If you write it, they will come … (How to write email newsletters that aren’t totally annoying and lame)



I’m Ryan Kresse, one of the head writers at SRH. In my previous role as a writer for Discovery World, I was handed the keys to the company e-newsletter.

At the time, the Discovery World e-newsletter was more of a “should-do” than a “want-to-do”. It was a way to let people know what was going on – events, programs and whatnot. The open rate and the CTR were pretty sad, which meant that the e-newsletter wasn’t doing much of anything. So the Marketing Director asked me to get those numbers up and drive traffic to the website. Okay, cool.

I was on the Exhibit Development Team, not the Marketing Team, and I hadn’t written a marketing e-newsletter before. So I read a bunch of blog posts about what you should and shouldn’t do, poured through examples of emails that worked, and looked at a bunch that didn’t.

Here are some “rules” I found:

  1. Keep the copy short and punchy because people don’t read anything. We’re living in a TLDR culture—Too Long, Didn’t Read; write accordingly.
  2. Subject lines are critical
  3. Use lots and lots of images, again because people don’t read.
  4. Use strong calls to action.
  5. Use a button with a link to increase your CTR. Um, duh. I knew that before I even knew that.

As the exhibit copywriter, that first rule stuck in my craw. It also wasn’t true. People love to read as long as they feel what they’re reading is worth their time. But whatever, I didn’t know what I was doing yet.

I dove in and followed all the rules (and a few more), and the numbers gradually went up. I was happy, and the Marketing Director was happy.

But then the numbers stalled. And then they dipped. And down was not okay. The e-newsletter still wasn’t doing what it was supposed to.

So I went back to the blogs. I kept reading stuff like “people want content” and “people engage with content”. But those punchy little blurbs I was writing weren’t content. They were punchy little blurbs. They weren’t a reason to engage with the e-newsletter or the website… or even Discovery World.

There was another question skulking around in the back of my brain. “Would I read this e-newsletter if I didn’t have to?” I was ashamed at the answer: no.

Most people are not planning to go to Discovery World. You are probably not planning to go to Discovery World. Someday, sure, maybe, but not today and probably not tomorrow. As someone said to me recently, “I almost went there last Saturday.” Exactly.

I needed to do more than spit punchy little blurbs at people. I needed to create something that people would read even if they weren’t thinking about going to Discovery World.

I needed to get from, “Here’s an email I don’t care about from a place that I don’t really think about” to “Here’s an email I enjoy from a place that cares about me”. That’s where I needed to go.

So I decided to break the original “rules” I’d come across, especially the first one: “Keep the copy short and punchy because people don’t read anything. We’re living in a TLDR culture—Too Long, Didn’t Read; write accordingly.”

I had a few things going for me. The Marketing Director trusted me, which meant that I had some room to play. Also, Discovery World had plenty of wildly fun, educational programs for kids and families, so I usually had great stuff to write about.

So instead of short and punchy, I tried fun and engaging. I wrote about events and programs, of course, but I played them up. I gave them a why. I wrote about superheroes and time travel and turtles and other nonsense. I wrote about science stuff I hoped the audience would find interesting. Sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was a little weird. Occasionally, it was emotional.

Case in point: Discovery World had Tony Gustin and his Bug Zoo come in once a month to do a show. Tony is passionate about science, and his bug show is super interactive and fun. At first, the show was a big hit. As the months went by, however, the audience dwindled. To my eternal shame, I had been using the same boring blurb in the e-newsletter for an embarrassingly long time. But then Tony came up with the idea of a Bug of the Month.

Here was something to run with, so I wrote up a longer story about his first Bug of the Month, a giant centipede. You’ve seen centipedes in your house. Imagine flipping on your bathroom light at 3 am only to find a centipede the size of a cat scuttling across your bathroom floor. AAAAAHHHH!

The best part is that I was having fun… and the numbers went up. And then they went up even more. And they kept going up. And the number of subscribers went up. And eventually, the number of people through the door went up.

Here are The New Rules I learned about writing an email newsletter that people will actually care about:

  1. The e-newsletter is a single tool in your marketing strategy toolkit. It can do a lot, but it can’t do everything, and it shouldn’t have to. It is, however, a wonderful and fairly inexpensive tool you can use to build community.
  2. Subject lines are, indeed, critical. One of my favorite subject lines that did well was, “How aware of sweet potatoes are you?”. It had nothing to do with Discovery World or anything that was going on at the time, but it made perfect sense once you read the e-newsletter, which many people did.

PRACTICAL ADVICE: NEVER EVER EVER ASK A YES OR NO QUESTION IN YOUR SUBJECT LINE. Ever ever. It took me an extraordinarily long time to figure this out. Even if the answer is an obvious yes, you’re inviting a very large chunk of your audience to answer “no”.

  1. Images are good. Awesome images are awesome.
  2. Have a personality. That’s different from a mission, an identity, a brand position, or reasons to believe, though everything should be aligned. Figure out who you are as a company or an organization and transform that into a personality. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes it takes a little longer.
  3. Love who you are and what you do. Own that love. Is there something about your company or organization that gets you excited? Is there something that your company or organization is doing that gets your heart racing? Wonderful. Nerd all the way out on that, because chances are your audience nerds out on the same shit. Lead the nerd charge.
  4. Write for an audience of one. Who is reading this? What do they want? Why should they even open this thing? My audience of one was a parent who was bored at work on a Friday morning – someone who was getting ready for the weekend as much as the workday. They wanted to know what was going on, and they wanted to be entertained. I wrote directly to them and used the word “you” a lot. I avoided the word “we”.
  5. Don’t sell at people all the time. Don’t get me wrong, selling is great. Selling is the point. Just not all damn time, please. It’s exhausting, and no one loves you that much.
  6. Be interesting. Give people stories and information they will care about. And if you can, keep those stories fresh and new.

One last thought: Be as fearless as you possibly can. A lot of this is coloring inside the lines, and most brands have well-defined lines. But you can do some really amazing stuff within the lines. Yeah, you might lose some subscribers at first. But you won’t lose the ones who matter, the ones who care about you to begin with. And you’ll grow a larger audience of people who do care about you.

If you write it, they will come.