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Don’t Call it a Newsletter: Tips from Tobias van Schneider

Tobias van Schneider shares some invaluable insights on building your audience.

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The first step to an excellent newsletter? Stop calling it that.

This bit of unconventional wisdom comes from Tobias van Schneider, a self-described “designer and maker” who formerly worked as a lead product designer and art director at Spotify. More recently, he founded Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers.

The German-born, New York-based multidisciplinary designer publishes a popular weekly email, DESK of Tobias van Schneider. It’s everything a weekly email should be: fun, readable, full of useful information, and rich in personality.

Regardless of what you call it, a regular weekly or biweekly email is one of the best and most inexpensive ways to strengthen your brand and deepen your relationship with your audience. Van Schneider has used his weekly email to experiment and refine his voice as a writer, create a strong and lasting bond with his readers, and promote content such as his podcast and blog.

Agencies looking to start or improve their own regularly scheduled emails could learn a lot from van Schneider. So we tracked him down for a conversation about the evolution of DESK, his unconventional writing style, and why unsubscribes no longer make him sad.

For starters, can you describe the DESK email in a sentence or 2 for the uninitiated?

I’d describe it as an outlet where I share my thoughts and learnings as a designer and maker. It’s similar to my blog, talking about design, productivity, or psychology. But my email is more personal, more raw. It’s not as polished.

It should feel like I’m with you in the room, telling you what’s on my mind.

How do you define and measure success? How do you know if your email is “working”?

I treat my weekly email very differently than emails I send on behalf of companies or products. There are very few hard metrics I keep track of. I keep an eye on the open rate just to see how well I’m doing with the title of the email, and then of course I see when people engage.

Depending on what kind of email I send out, engagement usually means people clicking on specific links, filling out a form I provided, simply sending me an email response, or even sending me a tweet. I usually call it a success if people share it, get in touch via email, or contribute interesting comments on Twitter. This works especially well with more controversial topics.

You share a lot of pretty personal information in DESK. Do you think this has helped you build a stronger bond with your list?

Absolutely, yes. That’s also one of the reasons I never refer to my email list as a newsletter. That’s not really what it is, and people already have enough negative associations with newsletters in general.

"Don’t overthink it. I like to think of newsletters like letters in your mail."

Let’s talk about your audience. How would you describe the relationship you have with your subscribers?

I feel like it’s good but could always be better. I try my best to answer emails, engage everywhere else, and make sure to include my readers’ voice and feedback into new editions of the email list. Obviously, these things become harder the more you grow.

So you think it’s a good practice in engage with people on your list — to allow them to email you back, and to respond to their emails.

Absolutely, yes. Sometimes I don’t respond, and sometimes it takes me weeks if not months. The reason is mostly because there are just too many. I usually try to read them all, and then respond to collective feedback via a new weekly email or a blog article.

Do you consider your weekly email a marketing tool?

I don’t actively use it as one right now. I rarely push products or anything commercial through the list, but I’m fairly certain that the hidden effect of it could be called marketing. Some people like my writing, then they land on my blog, and from there they might navigate to one of my products. At that point, you could argue there is a funnel, but I’m not actively pushing people into it. The funnel is activated only if I’ve already provided some value.

What, in your opinion, is the single best reason for a small agency or freelancer to launch a regular email series?

Easy answer: It’s the connection you have with your audience. Also, for me, email is the best tool to communicate and hold your attention in a distraction-free environment. Every other environment is full of distraction, but email is a closed and personal environment. It’s the difference between you going to a public event with other people, or the presenter coming into your living room.

You’re coming up on your 90th edition — that means you certainly qualify as an expert. With that in mind, what are the biggest beginner mistakes you see in other email newsletters?

I’m not an expert. But I think the biggest mistake (I did it myself many times) is infrequency and a sense of carelessness that the readers can feel.

Most newsletters are in fact just that — they’re newsletters with little value. They’re seen as a marketing tool first and foremost, and there’s little thought about providing some sense of value for the reader.

Would your email be as effective if you sent it twice a month? Or twice a week? Why does once a week work for you?

Twice a month isn’t frequent enough for me and I would start slacking. I need a more frequent rhythm. Twice a week could work, but I asked my audience multiple times and everyone liked the once-a-week format. I’ve established a second email list with more infrequent emails for everything that doesn’t fit in my main one.

You send it out on Sunday night, which is a little unusual. How did you arrive at that decision?

Mostly because my kind of writing is usually more motivating and uplifting and I want people to read it on Mondays to get a good start to the week.

In addition, I’d say at least 50% of my readers are in Europe or farther east. That means sending it out Sunday night my time (New York, EST) gives all those readers a fresh email perfectly on time for their morning commute. And at the same time, everyone in the U.S. can read it either on Sunday night or Monday morning.

What have you learned about writing subject lines?

Subject lines with curse words usually do very well.

And then, obviously, everything that is nicely engineered clickbait. But at the same time, these are also the ones that get caught a lot by spam filters. I’m still experimenting but since this isn’t a very commercial email list, I try to be chill about it. I want readers who read my email list for the content, not the subject line.

How much do you pay attention to subscribes/unsubscribes? Does it influence how you approach things?

It did in the beginning. Every time I sent out an email and 100 people unsubscribed right after, it did hurt my feelings a bit.But I got over it. I’m now thankful when people unsubscribe. More cost-effective for me, and I don’t need to remove them manually.

I’m also removing inactive subscribers who haven’t opened my emails in 3 months on a regular basis. I like to keep it all nice and tight, no bloat.

Let’s talk about design: Yours is simple, minimalist, elegant. Given your vocation, I assume a great deal of thought went into it.

I’ve only done 1 major redesign of my weekly email. And, to be honest, I sometimes think it’s a bit too nice. I like to keep it simple; I want it to look less like a newsletter and more like a personal email. I tried keeping a balance between something designed, but also not too designed.

What design faux pas do you encounter in other newsletters?

Trying to do too much at once. Don’t overthink it. I like to think of newsletters like letters in your mail. When someone sends you a regular letter, you’re usually interested. But if your mail already looks like a random piece of spam, I’m probably not even opening it.

3 lessons Tobias van Schneider learned the hard way

Tobias van Schneider didn’t earn tens of thousands of email subscribers without learning a hard lesson or two. Here are 3 of them:

1. Don’t let your list get stale. “Email lists become outdated pretty quickly and people forget very easily why and when they signed up for your list. If you just skip a couple months of sending emails, and then do it again, people don’t remember who you are. You wouldn’t think that, but it’s true. An outdated email list is worth very little and is usually more trouble than it’s worth — and we’re not speaking about the legal aspects of sending emails to an outdated list.”

2. Take unsubscribes in stride. “People unsubscribe for so many reasons. Don’t take them personally; move on and write for those who like what you do. Don’t write for those who threaten to unsubscribe. Let them go as quickly as possible. I encourage people on a regular basis to unsubscribe from my email list.”

3. You can’t please everybody. “If you have had an established format for a while, it’s very hard to change without alienating someone. If people love what you do, they don’t want change. I’m always experimenting with the format, because I also get bored of my own stuff. But once you do, even if it’s just a slight change of language, people will protest.”

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