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January 21st, 2008

What to do when you finally make time for a newsletter makeover

What to do when you finally make time for a newsletter makeover

As HTML email newsletter designers, we work with clients every day who want to make their newsletters look better and function better. We polish code, create new designs, and guide newsletter launches. And it’s a blast!

But, something we’d been neglecting for far longer than I care to admit (okay, so the newsletter hasn’t had an “official” makeover since its launch in 2001!) is our own email design. Sure, we’ve made some changes here and there, but most of those came about because I have a constant need to fiddle with things.

Part of the delay comes down to just good old fashioned time management–it’s hard to schedule our own newsletter makeover when we’ve got all these exciting projects for clients. Part of the delay comes down to the fact that we’re hard to work with ;-) . And, part of the delay, let’s face it, comes down to worrying about what you’ll think of it. After all, this is what we *do*. So, if we do a bad job for ourselves, well, that doesn’t say good things about our abilities, now does it?

Once I got past that last bit–my own worry over what the new newsletter would look like and if you would like it and whether or not it would do justice to our services–the rest was easy. Or, if not altogether easy, at least break-down-able into a five-step process.

Step One: Define the voice.

You’ll notice the smart-alecky headings throughout the new version of the newsletter. Those are all me. (So, if you hate them, blame me.)

It’s a smart idea to give your newsletter a voice of its own, and to carry that through as many of the elements as possible. Some places to put that voice include section dividers, nameplates, photos, and even backgrounds. Really weave that voice all throughout the newsletter–both in the way you phrase things and in the actual design elements you choose. Everything, from your color scheme to your fonts to your line heights should illuminate who you are.

Step Two: Decide how bold you can be. And be bolder.

I’ve never seen a client be too bold in their newsletter. Too timid, absolutely. But never too bold. Never too committed to their vision for who they are, who they serve, and how they’re going to make a difference for their readers. Never.

There’s no better place to really embrace your brand and your identity than in your newsletter. See, your website, has to worry about the search engines (which appreciate keywords far more than that funny joke). On the other hand, your newsletter has but one goal: connect you and your reader. That’s it.

So show up in your newsletter. Show up in the articles you write, and in the stories that you share. Show up in the way that you write your welcome message and your new subscriber gift. SHOW UP. Be bold.

For me, I find that I have to write a lot of garbage to get to the point where it’s actually *me* doing the writing. When I’m writing anything, there are lots of jargon-filled paragraphs, lots of rambling on while I try to find my point, and many, many wasted words. So, I let myself warm up, purge all of that garbage out of my writing wiring, and then I begin, again.

You might be luckier than me and not need to spend all that time wasting words. But, if you’re not luckier, and you do need to purge, know that it’s well worth the rambling and the throwing away paragraphs because you’ll eventually come to the core of the matter, and you’ll be able to say precisely what you want to say. And, as long as you actually *do* throw away those throwaway paragraphs, your readers will appreciate that you took the time to clarify what you have to say, even if they’re nary the wiser.

Step Three: Design.

Design is important, sure. But, it’s not the pivotal element of your newsletter. There are other elements that have more importance. Design is sort of like cake decorations–it makes a huge difference in your enjoyment of the cake, perhaps, and it makes it look so much prettier sitting there on the cake plate, but the actual taste of the cake is the same.

So, now that you’ve committed to being bold, and defined your voice, you’re ready to do the actual work of the design. You’ve chosen your fonts and your color scheme (as part of your voice) and now you’re ready to determine exactly how much space between lines in a headline looks right, or whether or not to put your logo in the nameplate.

All of these little decisions come after the big ones. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by a redesign, or by your newsletter in general, chances are good you’re putting the little decisions first. So, make those big decisions, complete steps one and two, and then come to the bits and pieces of the design.

Step Four: Admire your work.

This is my favorite part! Give yourself some time to simply look at your new newsletter. Take in all the details–the pretty new red bits everywhere, the new photo of you and your pretty, pretty dog… Oh, wait, we’re talking about *your* newsletter, not mine.

But the point still stands–take some time to really look at each part you like about your new newsletter. It’s taken lots of time, attention, and energy to get this project done, so give yourself the pat on the back you deserve for seeing it through.

And, and this is even more important, once you’ve given yourself that pat on the back, SEND IT OUT. It’s time to let other people admire it too!

Step Five: Don’t listen to a word I say.

Working through this redesign has given my confidence a huge shot in the arm. I’ve realized that some of those voices of self-doubt that like to keep me awake at night are nothing more than a habit. By doing your newsletter your way, on your terms, you’ll find your publishing (and business-helming) confidence increasing too.

Ultimately, it’s not about listening to (or reading) what the experts have to say about what does and doesn’t work. What’s going to get you the results you crave is getting in there, experimenting, making a huge mess, and sorting it all out later. Let YOU shine through your newsletter, set your newsletter apart from all the rest, and go about the business of what makes you great at what you do.

All the plans and charts and paths are meaningless if they get you someplace you didn’t really want to be in the first place. And even if they direct you exactly where you want to venture, they’re absolutely worthless if you never so much as take a single step towards what you want.

So, this week, I have two challenges for you: stop fiddling and fussing and embrace an all-out no-holds-barred redirection. And: don’t listen to a word the experts say (even if that means ignoring me completely). At least one or the other of these challenges is sure to fit your situation this week!

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