What Should a Newsletter Look Like Today?

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What should a newsletter look like these days? We seem to be going through what I like to call the Axios-izing or Skimm-ification of newsletters today where everything is short, cute and hopeful. (Sounds like my first girlfriend.)

They ask questions like, "What's it like to raise an Instagram influencer? (Fast Company Compass yesterday), or "Who's trying to send a message?" (theSkimm on Iran yesterday) and make cool statements like "Women's sports are having a moment." (Axios Sports yesterday) Today, theSkimm voices what everyone believes to be the growing sentiment by writing, "Alright, say something new quick before you lose me."

Axios has about 20 of these fast-paced newsletters now, from Axios Science to Login (technology) to Axios China. So if you thought this fad was just for celebrity stuff or sports, you're incorrect. Fast-growing Industry Dive has 16 newsletters now and although they don't take this fluffy approach, they do go for the quickly-show-a-lot-to-choose-from style, with a headline, one descriptive sentence and a graphic or photo. Click to read more.

The question for us becomes, what useful tips can we take away from this trend and perhaps what should we avoid? After all, these companies would not be using this format if it wasn't successful. Numbers for theSkimm seem to shoot up every week. And Axios newsletters continue to multiply.

So here are some reasons I believe they are successful:

Why-it-matters analysis. Lately, I often go back to what SIPA Annual 2019 Chair Adam Goldstein told me last month: "Don't tell me about your grass seed. Tell me about my lawn." All three of these newsletters tell their readers why they should care about a certain topic. Axios actually heads it Why It Matters and The Bottom Line. theSkimm headlines the last part of their lead story "theSkimm," meaning this is where you get the big takeaway.

Better diversity. Fast Company Compass featured a story yesterday titled, How to Make Advertising More Diverse, offering a new tool. Also yesterday, theSkimm, which targets women, led with a quote from Odell Beckham of the Cleveland Browns saying they're the new Patriots (ahem). Without hitting their audience on the head, they are opening their worlds a bit more and not making assumptions.

Big quotes. These used to be kind of graphic fillers in the old days. But now, newsletters are leading with them. theSkimm always begins with a Quote of the Day. Today's is: "'This is for everybody that has been told that they are not good enough'" – Tyra Banks coming out of modeling retirement. Smize [smile with your eyes], but make it fashion."

Trivia, archives. Axios is big on these and why not. We all like the occasional quiz—look at the Jeopardy storm taking place now. And if you've been doing this a while, 5 Years Ago on This Day or May 9 in SIPA History can make for a fun look back.

Personalization. As big as theSkimm is, they're announcing birthdays of readers on the bottom, shouting out independent bookstore owner Alli G in Illiinois, and Nikki and Tina's training company—Define the Line—in Colorado. "*Paging all members of theSkimm. Reach out here for a chance to be featured," they write. And people respond. It's not a newsletter, but on the NPR popular radio show It's Been a Minute, the engaging host Sam Sanders ends every show with the best thing that happened to people that week. What a moving segment! We hear a quick montage of graduations, spouses coming back from serving overseas or just simple stuff like I paid off my last loan payment. Off of that last week, he called one woman to ask her more questions. It was really good content.

Clever but not too clever headlines. It's a fine line—a tightrope really—to try to be cute and clever all the time. Today's theSkimm seems more restrained. "Sending Out an SOS, What's More Stressful Than Having Back-to-Back Meetings All Day...," "Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor" – thankfully they realized that needs no embellishment.

On the bad side:

Change for change's sake. Fast Company writes articles that people like reading with good headline writers to get you there. The One Thing That Will Undermine Your Company's Culture. Doing This One Thing Can Speed Up Your Recruitment Process. And their old newsletter was so easy to read and parse out what you wanted to click on. The new Compass newsletter—be careful about names you choose—makes that harder. You have to scroll and scroll now to see everything. Not easy. Industry Dive's compact headline, headline, headline feels more audience-friendly.

If your newsletter is popular with your audience, leave it alone or perhaps sprinkle in new features here and there. Nobody says you have to redesign every year. Also take into consideration your staff's time. We all know that in most cases, your content will determine your success. Find a formula that works for you.

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…