How to Fix Your Broken Newsletter

Your first attempt at newsletters won't be the best. To help you regain your footing, we talked to an agency that’s been there, done that — and tried again.

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You had big plans for your agency newsletter. It was going to be charming and fun. It would have a unique voice, colorful illustrations, and clever calls to action. And you would stick to a strict editorial calendar.

And then, well…

Don’t beat yourself up too much. For a busy agency, an assignment labeled “internal” can translate to “non-paying, non-priority work.” But just because your first attempt at a newsletter didn’t do so hot doesn’t mean you’re out of the game.

To help you regain your footing, we talked to an agency that’s been there, done that — and tried again.

Meet Well Done Marketing

Founded in 2004, Indianapolis-based Well Done Marketing began as a team of 2 and has since grown to an agency of 25. And at Well Done, newsletter duty isn’t tossed off to the lowliest copywriter available. Instead, it’s a coordinated effort between every department of the agency, including digital strategist Abby Reckard, associate creative director Matt Gonzales, and agency president Ken Honeywell, who pens every issue.

It wasn’t always so cooperative.

“Originally, we had 1 person running the newsletter, which was basically used as a sales tool,” Gonzales says. “We used a very standard template without a lot of modification, and there wasn’t much collaboration with our creative team or strategists on the content and design.”

The result didn’t stir much enthusiasm in readers. Recognizing the problem, the newsletter was put on a brief hiatus — which ended up lasting almost a year.

“It went on longer than expected,” Gonzales says. “That pause, though, gave us the chance to rethink what we were doing.”

Starting with strategy

During that period, the team at Well Done decided to begin with strategy.

“The common thread in all strategic thinking is about putting the end user first,” Reckard says. As Well Done’s director of digital strategy, Reckard typically conducts research and analysis for complex web projects and digital marketing campaigns. But even something as seemingly small as a newsletter requires strategic thinking.

Email is great because it’s easy to gather data, but if you don’t start with a plan in place, that data isn’t going to tell you much,” Reckard says. “We knew we wanted to create something that would represent the agency first — our way of thinking, our interests, and our work. So first we figured out the categories we wanted to write in, with the goal of tracking those categories over time.”

"The common thread in all strategic thinking is about putting the end user first."

How does this put the end user first? For Well Done, it was about making the conscious decision to think of the newsletter as a product instead of a sales tool.

“As we rethought the newsletter, we went in with the belief that we are smart, we have good things to say, and we can help people,” Reckard says. “Understanding what we have to offer that other agencies don’t helped us craft a product people actually want.”

“The new version also does a much better job of curating content from around the web,” Gonzales says. “It’s content that may not have anything to do with us, except that we find it interesting and have a perspective on it.”

And that perspective comes, by and large, from president Ken Honeywell.

Ken Honeywell, president of Well Done Marketing located in Indianapolis, Indiana.


Although Honeywell has worked in the ad business for most of his professional career, it’s not what he went to school for.

“Like everyone else who went to college in the ’70s, I wanted to be a crusading reporter saving the world after Watergate,” Honeywell says. “But by the time I graduated, there were no jobs, because everyone in the market had a journalism degree.”

Looking for other ways to make money as a writer led him to advertising, where he cut his teeth at an agency before setting out on his own as a freelancer.

“I loved freelancing, but it gets harder to remain relevant,” Honeywell says. “When you’re in your 40s and in advertising, you’re old.”

To get away from the freelancing game and into something more stable, Honeywell and his wife started their own business as a creative services shop.

But as it started to grow, they realized they needed to be intentional about how they added services.

“We saw a lot of old-school agencies die because they didn’t understand digital marketing,” Honeywell says. “We realized our niche was that we understood marketing as well as digital technology, and how they fit together.”

Honeywell’s past as a writer and strategist are now brought to bear on how he writes Well Done’s newsletter. Like Reckard, he believes in the primacy of the end user.

“The stories in our newsletter aren’t really about us,” Honeywell says. “The stories are about how these things might affect the readers that we’re reaching. And thinking of it that way means we show them that we’re smart, relevant, forward-thinking, and, frankly, not bullshitty.”

“People can sniff out a sales stench,” Gonzales says. “If what you write stinks of marketing, your audience stops reading. I don’t think of the newsletter as a sales piece so much as it is a way to let people experience what’s happening at Well Done.”

5 tips for recalibrating your newsletter

1. Identify your audience. Always start with your users and consider their experience. Send them content they actually value, not just an obnoxious sales pitch. “When people give you an email address, they give you access to their digital home,” Reckard says. “We make sure we’re respectful of that with the content we send, and make sure it’s something subscribers can use.”

2. Bring in the whole team.  If your old newsletter isn’t working, it helps to bring in some outside perspectives to represent the best of your agency. “The great thing about having a team approach is that it shows who we are,” says Gonzales. “When you get the newsletter, it feels like you’re getting a little bit of what it’s like to be with our team.” Plus, that one quiet person from accounts could have a really great idea for content.

3. Be more interesting.  Speaking of great content, keep in mind how easy you are to ignore — especially when you communicate by email. “It’s easy for you to send email, and easy for me to delete it without a second thought,” Honeywell says. If you have something worth saying, say it early.

4. Have well-defined roles and a plan for production. If you were writing a newsletter for a client, everyone involved would have a well-defined role, clear deliverables, and deadlines. That shouldn’t change when the newsletter is for your own agency. “It needs to run like a well-oiled machine,” Gonzales says. “You can’t wing it — processes and quality control are required.”

5. Be consistent. Part of quality control is making sure that you’re consistent on delivery, both in terms of what you send and when you send it. If your dispatches go out at random intervals, or if you don’t deliver on a promise, you’re teaching people to see you as spam. “Once people forget about you or forget to expect you, it can feel more like an intrusion when you reappear,” Reckard says. “Regularly delivering what people signed up for makes you more welcome.”

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