How to make your marketing list fall in love with email again

Feb 11, 2016

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“It's funny; in this era of e-mail and voice mail and all those things that even I did not grow up with, a plain old paper letter takes on amazing intimacy.”
Elizabeth Kostova, The Swan Thieves

In an age of inbox overload, where almost every email is a product or marketing pitch, personal letters can be rare and welcome gifts. I first experimented with personal email letters for business eight years ago, when, as the Laguna Canyon Foundation's communications and marketing director, I was charged by the board with designing and launching our first digital newsletter.

Using Constant Contact (which was cutting-edge in 2008), I developed a simple, letter-like template featuring a title heading, a nature photo used by permission of a Flickr photographer, a corresponding quote, a paragraph on a related topic, a pitch for one of our upcoming events, a logo and address, and forward to a friend and unsubscribe links.

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Called the E-Letter (a play on the word environmental) the monthly newsletter also included my name and email for comments and feedback. Here’s a link to the Laguna Canyon Foundation’s E-Letter archive.

Because the foundation had previously relied on phone and mail communication, we had few email addresses. I started the list with our board, staff and volunteers. Because of the letter's personal tone and attribution, I also added news media, colleagues and personal friends who would welcome the correspondence. (After the initial mailing of about 300, we only added people who'd opted-in to receive our emails.)

With the board's approval, I sent the first email, anxious to see what kind of responses (if any) I'd receive. Almost immediately, I got a congratulatory response from the board member who acted as our editorial advisor, followed by thanks from a few volunteers and friends. Over the next month, we doubled the number of unsolicited subscriptions from people whose friends had forwarded the newsletter.

Over the e-letter's three-year run, we would organically quadruple our subscription list and achieve an open rate of 40%. Personal responses from subscribers to me--offering suggestions, questions and praise--averaged from 2-15 per month (each one of which I responded to personally). One of our most enthusiastic subscribers even wrote a fan letter to the editor of our most popular local newspaper.

The e-letter's brand of personal, emotional and educational messaging also had its detractors. The communications director of another local environmental group called me up one day and asked, "Is this it? Is this your newsletter?" About one year after launching the e-letter, I also had to defend it against a new board member who wanted a more traditional newsletter formula.

Since those early e-letter days, digital communications has moved on. Now there's Tiny Letter, cited by Fast Company for, "Making Us Fall in Love with Email Again."

When I left the Laguna Canyon Foundation, writing the e-letter and receiving those replies was what I missed most. So I decided to follow the example of writers Alexis Madrigal, Austin Kleon and others. I would scrap my tired old business newsletter and launch something more personal.

The result is Wanderer's Weekly, a letter that includes a photo and a quote, two paragraphs from me and three links I'd like to share. At the end, it includes a link to my website and mentions a few of my projects. I look forward to writing it each week and getting mail in return. It demonstrates what happens when you follow the new golden rule of e-mail marketing: Sending friendlier newsletters makes subscribers respond in kind.

Ellen Girardeau Kempler is a writer who travels. As chief navigator and founder of Gold Boat Journeys, she specializes in active cultural adventures for writers and other creative travelers. Based in Laguna Beach, California, she also rents her home to writers for retreats or solitary work.