Typical Formats for Newsletters (with examples)


Over the past few weeks I’ve received a lot of questions from prospective creators about two things:

  1. What do I write about?
  2. What should it look like?

In this post I’m going to give my thoughts on format, based on what I’ve seen out there in the wild over the past few months of actively looking.

If you’re looking for ideas for a newsletter, we’ve got a thread going in the IndieMailer community 🙂

Most newsletters belong to one of these three camps.

The Blog by Email

This is probably the most popular format for paid letters today. It’s also the format used by several of the most popular letters.

The email typically looks like a blog post, or an article. Often, they’re written by journalists and feature a series of posts (normally one per email) that relate to the overarching topic of the newsletter.

A good example of this model is Heated by veteran climate reporter Emily Atkin. Another is Popular Info by Judd Legum. You can click through to either of those sites and see numerous examples of what they look like.

While most posts are specific to a particularly timely issue, there is also a common practice of sending updates to “yesterdays” issue and continuing the conversation, or addressing reader comments.

Many notable letters like this will break news from time-to-time, some more than others. Judd does it pretty often, and issues followup letters based on new information.

Journalism focused newsletters aside, there are also pure-play, true blogs that are sent by email too. There’s also a bunch that serialize books (such as Matt Taibbi’s Untitledgate).

The draw here for subscribers is pretty clear — they exchange money to get a series of content from the author. Most are personality driven, so for example, if you like Matt Taibbi, you’ll probably feel like you’re getting value.

The Curated Roundup

One of the first big waves of paid newsletters was summarizing and delivering digests of popular news subjects.

It’s an attractive model for a subscriber because it enables them to rely on the curation powers of those more “in the know”.

The real value here, at least based on my experience with them, is the quick takeaways and summary-plus-insight that the creator often wraps around the link.

Exponential View by Azeem Azhar is one of my favorites of this type. I also really enjoy Numlock News by Walt Hickey.

This model was my first run-in with newsletters, in general. About 8 years ago I built a web product called Tweekly. It was a service that allowed people to subscribe to particular Twitter accounts and get an email digest of all of their posts (minus re-tweets) in chronological order each week. The project is long dead, but my fascination with email persists.

Many of these curated roundups tend to be operated by companies and/or teams. I’ve given two examples of individual personalities running them, but here are a few of the other variety:

The Product

This model is typically used by artists, podcasters, and multi-media creators. It’s also used for lists that sell access to specific information, say apartment listings, coding interview questions for developers, travel deals, stock tips, etc.

Quite literally, the email is the product itself. You can also think of it like a service driven email.

If you’ve been looking for case studies of successful paid newsletter founders, you’ve probably run across Scott Keyes from Scott’s Cheap Flights.

“Get email alerts about cheap flights departing from your favorite airports.”

It does what it says on the tin, and it’s wildly popular. It’s also a near perfect example of what we’re talking about.

The value for subscribers is in solving a particular problem, or pain point. Many of these newsletters could also be content sites — that is to say, they’re not reliant on email as a medium, it’s just convenient.

Parting Thoughts

If you want to do a newsletter and you’ve got a topic, try to give each of these three models a spin. How might you leverage the best of what has come before you to serve your audience better?

Don’t stress over it though. There are always exceptions to the rule, and of course, a newsletter can switch between formats (successfully, I might add), but these are the core archetypes that I’m aware of.

If you know if more, feel free to reach out and let me know. Also, please go invent some new ones!

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