Treat Your Newsletters With Respect

There’s a guy I recently read called Austin Kleon who wrote a short but remarkable book about the etiquette of being social online. Show Work v1

The book was “Show Your Work” and I’ve read it numerously now, each time gleaning new gems. He basically preaches that success flows to the person who openly shares: that if you come across new knowledge in your field of interest, open it up to others online rather than asking for new things from them. In this way a synergy of thought develops and the world becomes a creatively better place.

For the sharer, says Kleon, the rewards are significant. A personal brand builds: a cult of vulnerability and openness that endears potential customers (readers, clients, collectors, viewers—whomever they may be—paying or free) to your endeavors.

“Keep a mailing list,” he then says, because that’s the way your business will grow.

Kleon’s strategy has merit and I paraphrase:

Share great material online, don’t hold back on anything; give fantastic stuff away like an eBook; and then when it comes time to launching your big ticket item—a product, a bona fide book, an art show, or a ground-breaking service rev up that email list and draw the dollars into your wallet.

To me, it’s a sensible policy in the right hands. If you’re truly willing to open up and give value freely, there’s no shame in telling people you have something even better worth buying.

Curious, I followed the guy on Twitter and subscribed to his blog’s weekly newsletter. I’ve received two of them now, and I tell you, I just don’t get it, because Kleon acts against his advice.

Nearly every other social genius out there touts a monologue along Kleon’s lines with an essential twist:

Start a blog, collect email addresses, push regular content out—then get a newsletter into your subscribers’ hands fast.

I’m sorry, but this advice is wrong.

Check out some of the forums on blogging, and you’ll come across the following questions regularly:

a) How do I get followers?
b) How often should I blog?
c) How do I monetize things?

The answers to these questions as far as I’m concerned can be summarized with one piece of wisdom:

Don’t blog.

Kleon seems to have shifted into this genius mindset. Against his own advice, he’s turned off comments on his blog limiting social interaction, his Twitter feed rarely shows anything earth shattering, and his last newsletters have been sadly, pointless. One rehashed some material already found on his blog; the last merely listed a series of books he’s recently read.

The problem here is that when you’re online to make money—you eventually tire. You get to the stage where you forget what your initial altruistic intentions were. You’ve either shared so much that there’s nothing left in your bank or you just become stale.

Kleon therefore warns with regard to email lists:

Don’t betray their trust and don’t push your luck. Build your list and treat it with respect.

Kleon has made the best sellers lists with his Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work. I bought them both. I respect them (the latter the most). And given his books’ subject matter, he’s garnered a healthy online following (53,199 Tweeters as of writing and 19,000+ blog subscribers according to his blog’s blurb).

So it makes sense turning off blog comments doesn’t it? He’ll likely get snowed under if not. But what about those newsletters? Why invite me to subscribe to something that doesn’t offer anything “news”?

A newsletter, you see, is just that:

It’s a less formal means of conveying news than a newspaper.

If you’re not going to fill it with useful content then it’s less valuable than a flyer. At worst it’s spam; at most it’s a token call to “please stay in touch with me because I want to sell you more things in the future”. It definitely doesn’t respect the reader.

Newsletters aren’t toys; they’re not easy to write. They take work, and skill. They’re not amateur productions (that’s what blogs are for). They’re purposefully crafted vehicles of rapport.

You start with a headline story, you choose three or four others relevant to your purposes or industry, you research them adding your own edge, you include the latest updates regarding your on-going activities, and you invite a call to action.

That’s why it’s rare to craft them with any success weekly. You need a production house for that. And it’s why your latest “10 most recently read books” is not newsletter worthy: unless you’ve a job as a literary reviewer. Though that topic does make for a very nice blog entry.

The solution?

Clearly separate your blog from your electronic newsletter.

Designate specific roles for each. If you don’t have a blog, then your newsletter can be a thought gazette—a standalone blogette if you like. If you do have a blog though, ensure that no content suited to it overflows its rim unless you have a specific reason.

In summary, don’t feel pressured to put out a newsletter because the social gurus say it’s a must. Austin Kleon actually agrees with this.

And don’t publish one unless you have something newsworthy inside to report. Over promising an ability to deliver content per a tight schedule is a sure way to fall into this trap.

Kleon, A. (2014) Show Your Work. New York, Workman Publishing.