Mike Nelson (Really Good Emails) on Building a Community and Reader Relationships, Email Trends, and More

Mike Nelson (Really Good Emails) on Building a Community and Reader Relationships, Email Trends, and More
28 February, 2024 • ... • 3187 views
Diana Kussainova
by Diana Kussainova

There are probably no email marketers who haven’t heard of Really Good Emails. Their email library is everyone’s go-to resource for inspiration and research and their email newsletter is packed with puns and great resources. Have you ever wondered how the Really Good Emails team picks emails for the collection? Or what brands do they especially like? And whether or not they use AI?

We asked these and more questions to Really Good Emails’ сo-founder Mike Nelson.

Really Good Emails is an email collection website created by Mike Nelson, Matthew Smith, Matt Helbig, and Matt Cook. 

A photo of the Really Good Emails team
From left to right: Mike Nelson, Matt Cook, Matthew Smith, and Matt Helbig

About Really Good Emails

If you could describe Really Good Emails using 3 words only, what words would you use?

Hmmmm. I’d probably go with: Really Good Emails. 😜

But besides that? I’d use some adjectives: Curated, Inspiring, and Fresh.

What was the idea behind RGE? Has it shifted since you started?

Matthew and I had folders full of email concepts. But sharing these meant that we needed to 1.) remember the sender’s name or subject line and 2.) we needed to forward them one by one (which would usually break the email in some way). There wasn’t an easy way to let others browse through our saved emails without giving them access to our inbox, and you can probably guess that we didn’t want to do that. So we created RGE as a way to solve those problems; we never expected it to be what it has become.

I think the biggest shift was when we built RGE 2.0, which took the site from a blog format and transformed it into something similar to what you see today: a place that has a lot more utility for the email maker. We added features like collections, code view, quick glance, and capturing emails from your own inbox. We suggest email categories based on user behavior so people can find more emails from their original search. And we kicked off our own conference called Unspam to bring our users together and find solutions to their biggest pain points.

A screenshot of the Really Good Emails’ home page

How many submissions do you get on average and how do you decide which emails to publish on the website and which to reject?

It varies by the season. We get blasted with submissions weeks leading up to Black Friday & Cyber Monday, while the summer months are a lot slower. We don’t keep track of the number of submissions per month, but if I were to guess, I would say a normal month not in Q4 would be around 1,800. It does require that someone grabs the .eml file from their inbox, uploads it to the site, and then fills out a form to help categorize the email. All of that is a pain and something we’re trying to solve with some AI to help speed up the process.

A screenshot of the email submission page offering options to contribute to the RGE library or add emails to the user’s personal account

As for how we decide on what gets approved, we spell it out during the submission flow for what we look at when a submission comes in:

Areas of the email we assess:

  • Subject line
  • Email layout patterns
  • Images
  • Typography
  • Whitespace
  • Mobile optimization
  • CTA design
  • Text CTA ratio
  • Animated GIFs and video
  • Interactivity
  • Personalization
  • Voice & tone
  • Footer finish
  • Originality
  • Clarity

Really Good Emails newsletter

Really Good Emails is an email library, so your newsletter could just be a compilation of the recent or best designs. Instead, it’s much more than that, it gathers the best current things about email. Many products and services struggle to produce meaningful email communication beyond what their product or service is. Based on your experience, how should email marketers find the concept for their brand newsletters? 

We have a major mantra at RGE: “Build relationships, not lists.” (We have other mantras, but they aren’t as catchy as that one.) When we first started our newsletter, we thought of what we would want to receive from a site like ours that could create some dialogue. Since RGE is built for the community of email makers, we focused on what would help serve the community best, not what would serve us best. We’re lucky in the fact that we don’t have to sell something and we don’t have an overbearing amount of red tape and legal to include in each of our emails. In a way, that itself makes our newsletter harder to replicate.

But if I were starting a newsletter for a brand that did have a product and mean lawyers, I would still focus on that element of building a relationship. Real relationships don’t expect the other person to always give and give and give. You need to provide value (not just in the form of a discount) and become trusted. Understand their pain points and provide ideas and solutions (not in the form of your product benefits, but things to improve their day-to-day). Understand your ideal client and write for them. And then when you do want them to act on something, that base is already built.

How did you come up with your newsletter’s unique tone of voice?

Funny you ask. I was working in an environment that was very serious all the time and I hated that I couldn’t be more creative and lighthearted. RGE’s newsletter became a creative outlet for me. It’s mainly my voice, but we’ve created some guidelines over the years so I, or others, don’t go off the rails. 

One of those things we did early on is to embody a character or person that people know. That way, if I got sick or wanted to take a vacation, someone could act like they were writing from that perspective and stay close to our style. For me, this was Steve Higgins.

A photo of Steve Higgins in a studio
Source: Creativity in Captivity

If you live outside the US, you may not know who Steve Higgins is. And when I started our voice guidelines, I knew very little other than he managed and wrote for Saturday Night Live and was the guy that Jimmy Fallon shot jokes with on The Tonight Show. But what I did know, was this:

  • He’s never upstaging the stars on the show. He’s only there to help.
  • He’s a true friend to the people he works with.
  • He’s always prepared for what’s coming and always has a smile on his face.
  • Everything can be spun into a joke. And often, he’s there to help tell that joke.

While we don’t use guidelines as rigid as we used to, we do stick to those initial bullet points as a gut check to our writing. With ChatGTP these days, I am sure that you could sound like any famous person you want: Wanda Sykes, Captain Sparrow… you pick. (But Steve Higgins isn’t one. Probably because he has good one-liners, but isn’t known for his dialogue.) But what helps me is thinking, “is this something that Higgins would say or do in this situation?” and then let that guide me.

How does your team stay creative while releasing the newsletter twice a week?

We schedule our calendar well in advance. This allows us to keep in mind what is coming up and look for inspiration and examples. It also helps that we read a lot of stuff online. And if we need to pivot because something comes up or Taylor Swift’s boyfriend is going to the Super Bowl, we have enough prepped to make some quick adjustments.

What do you think about the AI revolution and its influence on email marketing?  Do you use AI in your work? If so, how?

I’ve been in email long enough to see lots of trends. There was the personalization trend, the AMP trend, and now we’re on the AI trend. This one feels different to me, though, just because of how impactful it can be on every aspect of email. 

I think we are still a while out from AI really influencing that 1:1 relationship and generating more sales because it knows every behavior of an individual. What’s more likely is the gains that we’re seeing right now in helping us code, tweak copy, run prompted analysis on customer data, and come up with new campaign ideas. 

I use ChatGTP every day. Some times it is to edit down something I’ve written that I feel is really verbose. Some times it is finding statistical significance for a big set of actions. Some times it is building some code for me to use. I still try the AI-written subject lines every couple of weeks and I hate all of the ones that are generated, but I know that there are businesses built on optimizing them through that method. 

What I’m excited about is the use of AI for the RGE use cases. We’re currently building out Google Vision for all the emails to help people when they are searching for random things (e.g. “robots with pets”). We also are working on using AI to generate campaign ideas and copy based on what is in a collection or brands you follow. I don’t think that this will solve the problem of building a perfect email on the fly, but it should expedite and inspire you more.

What do you think brings readers into your newsletter?

It’s cool to see when someone joins the newsletter and then a few days later many other people in that organization have joined. We’re really lucky that our email resonates so that people are spreading it across the office. When we’ve asked people why they joined, their number one answer is that we give them the info that they are looking for in a relatable and entertaining way.

How did you grow your community?

There’s a lot of dedication to making sure that emails are posted regularly and are of the high standard that people expect. Having a huge catalog of those emails and being consistent is a huge factor in attracting and keeping people around. But to me, that isn’t really the community. The community is the people who are sharing those email examples and talking about them. They are the people asking the hard questions. We’re lucky that we’ve been involved in those conversations, but I wouldn’t say that it is something we can control. We can only support them in their efforts.

Do you plan on hosting the Unspam conference in 2024? Or maybe other events and/or community projects?

Yep! Unspam is slotted for April 15 and 16th! Tickets are on sale right now. For people who don’t know what we’re talking about, head over to unspam.reallygoodemails.com. It’s our version of what an email community event should be.

In October 2023, you sent a newsletter unlike the others you have been sending — a note addressed to your community.

An email describing strong emotions people feel concerning the recent news and empathizing with the audience

In the next email, you wrote that the reception of the email was very positive. When should companies and brands stop their marketing activities and acknowledge political situations, natural disasters, and similar controversial or tragic topics?

We are lucky/blessed to have a connection with so many people. For us, almost everything we do is based on that communal aspect (see above for community). We have a brand that is global, that lifts people up, and helps them during their day. It’s often a brand that brings people together. That makes it somewhat easier to stop what we’re doing and address what we see is impacting a big portion of our community. Most brands aren’t going to have that perspective or connection with their subscribers.

And honestly, most brands are transactional. “You give me money. I give you pizza.” (Or something like that.) That doesn’t mean that brands can’t get involved in some way. And it doesn’t mean that they have to be public about it. But all brands are interacting with humans. And when it boils down to it, what better thing can we do than be kind and understanding? Not everyone will agree with you on that (we’ve lost many subscribers over the years based on topics we’ve brought up in our newsletter) but we know that we’re doing it for the right reasons and that’s all that matters to us.

About email marketing in general

What are some of the best brands in terms of emails they send?

I’m a sucker for brands that understand humor. Surreal is one that I love. Another is Who Gives a Crap. But in terms of beautiful, consistent emails that are on-point, I’d go with:

  • Apple (product release emails always are top notch)
  • AllTrails (product updates and new features are eye-catching)
  • Airbnb (always nail the positioning statement)

What do you think about influencers, journalists, and bloggers using email newsletters as a means to connect with their audience? Will the rise of Substack and other similar platforms continue?

If I were a gambling man, I’d put money on the newsletter space growing. With how easy it is for misinformation to spread and people not trusting internet results, individuals will become more popular than ever to bring their human perspective that people can relate to. As you can imagine and as we covered above, RGE sees a lot of emails. But there are a few newsletters that I read every time they land in my inbox because I find their information refreshing, humorous, or expedient. On the business side of things, it is better for people of influence to build their newsletter list so that they don’t rely on SEO tactics or social media algorithms to push their content to their followers. Email is a straight shot.

How do you think AI plays into creativity and communities in email marketing?

The biggest thing the RGE community has pointed to for AI is its ability to help with copy and campaign ideas. I, personally, look forward to AI helping my HTML errors with Outlook instead of asking someone in the community to look at my code. But I think we’ll see an explosion of new email types that connect with us better by those who know how to use AI well.

What’s one thing every email marketer or newsletter author should or should not do?

A hill I will die on: All-image emails. I hate them. I get why people still do them, but there are sooooo many benefits of sending an email that is more than an image. Here are just a few:

  • Load time and internet connections: When an all-image email takes forever to load, people don’t wait for it. If your internet connection is low, and you’ve built your email with rich text, at least people can read what the email is about.
  • Accessibility: When text is baked into an image, it can be very difficult for people who use screen readers or other technology assistance to understand an email.
  • Internationalization: It’s really hard to take an all-image email and then convert that to French or Spanish. Both on the creator’s side and the reader’s side.
  • Search: You can’t ask Gmail or Outlook or some other inbox client to find something that is in an image (yet). You need rich text to do that.
28 February, 2024
Article by
Diana Kussainova
Writer, editor, and a nomad. Creating structured, approachable texts and helping others make their copies clearer. Learning and growing along the way. Interested in digital communications, UX writing, design. Can be spotted either in a bookshop, a local coffee place, or at Sephora. Otherwise probably traveling. Or moving yet again.
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