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Email Marketing Disobedience: Six laws of proper e-Newsletter creation, and why you should ignore every one of them

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Nobody loves email marketing more than I do. But even I admit that within the grand taxonomy of consumer touchpoints, e-newsletters hold a sorry position.

They're the longwinded busybodies who never get invited to the cool parties. Porcelain-skinned print campaigns turn up their perky, sans-serif noses at e-newsletters' frumpy templates and canned copy. Super Bowl spots kick sand in e-newsletters' bespectacled faces.

Yet, these boxy embodiments of mediocrity move product and build loyalty. Marketing people are aware of this—they've proven it with charts and everything. You need an e-newsletter and you know it.

Before rolling up your sleeves, cranking up the REO Speedwagon, and cooking up some long-form creation-wizard-based love, please review the following six bromides from a recent how-to article phoned in by a reigning email-marketing magnate.

After each, I'll explain how to do the exact opposite so that you can avoid polluting the e-cosystem with mediocre e-newsletters.

1. Share expertise

Wrong—share ignorance. Consider the old Zen adage "the more I know, the less I know." It means the more expertise we have, the more we're dazzled by just how little we currently understand.

Pick something you're marvelously clueless about and confess the fact to your readers. They won't fault you for it—but they just might love you for it. As long as the topic you're "ignorant" about is something they didn't even know they were ignorant about until reading your enlightening e-newsletter.

2. Tell a success story

Wrong—tell a failure story. It humanizes your company and demonstrates your high standards. Example: a legendary 1960s ad for the Volkswagen Beetle showed just the car, with "Lemon" in bold type. The copy explained, "The chrome strip on the glove compartment was blemished and needs to be replaced."

While other car companies waxed self-congratulatory about success, Volkswagen cornered the market talking about failure. You can do the same with your e-newsletters—simply master the art of strategic self-criticism. It never fails.

3. Conduct a relevant interview

Wrong—conduct a gloriously irrelevant interview. Approaching a topic head-on can be a headache—especially if it's been done to death. Try a sideways approach. What can your design firm glean from interviewing a homeless man? How might a chat with a priest spice up your women's fashion newsletter? Why would a software developer pick a farmer's brain about emptying grain bins into semi trailers?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I'm willing to read your e-newsletter to find out!

4. Take an in-depth look at a product or service you offer

Wrong—take an in-depth look at a product or service you refuse to offer. As the visionaries of 37signals say in Getting Real (sort of a Thomas Paine's Common Sense for the digital generation), "do less than your competitors in order to beat them."

Embrace l'esprit du moment by poking satirical fun at the superfluous features common to your industry. Waving the simplicity banner while it's still in vogue is smart—and your next e-newsletter is a smart place to wave it.

5. Springboard off of current events

Wrong—springboard off of that which is timeless. Your readers are suffering from information overload—spare them the latest trope on gas prices, politics and Paris Hilton. Realize that the guys reading your scrap metal e-newsletter probably don't give a rat's ass that it's Halloween.

And while you're at it, throw away the springboard. Relying on convoluted conversation-starters is a milquetoast way to win friends and influence people—both in life and in e-newsletters.

6. Ask your readers

Wrong—listen to readers. In the words of Louis Armstrong, "if you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know." Same wisdom applies to knowing the hearts of your readers. Get in sync with customers' needs by observing their riffs in natural online habitats built around your company. Replace pre-fab surveys with improvised forums. The intuition you gain will free you up to follow the inspiration of the moment and hit the high notes needed to create authentic brand loyalty.

* * *

Rebelling against clichés will keep your customers reading, and it'll keep you writing—without falling asleep. This matters. Readers can sense when you're just going through the motions. That can't be good for your brand, regardless of what the stats say.

So ask yourself: Am I excited about my e-newsletter? Does it express my voice and vision? Did I have fun creating it? If you have to ignore an army of email experts' advice (including mine) to get to where you can answer "yes" to those questions, so be it. That's called employing the virtues of e-newsletter disobedience.

Super Bowl commercials, watch out!

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Gary Levitt is the CEO of Mad Mimi in New York and is responsible for tactical aspects of Mad Mimi's development and brand. Gary was born on a remote farm in Southern Africa and went to school with Nelson Mandela's grandchildren; he was also a skateboard pro and champion, and a professional bass player.

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  • by Jennie Burraway Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    I'm planning to launch an e-newsletter this month, for a company called

    I was dreading producing something that could potentially bore our customers after a few issues. Your comments are great and I will definitely be using some of them. Thanks!

  • by Kat Gritzmacher Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    I think you're right on with your e-newsletter analysis! In fact, I own a small, online local dining and entertainment guide that I started less than 2 years ago and I send out a weekly e-newsletter. One week, I had a technical glitch where I thought my newsletter got sent--and it didn't. On the next newsletter, I was like "What the hell happened? I have no clue." I addressed the issue honestly.

    I've also written articles that are directly relevant to my business, but there are times I publish something goofy and it's amazing at the response I've received from my audience.

    In these times, people are immune to "greatness" and they feel good when companies are just honest, modest and straight-up. My advice: strive for excellence by getting dirty, having fun, taking risks and NOT being perfect--people love that!

  • by Gary Levitt Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    @Jennie, thanks for the nice comment.

    @Kat, I totally agree. I wish I'd see more of our users doing that. In truth, it can be pretty nerve racking to promote anything that could be perceived as failure... but really... if I got fun stuff like that in my inbox... I'd read it, and feel like the sender is speaking to _me_.

  • by Dorienne Ackerman Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    True. If I had fun stuff in my inbox, I'd read it.

  • by Atelia Dunne Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    I've seen some beautifully crafted emails that focus on a genuinely useful service or product fail spectacularly because they rely on the cliche's and the "current event" small talk (especially in the subject line or first paragraph).

    Great article and lets hope this changes some emails for the better.

  • by Gary Levitt Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    Yea @Atelia,
    I'm thinking now of emails I get from Apple. Very slick, looking like they're working overtime to make the email like a print-ad, but I find myself unengaged. Email is more conversation oriented... whereas print media we've already accepted as being one-sided. I think that's where the real difference is, and what gives rise to typical print-media-type cliches. I love big, simple, fun conversation that *entertains* or delivers relevance in a nice, typographically lovely way. Good comment.

  • by Ann Shea Tue Sep 9, 2008 via web

    Good stuff...and glad to discover the Mad Mimi blog through this article, and more Levitt levity. Keep up the good work!


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