I’ve been half-heartedly sending email newsletters for 17 years. But only recently have I started to make a real effort to make them good (do you subscribe? If not, you probably should). In order to learn what my audience was interested in, I asked my 26,000 subscribers to complete a survey on Google Forms. I received 835 responses, which is wonderful. That much information is massively useful.
I realise that I am lucky to have a moderately large audience, and I thought that sharing the results of my survey could be helpful if you are running a newsletter of your own, or thinking of starting one. Most of this information will give you food for thought, whatever your niche of newsletter. Bear in mind, of course, that this information specifically applies to my own newsletter, and that you will have to tweak things accordingly. For example, bear in my mind that my audience is far more intelligent and good-looking than yours… 😉
Here are my insights. If any of it makes you think of something clever that has passed me by, I’d be very grateful if you could pop it in the comments below (or let me know on Twitter).
Gender and Age groups will be very specific to your audience and really important to be aware. My 71% male audience is exactly the same breakdown as it was in 2015. Not sure what to make of that. But I was surprised what a high percentage of my readers are over 40 (perhaps I can assume that people over 40 are more likely to take the time to help by filling in a survey than younger readers? Also I suppose my audience is growing old with me!)
The only thing I took from this, really, was to send my newsletter at a time that suits UK and US audiences. For other newsletters the distribution of countries could be vital intelligence, but I don’t think that it makes much difference to me.
Most of my readers work for a company (large or small), which I think must play a big role in me deciding what time of the week to send the newsletter.
‘Don’t care’ was the big winner here, with only Friday or Monday gaining any other significant votes. I personally like getting newsletters on Friday (although I have noticed an almost unmanageable increase in Friday newsletters recently).
I was surprised that most people prefer to read a newsletter in the evening. Perhaps I’m surprised because I am self-employed and therefore only too happy to faff around during the day time! Plus I turn my computer off in the evening. What I am unsure about from this, however, is what is the best time of day for me to SEND the newsletter. That might be a different answer to what is suggested here.
Not only do you need to know what day of the week, and what time to send your newsletter, the frequency with which you send them is important. As a reader of newsletters, I prefer quality over quantity. I love that Wait But Why only emails me about once a year. I love that Semi-Rad and Hiut email me once a week. The key to all of these successful newsletters is that the content is good.
I enjoy writing the newsletter, but each one takes me about half a day to do. And I don’t often have much to flog. I began this year doing it weekly (on the advice of a clever boffin who told me it would help persuade the internet and email servers that I’m genuine and not spam). My aim was to slow that down to fortnightly, and eventually to just monthly. This chart hasn’t dissuaded me from that, despite people enjoying the weekly model.
Now, this is the sort of feedback I like! Nearly everyone likes the photos: I’ll keep doing them. Easy.
Not quite as clear-cut, but still a convincing majority like my rambling. Another reason for me to persevere with this is that it is what feels natural and fun for me to write. In any newsletter decision, the casting vote must always come down to what feels natural, authentic, and enjoyable for me, the creator.
A fairly convincing win here for three to five links per newsletter. I have been guilty of putting in far more than that (and burning through the good stuff I know far too fast!) I shouldn’t be surprised by this figure: after all it is what the king of A-B testing does with his 5 Bullet Fridays.
I’ve been really torn about using the automated re-send option. I know that often I don’t open newsletters because I’m busy and I just delete all the day’s non-essential mail. So I personally would like people to use this function when sending newsletters to me.
I am also painfully aware of just how much work it is to create each newsletter, and how few people open each one (about 22%). Even once people open them, I only get about 5% clicks. So many people leak out of the system at every stage!
When I first saw this graph, I felt that the red 65% had given me a pretty clear idea as to the ‘right’ thing for me to do. But writing this now makes me think that there is something useful and not spammy in this method. What do you think? I’d value your thoughts.
As fun as newsletters are, I ultimately do them for two reasons: to increase my audience and my profile, and to sell stuff (books, talks etc.) For most of the year I’m not selling anything. I am building up the goodwill capital that gives people a bit of tolerance when you suddenly say “hey – please buy something!”
This graph reassures me that people understand this ‘game’ and don’t mind 2, 3, or 4 requests for book purchases.
I tried to ask the same question in two different ways here, as finding out what people like seemed to be critical. When asked what was the single best thing about the newsletter, the top three, along with ‘I don’t mind’, were:
- Other Adventures to Follow
- Articles to Read
Also a decent slice of the pie for
- My own Articles
- Book Recommendations
When I asked people to choose three things that they enjoy, the top choices were once again Videos and Articles. Following those two came (in decreasing order) Outdoor Tips and Kit, the Photographs I include, Other Adventures, Books to read, and Blogs from my own site.
This is extremely interesting for me.
There is a clear appetite for curated adventure videos and well-written articles. This is crucial not only for my newsletter, but also in where I focus my online efforts in creating content. Thankfully these are the two areas I enjoy putting time and effort into creating for myself anyway. However, they also confirm for me my plans to scale back the newsletter from weekly to, eventually, monthly: I don’t want to spend the time needed to source good films and articles every week. At the end of the day I want to be writing my books, not newsletters. That’s my priority.
(As an aside, if you’re looking to start a newsletter in the adventure niche, you could do a LOT worse than simply curating a weekly film and article selection. Like Kottke but for adventure. I’d subscribe!)
As well as working out what you are good at, it is at least as important in life to figure out what you should stop doing. So I was very keen to find out what aspects of my newsletter held the least appeal. It was good to see that ‘Don’t Mind’ came top: people are generally happy. But I am going to leave that aside and think about the least popular aspects which were, in order:
- Other Instagram Accounts to Follow: I was very surprised by this, but it probably links to my ancient (I mean mature and wise) audience
- Other Newsletters to Subscribe to: I guess that people don’t like a newsletter because it tells you about a different newsletter. Point taken
- Adventure Events to Attend: My feeling here is that people would love these if they were local to them. That’s hard for me to succeed at for three reasons: there are not vast numbers of relevant adventure events (film festivals etc.), my audience is very disparate and I don’t know where they live so cannot send geographically-tailored newsletters, quite a lot of things tend to be London-focused. I think I will just carry on recommending good events when I hear about them because it’s helpful for the event and helpful if you happen to live nearby
- Podcasts to Subscribe to
- Silly Stuff: I was very disappointed by this! My favourite part of my newsletter is linking to daft things like jumping into/onto frozen swimming pools. Oh well, guess I need to grow up.
Finally, on top of these stats, I received over 500 suggestions of how I could improve the newsletter. This was SO helpful. Most of it is only relevant to me, some of it I disagreed with, and much of it was repeated by others (worth taking note of). So I have only included a flavour of the comments. They might give you some thoughts for the direction of your own newsletters.
One thing is really important to point out, however. LITERALLY every suggestion was met by someone offering precisely the opposite point! “I want it longer” vs “I want it shorter” etc. In the end then I think the key thing to take away from all of this is that it’s important to listen to advice, but it is even more important to make your newsletter just the way YOU like it.
- A key word/topic in the email subject to entice me to open it!
- A little more structure. What I’m listening to, what I’m reading, what I’m training for, what I’m dreaming of, what I have on my hitlist, what gear I’m obsessed with etc etc
- Adventuring vs family commitments. Adventuring with the family!
- An adventure idea for the week(end) to come
- Bit more on what you’re actually doing each week.
- Clearer headlines. Clearer interface. Fix the layout problems in Windows – maybe you have already 🙂
- Darker font colour is always a good idea for “ancients” like me who can’t see the light grey colour on small cell phone screens. Please and thanks.
- Do “rambling” and “straight to the point” need to be mutually exclusive? I love your rambling tone, it reflects your personality (I suspect!), but also good to have a section at the beginning or end with the quick hits (links) for easy reference. Give an bullet point overview at the beginning so I can scroll down to stuff I’m interested in when I’m too busy to read the whole thing.
- examples of #microadventures
- FAQs you’ve had about adventuring
- General ideas, easy fun projects, simple kit lists / what to take on a simple adventure
- Create a sense of community around it – the emails/podcasts/Instagram accounts that I stick with long term are ones that make me feel connected to other users e.g if you throw down a challenge let us know how other people have got on with it!
- I personally like themes – especially if they’re related to the time of year – to give me Ideas/motivation.
- give us more seasonal ideas do do stuff ourselves?
- I don’t think it needs to be weekly, fortnightly would probably also be fine. I like to hear from you personally, what have you been up to or why you chose to send xyz in the newsletter this time, not just an uncommented collection of links.
- I like the personal stuff, your thoughts and observations, hence my preference for long and rambling. A short list of nice links is nice, but not why we follow or subscribe to your media outlets.
- I like the way it is now (including the mistakes🙃) it’s genuine in an Internet full of processed “buzz feed” garbage. Keep going, I always look forward to hearing your thoughts which in turn push me out of my corporate comfort zone.
- I LOVE that promote other fellow writers and film makers, but I want to hear more from you!
- I love that you call France ” la belle France” 🙂 The only improvement I would suggest for your newsletter would be the object/ title. I am sorry to say that it feels a bit redundant.
- I love that your newsletter is a source of inspiration (articles you’ve read, interesting people you follow, etc). but I think you can save yourself some work and simplify the newsletter. Having written newsletters before I know they are LOTS of work! Right now there are SO many good things in your newsletter that sometimes it is hard to focus and I sometimes I barely get through it all. I know everyone focuses on MORE CONTENT, but I think quality over quantity is a good motto. Save yourself some work, streamline/simplify your newsletters with (of course) YOUR updates, news, video or blog post FIRST. We are in fact signed up to your newsletter because we think you are great. Then add on a few highlights, external links of things you like. However, if you aren’t interested in having this all focused on you (perhaps you aren’t into writing constant blog updates or sharing all your life online) you can continue being a warehouse of inspiration. Think about it – right now on many occasions you are sending us AWAY from your blog. Send us to your blog for God’s sake so we can help you become the most popular blog ever. Everyone could use a bit more of Alastair Humphreys in their life! Note: this may require you to coordinate for guest postings, create more blog posts etc. But I think worth it at the end of the day it would be worth it because you are focused on quality content (not quantity), others can link to your posting, people are visiting your page…etc etc etc. Hopefully some of this makes sense. If not, I’m available to explain!
- I loved the tip you shared about keeping a backpack packed and ready to go so that you quickly and easily get out on the weekend. More stuff like that, please!
- It would be great to have a little suggestion on each newsletter regarding an adventure we could do – even if it is a recap of things in the book, or a suggestion of where to go. Everyone needs a push and a bit of inspiration – this is the overwhelming feeling we come away with following the Night of Adventure. You leave and think – I should go and do something and your newsletter could push this again.
- I prefer the quick bite-sized suggestions bullet pointed. But that’s just me. And I must say I love the variation you offer.”
- Ideas for on a shoestring type adventures in the uk or close to it
- Interesting Journeys coupled with Instagram accounts
- It doesn’t seem to come consistently, am I wrong? Send it on consistent intervals.
- journeys and inspiration to take more journeys
- Maybe you could do a quick VLog post. Not like you have all the time in the world for it, but it might be cool to videotape some of your wisdom.
- Rambling is fine, but watch your typography, leading, and spacing from a reader’s usability perspective.
I hope that this helps you with making your own newsletter more effective and awesome. Please do share your newsletter link in the comments, as well as any thoughts or ideas or analysis you might have.
And finally, please will you sign up for my newsletter? It’s going to be great now that I’ve done all this research…