketers commonly use to track email:

  • Open rate.
  • Click rate.
  • Click-to-open rate.
  • Unsubscribe rate.
  • Leads, pipeline and revenue attributed to email.

With Total Annarchy, Handley tracks different metrics. “I’m not looking to move product, I’m looking to affect hearts,” she said. “I know that sounds high-minded. But if you can’t aim big with your own work, what’s the point?”

Here are the metrics she tracks. Pay less attention to the metric itself and more attention to the reason she tracks it:

  1. Subscriber growth and unsubscribes as an indication of whether the content generally is resonating.
  2. Click-through rates to gauge whether people are there for the essay or the links. Or both.
  3. The kinds of categories of links that resonate most or generate the most click-throughs.
  4. The specific kinds of stories that resonate within categories.

Your emails can make an impact in a way that’s difficult to capture via metrics. While you can pat yourself on the back for a high open rate or a low unsubscribe rate, isn’t it more meaningful to know that you are impacting people in meaningful ways?

Handley notes that, for each issue of her Total Annarchy newsletter, she gets stories from people who react to what she’s trying to do. One of her favorite replies was this one:

“This intro was phenomenal. I follow you for your writing, but this . . . this is off-the-charts beautiful.”

As Handley said, “Who says marketing can’t be beautiful?”

My Personal Newsletter

I recently launched a personal newsletter. Every other Friday, I share the best articles I can find about marketing in a newsletter called “Content Corner.” Handley’s work inspired me to start writing a unique introduction in each issue.

Recently, I wrote an introduction about Spencer Stone, an American hero who stopped a gunman aboard a Paris-bound train in 2015. The story about Stone and two friends is now a motion picture titled “The 15:17 to Paris.”

My next task? To take the principles and learnings from my personal newsletter and apply them to the email marketing I do at my job.