Why Most Artist Newsletters Stink (and What To Do About It)

Three words that could revolutionize artist newsletters: Focus! Focus! Focus!

First, let’s look at why you might want to change the approach to your newsletter.

©Kathleen Dunphy, Complements. Oil on linen.

©Kathleen Dunphy, Complements. Oil on linen, 20 x 21 inches. Used with permission.

Why Most Artist Newsletters Stink

Short answer: They’re boring and terribly designed.

Longer answer . . .

Most artist newsletters that hit my inbox fail to capture my interest because of a combination of the following reasons.

  • Bad design: Too many background and text colors that overpower the art.
  • Hard to read: Long, unbroken paragraphs making it difficult to tell what is important.
  • Boring content: Just plain uninteresting. They’re either too promotional (“Buy this now!”) or they have no storytelling to connect with my world and interests.
  • Ill-conceived subject line: There’s no enthusiasm to open it up and see what’s inside.

Perhaps the most egregious error in artist newsletters is that the artist hasn’t sent a newsletter out in awhile and feels like s/he needs to write everything that has happened since the last issue.

Don’t do this! The mission of your newsletter shouldn’t be to catch up your readers on all you’ve done since the last issue.

Your mission should be to forge a stronger connection between readers and your art.

Let’s save “bad design” for another day and focus on the boring content.

Your 2-word mission: engage people. Appeal to their senses and interests. I have some ideas for how to do this, which I think will make it a lot more fun to write your newsletter.

Make Your Newsletter About a Single Artwork

Making your newsletter about a single artwork doesn’t mean that you go on and on about how it was made, how you selected the materials, what it means to you, etc.

It means you build a single issue of your newsletter around the themes taken from one work of art. This approach isn’t for everybody, but pay attention if it appeals.

Let’s use Kathleen Dunphy’s painting Complements (above) as an example.

Without knowing anything else about this work, I’d consider the following content subheadings if I were building a newsletter around this single painting.

  1. Complements with an “E”
    Artists know that blue and orange are complementary on the color wheel, but many people do not. Talk about the choice of working with complementary colors: why do it, when to do it, when not to do it, what to look out for, and so forth.
  2. Chinese or Japanese Blue-and-White Porcelain
    Kathleen’s ceramic selections look like contemporary pieces, but they come from a tradition. Tell me about it! 

You might also share the latest auction results for antique blue-and-white in the art market or an image of a similar piece you came across in a museum.
  3. Oranges

    If the oranges came from a tree in your yard, tell us about it and perhaps share a photo of the orange tree. Otherwise, research the variety you selected to find an interesting story. 

For example, when I was trying to come up with ideas for this, I wanted to know if the oranges were Clementines, Mandarins, Tangerines, or something altogether different. Apparently, they’re not all the same!
  4. The Number 9

    There are 9 oranges. What is the significance of this? The number 9 is auspicious in both Eastern and Western traditions. 

On the other hand, if it just worked out that there were 9, share why you selected 9 instead of 8 or 10.

Don’t Mislead Your Readers

The above ideas are just stories intended to appeal to a variety of people with a variety of interests. If symbolism wasn’t your intent, be sure your readers understand this.

You are discovering things about your art after you made it that add new layers of meaning.

Keep Your Eye on the Ultimate Goal

As I said, your primary goal is to forge a deeper connection with readers. This will help you retain subscribers and add new ones because if your content is good, it will be shared.

Your secondary goal might be to encourage readers to click or to purchase. To do this, you can start one of your stories with a teaser (as I do with my newsletter) and provide a link to read the rest of the story on your blog post or website.

Building your newsletter around a single artwork is just one suggestion to help focus the content. What other ideas do you have?

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74 comments to Why Most Artist Newsletters Stink (and What To Do About It)

  • Debbie Eckmier

    Personally I don’t like the click through to the website links – and I rarely do – except for Alyson’s blog. :-) Even then I’d prefer to read the whole newsletter in my inbox.

    I once went to a workshop at a conference for Craft Retailers. They suggested that you write your newsletter when you are in a good mood – Make sure you sound excited and enthused when you are writing so your good mood comes across to the readers.

    • Debbie: I understand. That’s why I put several paragraphs of juicy text in the newsletter before the link to click through. That way, people can decide if the article is for them or not. Seems to be working!

      I love the “good mood” criteria. And there are ways to psych yourself up.

    • Tim

      I agree with you, Debbie. I produce a photography enewsletter (www.reddognews.com), and the whole body of the newsletter arrives in your inbox, ready to read. There are links if you want to read further.

  • I agree.
    I used to send a news letter once a month with lots of content (what shows were coming up, awards etc) I got very little response.
    I switched to sending out an image of one new painting with a story just as you have suggested.
    I used to send out this mini-newsletter once a week on Friday but now find that I send them whenever I have new work, so it could be 2 in one week, then not another one for 3 weeks. Any thoughts on that?

    • K – Most people won’t know that they’re irregular since most people aren’t sitting around waiting for them to appear.

      I think it’s easier to publicize regular issues (“You will receive 3 emails a month from me”), but don’t change it if it’s working for you.

  • Oh, I meant to say that I get a lot more response and inquiries with the one painting newsletter.

  • This is a great idea and is just what I need to get writing, thank you Alyson!
    My work is abstract but I’m sure I can adapt your suggestions – I can talk about color, layering, where the forms come from etc. I can also talk about the inspiration behind my body of work – they are very much of a series.

  • This article really helped with doing my blog post for today. It is a review (thanks to your post on being an art critic) on an exhibit at the Phoenix Art Museum titled Paper. I took one painting from the show and made it my Premise for the post. It’s so much easier to write with a focus. Thanks once again Alyson for your great suggestions.

  • I was happy to read this post and go down Allyson’s list. I think I am doing OK on most counts, but when it’s your own work, it is hard to be objective. I think I would like to start personalizing things a bit more, adding little engaging stories relating to what’s going on in the studio and beyond.

    This is very timely as I have been sending out fairly regular e-newsletters in the past year or so… here is a link to my most recent one. http://us2.campaign-archive2.com/?u=216a56234e735784de9dcd256&id=fd500590e9 I also have them available to view on my website’s About page, here: http://www.amygreenan.com/about.htm (scroll down). I am happy to hear any critique or comments on how I can improve what I’m doing. My list is pretty small at this point (closing in on 200) but my open rate is about half that generally, which I guess is fine (though I wish it was higher!). Good design is important to me, so I hope I’m doing OK there, and I try to keep the content fairly light and easy to scan at a glance.

    • Hi Amy, I like your newsletter so I signed up to receive it. I just created my newsletter using Mailchimp too and also a new website (that is up but am still adding to it). I thought your invitation to drop by was nice & personal as well as including other places where your work can be seen (I hope you get a little x-promo out of that). Feel free to sign up to receive my newsletter – we could continue supportive critique?
      Cheers
      Jennifer (http://eepurl.com/lx3CD)

      • Hi Jennifer,

        Thank you for having a look – I just signed up for your newsletter as well and look forward to an ongoing dialogue with you!

        Amy

    • You said you want comments, Amy, so here goes.

      As Paula says, you’ve got to grab your readers right away or they’ll be gone to something else. Here’s the start of your lede (opening sentence or so) in your newsletter:

      “In tandem with the opening night of 464 Gallery’s collaborative exhibition . . .”

      Now, that may be true, but it’s as dull as toast. You can’t force people to keep reading — and believe me, they won’t. You’ve got to grab ‘em. Here’s one way to go:

      “How about those orange shadows around my windows? I’ve used those before, and the last time . . .”

      — one of those ledes could have come from anyone; the other one could only have been written by you. And you’re the person your readers want to learn more about.

      • Dull as toast! Oh, dear. But I agree, it’s not thrilling stuff. Thank you for the suggestion – I will definitely be thinking about that in future newsletters. :)

      • Is “lede” inside lingo for something? I’m always interested in learning new words.

        “Dull as toast” is funny!

        • It’s journalists’ talk for the opening sentence or two of a story — whatever sets the tone and (hopefully) hooks the reader so they stick around to read more. It’s spelled “lede” to differentiate it from “lead,” which used to mean something back in the days when type was cast in lead, and thin strips of lead were used to increase the line-spacing of a story that didn’t quite fit the space it should.

          • Thanks! Makes sense. I remember “leading” from being a typesetter. Such a confusing and interesting language we speak. (Now we need to do something about “palette” meaning the plate of paint and also meaning the colors selected for a painting.)

          • That’s just the start! You see ads for stacks of free palettes on craigslist all the time, which could mean the wooden plate (as you say) you hold in your hand, or (misspelled) a heavy wooden frame composed of raggedy scraps of jungle wood. And what about the thing at the back of your throat? I don’t even know how to spell that.

            So, Alyson: We can’t Reply to a Comment?

          • Arthur: I think this is what you’re referring to . . . My blog allows for replies to particular comments to be stacked about 3 or 4 deep. Then you have to start over with the replies. Does that make sense?

          • What I mean is that I can’t reply to your comment directly; in this case I have to pretend that I’m replying to my own post. It works fine, you know; I’m just making sure that’s how it works.

            Of course, you’re probably catching the sun next to some creek in Colorado, so I’m not even sure if you’ll see this anytime soon.

          • Arthur: That’s what I’m trying to say. My blog only allows replies 3 or 4 levels deep.

            Arthur
            -> Alyson
            -> Fred
            -> Joanie

            Then you have to start over with a new tier of replies.

    • Hi Amy,

      I liked the bold image you used for you newsletter. It caught my attention. I was also impressed with the other places that your work is on view. It might be easier to scan the list if it had headings such as “June” and then the venues, etc. and exchange the “through” for just a -. It would make it easier to read. Thanks for sharing!

  • Thanks Alyson. Sub heading content is a great idea. Viewers want small bits of high value information. Everyone’s attention span seems to be getting shorter, including mine. I feel like you must connect within the first 2 sentences or they are gone.

    Always include images. It amazes me that there are still newsletters sent out with no photos or images or any kind.

    • Paula: You absolutely must connect immediately – even before the first two sentences. It starts with the subject line.

      Yes, and good point about the images. You wouldn’t think we’d have to mention that!

  • Hi: I agree with much of what you suggest. I add that newsletters should be concise and not have articles that go on, so editing during the writing process is key. One might also consider a larger piece having installments, which might generate interest and repeat visits to the newsletter. A section in the newsletter devoted to some listings related to the main subject might also be useful and worth repeat interest. The newsletters that I continue to subscribe to are thematic, well-written, concise, and offer suggestions for further reading.

  • Thank you so much for this, Alyson. Just as I struggle to make small talk, I agonize over what to write in my twice-monthly newsletters. Now I have a place to start.

    Looking forward to seeing more suggestions in the comments as well.

    • I hope this works for you, Kristine. Please check back with me and let me know.

      No small talk allowed! That’s part of what makes newsletters so boring: there is no point.

  • So timely! Just created my first e-newsletter that will be sent out next week. I’ve been thinking about newsletters/blogs etc., for too long and just got bored thinking about writing what Kristine describes as small talk. I’m not doing small talk and am actually enjoying the process of writing the newsletter. My main hurdle was loosening up, professional can still have a personal voice & humor.
    If anyone wants to sign up & provide sign up info for theirs, we could supportively critique each others. If interested, you can sign up at http://eepurl.com/lx3CD
    Cheers
    Jennifer

  • Laura K Aiken

    Hi Alyson
    I enjoyed this reading your article as always. I too struggle with newsletters, and even posting on FB! I noticed that I open the newsletters that I know are short and sweet with a little eye-candy. Actually it just makes me tired to see a lot of text…except in your newsletters.
    Laura.

  • You’re good, Alyson. Since I do extremely abstract, funky assemblage that doesn’t have a lot of folks reaching for their wallets, it’s easy for me to avoid a lot of art-biz advice. I won’t go into all of the fine, logical-seeming reasons for doing that, but the idea of making a newsletter about a single, representative piece really got me thinking: If there’s a lot of intention behind a piece, why not share those thoughts with my readers — rather than just mentioning my new shows and tossing in a pic or two? They subscribed because they’re interested, so they’d probably appreciate a peek behind the curtain.

    I’m sure you’ve touched on all this many times before, but as I said, somehow something in this post clicked. Thanks for all of your work!

    • Arthur: I’m honored that I shared something you could use. I imagine there are also stories around the collecting of the ephemera you use in your work. Even the trips you take to scrap yards. (I don’t know that you do this, I’m just imagining.)

      • Sure I go to scrap yards, Alyson. You’re right — that could provide fodder for a mailing or two. I’d have to take some pix, but maybe I could pair one with a piece of mine that was somehow related. When you do assemblage people are always asking where you get your stuff, so I think there’s enough interest there.

        It would be almost like reviewing a show, come to think of it. “The nuts and bolts were in complete disarray again at my favorite yard on Third Street, but they had a new shipment of stoplight lenses, and Sam had constructed another one of his wind-powered whirligigs out of 55-gallon drums . . .”

      • “Ephemera” is a great word! It could make a blog post by itself, or a great theme for a newsletter.

  • I’m wondering if my newsletters are too long. Here’s the most recent… http://mim.io/e41e92
    Any thoughts?

    • Susan I love your work! I really like to format of your newsletter too – so clean & visually focused, it really does feature your work. However, I think it is too long, I just want to linger/savour some of the images ( oh, and that video – very cool!). If your interested we could sway e-newsletter sign ups – http://eepurl.com/mf-8H
      so you can critique mine (first one due out nxt week).

    • Susan, I agree with Jennifer – I love how packed your newsletter is with a great balance of images and info, but I think you’ve got at least two newsletters there. The recipe at the end is a great way to connect with your readers. After reading it I want to go try it myself. I wonder if there is a way that you can tie the recipe idea to the art more tightly. Maybe selecting a recipe that’s connected by season, theme or something???

      • Thank you both for your input. I feel it’s too long as well, but I’m not sure what to cut. The sections are always the same, “new shows,” “sold,” “in the studio,” “introducing,” and “the art of food.”
        Mary – I’ll have to give some thought to connecting the art & food better – I’m sure there’s a way!

  • you grabbed me with your headline!! And it was a fabulous article…i’ve never thought about writing about one art piece before, I’ve always thought i had to have more to talk about, therefore not sending out a newsletter but 1-2 times a year!! yikes…thanks sooo much for opening up my eyes to so much more…your suggestions were brilliant!!! you’ve really helped me!!

  • Great advice as always Alsyon, thank you. One way to see if your newsletter is engaging is to see what makes you unsubscribe from newsletters yourself, and if you’re doing the same thing – stop :)

    My bugbear is those who send a huge block of text about their latest painting and where you can buy it, listing everything from a gallery in a far off country to a certain online market place, placed amongst every possible link to their store, sites, galleries, etc, just incase you don’t fancy this latest piece. It’s not only boring, but it’s insulting to subscribers, giving the impression we are just people with money to burn, waiting to hear about their latest offerings.

    I may not be a customer, but I subscribe to art newsletters because I am passionate about art, want to engage with other artists, would like to help share their art and maybe one day become a collector. I rarely feel appreciatied if I’m made to feel like a wallet.

  • One idea I received from a workshop is to make the newsletter “sticky” somehow. Adding a freebie for the reader such as creating a free screensaver of one of your artworks is an idea that I have used. Artist Ryan McGinnis has a tab on his website that has many free screensavers to choose from….I liked this as an idea to promote your work online…easy to do.

    • Absolutely, Christine. I try to do frequent (every 4-6 issues) gifts to subscribers. Usually this is a checklist or download related to the topic. It’s a new practice, but I’m getting good feedback from it.

  • Perfect timing! Great topic and great discussion.

    I was working on my next newsletter this morning so I had a chance to revise it some before I pressed send. I blatantly included discussing complementary colors since it fit with the painting I was featuring.

    I forget sometimes that simpler is often better so thanks for the reminders, All! I may still have this one too long. Would love some feedback!
    http://eepurl.com/miA7P

  • One thing that would make me delete a newsletter either by mail or e-mail is that it is too long. Tell me something interesting in a simple way on a clean and readable space.Family or friend Christmas newsletters with every possible detail included are boring. I like a short engaging story about one maybe two subjects.

  • Mary – I don’t think your newsletter is too long, but it could use more visuals. You talk about moving the paint and I think a close up of some yummy color would be appealing there. On my laptop, your text is the full width of the screen, and it’s small. I think I am looking for something to break it up.

    • Thanks, Susan! Great suggestion about the photos. Maybe even some details of the painting. I’m reformatting my template at the code level since something is just not working with the one in Mailchimp, probably that I’ve played with it too many times without going back to the code.

      I’ll post a link again after I do some fixing.

      Thanks again for the feedback!

  • I used to do newsletters but I feared that I was bogging my list down and they would ignore the most important announcements and invites…anyone else feel this way? Do I just lack faith that my following won’t care? Most of my rapport is built through facebook now so here’s an example of what I use my mailing list for http://eepurl.com/miORH

    Would love feedback!

  • Incredibly insightful Alyson. And so many great tips in the comments too!

  • Hello Alyson! Thank you for a great post and it was certainly helpful to read the comments and ideas. I have been publishing an art newsletter for about a decade now. I generally sell an artwork after each newsletter distribution … after I began adding a proper sized image (not as small as a thumbnail, but not huge… generally 500 pixels for the long dimension). I will note that the artwork(s) that sell after publishing are not often the featured artwork!

    I had dial-up where I lived in Texas up until last year (now I live in Italy with wireless), so I was one who designed for slow connectors because I was FULLY aware of this problem. Some people make the assumption that BUYERS have money and thus would not put up with a slow connection. However, my experience is that some people in all financial situations just do not enjoy or know how to use computers and it is not important to them. I still design for slow systems. My collectors are not always tech savvy.

    I also wanted to say that I am not particularly consistent with the timing of my newsletters and as pointed out earlier, most readers are busy and time flies for them too. I write when I have a new artwork to share, sometimes showing a work-in-progress if I have an event coming up, but have not yet finished something new. I have rarely received a complaint because of too few newsletters, but then, my readers know (I hope!) that I post more frequently on my blog and I use Facebook quite a bit.

    I do try to make my newsletter interesting. I often write about something that is not directly about me, but is somehow related to art or my own work. I feel a bit inbred with myself if my newsletter is ME ME ME ME ME ME ME. It is even too much for ME. Also, I keep my newsletters online on my site with a Table of Contents that summarizes the prime article. The older newsletters still find new readers and buyers for me.

    I believe a lot in asking for the sale. However, I do not always do it in my mailing. I may post pricing info. in the online version of my newsletter, but sometimes I am even more subtle than that… partly because I do not want prices floating around the Web on too many pages. Things change and I cannot always keep up. I do not want to confuse anyone if they see conflicting information. [On a side note, this is why you should not write info. such as “I have been painting for ten years.” and instead DO write, “I have been painting since 2002.”]

    In closing, I want to encourage all artists to try not to become discouraged if you do not get as much or as glorious feedback as you dream of. I have written newsletters for myself and also for a sculpture organization I ran many years ago. I often felt as if I had spent a lot of time for small results only to have people tell me, sometimes years later, that they feel bad they never respond, but they read everything and even pass it on! So just remember that most people do not take time for feedback of any kind. It just means you should express appreciation more for those who do. And perseverance is a must!
    Here is my latest newsletter, in case you are curious.
    http://www.borsheimarts.com/news/2012_05-OldFlameArt.htm

  • Wonderful article and all the comments make one think even more! Alyson, you provide so much good “stuff.” Thank you.

    I have been using the FineArtAmerica newsletter service for a few newsletters. But, I have been trying to get another newsletter service (Mailchimp) up and running. The learning curve has kept me from getting it done in a timely manner (among all the other marketing things, actually doing my art, and events .. not to mention family). I think all that is said above can also apply to blogs which I do try to keep up with at least monthly.

    I think my blog (and probably my newsletter .. the FineArtAmerica newsletter service) is usually too long. I stated this one time in a post on Facebook, and had several people tell me not to change because they loved that it read just like I talk and they always read every word. Is this viable? Are they just the “few”?

    One more question please, does anyone have tips on getting Mailchimp done! I seem to get stuck in a few of the parts. Can’t explain what at this time.

  • Some time ago I stopped using PHPList and migrated to MailChimp. It’s a bit of a learning curve but not too horrible. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to stay on task wrt keeping a time-consistent eNewsletter. I did well for a while but other things suffered. I do wish, though, we could have double justified columns. That would be lovely.

    I like the idea of asking other artists for critique and plan on doing that when my attention returns to the eNewsletter again.

  • Alyson, I was trying to locate a comment of Jana’s, and realized that apparently I can’t search for a word or phrase in one of these comment strings. Is that true? Also, we can’t post pix, right? Having denigrated toast on one of my posts, I wanted to make up for it by posting a pic of the old, old sign now used by a little cafe on 24th St. in San Francisco: “eat toast.”

  • Thanks for all these great tips on making an artists newsletter much more interesting and to stand out above all the rest. It’s really better to talk about things that matter most and that would be of great value to the readers. It’s quite challenging to think of a subject matter on a newsletter but it’s worth it.

    • I agree, Burl. As someone who rights a weekly newsletter + multiple blog posts each week, I can attest to the fact that it’s challenging. But, as they say, content rules online.

  • […] blog, newsletter, email, Facebook, Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest. The list just keeps […]

  • […] Newsletters: Build up a list of family, friends, and audience, and with their permission, send out  newsletters that highlight; your practice, projects that you are working on and developments in your career.  Remember to keep it interesting and supportive of your brand, network and your reputation.  See Artbiz blog for further advice: http://www.artbizblog.com/2012/05/newsletters-stink.html […]

  • […] Since it’s rare that the second criterion can be met, I suggest embracing your need for some kind of newsletter. […]