Whether you’re a writer, a designer, or a journalist, you’ve probably considered your personal brand.
This overarching thesis statement about yourself can guide your freelancing career and assignment choices as well as let people know who you are and what you care about. But many look at it as a guide, not a rule.
I identify myself a journalist who champions female friendships, and who often writes about roller derby, grief, and being hearing impaired. I’m known for these topics, but they are by no means a limitation on what I choose to write about, or what assignments I decide to take on.
This self-perception does often influence what I choose to include in my email newsletter, which I send out every two weeks. Each email contains links to any bylines I had in the last 14 days as well as to articles I read and enjoyed.
Subscribers learn more about the topics I am interested in, and I love it when I get email responses or Facebook posts from readers who want to make sure I’ve seen that video of Santa using American Sign Language with a child, or a beautiful personal essay about losing a parent.
My newsletter also provides a way to promote the book I’m working on about learning to play roller derby. Every time I publish a piece and an author bio links readers to my newsletter, I get a small bump of new subscribers.
These subscribers have the potential to turn into fans — meaning when my book gets published down the road, I’ll have a built-in fanbase of people excited to consume it.
I spoke with the writers behind some extremely successful newsletters to get new ideas for using email marketing to build and further the reach of your personal brand.
Ann Friedman on inbox respect
In fall 2015, she surpassed TinyLetter’s subscriber limit and transitioned over to the system’s big brother, MailChimp.
“Eventually it will cost me,” Friedman, who made a deal with MailChimp to provide her first year free, said. “With MailChimp you pay depending on how many subscribers you have. At this point I have almost 23,000 subscribers, which will not be super cheap.”
In December, Friedman began offering a premium version of her newsletter to subscribers for a fee of $5 per year. She also began selling ad space at the bottom of Ann Friedman Weekly, similar to theSkimm’s advertising model.
While Friedman said it’s impossible to say if she’s gotten additional freelance work as a direct result of her newsletter, she feels it can’t be hurting her odds.
“Doing lots of work contributes to me getting more work,” said Friedman. “There’s a cumulative positive effect: The longer you write and the more you write, the more known you are, and the more assignments you get. Sometimes my editors will reply to the newsletters, which is a good thing to have when you’re a freelancer living on the opposite coast.”
She said she doesn’t believe in adhering to a narrow rubric of what she will and will not write.
“There are many things I’m happy I’ve done that I wouldn’t have said yes to [based on those confines],” she said. “But there’s not always a lot of thought that goes into whether I will pursue or not pursue something. The newsletter fits with a lot of my [anchor] statement, and aligns well with my underlying values. One of the important functions it has is that it’s a space I own completely. If I want to change it, I can. It’s something I built myself.”
But then there’s the million dollar question: How does someone like Ann Friedman grow her email newsletter list?
“I believe very, very strongly in not adding people automatically,” Friedman said. “People do that to me and it’s a huge pet peeve. I know it’s cliche to say people’s email inboxes are sacred, but it’s like barging into someone’s house unannounced, or at least onto their porch.
“Make a really great newsletter that is not self-serving and count on people to evangelize. [One thing I do is] quote people who evangelize for me, as a thank you for doing so.”
Liz Galvao on audience loyalty
“I send a tweet every time I send a new email, but your voice is only amplified by other people online,” Galvao said. “Other people spreading the word [is crucial].”
Galvao, a freelance writer, started her newsletter in May 2014 as a way to try out a new platform and have a creative outlet.
“I write a lot of stuff in a character voice or something from a ridiculous point of view [for Reductress], or music reviews that are not about me at all,” she said. “This was an outlet that was me writing for myself, and a way for people to get to know me as a person, and not a satirical voice.”
She commended Marc Maron for being an example of someone who shares with his audience in an authentic, personal way with his podcast, WTF With Marc Maron.
“[On top of doing interviews] he is talking about what’s going on with him,” said Galvao. “That keeps me subscribing to it. It’s not just self-promotional, there’s original content in there too.”
Galvao’s personal brand is also reflected in her newsletter, whether she’s planned it that way or not.
“My knee jerk reaction is, No, I don’t think about my brand!” she said. “But I definitely do. With the newsletter, it just sort of worked out that that the stuff I am including is relevant to what I’m interested in.”
One unexpected benefit of starting a newsletter is creating a built-in audience of readers who look forward to getting her missives.
“You have all these people who get to know you and are used to hearing from you week after week,” said Galvao. “When you send them links to things you wrote, people are more invested in sharing that. There’s a loyalty to the people who subscribe.”
Suzanne Wilder on creative freedom
“It’s not a conversation but there’s that possibility for dialogue to come out of it that doesn’t necessarily happen with a blog post,” said Wilder.
“It feels more direct than just posting on my blog. [With Facebook], it’s such a crapshoot of who sees what you post. And with blogging — can you capture someone’s attention at any given moment? When something is in their inbox, there’s more likelihood of someone reading what you’re sending them.”
Her newsletter has a literary focus, but like her personal brand, she doesn’t stick to this as a hard and fast rule. She also includes recipes and gifs, or commentary on TV shows and documentaries.
“My main goal is really just to share interesting things that I find and things with the word and literacy and language bent,” Wilder said. “But it’s not purely literary.”
While her newsletter doesn’t generate income, it does provide plenty of creative freedom.
“I don’t make any money from my blog, newsletter, Twitter or Instagram,” Wilder said. “There’s not a stake in me losing or gaining readers. Not like fashion or lifestyle bloggers. I don’t have to ask myself, Will I alienate a reader or a sponsor? It’s just creative outlet for me.”
Sophie Brookover and Margaret H. Willison on consistency
The women who send Two Bossy Dames (TBD) every Friday have seen massive success with their email, but lately they’ve chosen to double down on their social media presence, as well.
“Doing a Twitter hashtag roundup seemed like a very low-key way to raise the profile of our project and figure out if this was really something we could do once a week,” said Willison.
The two decided they could, and their newsletter has ballooned thanks in part to a ringing endorsement from NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, on which Willison is a frequent guest.
Still, the pair also credit their social media savviness with the growth their newsletter has seen. Not every newsletter must be anointed by top podcast brass if its sender is willing to take the time to schedule additional content.
“We are both huge fans of the social media tool Buffer, which allows you to collect material in binges and then release it gradually in scheduled posts,” said Willison.
“The last few months we’ve worked hard to keep our TBD Buffer stocked with good material and it’s really worked out. We’ve only really been tending to it since July and our [Twitter] follower count has increased 400 percent at least.”
“If Buffer would add Tumblr to its supported channels, we would be unstoppable, basically,” Brookover added.
Two Bossy Dames is co-written by two people but has a very clear, consistent voice.
“I don’t think we have ever decided not to share something we otherwise thought was great because it wouldn’t be ‘on brand,’” said Willison.
“The closest we’ve come to that is the discussions we’ve had about addressing more serious issues in the newsletter. We’re both politically engaged people. [But] we take pride in rejecting the idea that it is somehow wrong to care about both rubber bands with little bow accents and the ramifications of systematic racial violence and marginalization.”
Beyond that, the newsletter’s growth has been pretty organic, mostly through word-of-mouth endorsements and podcast appearances.
Brookover said that while the success has been fulfilling to see, one of the best parts about creating a newsletter has been the people they’ve met (virtually) along the way.
“I think one of my favorite things about running TBD is that it’s introduced us to smart, sharp, excellent women who have told us that we inspired them to start a side hustle of their own,” she said. “It sets up this great feedback loop of enthusiasm and encouragement.”
The ideas of these newsletter heavyweights aren’t a bad place to start.
An email newsletter can be what you want it to be, and it can be as much a reflection of you as a writer as you care to make it.
If you’re thinking about starting one, try signing up for a handful to get a good sense of what you like and don’t like. If you already have one, consider ways you can use your personal brand to guide your content.
How do you grow your email newsletter list? What tips would you share with other writers?