Did You Start a Newsletter in Lockdown?

The year is 2002. A student, absentmindedly humming Girls Aloud, thumbs her way through the school newsletter. She feels a pang of guilt as she reads one excruciating line:

“Sadly, we received no entries to our competition last month.”

Ouch. Does anybody read these things?

Fast forward to 2020. The velour tracksuits are gone, but the newsletters remain.


This time, they’re digital, fully responsive, and before you know it, making you ‘add to cart’.

According to HubSpot, email marketing has increased by 44 per cent this year. Marketers are forgoing the traditional sales approach and instead favouring:

  • Updates about operations during COVID
  • Assurances that, despite these unprecedented times, they’re still “here for us”
  • Tales of their new adaptations. That tapas bar you tried in ‘09 delivers now. Winner.

A new kind of newsletter

So, what of this 44 per cent? On top of retailers, I’ve noticed a spate of newsletters from fellow content writers. These do not exist explicitly to sell, but rather to ponder the less glamorous nuances of everyday life – brutally honest accounts of daily pandemic-themed existential dread.

Some tell stories; some make us laugh; some even offer free tips, both professional and personal. I challenged my #ContentClubUK crew to tell me what inspired them to flit into our inboxes.

“My lockdown brain has sapped creativity”

Sticking with the honesty, one nameless writer wanted to give themselves a creative outlet. As content marketers, we love writing – but the subject matter’s not always awe-inspiring.

“I’m a commercial copywriter, so I often don’t get to discuss topics I truly care about. My newsletter is just that,” says Ellen Forster of Content by the Sea.

A mental health advocate, Ellen regales us with horror stories of her pre-freelance life, with a few self-care tips and literary recommendations thrown in. What’s lovely is that there’s a moral to the story, much like Mark Grainger of Blossom Tree Copy’s fledgling entries.

“Happy rectal exam day, Katie”

Others, meanwhile, take a little more jaw-dropping approach. If you’re not familiar with the comedic stylings of Dave Harland AKA The Word Man, put the kettle on and watch his Fleets. You won’t be disappointed.

This one’s certainly a creative outlet, for, say, Dave’s Christmas marketing campaign ideas, or his musings on how the word “happy” can make anything seem nicer.  But again – it features those valuable nuggets of information, with a gentle dusting of good-natured sarcasm.

And indeed, those words of wisdom don’t always exist in the copy alone. Louise Shanahan, who ramped up her email marketing for consistency in 2020, sees newsletters as a vessel for supporting content. You’ll find external links to handy resources like this testimonials guide. Thanks, Louise!

But wait…if newsletters are a creative outlet, why not blog?

Katie stares at her 48th #Write52 post of 2020 and hangs her head in despair. Is email where all the real leads are at?

Well, not necessarily, if you’re to believe this muppet’s data. As Louise has shown, there’s no harm in adding email to an already flourishing arsenal of online content.

But for others, it’s all about targeting. In a Friday night #ContentClubUK Zoom drinks session, PR extraordinaire Adrian Mahoney gave us his two cents.

It’s a direct link straight to your clients’ inbox. Not everybody is on social media, and it reminds them that you’re there. It’s been a really good lead generation exercise for me.

And while I’m not exactly the Lewis Hamilton of the email marketing world, I’m inclined to agree. As #Lockdown2 was announced, I emailed my client list and told them I was planning a big 2021 party to stick two fingers up to 2020. It resulted in three new projects from clients I’d not spoken to in months.

In mid-November, I felt cocky, so I tried it again. This time, a cheeky bribery email offering clients prizes in exchange for leaving reviews. Eight new LinkedIn testimonials, nine Trustpilot reviews and 10 on Google. Conversions, biotch.

Which newsletter topics get the most engagement?

“Probably my dog.” Loving the candour, Mark Grainger. (It’s true though – I set up an Instagram account for my cat the other week and the little cretin’s already at three figures.)

For Ellen, it’s the “taboo” topics like depression, or those which we’re not comfortable sharing in person. Without question, there’s something cathartic about writing down your feelings and showing them to an online network of strangers.

I’ve done it myself while discussing bereavement and anti-depressants. This week, the Duchess of Sussex offered a raw account of her own devastating miscarriage. In two days, it’s been shared 12,000 times.

That’s not to say we have to bare our souls for all and sundry to devour just to get a little engagement. But if there’s anything that we have learned in 2020, it’s that relatable topics do generate a conversation. Even if it’s a cute pet photo, or the tenuous promise of a piss-up in some eight months’ time.

Tips for setting up an email newsletter

Again, I’m not the David Coulthard of email here, (who’s good at sport in the 21st Century? My mind is devoid of champions) but I can offer a few tips.

Choose an email marketing platform that works for you

Your chosen email marketing platform comes down to how you plan to use it. For me, it’s meat-and-potatoes Mailchimp – perfect for the three or four I send a year, and free for up to 2,000 subscribers.

The free version’s got a little stricter in recent years. For example, you can no longer schedule campaigns. But for first name personalisation, rich text or a simple drag and drop builder, it’s a great starting point.

You can, of course, go a little more advanced. You might want to use something like Salesforce to integrate your CRM. Some are more specialist, like Substack, which is designed for those who want to make money from subscriptions. Have a play around with free trials and see what works.

Authenticate. Verify. Avoid spam.

I could take you through the whole rigmarole of why I couldn’t authenticate Mailchimp with my website hosting provider, but it will bore you to tears. If you’re using something better than Ionos (Trump’s toupee, let’s say), then make sure you authenticate. This will show your readers that the email is verified through your domain, and you might avoid spam filters.

Go easy on the images

Another surefire way to land straight in the bin is to have an email full of images. Trust me – switching from design pizzazz to plain text upped my conversions by 100 per cent.

While we’re here, don’t try to be clever if they’ve not signed up. My clients are on an email list because I’ve worked with them – it’s my workaround if the GDPR police come knocking. At four emails per year, I hope it’s not enough to piss them off.

My attempt at a risqué subject line went down like a lead balloon, too – but it’s more likely to work if they’ve actively subscribed.

Give them something

Take it from the pros above who know what they’re doing. Offer advice based on your own experience, or links to helpful resources. (Or bribes for reviews.) The more they take from it, the less likely they are to hit that ‘unsubscribe’ button.

The good news is, dear clients, I’m not planning on starting up an email newsletter anytime soon. That would mean another battle with Ionos, and I don’t have the strength.

But in the spirit of email newsletter fun, here are a few updates for the week:

  • I’ve finally finished my CIM Level 6 Diploma. Assuming I don’t fail this module, that’s a second degree in the bag, and an excuse to add some wanky letters to my name.
  • There is STILL TIME to enter the prize draw in exchange for reviews. More details here.
  • #WTIO, #WhenThisIsOver or LingoFest (I’ve not decided yet) is provisionally booked for July 8, 2021. Be there. If Boris allows.
digi women party

Partay time 2021. Be there. Photo: Mr Ladd Media

email marketing
Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
26th November 2020