Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 21, 2023

How to Write Sharable Newsletters Part 2—A Fish Story

by Lisa Norman

so many fish

In Part 1, we covered why you want a newsletter and some of the key basics of the technology that you need to have in place to collect email addresses and send emails that will reach your readers’ inboxes.

For this part, I want to dive deeper into finding your audience and connecting with them so that they will open those emails.

Much of the available advice on this topic is generic because the actual steps need to be unique for each author or person selling a product. Here’s the problem: this advice isn’t wrong, but it often lacks direction on how to apply it to your business. Because it’s generic.

And your connection to your fans is unique.

There is a lot of advice out there for corporate marketing that does loosely apply to authors, but only in the process, not in the actionable steps. So let me start by outlining the steps, then I’m going to take a stab at showing you how to apply it.

The generic steps:

  • Identify your audience.
  • Identify your audience’s pain points. (If you don’t know what these are, keep reading!)
  • Clarify how you can meet those pain points.
  • Build a relationship with your clients.

Who are your fish?

When I teach social media marketing, I refer to your ideal fans, your superfans, as your “fish.” Your fish are the fans who are going to love your work so much they’ll share it with anyone they know. I chose fish because I wanted to set off what I was describing from other examples in the market, and because so many authors had described trying to find followers as fishing. (Spoiler: fish are friends, not food. We want to swim with them, not catch and fry them. If you cook them, they don’t school and bring their friends.)

The past few weeks, we’ve had a hilarious disaster in my household, and as I was preparing to deliver a talk on marketing for authors, I realized this story was the perfect metaphor for how to grow your following.

My fish story—a true story!

One of my sons loves all things ocean related, and as a young boy he had a fish tank. Platys are a type of live-bearing fish that he decided he wanted to try raising and breeding. Platys are also fairly aggressive, and they eat their young. We bought special tanks, separated the babies, did everything we could think of. I think we may have raised one baby fish while he had that tank. My point: it seemed like we’d never get babies, and for years, we were experimenting and failing.

He’s now grown and lives as much of his life underwater as possible.

2 fish

But back to that tank. I’ve now taken it over and I decided I would try platys again. I bought three of them and put them in the re-established tank. We had these three for a few months. No babies. They seemed unhappy and aggressive. We had two males and one female, so we should have had babies but didn’t. One of the males died. Now I had two fish.

Researching platys, I discovered they liked to be in larger groups of about six fish. My small tank will only support about five full-grown platys, so I bought three more platys. Now I had two males and three females. Platys’ pregnancies last about four weeks. I watched several pregnancies come and go with no babies anywhere visible. Five fish.

Frustrated, I went and talked to a fish expert who agreed that the babies were being eaten immediately upon birth. He suggested things I’d tried before (baby isolation tanks, etc.) but I knew these didn’t work. Then he suggested making the tank more baby friendly. How about adding grass? He sold me some aquarium grass and I planted it in the tank.

Counting Fish

cat counting fish

Finally, two juvenile fish appeared! They were already about four weeks old before I saw them for the first time. How had I missed them? Platy babies are really tiny. I’d been staring at that tank every day and hadn’t seen them at all! Now I had seven fish.

I added a log that had lots of hiding spaces underneath it. Another juvenile appeared. Eight fish.

This was exactly what I’d set out to achieve. These small fish were big enough not to be eaten. At this rate, they’d mature about the time the older ones died, I hoped, and I’d have something resembling a stable population.

My delight was shorter-lived than the average platy.

A few weeks later, I had about 10 more babies. The adults didn’t seem at all interested in eating them. Eighteen fish.

Note: platys can have between 20 and 90 babies every six weeks. A couple of weeks later and I can no longer count the fish in my tank.

I’d succeeded in making my tank too baby friendly! Three of my adults and as many babies as I could catch have been rehomed. Yes, this is the point at which the analogy starts to break down, although I will say that having a rapidly growing fan base can create a few technological challenges you’ll need to deal with.

My tank is full of fish, and I’m going to have to deal with the overpopulation issues.

many fish

Let’s get practical.

Who are you?

If I gave the same writing prompt to all of you, you’d each come up with a different story. Each of you would have a unique take and a unique style. The first thing you need to do is to identify what that style is. What makes you special?

Here’s where imposter syndrome can pop in. I need you to fight that impulse. You are unique and you have stories to tell. Don’t waste energy on whether or not this uniqueness is real. It exists; believe in it. Find it and try to define it. You may not get it right at first, but try.

Who are your fish?

Based on your understanding of your uniqueness, I want you to think about who your ideal audience will be. Who will love your stories?

Don’t try to please everyone. Don’t say your book is the next Harry Potter. Focus and try to define your ideal fan. The way this experiment works is that your fan should be a specific person with as many unique characteristics as you can come up with. They should be as unique and real to you as any character in your books. You’re looking for one fish. One very special fish.

The thing about fish is that they aren’t monogamous.

Your fans may also be fans of other writers, TV shows, movies, etc. Figure out where they are and what they love.

You want your potential fans to feel right at home when they connect with you. When they read your articles, blogs, social media posts, etc., you want them to nod. You want them to feel a connection with you.

Readers’ Pain Points

The term pain point is hard to apply to our fans, and yet they do have them. They’re bored. They’re seeking adventure, or romance. Readers are looking for a sense of being seen, or they want to feel validated. They want to feel hope. Some just want to feel anything. What is it that your readers are seeking? What do you offer them?

Some Examples of how this works:

Example 1

Let’s use an adventure-seeking fish as an example. This fan may live a fairly boring day-to-day life, but they long to see exotic places.

Now let’s suppose that you are a writer who uses exotic locations in your stories. This is a connection between you and your fish.

What sort of articles would this author want to write to attract their fish? How about information on the research they’re doing for their next book? How about sharing interesting details that you found that brought the setting of your last book to life?

Example 2

This fish is a geeky office worker who feels lonely and ignored.

We have an author who writes thrillers where the office desk jockey is faced with a challenge, rises to the adventure, and saves the day.

What sort of articles would this author write? Possibly funny office anecdotes? Stories that would make this reader feel seen? Anecdotes that they could laugh about while dealing with coworkers? Stories about the boss who misses out on the brilliance of their employees? Can you see how different authors might connect with this same fish in different ways?

Moving from connection to fandom

When it seems like no one is listening, keep going. Keep writing, keep reaching out. But if your list isn’t growing, experiment with other topics and approaches. Watch your statistics, but also give your fish time to discover and share your content. Remember that our goal is to write sharable articles, so we want to see our existing fans bringing in their friends. This won’t happen overnight.

One of my favorite examples is a client whose email list grew from 8 to 16 in a month. He was disappointed, but our marketing guru was excited. 100% growth! Keep doing that! The next month he had around 40. It would have been easy to say this growth was too slow and to try something else, but we advised him to continue, because he’d found his niche. 3 years later, he had a traditional book deal and bought a house. He’d found the secret to growing his audience, and it continues to grow.

Make your tank fish-friendly

As you begin to connect with your fish, reply to comments. Answer their emails. Make them feel special: because they are! In these comments and messages, they’ll give you more information about what they like and want to see. Pay attention to every hint they give you. Remember: baby fish are hard to see!

Pay attention to the topics that bring in fish, the special food they like, and the things they share with their friends. Once you have found something they like, give them more of it!

This extends to more than just your email list

It is easier to learn what attracts your fish through a mailing list than it is through writing books. Some authors write to market. They have a defined market or trope (for example: werewolf shifter romance) and they start out knowing what their readers want. This makes marketing much easier. If you’re in this pond and not attracting fish, consider if you have fully understood the genre or if you might have violated some key aspect of a trope that readers want.

Others write the stories they want to tell and are then required to define and find their audience. This is where marketing can be difficult, but also rewarding. Remember that even a small growth in your list is promising. First, find what your fish want through experimentation. Then, give them more of it and watch the list grow!

Do you have a newsletter? What has your experience been with it? Share your wins AND your horror stories!

* * * * * *

About Lisa

head shot of smiling Lisa Norman

Lisa Norman's passion has been writing since she could hold a pencil. While that is a cliché, she is unique in that her first novel was written on gum wrappers. As a young woman, she learned to program and discovered she has a talent for helping people and computers learn to work together and play nice. When she's not playing with her daughter, writing, or designing for the web, she can be found wandering the local beaches.

Lisa writes as Deleyna Marr and is the owner of Deleyna's Dynamic Designs, a web development company focused on helping writers, and Heart Ally Books, LLC, an indie publishing firm.

Interested in learning more from Lisa? Sign up for her newsletter or check out her brand new classroom where she teaches social media, organization skills, and marketing for authors!

All images courtesy of Lisa Norman.

29 comments on “How to Write Sharable Newsletters Part 2—A Fish Story”

  1. Awesome fish analogy - I love it! And awesome advice here too - accessible, practical, and actionable. Thank you so much!!

    1. Thanks, Becky! The analogy does break down once we wind up with around 50 fish in my 10 gallon tank, but at least our virtual newsletters don't have the same limitations!!!

  2. I have a newsletter and it is barely growing. I always find these posts about identifying your reader difficult. I have no idea who my ideal reader is, even after reading many posts like yours.

    1. VM - you aren't alone, and I want to encourage you. The sad fact is that no one, no post, no expert is going to be able to give you that key. BUT - I can give you insight into how to find it. First, dig deep into what you enjoy. What can you write about with joy? How does that show up in your writing? For some people it is mystery, romance, adventure, quirky stuff... it can be anything. And it will be uniquely you. I can't tell you who you are when you are having the most fun. But I can tell you that when you find that, THAT is one piece of the puzzle, and it is the most important one.

      After that, I want you to look at your existing list as an experiment. Don't judge it by quantity. It is your research pool. Try posting something fun. DO make sure that you're using all of the best practices: a catchy subject line, a punchy hook. But be legitimate. And make sure that you are giving something to your people.

      Then watch.

      Now understand: we can't judge immediately. Sometimes the best sign that you have that it has worked is if someone emails and asks a question. If they respond to a newsletter, take note.

      If it looks like your open rate may have been good, test it again. This should not be painful, because it should be coming from your center of fun and things that you truly enjoy.

      Give it a cycle or two (weekly, monthly... whatever). And then maybe try something else. See what is happening. Watch your statistics. Slow growth is GOOD growth.

      When you get the feeling that you are starting to connect, that they're starting to share your posts, lean into it. Give them more of that. If they are engaged, ask them what they want... what do they like most about what you have to offer.

      This type of experimenting can take years. But when you find it, you'll recognize it. And it will inform your writing career and all of your marketing. WHEN you find it, everything becomes easier.

      I want to encourage you: you're in the same place a BUNCH of authors are. I've seen some engage in newsletter swaps or other methods BEFORE they've done this, and then they wind up with a big list that isn't aligned to their core sense of fun... and I've had talks with authors who have decided to scrap the whole list and start over.

      A small, engaged list is much more powerful than a large oblivious one.

      Experiment. Test. Play. You CAN find the heart of this.

      I wish that I could give each author that magic piece, but I've found that it is so unique, that is really hard. I have seen some authors work with solid creative coaches to help them find that core of their purpose and their joy. So if you don't know it, and can't find it, that may be a good place to start.

      Hope this helps!

  3. Love the fish story! I've got some baby fish in my tank/newsletter and I'm working on finding my newsletter "voice" so I can grow it. My first step has been to put out regular content. Now, I'm experimenting with making my tank baby-fish-friendly with different content. Sometimes it feels like I'm shouting into a void, then out of the blue someone will comment or my opens and clicks increase. And so it goes. Only time will tell if I've found the right combination of grasses and water temperature. (See, I really get the fish story!)

    1. Lynette, I feel the "shouting out into the void" part. I often say that. I also identify with "keep writing and reaching out." I do that in fits and spurts, unfortunately. I go strong and then grind to a halt. 😬 I'm working on that!

      1. Ami - I'm not going to out your stats, but I guarantee you, any person reading this would KILL for your open rate. It is the highest percentage I've seen.

        1. Seriously, until we talked the other day I had no idea. None. I now have fresh eyes and a refreshed approach (and maybe a spring in my step whereas before I was dragging my feet). It's not the numbers (won't lie, I loved hearing them) as much as what you said about them that made a big impact. It gave me a fresh appreciation for what I was trying to do. I have you to thank for all of that.

    2. Woohoo, Lynette! I love your newsletters and the subjects you explore. I think that you will attract your fish for sure. Yours are imminently shareable. I love sharing them on my social media profiles because I think they are encouraging and uplifting.

      From where I'm at, it looks like you've found your voice. Maybe you are still experimenting and fine tuning, but you're doing great! It just takes time to grow!

  4. Fantastic fish analogy!

    I've been remiss with my newsletter. Too scattered distracted with life. I think all this Texas heat isn't helping and has melted my brain. LOL

    Your examples are inspiring. Thank you, Lisa!

    1. Ellen - the great thing about a newsletter (email to fans) is that it isn't something with a deadline or a requirement. You can go months without sending one, and then use it to give your fans something amazing.

      Many people would actually PREFER that sort of newsletter to the ones that come out weekly and waste their time.

  5. Lisa, I love this! I've heard the fish analogy before in your social media class, but this example is brilliant. Takes it to a while new level for me.

    I had to snicker (because sometimes I'm like my teen boys) at "The thing about fish is that they aren't monogamous." 😁 Also: They're hard to see and they bring their friends. Very good reminders!

    This came at the perfect time for me--thank you!

    1. You are doing fantastic with your newsletter, Ami.

      I have yet to meet someone who is "satisfied" with their list. I've worked with some people with HUGE lists, and there's always something they want to change or improve. Oh, I know a few clients who are "okay" with their lists. They send out an email and they can watch their sales numbers grow. That's always wonderful.

      But a list is a very fluid thing. And I still content that a small list with an astronomical open rate is more powerful than a huge list with a single digit open rate...

      1. Aw, Lisa! That's so kind of you. I agree with you about the open rates and the numbers--tiny but mighty. If you go back to the fish bringing friends--that's where it's at. They open and get excited and you hope that they get excited enough to give you a shout out. If you're persistent enough, maybe they eventually will 😁

        I think it's the vast amounts of silence that kills many of us. I know it does me.

        1. Oh definitely! The saying "sharing is caring" is huge, but a lot of people won't share unless you tell them they can. They won't buy unless you say, "buy now" in a big button. They won't respond unless you ask a question and make answering super easy.

          It isn't that they don't love you and your content. It is that in our modern age, we're all so frazzled and distracted, we don't think to do these things. People consider a clean "call to action" (I hate that phrase, but it is what it is called) to be a blessing. And those friendly buttons actually do get people to interact...

            1. As long as you are asking them to do something they really want to do, don't feel bad asking! You're helping them. For example, your fans love your book and they'd love to leave a review! They want to see you write the next book. So they love helping...

      1. Sadly, the kitty has said that he does not want to eat those things. Can I please open a can?

  6. I love, love, LOVE this post! What a great story about your platys, and how it applies to our newsletters. Yes, I can see how your recent comment about my recent post here on newsletters played into your newsletter series, especially this one. The best growth occurs slowly, not overnight. Thanks for a great post!

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