A newsletter manifesto that benefits readers & publishers
Last summer, I started a newsletter — yeah, about three years or so later than everyone else — but I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that a) I’m still going with it, and b) wow, I genuinely love putting each issue together. I’d even go as far to say that it’s my favourite form of communicating with my “audience” (urgh, horrid term, but you know what I mean), given the current state of social media.
During this first year, in which I’ve put out 16 issues, I’ve had something of a “manifesto” (urgh again) for the newsletter in my mind as a way of giving myself some guardrails, but I’ve never put anything down in writing — until now. And, when I came to actually write it, I realised that it was effectively a set of guidelines in two parts: one part to benefit my readers, and one part to aid my own publishing process. Although it can sometimes feel all too easy to add “mental health” into every conversation these days, being kind to yourself while you invest your time into making something — usually for no financial gain — is probably quite sensible.
So here’s the manifesto for Typographic & Sporadic. I’m writing this for me, but hoping it might be useful for other newsletter publishers, too.
A manifesto that benefits your readers
Put an “unsubscribe” link at the very top of each issue. Email is the bane of many peoples’ lives, so make it easy for them to switch you off. And, if you tell readers up front that you never look at unsubscribe data (see below), you’re letting them know that they don’t need to stress about it either.
Keep it loose. Okay, my newsletter literally has “sporadic” in its title, but that’s an important bit of expectation-setting. It rarely makes sense to promise a certain frequency (it seems to me that the vast majority of newsletters fail to meet their own goals), and I also think that regularly-sent newsletters have the potential to become a bit more skippable in a way (i.e. “I’m too busy for this Thursday’s email; I’ll read next Thursday’s”).
Make it interesting, useful, and unique. That can mean a lot of things, but for me, I feel like it’s a mix of:
- using images to make it a nice newsletter to look at (plus I think you’re more likely to read it after having done an initial scroll and thought, “that looks nice”);
- filling each issue with a whole load of (hopefully) useful links, but making sure the main links are obvious (in T&S’ case, that means emboldening one link per paragraph); and
- writing it as me — I’m not providing a service, I’m just sharing some cool links. So it all reads a bit like a postcard.
Think about why you’re here. As in: why are you in this person’s inbox? For a while I tried to avoid writing too much about my own projects, or things I was up to, but after speaking to some subscribers, most of them seemed to like the very informal nature of the newsletter, and one person described it as seeming like having a chat with me in the pub — which is about the best compliment ever! (Thank you, Ben.) Because of this, people seem to like the personal gossip sprinkled in between the type news.
Easy on the upsell. I don’t offer a premium version, or a membership programme, but if I do eventually do that, I’m conscious (as a reader) of how many newsletters I receive that spend good chunks of each issue trying to get free subscribers converted into paying subscribers. I get the need to advertise, but it’s rarely done tactfully. And besides:
Think long and hard about ‘premium’ features. Let’s face it: most paid-for perks (which tend to just be locked-down issues) are kind of lame, aren’t they? I’m more interested in the idea of “unlocking the commons” — a la Craig Mod’s membership, Dense Discovery, etc. If you’re not familiar with the term, it effectively means making everything free to everyone, and those who can afford to financially support your work thereby do so for the good of the many. If I do introduce some sort of membership programme for Typographic & Sporadic, I’ll likely go down this route.
A manifesto that benefits publishers
Never look at unsubscribe data. I borrowed this one directly from Craig. I know that if I started looking at who’s unsubscribed, I’d just obsess over it, and be checking constantly, so from day one I made the decision to never look at that data. Just don’t do it. Don’t start. And, as I mentioned above, it takes the stress away from readers, too. There are no hard feelings because, well, there can’t be hard feelings — I simply don’t know.
Have an easy-to-use system. I use Buttondown for my newsletter and can’t say enough good things about it, and how helpful Justin is whenever I have a question, but actually that’s not what I mean by a system. Apart from setting everything up (and occasionally tweaking the design), the Buttondown bit happens at the end, right before I’m getting an issue ready to send. Most of the rest of it — and indeed my entire work and personal life — all happens in Notion: I have a database page saved as a favourite called “Content ideas” that I can very easily add a new link to whenever I come across something. I give it a title purely for my own reference, the URL itself (obviously), and use the page for any notes I want to make — sometimes a rough version of the paragraph that’ll contain the link. Then I have an “Issues” page, with each issue being a sub-page, where I draft everything. Once ready, I just select-all, copy, and paste into Buttondown. (It helps that both Notion and Buttondown use Markdown formatting.) Once an issue has been edited a bit there, tested, and actually sent, I then go and export the Markdown from Buttondown and then paste that back into Notion, just so I have a “local” archive. Oh, and I use Squash and ImageOptim for all image resizing and optimising.
Own your content. This one’s loaded and I feel like I might change my mind over time, because I see people having great success with platforms like Substack, but to me, it seems better to own your emails and not feed some other big publishing platform that may or may not die, or have its own reasons for trying to monetise your content. I’ve got absolutely nothing against Substack or the newsletter creators that use it at all, but I’ve just seen so many organisations change their model or disappear, it makes me wary.
Open the potential for a membership programme, but don’t be beholden to it. As I said, I don’t have a membership programme or anything resembling a premium or paid-for version of Typographic & Sporadic, but I’m open to the idea of doing something like that in the future. Making newsletters takes time and I think it’s okay to not want to work for free. (However, see my point above about perks.)
Don’t let it die. Although I’ve launched a few “successful” side projects in my life, I’m also guilty of launching some that didn’t really go anywhere, and I was very conscious of that when launching Typographic & Sporadic. I knew that being able to keep the momentum up, and not feel like it was a chore to produce each issue, would be the main contributing factors here, and that’s why I never set out to do anything other than something fairly, well, sporadic. Interestingly, the newsletter comes out about every three weeks on average, but there’s never a plan there. I just collate links and then when I have a load — or have something particular I want to say — I start drafting an issue.
But stop if it’s not fun anymore. Side projects take time, no matter how small, and that time is potentially taken away from doing something else you’d rather be doing. So if the side project stops being fun, don’t be ashamed to call it a day. That’s what we did with Lagom.
Was that useful? I hope it might be if you’re also running a newsletter. Or maybe if you’re a reader of mine and want to keep me in check. Again, I’m mainly putting it up here for my own reference, but yes, please do totally call me out on any deviations from the above. Lastly, if you’re not yet a recipient to Typographic & Sporadic, maybe you might like to subscribe before I send the next one? Remember, I never look at the unsubscribe data…