#41: Ann Handley, best-selling author, Founder of MarketingProfs, and the world’s first Chief Content Officer, explains how she uses her email newsletter to create an intimate connection with her audience and organically grow a list of loyal fans.
Ann also shares why she doesn’t use lead magnet opt-ins for her newsletter, what the biggest mistake is that most email newsletters make, and how to get over the hurdle of not being a great writer.
If your content is falling flat and you’re looking for a fresh approach that will have your audience anxiously waiting to see your name in their inbox, then you’ll definitely want to give this episode a listen.
Podcast Episode Summary
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- why she chose newsletter to connect with her audience (email newsletter is very much alive!);
- the difference between email marketing and email newsletter;
- how Ann compels people to sign up (without a lead magnet!);
- how to create content that your audience will love (Dear you,);
- what she thinks of curated newsletters;
- her advice for anyone who thinks his or her writing is not good enough (she believes in you!)
It (newsletter) gave me the freedom and the flexibility to bring more of my personality and myself to a content product…in my mind an email newsletter is the only thing that is outside of the social algorithms. (05:03)
The role of the email newsletter is to connect with the people who matter most to your business and deliver value to them. So that over time they trust you, they like you, they see you as a resource that they can rely on and ultimately do business with. (08:07)
I don’t think we should focus on the news aspect of newsletter. I think we want to focus on the letter aspect of newsletter. So in other words, it’s not about the distribution. It’s not about the news. It’s about taking that opportunity to connect directly with one person, one inbox in a relatively intimate space. (09:01)
(Newsletter sign up) I don’t want to make people feel like they have to do anything. I want people to opt in 100% all the time. (13:37)
In writing, I talk about swapping places with your reader. So write as you want to write, write what you want to say, and then walk away. And when you come back, swap places with your reader. Just think about how does this feel from the reader’s point of view. And I think the very same thing is true about any marketing that you’re doing. (18:22)
If you were thinking about starting an email newsletter, you 100% should start an email newsletter. (19:20)
I think figuring out what your specific spin on something is really where that sweet spot is. What are you about? What is your audience’s need? And then from that intersection, figure out what your take on something is. (21:11)
Part of what I’m trying to do with email newsletter is be a resource to people. So I want them to know that I’m delivering value to them around writing, around marketing, and around content. And I’m making it fun! (22:40)
Good writing is anything that connects with your audience, that sounds like you. (25:15)
Writing Tools Ann Recommends
Connect with Ann Handley
Website for everyone: AnnHandley.com
Website for marketers: MarketingProfs.com
Newsletter Sign up: AnnHandley.com/newsletter
Ep. 41: The Intimacy of Email Newsletters, with Ann Handley
So many companies, brands, individuals are vastly undervaluing the ability of the email newsletter to do just that, to connect with the people who matter most to you and your business. And very often marketers, businesses, they think about the email newsletter as a distribution strategy for some of the other content that they're publishing on their blog or on social media. And instead, I don't think we should focus on the news aspect of newsletter. I think we want to focus on the letter aspect of newsletter. So in other words, it's not about the distribution. It's not about the news. It's about taking that opportunity to connect directly with one person, one inbox in a relatively intimate space.
That was Ann Handley, bestselling author, founder of Marketing Profs, and the world's first Chief Content Officer. And in this episode, she explains how she uses her email newsletter to create an intimate connection with her audience and organically grow a list of loyal fans. And also shares why she doesn't use lead magnet opt-ins for her newsletter. What the biggest mistake is that most email newsletters make. And how to get over the hurdle of not being a great writer. If your content is falling flat, and you're looking for a fresh approach that will have your audience anxiously waiting to see your name in their inbox, then you'll definitely want to stick around for the rest of this episode. So let's jump in.
You're listening to the Content Heroes podcast, where entrepreneurs, marketers, and creatives share how they build profitable businesses on their own terms by creating content online. And now your host, Josiah Goff.
Welcome to Content Heroes everyone. I'm here with Ann Handley, who is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author and partner at Marketing Profs. And I'm super pumped for this conversation. Ann thanks so much for being on the show today.
Hey, thank you for having me. I am super pumped to be here, too. Now that we're both standing up and ready to do this.
Yes. Also you're wearing a Rose Apothecary sweatshirt and it's my favorite thing right now. Great. So before we kind of get into the main topics that we're covering today, could you share with the audience, for those who aren't familiar with your work, what it is that you do and how you got to where you are?
Wow. That could take the entire 45 minutes. I'm Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at Marketing Profs. I started my career as a journalist. When the internet happened, I went online, got into B2B publications, founded a company called ClickZ.com, which was one of the first sources of online marketing information for businesses, for companies. And from there went to MarketingProfs.com. Let me see. Geez, 2002. That's insane. 18 years. Holy wow! I've written a couple of books on content and marketing. I wrote Content Rules in, geez, 2010. Yes. And then Everybody Writes, came out five years later. So that's me.
Awesome. So one of the things that I love about what you do is you have taken, I mean, so you've got Marketing Profs, which is a great resource out there for anyone who is in marketing, content creation. You've also built up your personal brand. And one of the things that you've become known for, especially recently is your email newsletter. And everyone raves about this thing. And so I would love to talk about your approach to putting out an email newsletter and why you chose that medium for connecting with your audience.
So first thank you. Yeah, I mean, my email newsletter I launched about two years ago. And just to go pick up on a thread that you mentioned a minute ago, so MarketingProfs.com. I don't know why I keep saying .com. It's Marketing Profs. It's a source for online marketing information. So we offer education and training programs. We have a very robust education program there for marketers of all sizes and all stripes. So I have been there since 2002 and as my career advanced and as Marketing Profs grew, I didn't touch things as much. You know, back in 2002, I was the one who was publishing the newsletter. I was editing all the articles that went into the newsletter. I was connecting with writers and speakers directly myself and scheduling them to be part of our community, you know, offering their information through us, to our subscribers. But time went on and as you advance in your career, you don't, you don't touch things as much. You know, you're not actually the one who's doing all of that work, you know, doing the work. And I wanted to do the work again. And so I wanted to create something that was 100% mine that was outside of marketing process, but also adjacent to it because I'm a partner in the company. So not completely divorced from it, but also more of a reflection of my brand. And it gave me the freedom and the flexibility to bring more of my personality and myself to a product, a content product. And so that's why I launched the newsletter. And why newsletter, because, you know, in my mind an email newsletter is the only thing that is outside of the social algorithms, right? If I were to post to Facebook or to Instagram, or even to LinkedIn, the number of people who are able to connect with me on there is essentially out of my control because it's, it's a function of the social media algorithms, which is totally great. I mean, I love social media, but I wanted to have an asset that was outside of that. And then secondly, I wanted to really own that list. You know, I didn't want to be on rented land, as they say, I didn't want to build my presence on a social platform. I wanted to be able to own the asset myself and I wanted the flexibility to be able to, if I was going to change an email provider, I want to the ability to do that because that's the beauty of an email list, right? You own that platform, you own those assets. And so that's why I chose email newsletter. A third reason, I guess, which is honestly where people usually start is like, oh, you're a writer. So you started an email newsletter. And while that's true that wasn't the driving reason. The driving reason where those other two reasons, you know, the fact that I would own it, the fact that it was outside of the social media algorithm. The third piece is that, you know, yes, I am a writer and I enjoy communicating in that way. And it's the way that I think, but that wasn't the primary driver.
That's great. You show up on a biweekly basis or you say a fortnightly basis.
Fortnightly. Yes, bring back fortnightly.
You know, you're actively putting out these newsletters. I'd love to talk through why you went that route versus the trend that we've been hearing for the last several years is the email newsletter is dead. And there's been this huge push towards marketing automation and setting up funnels. And you write all your content once. And then everyone who signs up kind of goes through that at their own pace or on their own time. And I'm wondering why you chose to go the email newsletter route instead of building out all of these email funnels.
Yeah. I think that those are two different things. You know, I make a distinction between email marketing, which is what you're describing through marketing automation and segmenting your list and targeting certain subscribers who are on your list. You may be interested in some aspects of what you do or what you sell versus other areas of what you do or what you sell. You know, an email newsletter, I would make a distinction between that and straight up email marketing. Email marketing is the process of connecting with customers when you have something to or prospects, when you have something to sell through a nurturing path, right? Whereas an email newsletter I think is also a nurturing program, but I see it as apart from email marketing, because I'm not necessarily selling anything their. Really the role of the email newsletter, I think, is to connect with the people who matter most to your business and deliver value to them. So that over time they trust you, they like you, they see you as a resource that they can rely on and ultimately do business with, but it's a much more, Oh, what's the word? It's just a much, it's a much slower approach. It's a much more considered approach over time. One of the things I talk about a lot is how so many companies, brands, individuals are vastly undervaluing the ability of the email newsletter to do just that, to connect with the people who matter most to you and your business. And very often marketers, businesses they think about the email newsletter as a strategy for some of the other content that they're publishing on their blog or on social media. And instead, I don't think we should focus on the news aspect of newsletter. I think we want to focus on the letter aspect of newsletter. So in other words, it's not about the distribution. It's not about the news. It's about taking that opportunity to connect directly with one person, one inbox in a relatively intimate space. And the bar there is super high. You know, somebody signs up for your email newsletter and then if they don't see the value that they're delivering, if they don't trust you, if they don't like you, if they don't think that you have something to offer to them, if you're not making their life better, then they're going to hit unsubscribe and you can never darken their doorstep again. So I love that marketing and businesses are called to that level of accountability, you know, and I wish that we saw more of that in marketing. You know, I think that level-set like the fact that that bar is so high is a really good thing. 'Cause I think it causes us as businesses, as communicators as individuals to really up our game.
Ah, I love that. And I love that you made the distinction between the email marketing piece and the email newsletter because they are two very, very different things. They serve two different purposes. I also love that you mentioned that it is more of a long game. Like you're not actively moving someone towards this end goal, you're carrying a conversation and getting to know each other. So that's fantastic.
I'm curious how for the newsletter piece, how do you compel people to sign up? Because most people, you know, these days, the thing that people say is an email address has become almost like a form of currency. And so you have to put a lead magnet out there and you have to like deliver that value right upfront or people aren't going to sign up for your email list. But looking at your subscribe page, that's not, it doesn't seem to be the case. You're, you're kind of delivering, you're describing what the value is going to be by signing up and reading the newsletters. But you don't necessarily have like a lead magnet in there. So I'm curious how you've gone about getting people to sign up.
Yeah. So just to put some numbers around that. So over the past few years, I started with an email list of just shy of 3,000 people two years ago. That was mostly people who had signed up to get notifications when I published a new blog post on my personal website at AnnHandley.com, that list was super small because I rarely publish there. And super small, I mean, 3,000 over, God, I don't know, 10 years, like that's, I never put any time or effort or energy into it because it just wasn't anything that was part of my goal. And again, that's at AnnHandley.com, not at MarketingProfs.com, totally different approach at Marketing Profs, but just to Ann Handley, I'm talking about now. And so I started with that list at Ann Handley at about 3,000, like I said, and then two years later I just passed 26,000. So it's a good growth. It's not, I don't know. I wouldn't call it explosive. I mean, I don't, honestly, I don't really have anything to compare it to because it's every other week. And honestly, I don't think that there isn't a useful about comparing it to anything really now that I think of it, it's like, even if I did have a benchmark, I'm not so sure that it would be relevant because for me, you know, it's about connecting with the people who matter most to me, who want to hear from me. So all that to say back to your original question about how do I actually, how did I get those 26,000 people to sign up and why don't I use a lead magnet? Because it doesn't feel on brand for me, there are lots of people out there and lots of legitimate marketers, legitimate businesses that do use a lead magnet that say essentially, you know, sign up for, to download this, this ebook on, you know, my 12 best writing tips or something like that. And then when you download it, you're automatically added to an email list. But to me, that's, you know, it's not a bad approach. It just doesn't feel like something that I want to do personally that connects with who I am as a brand, as a marketer. And again, like, I just, I really want to stress that it's, I'm not saying that that's a terrible approach. It just doesn't feel right for me because I don't want to make anyone feel like they have to do something in order to get a prize or in order to get some sort of reward. And you know, for me, that's not the way that I want to be thought of, or that's not the brand that I want to project, it's not the kind of approach that I want to take. And so I haven't done that because I feel like in a way it sets up the relationship to feel transactional, even if it's ultimately not, you know, even if it's just, Hey, you get this email newsletter and I know you'll love it. And it's going to deliver value to you. I don't want to make people feel like they have to do anything. It's like, I want people to opt in 100% all the time. And so to me, it's just, I could probably have grown that list a whole lot more aggressively, but I don't want to, because I don't want, I don't want people to sign up, download something and then unsubscribe or get annoyed that they forgot that I also said that they were going to get my email newsletter every fortnight. You know what I'm saying? I think it's just a different way of thinking about it. So in terms of how I've done it, then a lot of times it's just been through word of mouth. People suggesting it to other people. I make it really clear in the email newsletter that if you've enjoyed this, please invite your friends to enjoy it. If you know somebody who might benefit from this, please forward it to them and ask them to subscribe. So it's using my existing audience, it's using my existing fans to get more fans. And so for me, that's been the best way to do that. And it's not only through the email newsletter itself, but on social media. For example, I'll use social media to call out the people who I've given shoutouts to in the newsletter that week. I use Instagram for that, especially. I use LinkedIn for that Twitter, the three platforms that I'm the most active on. And that to me has been just the best way to grow the audience. I actually, there's another way. Now that I think of it, another way that I've grown the audience is just through any speaking opportunities that I have back when we used to do things like go to conferences and be on stages. You remember those days.
Yeah, it seems so far away.
It feels like a million years ago, but yeah, then I usually would have, you know, if you enjoyed hearing from me today, you know, here sign up for the email newsletter. So there's the third way, but it's a much softer way. And I, and again, I don't want to bundle anything that I'm doing with this feeling that you have to, in order to get this prize that's inside this box. You've also have to sign up for my email newsletter. I just don't want that. I don't want those people on my list if the only reason they're signing up is so that they can get something. Do you know what I'm saying?
Yeah. You touched on something really important there, and that's being very intentional about your purpose and your goal. And the tone that you're setting from the very beginning. It's so easy to just adopt these tactics that everyone says are working and thoughtlessly, put them in place to grow things rather than then saying, okay, what's actually appropriate for me and my brand and the way that I like to do things and the audience that I'm serving and tailoring things to that. I wonder sometimes if we skip to the tactics, because that seems to be the harder part, is thinking through all of that,
but it's so, it's so important. So I love that you do that.
Yeah. And I think, you know, what you just said there is just thinking through all steps. How is this going to feel from the point of view of a subscriber is something that I think about all the time. Not only in that signup process, but you know, when you sign up, what's the confirmation look like that you get. Mine is not just the, so I use Aweber as my email provider. It's not just a confirmation from Aweber, right? Instead it comes directly from me and I wrote it and I asked people directly to, why did you sign up? What can I do for you? Like essentially, what are you looking for from me? And I invite them to write back to me. And when they write back to me, then I write them back and I say, thank you. And people are always blown away by that. The reason why I do that is because it takes me literally half an hour, a week to do that thing, right. To actually respond to everybody who signed up on my list. I mean, I don't write letters. I write just a few lines. Thank you. But none of that is automated because I literally want to know why are people here that's really useful for me as a business owner, as a content creator. What is attracting people to me? What are they looking for? And so that's useful. But the second thing, the second reason I do that is because it differentiates me from most other creators, most other businesses out there that it's literally me responding to you. I want to know about you. And so I think that sets the tone for our relationship over time. So if you think through it from the subscribers, prospects, customers, point of view, consistently across everything you do, when they sign up, how they sign up, when they sign up for your email, what do they get? And then when they get that email newsletter, how are you communicating with them there? You know, it's not Dear audience, it's Dear you, right. It's one person because it's that one person getting it in their email inbox, right? So you're not talking to an entire audience like you would on YouTube. Like, Hey guys, you know, it's me. Instead it's hello you. It's a very singular approach. And so just thinking through every step of the way, all, and even if there is a call to action, what is the call to action that's going to be most value for the audience. So in writing, I talk about swapping places with your reader. So write as you want to write, write what you want to say and then walk away. And when you come back, swap places with your reader, literally, you know, just think about how does this feel from the reader's point of view. And I think the very same thing is true about any marketing that you're doing. And yes, we're talking about an email newsletter, but I also think it applies to anything you're posting on social or any way that you're marketing through any channel through, through any approach you're taking.
Yeah. That is great advice. So for people who are in the audience who are thinking, I really want to start an email newsletter now, what are the steps to not just get something in place, but put something out there of value, like how do you go about thinking through the content that you want to deliver to your audience and like what format and all of that.
So, first of all, if you were thinking about starting an email newsletter, you 100% should start an email newsletter. I think most businesses and most creators, most companies should have a valuable email newsletter. You should be building your own email list and not just relying on the social media algorithm to do that. And not just an email. I mean, it could also be a podcast. It could also be a video series, but I think just anything that, where you're building your own database is super important. So having said that, in terms of how do you figure out what should be in that email newsletter? I think of it as kind of a Venn diagram, you know, it's, what do you want to say? What do you need this newsletter to accomplish? What are you about? And then the second thing is, what does your audience need from you? Or what does your audience need, right? What does your audience desire the most? What is that one person you're trying to reach ultimately, what is their goal? And then, you look at where that, that those two things intersect. And so I think if you look at them at the middle where they both intersect, that's the sweet spot of what you should be creating content around. And that's true of an email newsletter, but it's also true of almost anything. The other thing that I think you should do is all right, now that you know, the sort of general area, what's your take on that? You know, so I think the beauty of an email newsletter, it's true of a podcast too, is your own spin, right? Your own point of view, like you've got to add that into it. So super specific example, you know, I talk about marketing, I talk about content. I talk about writing. Well, a lot of people do, right? A lot of people talk about those things. So what's my specific spin on that is that I'm inherently, my approach is very personal, you know, as we've talked about here, right? So I usually tell a story about something going on in my life and relate it to something that the audience cares about. Because again, I might write as me, but I swapped places with the reader and figure out how I deliver value to them. So I think figuring out what your specific spin on something is, is really where that sweet spot is. What are you about, what is your audience need? And then from that intersection, you know, figure out what your take on something is. Another super specific example is there's a newsletter called recruiting, Recruiting Brainfood, I think is the name of it. I'm just like, I'm pretty sure. I'll let you know afterward. I'll make sure I got that right. A guy by the name of Hung Lee, L-E-E publishes it. And what I love about his newsletter is that he talks about HR. He talks about recruiting, but he also talks a lot about world events. And so that's his specific spin on it. You know, his specific spin is that all hiring and all HR efforts take place in a broader context because they're influenced massively by all the world events going on around us. And so he is based in London, but he has a much broader view for his own email newsletter. So that's kind of his, his version of it, you know, his kind of tilt on it.
That's awesome. I know with your newsletter, you have this mix of, you always start with your own story, like you said, and then you also curate some different articles or resources that are usually related to that. I'm curious if you would recommend other people curate stuff as well. Like what the balance there is between the two original content versus curation.
Yeah. So mine is kind of a mix of both. I think that's just going to be dependent on what your goal is. You know, part of what I'm trying to do with that email newsletter is be a resource to people. So I want them to know that I'm delivering value to them around writing, around marketing, and around content. And I'm making it fun. Like I usually will pick some, that's why I have like a department of shenanigans. I usually have some sort of Easter eggs that are hidden in there. Just some, I want it to feel playful and I want it to feel like a fun read and not, even though it's a little bit of a longer newsletter from it, he was let her point of view. I want it to feel accessible. And I wanted to feel like it, like it has a lot of momentum behind it or in it. So in terms of, you know, whether you should have curated content versus not curated content, I don't think it really matters. I guess it depends on the goal of your email newsletter. If it's all about, you know, just sharing your own point of view, then maybe don't worry as much about curating, but if you're trying to be a broader resource for your audience, you know, I think curation can work really well. The key with curation though, and the mistake that I think a lot of brands make is that they will deliver a link to an external source, like a headline of something that they think that their audience will find a value. But don't just do that. Like tell why it matters. And I think there's the opportunity that you have to be that resource for your audience. And so even though I'm sharing an external source, I'm saying why I'm sharing it, why I think this matter is, why I find it valuable, you know, I might throw in just a little humor around it or something like that, but just the idea that you're not solely saying, like here's a link to, um, I don't know, like a content strategy piece that I think is interesting. I don't just say interesting. I say specifically why here's some reasons why I'm sharing it with you. So adding that context, I think takes the curation from just sort of pedestrian to making it something that feels like it could only come from you. And that's really the goal, I think of what you're trying to do with email newsletter, always.
Awesome. And I know that a hurdle, many people probably feel when thinking about creating these email newsletters on a regular basis is that it feels like a lot of writing. And for people who don't feel like they're good writers or writers at all, what would you say to them?
So, first of all, I think that you need to give yourself a break because you are a good writer. I mean, if you're posting to social media, if you have any kind of web copy at all, you're a writer, essentially. And so I think we have this sense that there's such a thing as good writing versus bad writing. And the reality is is that, you know, good writing is anything that connects with your audience. That sounds like you. And so, writing doesn't need to be this, I don't know this like sort of like hallowed, like special like thing that only some people are good at and most people are not good at. And I think that's where a lot of people's anxiety comes in. Very often when people say that they're not good writers, what they mean is that they're insecure about grammar is basically what I found, which is ridiculous because there are so many programs out there they can help you with grammar. I mean, not only like a real live editor, if you can't afford that, but even tools like Grammarly, there's a free version of that, that you can run any copy through to help you with any kind of grammar problems. Hemingway app is another one that I recommend. So Grammarly and Hemingway app are two great tools. Both have free components that can help you with any grammar things. And so I think people just need to get over their anxiety about that and they just need to embrace the fact that so much of how we're communicating online is through writing and think about an email that you're writing just to a colleague or a friend or a prospect or a customer like that's writing. And so reframing everything that we're doing when we're communicating as writing is essentially the way to think about it. And so when you think about it from that standpoint, you probably are writing all day long. You just aren't thinking about it that way. People freeze up. When they sit down to write something like an email newsletter or a blog post often because they call up blank page and then they just sort of like freeze, like deer in headlights, like, Ugh, what was I going to say? And so there's this all kinds of ways that you can trick yourself past that. Like, you know, one of the things that you can do is just write it in an email template, call up just like you're writing an email to a friend like you're writing a letter to a prospect, a customer, your mom, your dad, your brother, doesn't matter. Let's do it that way. I have a good friend who dictates his email newsletter when he's out walking his dog, just into his phone, comes home, has it transcribed. You can use a tool like Rev.com to do something like that. And just shape it from there. So I think that the challenge is often just getting those ideas out of your head in a way that feels conversational and accessible and getting yourself to kind of unfreeze. You know, reframe all the writing that you're doing because you're probably already doing a lot of writing. And I bet you're a much better writer than you give yourself credit for.
Love it. That's fantastic advice. Well, and this has been awesome. I've loved our conversation. Before we wrap up here, can you share with everyone where they can connect with you online?
Yes! You can connect with me at AnnHandley.com. You can check out my newsletter at AnnHandley.com/newsletter. If you are a marketer looking for marketing training and education, go to MarketingProfs.com. We have all kinds of information and resources on there as well. And yeah, that's where you can find me. Two biggest places. Oh, my favorite social platform, Instagram by far. So I'm on Instagram @AnnHandley.
Fantastic. So we'll make sure all of that's linked up in the show notes. Everyone listening, definitely go sign up for Ann's email newsletter. It's called Total Anarchy. It's fantastic. And until next time everyone out there go be a hero.
Alright! Thanks so much.
Hey everyone. Thank you for listening to the Content Heroes podcast. I just wanted to take a second and let you know that we have some amazing guests planned for the coming weeks. So if you haven't already, go ahead and hit subscribe so you can make sure to catch every episode. And if you enjoyed today's episode, go ahead and leave a five star-review to help make it easier for other content creators to find and enjoy the show. Lastly, I'd like to invite you to join our Content Heroes Facebook community, where you can connect with other online content creators to share, learn, grow, and have fun to join the group. Just visit ContentHeroes.com/facebook. Once again, that is ContentHeroes.com/facebook.