Back to Basics: The ABCs of a Successful E-Newsletter
Today’s post is another in my recent back-to-basics series where I dissect some of the most common digital deliverables. Today we are going to tackle e-newsletters from A to Z, considering key the points, definitions, and strategies associated with these essential pieces of marketing content.
Who is your audience? This can be customers, prospective business partners, and even your own team. Write your e-newsletter accordingly. This may mean selecting unique content or headlines for each audience; or, you may even create multiple newsletters, one per audience bucket. Also consider what you are trying to achieve with your newsletter. We’ll look more closely at goals as we go through the alphabet, below.
As you build your e-newsletter, you may get stuck on design and organization of information. One strategy I’ve found immensely helpful is to employ a building-block approach to bucket your content – i.e., modules. For example, you may have buckets for news, case studies, promotions, videos, blog content, and so on. You don’t have to include every bucket in every newsletter edition, but this approach will help you categorize your content and ensure your e-newsletter is balanced. One note on the blog module – make sure you link back to your blog to maximize traffic.
There’s a lot to consider here, from content to cadence to call to action to contact info.
Cadence means how many e-newsletters you’ll send in a week, month, or year – and, on what schedule, such as weekday versus weekend, and morning versus night. Cadence also can correspond to the rhythm of your newsletter. If you read it out loud, how does it sound? Clipped and rushed, or musing and atmospheric? Use a writing style that snaps to your brand’s personality.
Content is what goes in the newsletter, of course. As a content marketer, this is perhaps your second most important consideration for creating a successful e-newsletter. The first is the call to action. Why are you producing this thing? What do you want your readers to do? Build your newsletter around this CTA.
Throughout the newsletter, don’t forget about the customer experience. Be sure your e-newsletter isn’t too self-serving but rather provides something valuable and helpful to your readers.
Also, don’t forget to include your contact information, so readers can reach out with questions and commentary.
Finally, we’ll get into metrics in a moment, but click-through rate is a very important data point to track. CTR measures how many people saw your e-newsletter and took action – i.e. clicked a link. Industry average CTR hovers around 2-3%.
Design is an obvious consideration for your newsletter. You want it to look nice and on-brand, yet not get in the way of your content.
Demographics tell you who is reading the newsletter. What do you know about them? This is important as you build your distribution list. If you know your readers, you can design content that speaks to their needs.
Also don’t forget to regularly analyze data such as open rate, click-through rate, and shares to ensure your newsletter is performing as well as it can.
What is the tone of your newsletter? Taking an educational approach is common and recommended. A newsletter is your chance to inform customers about your products and show thought leadership. You can also use a newsletter to announce events. You may provide links for early registration, for example, or run newsletter-only contests.
Another thing to consider is who writes your e-newsletter. Most often it’s a member of the marketing team, which is perfectly fine. But are they an expert on your product and business? If not, consider adding an “ask the expert” column to provide dedicated space where your expert can go deep – digging into the intricacies of your product.
a feature story is the showpiece of your newsletter. It’s probably the longest and most-in-depth, should be the most important news, and goes first in the hierarchical order. You have some options here: Paste the entire feature story in the newsletter for ease of reading, or include a snippet only as a teaser to elicit a click to your website to read the rest.
Another important element of the newsletter if your footer. This is where you include the aforementioned contact-information and opt-out clause (more on this in a moment). It’s also where you can ask your readers for feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask customers to tell you what they think – their input can help you hone your newsletter and improve read rates.
A newsletter needs graphics to accompany all that text. Work with a designer and consider the best image style for your newsletter and brand. Icons are very popular and effective, for good reason. They provide a quick way to convey information.
Another design element to consider is the hierarchy of content in your newsletter. A simple and effective structure is to put the most important content at the top, using the biggest design (large hero image, big CTA button); then, visually work your way downward using less text and smaller CTA buttons, or even embedded links.
Another important H term is your headlines. Put some time into writing headlines and sub-headlines. They should be informative, actionable, and SEO-friendly. A good rule of thumb is to use no more than 7-10 words per headline.
A newsletter needs to be informative. Your readers want to learn something – to sound a little smarter in their next meeting with their boss, for example. Consider it your duty to drum up interesting, educational stories.
The phase “junk mail” evokes fear in digital marketers. The last place you want your smartly crafted newsletter to land is in your customer’s spam box. To avoid this label, you can take a few precautions:
On initial sign-up, take the time to ask recipients to whitelist your company in their email settings – i.e., add your addresses to their list of contacts. You can also formally apply for whitelist status from major email platforms. Don’t be too spammy in your subject line – avoid lots of all-capital letters and exclamation points, for example. And of course, never send e-newsletters to people who didn’t sign up.
Consider key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure how your newsletter is doing, compared to itself, the competition, and other deliverables that you’re creating. And don’t be afraid to make changes based on KPI results. For example, if you notice that only one or two stories get clicked each time you publish your newsletter, consider what your audience is trying to tell you. Maybe they simply don’t have time to read anything more. Constantly adjust and refine.
Consider your list, as in, Who is this thing sent to? You can read all about building – and maintaining – your list here.
Also, consider your link strategy for your e-newsletter. There are options here. You may wish to post your entire article in your newsletter. Or, you provide a teaser with a link to your website to read the rest. Also consider using tracking links, which help you decipher how much traffic your newsletter drove to your website or campaign. One final note on links: Make sure you test them. No one likes to find a “404” message on the other side of a click.
Mobile. Mobile, mobile, mobile! I don’t mean to bash you over the head with this. But the fact is, your newsletter – and all your digital assets – must be optimized for a mobile experience. A rule of thumb is to assume 30-40% of your readership views web content via a mobile device. But keep in mind that that number may be doubling soon, according to a report that predicts 75% of Internet use will be mobile in 2017.
As with everything these days, you must measure your success and quantify it too. Evaluate your metrics and revisit your strategy regularly.
First and foremost, your newsletter needs to be, well, newsy. There’s a reason this medium is called a “news” letter. Yes, this may mean you always feel a bit behind schedule and frantic when producing your newsletter. “We’re on deadline!” is a common phrase heard throughout newsrooms – and you may find yourself yelling it, too. But the payoff is worth the effort if you can release timely, relevant content to your readers.
Open-rate is an important metric. As its name so accurately describes, this is the rate of how many of your delivered e-newsletters were actually opened. Industry average is in the low double-digits, anywhere from 14-23%. What’s yours?
Also, you must have an opt-out option for you readers – a place where they can unsubscribe. In fact, it’s the law.
It’s natural to include promotions in your newsletter. You may occasionally devote an entire newsletter to an offer or sale, for example. But don’t do this every time, lest your newsletter become a long-form advertisement.
Also, take time to polish your content. As with any writing, it’s wise to write and share your work with a colleague for a round of editing or at least a quick peek before you publish with errors.
Quality versus quantity is a common conundrum. As with all content marketing, you need to consider your audience and how much time they have. Make your newsletter too long, and they’ll brand it “TL;DR” (“too long; didn’t read” ‒ but your audience undoubtedly prefers the abbreviation), and send it to the trash. Your goal is to be read, so create quality – if short – stories, and include only a handful of them in each edition.
Responsive design goes hand in hand with the term “mobile.” To ensure your newsletter (and emails, and website) display correctly on the myriad mobile devices out there in the world, employ a responsive design, which automatically rescales images and content to fit the screen size of the device your audience is using.
Another “R” word is redesign. Every so often, it’s time to redesign your template and make it fresh. You may do this at the turn of each calendar year, or as your brand evolves.
And don’t forget to revise. Build time into your production schedule for a copyeditor to read through the newsletter and clean up any loose ends. Remember, your newsletter is an extension of your brand. Make it polished and reader-ready.
A newsletter is one of the best vehicles for storytelling. This is a great space to profile a customer – or maybe an employee. To offer a narrative of how a certain product or service evolved. To evoke emotion. Consider this tactic as you select content and write stories for your newsletter.
Also, you want to be sure people see the great stuff you’re writing. One of the best tools to enable this is social sharing – code or embedded links that make it easy for your readers to repost your articles on their social media feeds.
As mentioned above, a newsletter is nothing if not newsy. Choose your stories and content accordingly. Ensure they are timely. There’s nothing worse than reading a story that feels stale and outdated.
It’s important to create a sense of urgency in your articles. You want to elicit action – to evoke a limited-time-only urge in your customers to take the next step.
Do you create several versions of your newsletter – one for each of the different personas on your list? If so, how much time is that taking? While this is a great way to ensure a higher CTA, it’s also important to weigh this benefit versus the time it takes to create your newsletter and various iterations.
Whitespace is an important and oft-overlooked element of design. The eye needs rest. Ensure you leave ample margins and line breaks in your template and layout.
Extensible Markup Language, aka XML, has been around in the online publishing world for quite a while. It’s still used to create email templates and automatically send the messages. This may be an option to look into with your tech team.
Also, don’t forget UX – the user experience. Just as you would consider UX in the design and rollout of your website, you should consider the flow of information and layout of your e-newsletter. Make it simple, to the point, and user-friendly.
I’ll get to some great e-newsletter eXamples in just a moment.
You. As in, your newsletter shouldn’t overtly be all about you or your company. The content of a newsletter is meant to educate and entertain, yes. But, it’s not solely a vehicle for you to puff out your chest and pitch your products. Readers can see right through content that is a veiled ad. Do your best to be authentic. Take time to craft a solid story and expertly weave your CTA throughout.
When all is said and done, you should have a nice e-newsletter that is informative and polished. Don’t forget to save your work! Create a .zip file of each e-newsletter. You never know when you may need to consult it – for example, to retroactively audit your digital marketing efforts, or to show off your excellent portfolio to a future boss.
I’d like to close this out with a few e-newsletter examples from the pros – one on each side of the length spectrum.
The first example is TheSkimm – a daily dose of short, cheeky, newsy content. Its design is simple and to the point. The voice is off-beat and irreverent, yet informative. The newsletter is delivered religiously every morning, too – so readers can count on it being there when they wake up to the world. It’s short enough that it can be read before work, and clever enough that readers want to read it.
On the other side of the fence is Maria Popova’s BrainPickings. Popova is a self-described “hunter-gatherer” of information who surfaces interesting items she’s stumbled upon. She reads more than a dozen books a week, and, for each e-newsletter edition, dives deep into reviewing them. When I say she dives deep, I mean it: Maria’s hefty newsletter is a scroller – one example clocks in at over 5,000 words. And, I may add, she produces this beast weekly. Each edition features a heft of visuals, too.
How does she accomplish all this? Firstly, hers is a wildly prolific and voracious mind. But, Popova also relies on a simply structured template for BrainPickings, which nicely complements the rich ideas and in-depth analysis contained within. The design does not overwhelm the content.
I don’t suggest everyone undertake such a project – we don’t all have minds like Maria Popova, nor time to create and edit something of this length, let alone expect our readers to read it. … But BrainPickings is a cool example of an e-newsletter that has found its niche and effectively broken some rules.
I’d love to hear from you. What are your favorite newsletters, and why? Leave a comment with an example and what stands out to you. Let’s learn together!