theSkimm is “making it easier for you to live smarter.”
NextDraft promises “the day’s most fascinating news.”
Further “is a once-a-week email that helps you maximize your health, wealth, and personal growth.”
What do all these sites have in common? Their primary focus is delivering a particular type of newsletter: the curated content newsletter.
Here, we’ll explore how curated content newsletters work, why they succeed (or fail), and how any organization can create and scale a curated content newsletter that grabs attention and builds a following.
The Evolution of Curated Content Newsletters
News roundups delivered via email sound so quaint, don’t they? After all, this was one of the earliest email marketing tactics developed.
And yet some companies are building major businesses by refreshing this decades-old marketing tactic.
The best curated content newsletters today are able to sift through the noise of the Internet to pick out the best content on a given topic, says Demian Farnworth at Copyblogger. The newsletter organizes the content, packages it into an email and fires it off to an audience that wants high-quality information without having to search for it themselves.
On paper, that sounds just like old-school news roundups. And to be sure, newsletters in general remain a popular way to build a following and retain customers. In 2017, 83 percent of B2B marketers were using email newsletters as part of their overall content marketing strategy, according to Joe Pulizzi and Ann Handley at the Content Marketing Institute. In addition, 74 percent of B2B marketers saw these newsletters as part of their overall strategy to make personal connections with customers.
But newsletters can be a tough sell in 2018 — especially to ourselves. “We don’t like the newsletters we receive nor do we get anything out of them,” says Pia Silva at Forbes, “so we resist creating our own email marketing campaigns in fear of being that meaningless content dribbling into others inboxes that we dislike so much ourselves. Why would we want to do that to anyone?”
What makes curated content newsletters like theSkimm so fascinating is that they’ve taken a concept we’ve learned to resist, the newsletter, and turned it into something engaging, exciting, even anticipated. And they’ve done it not by creating brand new content, but by collecting top-notch work from other sources.
How have these newsletters done so well when “newsletter” is a word many content marketers avoid? Brain+Trust Partners CEO Scott Monty says the top elements of a top newsletter today include a clever, colloquial tone, a passionate focus and great design.
Below, we will see how the combination of focus and smart presentation have created a new generation of great newsletters.
How These Curated Content Newsletters Are Knocking It Out of the Park
Some curated content newsletters have become household names. How did they do it? We dove into interviews and comments from their creators to find out.
Further is the brainchild of Brian Clark, the founder and CEO of Copyblogger.
Clark discussed Further in depth on the Rainmaker FM podcast during its development in 2014. “What I’m seeing though is there is a lot of good content in just about any topical area you could think of,” Clark told Rainmaker’s Robert Bruce. “There really is an opportunity here because you can still build an audience as long as you are creating the value. Here you are creating the value by finding the best, eliminating the dreck and sending that to people.”
One tip Clark offered on the podcast was to choose the intersection of two topics to serve as the foundation of a curated content newsletter. Copyblogger itself provides an example of this approach: It’s a site that focuses on the intersection between copywriting and blogging.
NextDraft is a daily email (and an iOS app) through which its creator, Dave Pell, sends the day’s top news stories to readers. “Each morning I visit about 75 news sites, and from that swirling nightmare of information quicksand, I pluck the top ten most fascinating items of the day,” Pell writes on NextDraft’s website, “which I deliver with a fast, pithy wit that will make your computer device vibrate with delight.”
This sort of humor is exactly what NextDraft’s readers love about the curated newsletter. “Every issue feels like the author sat down and put his heart and soul into a single email and then sent it out to you, and you only,” writer Veselina Gerova says.
Patrick Armitage at HubSpot agrees: The key to NextDraft’s success is how the newsletter feels personal, he says. Armitage praises NextDraft for its personality and conversational feel. “I don’t just want a bunch of browsable links,” Armitage says, “I want to know why I should read this stuff, and how it pertains to me.”
Pell’s approach does exactly that, creating a curated content newsletter that feels like it’s building a relationship, not merely dumping information on readers.
theSkimm launched in 2012 through the joint efforts of Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin. In an interview with Marie Forleo, Weisberg and Zakin discussed how “it was their ignorance – not their connections, their investors or dumb luck – that helped them unlock an idea that had never been done before.”
Pre-Skimm, Zakin and Weisberg worked at NBC News, where they soon realized that friends were always asking them about the day’s news. “They never watched what we produced but always wanted to know what was going on,” Zakin told Cosmopolitan.
With $4,000, Zakin and Weisberg started the curated content newsletter to help people be more informed about world events — and readers wanted what theSkimm offered. By 2018, theSkimm had 6.5 million subscribers.
The founders’ advice? Use your lack of knowledge about other people’s systems to your advantage — and always find new ways to think about what it is you do. As Emily Stanford notes at Salesforce, one of theSkimm’s early successes was understanding how closely the need for quick news updates was tied to watching the calendar, and responding with a paid app option that coordinated with the user’s calendar accordingly.
Another way theSkimm’s founders frame their work is in terms of attention. “We are very much in the attention economy game,” Weisberg said in 2016. “To say we get 5 minutes of everyone’s day when they’re laying in bed in the morning is something we’re very proud of.”
Creating and Scaling a Curated Content Newsletter
About 2.25 million blog posts are published each day, according to Worldometer’s daily analysis. That’s a lot of reading.
Here’s how to find the ones worth compiling into a curated content newsletter — and how to build a newsletter that your subscribers will read:
Define Your Topic
Readers subscribe to curated content newsletters because they’re interested in specific topics. They want the best information on that topic, and they want it quickly.
Curate With Intention
“Curation is more than packaging,” says Maria Popova at Brainpicker. “It is to help readers (discern) what is important in the world.” To help readers determine what information is important, you will first need to decide for yourself which information matters.
When curating, less is more. “Curation done well really is a service to readers that they’ll thank you for,” said Mark Walker at CMWorld.
Generalized idea-organizing tools like Google Drive and Evernote have long been used to curate newsletter content. But as interest in curated newsletters has grown, specialized apps for the job have emerged, as well, writes Kevan Lee at Buffer.
In addition to organizing the great articles, videos, infographics and other items you find, you’ll also need a way to organize them into the final newsletter. Here, attention to factors like the type of content being presented, the audience/need focus, and the new value being generated by the curation process will pay off, says digital media analyst Robin Good.
Design and Send
A wide range of tools are available for creating and managing newsletters, including several that focus specifically on curated content newsletters. And while other tools for curating and sharing content exist, email remains a strong contender.
“Email is still the killer app,” NextDraft’s Pell told The Verge in a 2012 interview. “It looks great on all your devices and the user experience is always exactly what you’ve come to expect.” Given the millions of subscribers to the top curated newsletters, Pell’s 2012 claim appears to be just as true in 2018 as it was six years before.
But don’t overlook design. As Sarah Burley notes at Creative Bloq, email newsletters that are plain or hard to read get deleted. “The unsubscribe button is seeming more and more tempting by the minute,” said Burley of these newsletters.
Instead, invest some attention into a newsletter that’s as nice to look at as it is fun to read. Tools available to help boost your design include:
- Free graphic design tools like Canva, which can help you build a uniform look for your newsletter, social media posts and website.
- The ability to see your design in any browser, thanks to tools like Litmus.
- Newsletter template libraries included in services like MailChimp or SendWithUs.
- Inspiration via Really Good Emails, an online template and design library full of, well, really good emails.
The Bottom Line
If you remember nothing else about curated content newsletters, remember:
- Curated content newsletters allow you to control how you reach your audience in a way social media platforms do not.
- Thoughtful curation positions you as an expert and teacher in your field — and it doesn’t feel like selling.
- A well-designed newsletter builds relationships.