Confessions of a Newsletter Writer

This post is part of the Content Q&A Series, featuring interviews with top content strategists and bloggers about their work and insights about the industry.

While working in PR for Vitro, a bi-coastal creative agency, Matt Van Hoven authored a daily email newsletter known as the Nerdletter. From January 2012 to April 2013, Van Hoven combed through countless cat photos, news articles, and media buzz to compile the daily digest.

With subscribers from firms such as Fast Company, Rackspace, and Mediabistro, Van Hoven’s Nerdletter tapped into the marketing, tech, and media scenes. Aesthetically, the Nerdletter reflected a simplified version of Vitro’s usual “sexy” look, with white text on a black background, and no images.

A bold white “VITRO” headed the email, with a quippy Van Hoven-penned greeting — “What are you passionate about? Have you done that lately?” — below. Then a weather report from Vitro’s homes — New York and San Diego — and finally the list of links. Each newsletter contained roughly 10 items ranging from the redesign of the hallowed red cup to an app that will tweet for you after you’re dead.

“We decided to do this really raw, almost Web 1.0-style, html thing.”

Vitro began the Nerdletter with a core list of 50 emails, and by the time Van Hoven left, the Nerdletter reached 550. “People are extremely reluctant to subscribe to anything that comes into their email,” Van Hoven said. “That was the one piece of feedback I consistently got from people, like ‘Yours is the only one I read,’”

Those who did make the commitment found a valuable resource.

“The best feedback I got was from Fast Company,” Van Hoven said. “There were five reporters and editors from Fast Company that read it, and half the development team at Rackspace. What I would find is that groups of people that knew and talked to each other, they were like, ‘Oh, did you see…?’ They would start turning to the newsletter more than their own feeds of stuff, to find those important stories of the day.”

“The Nerdletter was perfect both in content and tone,” James Adams, CEO of BeeAudio, said. “So often newsletters take themselves far too seriously and are boring. The Nerdletter had the right balance of information and fun. Every day I found something new I wanted to learn about and every day I had a laugh.”

This spring, Van Hoven moved to Vayner Media and the newsletter is on hiatus. Looking back on more than a year of sending daily emails, he developed his own list of best practices in aggregation and distribution.

Be a Part of People’s Lives

Vitro started the Nerdletter as a way to maximize its PR and “be a part of people’s lives in a valuable way,” Van Hoven said. They knew any regular contribution they made had to be smart, useful, and different from other agencies’ efforts.

Van Hoven said he’d never been particularly drawn to any other agency’s newsletter, likely because they were too polished. To fit into a subscriber’s life on a daily basis, Vitro wanted to flow into the daily stream of water cooler conversation, both in terms of voice and design.

“We decided to do this really raw, almost Web 1.0-style, html thing,” Van Hoven said of the design.

In his approach to copy, Van Hoven wanted to be as efficient as his readers. While many web publications use titles as enticing invitations for a larger story, the Nerdletter was less concerned with click rates.

“In a case where I could sum up a story in the headline, I would, because I don’t want you to have to click,” Van Hoven said. “I want you to get the main thing out of this so you can go about your day. Speed is kind of key.”

Rather than pushing a larger agenda, Van Hoven aimed to maximize the value of the Nerdletter without asking his readers to do anything.

Measure and Adjust

Van Hoven measured all clicks using, briefly launching a podcast to discuss the top links of the week.

“What I learned from this is that there’s a hierarchy of things people will click on,” he said. At the top of the chart, unsurprisingly, were cute animals and similarly light content. Videos were close behind, followed by whatever was relevant to a subscriber’s profession. Van Hoven adjusted the Nerdletter accordingly:

“At the top was the biggest, most showstopping news of the day, stuff that people have to know. From there, it was all the media and tech, like stuff that people should know, but they wouldn’t necessarily all be interested in,” he said.

“And at the bottom was all the light, fluffy, awesome stuff. I’d force them to sort of like go to the bottom of the page to get what they wanted. There was some sneakiness to it. What I found was that when we did that, overall everything else got better traffic. All of the click rates went up when we put the fun stuff at the bottom of the page.”

Appreciate the Smaller Circles

The Nerdletter grew glacially, something Van Hoven partially attributes to the “best-kept secret” effect. The list of links kept fast-moving people tapped into their industry and the world in general, and if they shared their source they might no longer be the most informed men and women in the room.

“It’s like, ‘I don’t want to tell anyone about this, because then they’ll [have it],'” he said.

But best-kept secrets have a way of getting out, and a newsletter without grand intentions is perhaps even more likely to end up in inboxes around the world. The Nerdletter may not have lasted long enough to gain much notoriety, but it reached influencers and, Van Hoven hopes, left a legacy to build on.

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