How to make your newsletter readers feel at home in your content

Newsletter success doesn’t come from topic, angle and writing style alone.

Matthias Bohlen
8 minutes reading time

Happy Saturday,

several newsletter issues hit my inbox every day. Some of them simply stand out.

Today, I asked myself: Why is that so? To some of those newsletters, I relate so much more than to the rest of them.

It turns out that it’s not only about the topic, or the author’s unique angle on it, or about the author’s writing style. No, it’s much more basic and subtle than that.

The difference is one emotion: Some newsletters make me feel at home!

Your readers want to feel at home with you

What do I mean by “at home”?

Do you know that feeling when you open a newsletter, and you immediately think “yay, that really looks like Robin again!” It’s this cozy feeling of being familiar with it, even before you really began to read the text itself. Already from a first glance, it looks like an old friend of yours!

When I feel at home in a newsletter, I open my mind and jump right in to what the author has to say.

So, what makes me feel so much “at home” inside a newsletter?

A Home is formed by Structures

A window place at home

Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice. – Christopher Alexander, “A Pattern Language”

Christopher Alexander was a well-known architect and design theorist who passed away in March this year. In his book A Pattern Language, he detailed 253 patterns which serve as generic guiding principles for design.

From a single room, via a house, a neighbourhood, all the way up towards towns and cities: Christopher Alexander’s patterns help you design a surrounding that people will love to live in.

I remember one of his patterns called “Window Place”. It describes rules how to construct a place at a window that a person immediately feels attracted to and comfortable to be “at home”.

As an example for such a window place, see the photo above. I found it on a Pinterest page by Elizabeth Churchill. Isn’t it beautiful? You would like to grab a cup of tea or a beer, sit down on the bench in the sun, and start to read or just look outside.

Alexander describes precisely why a window place is so powerful, on page 112 in another good book of his: “The Timeless Way of Building”. Window Place is a pattern, it solves a conflict of forces:

If the windows are just holes in the wall, and there are no places where the windows are, one force pulls me towards the window; but another force pulls me toward the natural “places” in the room, where the comfortable chairs and tables are. So long as I am in this room, I am pushed and pulled by these two forces; there is nothing I can do to prevent the inner conflict they create in me.

The instinctive knowledge that a room is beautiful when it has a window place in it, is thus not an aesthetic whim. – Christopher Alexander, “A Timeless Way of Building”

Alexander shows this difference in a drawing on the very same page of the book: The difference between a window place and a random hole in the wall When he talks about patterns, he describes them as a set of generative rules that make a balance (or resolve a conflict) between multiple forces that are present in a design situation. In this case, the two forces were “humans are drawn towards the light” and “a human wants to sit down in a place”.

Simple rule: Move the place (e.g. table and chairs) towards the window!

What Christopher Alexander proposed here is a change in structure. Instead of having two different structures in the room, he proposes to unify them into one structure:

  • Two structures cause a tension, the human feels stressed.
  • One structure creates coziness, a feeling of being welcome to sit down.

(This doesn’t mean that one structure is generally better than two. It’s just the case in this design situation, not in every design situation!)

Okay, so how can this help us make our readers feel at home in our newsletter?

My Newsletter lacks a Structure, yet

When I look at News Bundler Weekly (my own newsletter, here), I can see that its structure changes from issue to issue.

It’s because I am still very much experimenting, even after so many issues that I’ve already written. Take the sections in last week’s newsletter, for example:

  • Main story: What makes readers engage with your newsletter?
  • Announcement: My upcoming podcast
  • Diary section: Two weeks, full of marketing
  • Randomness: This morning on Twitter
  • CTA: Invitation to the News Bundler Discord channel

Although every section has a type that makes sense in itself (story, announcement, diary, etc.), the sections vary from issue to issue. In the early issues, for example, I had a section that portrayed famous newsletter writers. However, last week’s newsletter didn’t contain such a “profile section”.

The newsletter writers that I adore do this differently: They use a repeatable structure in their newsletter issues.

And that’s what makes me feel at home in their newsletters: When I open James Clear’s newsletter, or Kai Brach’s “Dense Discovery”, I can feel the structure each and every week again.

Let’s have a look at these two sample structures because they are totally different, and they both work well.

Example: a very Lightweight Structure

James Clear, the author of the “Atomic Habits” book, sends out his newsletter called “3-2-1” on Thursdays. The structure he uses inside has given his newsletter this peculiar name.

Every issue consists of these 3 sections:

  • 3 Ideas From Me
  • 2 Quotes From Others
  • 1 Question For You

An example for an idea from the “3 ideas” section:

It’s only work if you would rather be doing something else. Find a way to carve a career out of what you already want to do.

Plain and simple. Sometimes the idea is longer than that, but not more than one mobile screen.

Also part of the structure:

  • Every idea and question is followed by a link to share it on Twitter. Each quote has a link to its source where you can find out more about it.
  • At the end of every issue, there is another special section with a colored background where James asks for a referral to a friend and promises a reward if you make 3 such referrals.

James has millions of subscribers, and I think the structure he uses makes the readers feel at home when they see a new issue on Thursdays!

Get his newsletter here, if you don’t have it yet.

Example: a very Elaborate Structure

Kai Brach is a German who lives in Australia. He writes Dense Discovery, a “thoughtful weekly newsletter helping you feel inspired, be productive & think critically”.

With this subheading, Kai makes a clear promise, and I think he truly fulfills it! Whenever a new issue arrives on Tuesdays, I also instantly feel at home as I open it. Kai writes about topics from design, technology, sustainability and culture.

However, Kai’s structure is very much different from James’s! Look at the impressive list of sections in his long-form newsletter:

  • Welcome and main story
  • CTA: Become a friend of DD
  • Sponsored ad (exactly one)
  • Apps & Sites: curated links to interesting finds
  • Worthy Five: five recommendations by a guest author
  • Books and Accessories: 2 or more recommendations by Kai himself
  • Overheard on Twitter: a funny or witty quote
  • Food for thought: Curated links to long-form articles from the Interwebs
  • Aesthetically Pleasing: Kai shares photos of beautiful houses, objects, or graphical designs (whoa! => example)
  • Notable Numbers: 3 interesting statistics
  • Classifieds: 4 slots for classified ads that you can book
  • The Week in a GIF: a funny animated weekly GIF

What a difference! A dozen different sections instead of 3.

This newsletter challenges my mind. I need much more time to read it than the 3-point newsletter from James Clear, but I do enjoy the ride, every time.

Dense Discovery currently has 37,000 subscribers, and the slots for ads are booked up already for the next 13 weeks. I would call this a huge success for Kai!

Let’s discuss this on Discord

Two questions for the Discord channel:

  • What structures do you use in your newsletter?
  • Would you recommend that I use a repeatable structure, too, or do you enjoy my random ramblings?

Slide into the News Bundler Discord channel, so we can chat about this with more people.

You can “speak friend and enter” right here, using my invite link: https://discord.gg/kB48P345W6

Please invite other newsletter authors to join us on Discord as well.

Have a good weekend and a successful fresh start into next week… Matthias

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