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Marketing Masters: Ann Handley on How Content Marketing and Email Work Together

Content marketing expert, Ann Handley, weighs in on the future of content in email marketing, and why you can’t have one without the other.

Ann Handley is a writer, digital marketing pioneer, speaker, and Wall Street Journal best-selling author.

Her company, MarketingProfs, is a marketing training and education company with more than 600,000 subscribers. Her personal newsletter offers marketers worldwide up-to-date information on new writing techniques and useful ideas, and we thoroughly suggest you sign up.

We sat down with Ann recently to discuss the important role content marketing plays in the world of email marketing, and where it’s heading next.

You’re a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, the founder of MarketingProfs, and a renowned speaker, what first inspired you to get into marketing?

I got into marketing by way of writing.

When I was eight years old, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be a “writter.” But I thought writing a diary was boring. I wanted an audience—someone to interact with. I craved community, comments, Twitter, Facebook (even if social media hadn’t happened yet… The truth is that the Internet hadn’t happened yet, either!)

As a kid in the Boston suburbs in the pre-Internet age, my ability to build an audience was limited. So I created a neighborhood newsletter, which I delivered on my bike to my neighbor’s mailboxes.

Eventually, I learned to spell “writer” and I became a writer, journalist, editor, and (when the Internet happened) a content publisher.

I worked at newspapers, magazines, and became the world’s first Chief Content Officer at one company (ClickZ) and now hold the title at another (MarketingProfs).

What I did from my bedroom with my neighborhood newsletter is exactly what drew me—decades later—to marketing. It’s all about telling a story that connects with an audience.

Your company, MarketingProfs, trains marketers across the globe. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing marketers today when it comes to upskilling?

Being intentional with what we want to learn, and dedicating the time to learn what we need to know.

MarketingProfs just released a brand-new research report detailing how fulfilled marketers feel at work, and there were some surprising results.

For example, roughly half of us are ruled by our inboxes. What’s more, just 27% of us aren’t reading for professional growth at all. It’s important to stay active and curious—yet it seems too many of us stay in reactive mode, and don’t actively seek enough new learning opportunities.

Email marketing is really powered by the strength of its copywriting and creative, what advice would you have for budding email marketers who are trying to tackle this?

Our default in marketing is that we use our email marketing program as a distribution strategy. For example, we think of the “news” in “newsletter” (i.e. what we want to say). When we should instead focus on the “letter” (i.e. a way to write and connect with one person).

The inbox is an inherently personal place. Approach your writing like you’re writing to one person—not a “segment” or a “list.” Hold them in your mind. Doing so helps keep your voice human and accessible.

How do you think email marketers can better leverage the power of content marketing to nurture leads and drive real results?

I don’t see the two as separate. They should be woven together to create a more coherent and cohesive brand experience.

That said, focus on two things:

Tone of voice: Do you have a unique, recognizable tone of voice in your writing? Does your email marketing program communicate in the same style that, say, your ebook is written? Does it sound like it’s coming from the same company?

Personalization: From basic (using someone’s actual name in the subject, body copy, graphic, etc.) to more sophisticated approaches (dynamic content offers, VIP program communications, to name but two). Anything that makes a customer feel valued, because that’s what the best email and content programs have in common.   

What are the best and worst examples you’ve seen of email marketing content?



Penzeys Spices: I open and read almost every email CEO Bill Penzey sends me, because I love his personal tone of voice and the way he isn’t afraid to have a point of view that (frankly) would freak a lot of companies completely out!

BarkBox: I’m a dog person. And boy do they know how to write for dog people.

Food52: It’s a housewares company, but I made a Thanksgiving recipe out of one of their recent emails that rivaled something I’d get from Bon Appetit (another email newsletter I love).


It’s so much harder to find great examples I love! So there’s LOTS of opportunity here, my B2B friends!

CB Insights: Anand Sanwal’s daily newsletter is a must-read. I have an email newsletter crush on the guy (if that’s a thing).

Velocity B2B: My friend Doug Kessler heads this London agency, and I like the newsletter because I hear Doug’s voice in it.

MarketingProfs: It’s a simple and straightforward “letter.” And sometimes that’s just fine. I love doing my own newsletter too. So I’ll list it here just because the two of us are great dance partners in your inbox!

Worst: I don’t like to mock terrible work if it’s done honestly. But the kind of email marketing I hate is the one I didn’t subscribe to, yet somehow still receive, especially if I’m added to your email list just because we met at a conference. Karma will catch up with you!

A big part of email marketing and content marketing is strategy, which is often overlooked when bandwidth is tight. How can these two areas be approached more strategically for overwhelmed email teams?

First, never overlook strategy. If you focus on that, you’ll probably need to send less email, which means your team will be less overwhelmed.  Do I need to call your boss? Give me her number.

How do you see the marriage of email marketing and content marketing evolving in the future?

“Content marketing” is increasingly just, well, marketing. Content creators are important members of the marketing team now (at the smartest companies). And email isn’t going anywhere. Despite those who say it’s old-school… Well, in email’s case, old school is the best school!

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