Employee Comms

You’ve got mail. What IC can learn from the Substack newsletter revolution.


 — March 24th, 2021

You’ve got mail. What IC can learn from the Substack newsletter revolution.

When we’re shut up and locked down, it can feel as if every communication comes with a ping.

But pace change, inspiration, and deeper thought are coming to us via a surprising source: the humble email newsletter.

After a year of boredom-induced scroll-overload (because when there’s nothing to do except stay home and stay safe, I’ve had to find my kicks on social media), it’s finally clicked – THAT’S what’s turning our brains to toffee.

I need space to think about what I’m consuming. The clamor from socials is too insistent and, once you’re there, it’s so devilishly easy to get stuck in a scrolling time-warp.

Twitter is angry slurry. Once upon a time I’d turn to the blue bird for a quick bit of nontent to pass some time but I’m losing patience with the platform, even finding innocent’s Tweetbants seriously unfunny.

So, can you blame me for calling time on quick-fire content? And should you blame our internal audiences if they do the same? Slack, Lark and Teams can be noisy places to collaborate.

Simple is beautiful

In my own battle to purge the ping – no, I really can’t read another notification – I’ve turned to newsletters as a more reflective space to take in the bits I missed from the week (or never knew I needed to know).

I would never have automatically thought the humble newsletter could provide solace. I got so used to seeing advert-heavy, information-overloaded, shouty parish newsletters that I often clicked delete before caring.

But that all changed when I heard entrepreneur David Hieatt talk up his humble newsletter a few years back – and it still remains one of the best I subscribe to.

For the uninitiated, David runs Hiut Denim, basing his entire marketing strategy around a simple email newsletter.

He says: “For me, the newsletter is the most important tool I have in building a global denim brand. Second only to the sewing machine. The key is to understand there is a human being on the other side of your email. You are in the relationship business, not just the selling business. That strategic wisdom changes everything."

Great strategy, great newsletter. It’s a strong format so you know what to expect, and it comes out on the same day each week, so it builds reader anticipation.

And it’s worked. Hiut Denim and the DO Lectures has grown with a fiercely loyal following. They’re so good at it, they’ve even started giving advice.

Edit your feed

Newsletters don’t have to be from brands. We buy into the people, stories, and topics that move us. The next generation of newsletters feel more like edgy zines you’ll find in indie shops: curated, considered, joyful, passionate.

They collect stories, videos, podcasts, photography, music, and illustrations to immerse readers in a topic and take them on a journey of new perspectives – the kind that wouldn’t typically make it to a news website.

We have freedom of choice – it’s a bit like a good old-fashioned magazine stand. And if we don’t like anything that’s on offer, next week’s issue might be better.

Freelance journalists are finding an extra revenue stream (and editor-free outlet) in Substack, a new service where they can write, edit and email subscribers – and choose whether to charge for the pleasure.

Find newsletters on a million topics – from the niche to the obscure. Try My Favourite Breakup – anonymous breakup stories in 100 words (free); What to Cook When You Don’t Feel Like Cooking ($5 a month) – or even David – a series that started based on historic Davids and evolved into a person named David’s weekly thoughts on art, culture, BDSM, sexuality, and popular queer discourse ($5 a month).

The New Yorker quotes one of Substack’s co-founders, Hamish McKenzie: “We started Substack because we were fed up about the effects of the social media diet.”

Indeed, its home page states: “Take back your mind. Substack is a place for independent writing. Subscribe directly to writers you trust.”

It’s the mark of the way the world’s changing that this platform can disrupt the industry and writers can make money independent of mainstream media. We’re all desperately seeking authenticity in what we read – but we’ve been banging on about that for years in internal comms (IC).

All killer, no filler

And yet, IC editors have been guilty of finding filler for yawning-wide-open weekly newsletter templates – and yep, when I had a weekly deadline, I felt the dread of the empty space – but honestly, what’s the point of throwing out low-quality content that readers ignore? I’d rather send something shorter than something pointless.

The best internal newsletters exist to reinforce a message or idea the business gets behind, underpinning corporate goals and finding the human connection between the reader and the big idea.

That could range from the latest thinking around sustainability, inclusion, or technology; its people at their best; a community project that strikes at the heart of what the business stands for; or a particular value or mindset in action.

By publishing with a regular drumbeat and reinforcing the core point time and time again, newsletter editors show their readers that this is what the business believes in, rather than just telling them.

The beauty about the newsletter is that we the readers are discerning editors of what comes into our inbox. And when we don’t like something, we can hit the unsubscribe button, just like that. Ultimately, we have the power.

That’s something for any internal comms editor to sit up and think about. So, I implore you, take these principles and use them to guide what you create. You won’t go far wrong.

  • Plan ahead. Allow room for flex but have a big picture of what the year will look like, in line with what the business is going to be up to.
  • Don’t treat the task as a weekly churn. Readers will spot copy/paste editorial a mile off.
  • Make it something you’re proud to craft and nail, every issue.
  • Let that copy breathe. Build in white space – wide margins and breathing room between stories.
  • Avoid stock photography. Commission original artwork to go with your most important story.
  • Keep it inspirational. Fresh thinking, lively language and speak to your audience – PLEASE!
  • And do send it out on the same day each week/month. Your readers will thank you for regularity.

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