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Strengthen your newsletter’s identity

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Hi there,
It might feel like everyone’s writing a newsletter these days. With all that competition for your reader’s attention, how do you make sure you stand out in their inbox? 
There are many answers to that question, but a biggie is to give your newsletter a clear identity. 
The trick is to make sure all the elements of your newsletter (structure, tone, content, colors, name, etc) are coherent, and match up with an identity you expect your readers to connect with. 
Here’s how to get that nailed down.
What is an identity?
A newsletter’s identity is about more than your voice as a writer. It’s about the overall impression you leave on the reader.
Among other things, it encompases:
  • The newsletter title
  • The description on your profile page
  • The image you use as a profile picture
  • The colors you choose for your branding
  • The type of images you use to promote your newsletter
  • Your tone of voice and writing style
  • Your welcome email
  • The length of an average issue
  • The structure of your content
  • The topic and depth of detail you choose to go into
  • The ratio of original writing to external links and recommendations
The best newsletters position all of the above in a striking and memorable way, making sure all those elements work together to leave the desired impression with on the reader.
As you can tell from that non-exhaustive list, there’s a lot to think about here. But don’t worry — there are tools you can use to guide your thinking.
Use a plan/matrix
Finding an identity for your newsletter doesn’t have to be a stab in the dark. There are great resources out there to help you plan out how everything will fit together.
I’d always recommend spending time on this step before you get started. But even if you’ve been sending out issues for a while, it’s good practice to go back to basics now and then in order to spot any opportunities to strengthen your newsletter’s identity.
Here are a couple of resources to set you on the right track:
What both of these plans do is encourage you to think about your reader and the value you bring them very specifically. That’s the starting point, and other elements — like structure, tone, and promotion strategy — can be built out from that. 
One thing I would mention is that Dan Oshinsky’s plan is geared more towards independent newsletter writers while NPR’s is geared more towards businesses, but using both can help you tease out key details. Here are some example questions from Dan’s:
Which audiences do you want to reach? List as many types of current or potential readers as you can. Be specific! Who are they? What makes them unique? What do they care about? Include demographics, motivations, inspirations, or behaviors.
How do you want to serve this audience? What do they need from you? What kinds of news, storytelling, or content are you uniquely suited to providing them?
Metrics: How will you measure success for this newsletter? Metrics to consider: Traffic to your site, list growth, open rates, click-to-open rates, reader habits, engaged minutes (on site), revenue.
And here are some examples from NPR:
What does this audience desire in a newsletter from us? What need in this audience will this newsletter fulfill? Examples: To stay up-to-date with the latest education research; to feel connected to the US global health community; to feel closer to the people who make my favorite podcast
What content and format will best serve this audience? Examples: something skimmable with big bullets; beautiful images and paragraph text; paragraph text with lots of hyperlinks; animated gifs and video links.
What does success look like in 6 months?
It’s telling that both of these plans really want you to drill down on who your audience is, and what value you provide/what job you perform for them. They also make you focus on metrics and how you’re measuring success (as I’ve discussed before, success means more than just growing your subscriber list).
Use this as an inspiration-sparking exercise
These plans aren’t exhaustive — for instance, they’re not going to give you specific advice on your brand colors — but they can help spark trains of thought that get you where you need to go.
For example, say your newsletter aims to keep your readers up to date with political news, and perhaps NPR’s question “How can [you] best present [your] content to be received by this audience?” makes you realise you need a distinctive logo that resonates with your readers. While designing your logo, you might hit upon a couple of colors that work well together. Use those in your newsletter too, and you’ve build a cohesive branding experience that sets your newsletter up as an authority in this arena.
Examples of newsletters with a clear identity
All of the writers below keep the reader front-and-center, which has helped them build newsletters that easily stand apart from the crowd.
Julia is founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Markup, a nonprofit organization focusing on data-driven journalism, covering the impact of technology on society. The Markup’s brand elements, including logo, colours, and fonts, all feed into Hello World, giving it a strong visual identity.
Header image from Hello World
Header image from Hello World
The intention for Hello World was to form a direct line of communication between Julia and The Markup’s core audience, keeping them up to date with the organization and its investigations. With that goal in mind, Julia greets readers as “friends”, and signs each issue off in her name. The header also features a headshot of Julia. So despite this newsletter falling under the Markup brand, it also feels very much like a missive from a real person. It’s cohesive, and its purpose is clear.
This newsletter is full of personality. It features news curation accompanied by illustrations of birds with profanity-laced captions.
Took me a while, but I found a sketch without a four-letter curse word in the caption.
Took me a while, but I found a sketch without a four-letter curse word in the caption.
All images included in the newsletter are bird drawings, which gives it a clear visual identity, and the tone is (in case you hadn’t guessed) irreverent and kinda silly (in a good way). The headings and text in the newsletter are sparse, encouraging the reader to click through to the news article or event in order to understand the accompanying bird picture/caption. It fosters a sense of being part of the club. The writers aren’t afraid to offend the reader, because the intended reader is amused by the profanity rather than offended by it. It’s a brave strategy as it could alienate readers, but this all-in approach creates a camaraderie between those who just ‘get’ it.
Another newsletter laced with profanity, Sh*t You Should Care About is a masterclass in identity. The hot pink color scheme matches the delectably gaudy branding on the SYSCA website, but the brand connection doesn’t stop there. This newsletter is in-your-face in many ways, as shown by this recent sign-off/feedback request:
Hard to miss this feedback request!
Hard to miss this feedback request!
As a “news (and pop culture and meme and internet and politics) round-up”, this newsletter is fluent in current memes and pop culture references. It’s not afraid to jump around the place, as its intended reader is used to the fast-moving stream of information the internet throws at us every day. This visual and structural language is tailor-made for the extremely online generation, and it doesn’t try to lure in readers who aren’t on-board and up to speed.
That’s all for today. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your newsletter’s identity and whether the resources above helped — you can reach me by hitting reply.
Have a great week,
Anna
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