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    August 20, 2013 // 8:00 AM

    The Go-to Guide to Creating Email Newsletters People Actually Read

    Written by Ginny Soskey | @

    email_newsletter_tips-2Most marketers have been there -- you’re sitting around a conference room, trying to figure out how to best engage leads and customers, sell more product, or just “stay top-of-mind” for your target audience, and someone decides there’s a solution that can solve all of those problems at once: an email newsletter!

    And then suddenly it’s you that’s been chosen to do it. Oh, and make sure that open and clickthrough rates don’t dip. That sound good?

    I’ve been in that situation before, and I was worried. Even though email newsletters are one of the most common types of emails to send, they are actually some of the hardest to do right. It’s hard because it includes a mix of different types of content about different parts of your business, including event reminders, surveys, educational information about your product, service, or industry, and promotions. And because it’s not an email designed to serve one purpose -- say, about one promotion, one digest of previously published content, one lead nurturing email, or one transactional email providing order information, email newsletters have a difficult time trying to get readers to complete a call-to-action.

    … But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them. If done right, you could develop a really engaged subscriber base, and potentially nurture them into qualified leads and customers. At the very “least,” you could engage your company’s evangelists, and they could help bring in business. And that’s definitely something you don’t want to miss out on.

    If you want to ace your new email newsletter project or rejuvenate an old one, there are 10 things you need to make sure to do:

    1) Evaluate: Do you even need an email newsletter?

    I know it can be kind of scary pushing back on your boss about a project you’ve been handed, but if an email newsletter isn’t right for your marketing, you shouldn’t waste your time working on one.

    To establish your case, first do some research. In your industry, are there successful email newsletters that people like to subscribe to? What’s in them? With the resources you have available to you -- budget, time, and internal support -- could you be successful? 

    Then, re-examine your business’ goals. Are they trying to increase the number of leads? Better qualify leads to speak with salespeople? Close more deals? Or retain more customers? 

    If your industry isn’t really interested in email newsletters or you lack the internal support to send them out, it might be time to reconsider. Or if your goals don’t line up with what a newsletter could accomplish, your time might be better spent setting up lead nurturing email workflows, or not even sending emails in the first place -- perhaps creating content for your blog, instead.

    So gather some data, create a plan of action (either for a successful newsletter, or another activity), and go chat with your superior. Even if you disagree with his or her vision in an email newsletter, your boss will be glad you came prepared with a plan for success.

    Okay, let’s say you’ve found that you should do an email newsletter. What next?

    2) Figure out what kind of newsletter you want to send.

    One of the biggest problems with email newsletters is that they are often cluttered and unfocused because they are supporting every aspect of your business. Product news goes right next to PR stories, blog posts go next to a random event week … it’s kind of a mess. Email -- whether it’s a newsletter or not -- needs one common thread to hold it together.

    A way to help reduce the randomness of an email newsletter is by keeping it to one very specific topic. So instead of it being about your company in general, maybe it’s dedicated to one vertical.

    For example, if HubSpot were to send out a newsletter, we could do one solely on social media for business. In it, we could gather together recent blog posts on social media marketing, events that all social media marketers should go to, and maybe even a quiz of the best social media tools you use. By tying together those pieces of content all under the umbrella of social media for business, the email newsletter would be much more focused and engaging.

    3) Balance the content of your newsletter to be 90% educational and 10% promotional.

    Chances are, your email newsletter subscribers aren’t down to hear about your products and services 100% of the time. While they may love you and want to hear from you, there’s only so much shilling you can do before they tune out.

    Case in point: I have a thing for shoes, and I especially love this one shoe site. I willingly opted in to the company’s email list, but it now sends me emails 2-3 times a day to buy, buy, buy … and when I see it’s sender name pop up in my inbox, I want to scream. Now, if they sent me educational content -- maybe about the latest styles of shoes, or how to pair certain styles with certain outfits -- I might be more inclined to buy from them, or at least start opening their emails again.

    Don’t be that company. In your email newsletters, get rid of the self promotion (most of the time) and focus on sending your subscribers educational, relevant, timely information. Unless you actually have an exciting, big piece of news about your product, service, or company, leave out the promotional parts.

    4) Set expectations on your 'Subscribe' page.

    Once you’ve figured out your newsletter’s focus and content balance, make sure you’re properly communicating about them on your subscribe landing page

    Get specific: Tell potential subscribers exactly what will be in the newsletter as well as how often they should expect to hear from you. Take a page out of SmartBrief’s book -- on the subscribe landing page, it says this information and even gives potential subscribers a preview link:

    Smart_Brief_Example

    As a subscriber, wouldn’t that be awesome? You’d go in with open eyes knowing exactly who you will be receiving email from, what they will be sending you, and how often they’ll be sending it to you. As a marketer, having this information up front will help diminish your unsubscribe and spam rates, as well. 

    5) Get creative with email subject lines.

    Even if your subscribers sign up for your emails, there’s no guarantee that they will open your emails once they get them in their inbox. Many marketers try increasing familiarity with their subscribers by keeping the subject line the same each day, week, or month that they send it.

    But let’s face it, those subject lines get old -- fast -- for subscribers. Why? Because there’s no incentive from the subject line to click on that specific email right this instant. A better approach would be to try to have a different, creative, engaging subject line for each newsletter you send.

    One company who does this really well is Thrillist. Here’s a collection of email newsletters I’ve received over the past few days:

    Thrillist_Example

    I’ve opened every single one of these because of the company’s subject lines. Even though I know that these emails are coming in my inbox every morning, the subject lines are what entice me to click.

    If you need help with your email newsletter subject lines, check out this recipe.

    6) Pick one primary call-to-action.

    Okay, part of what makes a newsletter a newsletter is that you’re featuring multiple pieces of content with multiple calls-to-action (CTAs). But, that doesn’t mean you should let those CTAs all have equal prominence. 

    Instead, let there be one head honcho CTA -- just one main thing that you would like your subscribers to do, and the rest of the CTAs are a “in case you have time.” Whether it’s simply to click through to see a blog post or just to forward the email to a friend, make it super simple for your subscribers to know what you want them to do -- and then do it.

    7) Keep design and copy minimal. 

    Like we said before, a newsletter can easily feel cluttered because of its nature. The trick for email marketers to make a successful email newsletter look uncluttered revolves around two things: concise copy and enough white space in the design.

    Concise copy is key because you don’t actually want to have your subscribers hang out and read your email all day. You want to send them elsewhere -- your website or blog, for instance -- to actually consume the whole piece of content. Concise copy gives your subscribers a taste of your content -- just enough that they want to click and learn more.

    White space is key in email newsletters because it helps visually alleviate the cluttered feel, and on mobile, makes it much easier for people to click the right link.

    8) Make sure images have alt text.

    Given that visual content is incredibly important to the rest of your marketing activities, it’d make sense that you’d want to include them in your emails … right?

    Right. But email’s a little bit trickier. Most of the time, people won’t have images enabled, so you’ve got to make sure your images have one essential component: alt text. Alt text is the alternative text that appears when images aren’t loaded in an email. This is especially important if your CTAs are images -- you want to make sure people are clicking even without the image enabled.

    Each email marketing program is different, but here is one tutorial for adding alt text to email.

    9) Make it easy for people to unsubscribe. 

    This seems kinda counter-intuitive, but it’s key if you want to maintain an active, engaged subscriber list. Don’t use weird language like “Alter your communication with us.” Don’t hide an unsubscribe button behind an image without alt text. Besides keeping your list healthy, having a clear unsubscribe process will help ensure your email isn't marked SPAM before it hits the rest of your list's inbox.

    10) Test, test, test.

    I know I just listed out nine things you should do to make sure you’re doing email newsletters right, but you’ve also got to find out what works for your company and your list. Just like different cultures of people prefer different things, different groups of email subscribers prefer different things.

    So use these email newsletter best practices as a jumping off point … and then experiment to find your secret sauce. Run an A/B test on subject lines. Change up your CTA copy. Heck, even try not including images. The world is your oyster for your email newsletter, so find out what it likes.

    Have you ever sent a successful email newsletter before? What tips do you have? Share them with us in the comments.

    Image credit: RaHuL Rodriguez

                                         

    Topics: Email Marketing

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