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Hot Lemon's Guide series - Our Almost Definitive e-Newsletter guide, almost everything you need to know in order to make your eNewsletter a success, from content to structure and design. Read on to find out more...

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Guide: e-Newsletters

The Almost Definitive Guide

Publication date:
July 2018
Categories:
AllMarketingOnline

Whilst maligned in some quarters – usually because of poor execution and planning – Newsletters offer significant and tangible benefits to businesses in the marketing of their products and services.

This article will focus on email Newsletters (eNewsletters), although much of the content will be equally applicable to printed variants.

Quick Links


eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Pros and cons of Newsletters

But firstly, it’s worth highlighting some of the benefits and disadvantages of eNewsletters.

Benefits:

  • Develops / maintains relationships – good Newsletters can help develop longer lasting relationships with key customers through personalised regular communication especially if inter-linked with feedback loops and special offers
  • Brand awareness – communicating on a regular basis will support and build awareness of your brand, helping to maintain mind-share and build trust
  • Brand development – Newsletters can allow you to position yourself as an “expert”, “trusted partner” through the delivery of added value content
  • Cost-effective sales & cross-sales – the ability to deliver relevant content about your business, your products and services on a regular basis to “engaged” customers is potentially invaluable
  • Provides structure – a scheduled regular Newsletter can act as a catalyst for marketing and sales.

As an added benefit, most email marketing can be tracked and measured relatively accurately, allowing businesses to measure the effectiveness of their activities.

Disadvantages:

  • Time & resources – an effective Newsletter needs to be regular and contain added value content (i.e. provide some value to the recipient) – like the relationship your developing with your customers it needs commitment. Ideally, content and structure needs to be planned and scheduled in advance
  • Data protection (GDPR et al) – gone are the days when you could send marketing communication to all and everyone. Not a game stopper – but businesses need to ensure they have the right permissions or legal basis to process personal data and the right processes in place to manage that data
  • Effectiveness - there are alternatives to Newsletters nowadays, which may be more effective for your business. For example, social media and instant messaging. However, these are generally less structured – which may or may not be a good thing.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Basics – Objectives

As with all marketing activities, clear objectives should be set, reviewed and appraised as necessary for your newsletter. For example:

  • Increase customer engagement
  • Increase customer retention
  • Increase customer value (i.e. the amount a customer spends with you)
  • Sales (generally)
  • Brand awareness
  • To provide structure to marketing and sales activity.

The last point above is interesting as, rightly or wrongly, many mid-sized businesses use there monthly / quarterly newsletter as to structure and schedule their marketing activity.

If possible, these objectives should have some metrics attached to them (targets) so that actions can be undertaken if over / under performing.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Basics – the List

As with all forms of direct marketing, everything depends on the list – the customer database. Quite simply, the better the list – the better the results.

Ideally, you will have a structured email marketing / distribution list that is either properly permissioned (i.e. the recipients have given consent for you to hold and process their data for marketing purposes) or has a robust legal basis (for example – legitimate interest).

Ideally, this should be accurate and up to date, hold an appropriate level of information (i.e. name / email / preferences) and be easily manageable to allow for unsubscribes / change of preference (see the next section).

If you do not have an existing list – this is the first major challenge – to create an effective eNewsletter mailing list. This isn’t necessarily an easy nor quick process, however, suggestions on how to build your list include:

  • Content – make your content stand out in terms of value and interest so that recipients will want to share and forward it to their contacts
  • Sharing & subscribing - include social sharing / forward email and subscribe links to each newsletter so that it can be easily shared and forwarded and anyone viewing it can subscribe easily
  • Add subscribe links in your other sales / marketing / operational activity – for example in your email signatures
  • Lead generation offers – include offers in your newsletter such as bonuses / discounts etc. give people an incentive to subscribe - this can also work for added value content as well
  • Partnership – run a promotion on a partner website or their email newsletter.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Basics – Delivery & Process

There are several technical aspects of email newsletters, as with email marketing in general, that can make the process a nightmare for the technically challenged, or businesses without a dedicated IT department. Specifically, the sending of the emails (normal email clients do not do a good job for a whole number of reasons) and the management of the list (i.e. managing subscriptions / unsubscribes / preferences etc.).

Thankfully, there are a number of online service providers which manage the entire technical side of this process, making this aspect relatively simple. For example:

  • MailChimp
  • ConstantContact
  • Campaign Monitor
  • HubSpot.

All of these provide relatively comparable services which include the ability to manage your database through online (and embedded) subscription forms, manage unsubscribes (and all the data protection stuff) as well as efficiently being able to send and track your actual eNewsletter.

We would strongly recommend that anyone thinking about an eNewsletter use one of these marketing services providers. Whilst there is likely to be a cost involved, the benefits, unless you are managing a very large list, outweigh the costs.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Brand promise – Consistency & Value

An eNewsletter, like any other form of marketing, needs to reflect the brand values of the sender. This is not only the look and feel of the eNewsletter itself – more of that later – but also its reliability and, for want of a better word, its quality.

In other words, if you commit to a monthly eNewsletter – make sure it is a monthly eNewsletter – do not break the commitment you make to your subscribers by being lax in your publishing schedule. Those who are actively engaged with your brand – your most valuable customers – will notice. Ideally set a regular date for publication of your eNewsletter and do your damn best to hold to it. Breaking this schedule will lead to customer, rightly or wrongly, assuming that you can be lax in other things too – not necessarily the right brand aspect your trying to promote.

Likewise, in terms of quality – all editions of your eNewsletter should be the same “quality” in terms of content. Don’t expect subscribers to stay subscribed if you deliver one good eNewsletter followed by one indifferent one. Consistency is key – the ideal is to always deliver to expectations.

This is where planning comes to the fore. Many organisations have great ideas for content when they start their eNewsletter, but through lack of planning run out of “interesting content” and then substitute mediocre “last-minute” / “scraping the barrel” content to meet publishing deadlines.

Top tip is to develop a publishing schedule which not only defines publication dates, but also, defines content – even if it is only in outline. This could be thematic (i.e. we are going to talk about “x” then “y”) as well as structural (i.e. section on products / section on industry news / section on people etc.).

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Focus

Three things here – subject, story-telling and objective.

Firstly, subject. Subscribers will have signed up to your eNewsletter for a particular reason – perhaps they are interested in your industry or your brand - don’t disappoint them by going off-reservation with regard to your content – no matter how interesting. This trap can be easily fallen into if content isn’t planned.

Secondly, story-telling. People like stories, and arguably some of the best marketing ever executed has been story orientated. If possible therefore, try to make all the content of a particular edition of an eNewsletter make up a story – follow a theme. Each section will then reinforce the communication objectives of the section before and after.

And finally – objective. The overall eNewsletter might have several objectives (see the section above), however, for each individual edition there should be one over-riding objective / call to action - what do you ideally want the reader to do after reading the eNewsletter. If you try and get the reader to do three things – chances are you’ll get the reader to do nothing. If you try to get the reader to do one thing – you stand a greater chance of success. This is where story-telling (producing a narrative for the eNewsletter) comes to the fore.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Content #1 – deliver value “WIIFM”

WIIFM – “what’s in it for me”.

Don’t expect your eNewsletter to be a success if you don’t deliver WIIFM for your subscribers.

A successful eNewsletter is give and take. You give your subscribers something (added value content / discounts / early notifications etc.) and in return they hopefully give you their business. If a subscriber cannot find regular value in receiving your eNewsletter – they won’t.

There are many ways to deliver value to subscribers, for example:

  • Discounts
  • Buying guides
  • Product reviews
  • Industry insight
  • Opinions.

A benefit of delivering effective “WIIFM” to subscribers is that it can reflect positively on your brand and start to develop positive brand associations.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Content #2 – have a content strategy

When initially setting up an eNewsletter the need for a content strategy might be seen as over-zealous. However, if committing to something like a monthly eNewsletter it soon becomes a necessity.

All those initial ideas of great content will soon be expended and rushing around for content prior to a deadline is not the best way to generate engaging added-value articles.

Further, developing a content strategy can help the eNewsletter fit in with other marketing activities, or indeed, leverage marketing activity from the eNewsletter itself.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Content #3 – sections with CTA's

For each story / topic within your eNewsletter – sectionalise them – make it obvious to the reader. Use different colour / backgrounds / title blocks whatever. Ideally clearly defined bite-size chunks which leave them (the reader) wanting to find out more.

Try to make the content of each section able to stand as its own, but also follow the narrative of the overall eNewsletter (i.e. making each section complementary to each other or following an overall theme).

And, for each section, have a strong clear, unambiguous CTA (call to action) – what do you want them to do after reading that section – for example “Find out more” or more ambitiously “Buy now” on your website. Many eNewsletters fail on this point – i.e. not having a clear CTA.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Content #4 – KISS language and length

Different media have different scales of readability and engagement – some are good for short simple messages, others more suitable for longer more involved content.

A “push” email falls on the lower end of the readability / engagement scale.

It is important to understand the media when generating content. An email is not the right media to have huge monolithic blocks of dense text – no matter how interesting that content is – it’s the wrong media format to distribute it and recipients will gloss over it - TLDR.

Rather, for email (read eNewsletters) - short, structured content is much better to comprehend and engage with – especially when viewing using a mobile device. Use titles / sub-titles to break text up short paragraphs and plenty of space. If you have a complex subject you want to deal with, use teaser text and entice viewers to read the content on your website.

Language is also important. The average reading age is always lower than you would expect it and most of your readers won’t share the familiarity you have with acronyms and jargon. The thing you do not want to do is to alienate your audience by not communicating with them at their level.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Engage – sender, title & preview

The first challenge of any eNewsletter is to be opened in the first place.

People receive hundreds / thousands of emails per day – all cramming up their inbox vying to be read and opened. Getting your eNewsletter to stand out is a challenge.

We have three things to help us though in the inbox – the sender, the title and the preview text.

The sender – who the email is from. This usually displays the “name” of the sender (rather than the actual email address). Most companies choose to display their business / brand name here – although if recipients associate more with a particular person rather than the business name then it might be worth while using that person’s name instead of the business name.

The title - aka the subject of the email. Here is where we get an opportunity to really stand out. Research has shown that bolder and more definitive statements stand out the best when recipients are scanning their emails to adjudge which ones to read. However, this has to tempered with the regularity of the eNewsletter (i.e. some part of the title should be common to all your eNewsletter editions identifying it as your newsletter and providing consistency).

Preview text – most email clients show the first line of text of the email to give the viewer a preview without having to open the email. This can be hijacked to provide a tailored preview of the email to entice viewers to engage – maybe a quick summary of the contents of the eNewsletter.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Design #1 – Clean & simple, it’s the content

eNewsletters are all about content. Whatever design / layout you choose for your eNewsletter make it clean and simple and make the content the singular and sole focus of the design. Couple of reasons for this.

Primarily – it is the content that will make your readers engage, recommend and come back for more. The more visible and accessible – the better.

Secondly, email clients render emails differently to each other, what looks great in one email client may not look so great in another. Also, many email clients by default will strip images out of emails, so a design reliant on imagery / “fancy” coding may not render consistently – therefore destroying any value created by a more “complex” design.

Ideally, your eNewsletter should be “presentable” without imagery and without advanced coding (i.e. the design aspects have common fallbacks if they are not supported by a particular email client).

And as an additional point here – the use of space in design is often underestimated. Creating space around content immediately draws the eye to that content and the balance between space and content is often the defining factor of a great and effective design.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Design #2 – Branding - consistent

It should go without saying that the branding and styling of your eNewsletter should follow as closely as possible as the branding of your business – this helps in creating a professional image and building brand awareness.

  • Use your logo (ideally where people expect it – usually at the top / top left if you want to be fussy)
  • Use corporate colours wherever possible – try not to create a separate colour palette just for the eNewsletter
  • If your business has a style of language – use it
  • Use corporate fonts – if possible (non-websafe fonts can be used within emails – it’s a bit technical – but Outlook doesn’t support it, so if your email list has a lot of Outlook in it – we wouldn’t recommend).

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Design #3 – Responsive – mobile first

Depending on the stats you want to use, anywhere between 50 and 66% of all emails are opened on a mobile device first. This off course varies by industry sector and the like, with some sectors being much more mobile centric.

What this means is that any eNewsletter needs to be either responsive (adapts to the screen size it is viewed on) or has been designed explicitly for mobiles.

There is nothing worse than trying to read an email designed for the desktop on a mobile device – instant turnoff / delete.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Design #4 – Images

As mentioned, many email clients will strip out images on emails until the recipient allows them. This is to prevent tracking which is done by embedding images – and some people do read their email with images disabled for this reason.

Also, images (which are separate to the email itself) can be corrupted or fail to download.

There are several implications from this, for example:

  • The email needs to remain structured and formatted without imagery – i.e. understandable and presentable
  • Key communication points should not be made using an image (if the image isn’t loaded the communication point isn’t communicated)
  • CTA’s (calls to action) should not be images – use formatted buttons instead.

Further, in terms of coding:

  • All images should have fall back “alt text” – so that if an image isn’t downloaded – the recipient at least knows what the image was
  • For certain email clients if image dimensions are detailed in the code – then the “blank” space will be the same size as the missing image – which depending on the design can be beneficial
  • The “alt-text” can also be styled, as well as the space where the image should’ve been (for example, having white italic text out of a black background).

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Design #5 – CTA’s – make them obvious

A relatively simple tip – make CTA’s obvious.

That might seem obvious but there are many examples of where the call to action is either buried in the text of the section itself, or just a simple text link at the bottom – leaving the reader not sure what they have to do to find out more, or to engage further.

Make CTA’s obvious and eye-catching – make it unambiguous what the reader has to do to engage further.

Big and bold works here, do the CTA as a button which is styled in CSS rather than an image (which may not be downloaded). Also consider use of an emotional colour which contrasts with the design of the eNewsletter itself – think red / green / yellow.

Top tip here is to have your primary CTA (the focus of your eNewsletter) as one colour (perhaps red as it stands out so much and is an emotive colour), and then secondary CTA’s (within the separate sections) as another colour (say green). By doing this we tell the reader what they should be doing (i.e. clicking on the big red button).

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Technical #1 – Unsubscribe / company information

Email marketing communication is governed by a lot of regulation – most recently GDPR. Whilst much of this covers the collection, storage and processing of personal data – it also impinges on the content of your email marketing / eNewsletters.

Company details:

In the UK, if your business is a private limited company (LTD), a public limited company (PLC) or a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP), you are required by law to include specific information on your email footer, specifically:

  • Your company name
  • Your company registration number
  • Your place of registration (e.g. Scotland or England & Wales)
  • Your registered office address.

Unsubscribe

Under various regulations and directives (Data Protection Act 1998 (UK) / The Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive (EU) / General Data Protection Regulation (EU) there are additional requirements, specifically:

  • A clear and simple ability to unsubscribe (opt out) from receiving any further email marketing communication on each and every email you send them

These regulations cover a lot of other issues about email marketing – but content wise, the above is the primary.

We would also suggest that couple of other things are included as well – usually in the footer of the email – and these include:

  • Permission reminder – this is a short explanation that tells subscribers how they were added to your list – it can also include the legal basis of why you are processing their personal data
  • Website links – specifically to your Privacy Policy – recipients don’t just have right to unsubscribe – they now, through GDPR, have a whole host of other rights (the right of access / rectification / erasure and data portability etc.), and your privacy policy needs to explain how you manage these rights for your subscribers.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Technical #2 – Test, test and test

In summary – test, test and test again, then test somemore.

Different email clients render emails differently. If you do not spend the time testing your eNewsletter on a wide variety of desktop and mobile email clients, then you run the very real risk of sending semi-formatted gibberish to a section of your subscribers – not professional.

Quite simply email clients render html in emails differently. Some are very good, some bad. What looks fantastic in say Apple Mail and Thunderbird might look less so in Outlook for desktop and one of Gmail’s various iterations. This is especially the case if your eNewsletter has a responsive design.

Some, those who use templates provided by the big email marketing services providers, think they are immune to this – they aren’t. We’ve seen many of those templates fail on different email clients. The only way to make sure your email looks as intended across a wide variety of email clients and platforms is to test. There is no way round it. And yes, this is both time consuming and can be expensive.

Options here include having access to a wide variety of platforms (mobile, desktop, tablet etc.) with a wide variety of email clients installed (Outlook, Gmail (variations thereof), Apple Mail, Thunderbird etc.) with different versions of those email clients (soon adds up) or the use of an online service such as provided by Litmus (currently from $79 per month for their basic service).

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Now onto some of our “special” tips designed to help you stand out of the crowd a little.

eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Pro-tip #1 – View in browser

Most email marketing service providers automatically store an online version of your eNewsletter on their servers so you can easily provide a “view this email in a browser” link on your eNewsletter – which is good practice as it allows subscribers who might have issues viewing your eNewsletter in their email client (see above point) view the email in its intended format.

What is arguably better though, is to have that link (“view this in a browser”) link back to a page on your own website where the email is embedded.

Several benefits to this – those that click on this link visit your website rather than a third-party’s (so theoretically it is easier for them to explore the rest of your website), the content of the eNewsletter can be indexed by search engines – helping with SEO, and, social links to the eNewsletter will direct back to your website – and not the third party’s site.

The downsides are that this involves extra work, and loss of personalisation.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Pro-tip #2 – Social links

Social media is critically important. Make it as easy as possible for people to share your content by embedding social share buttons on your eNewsletter (so they can quickly and easily share with the minimum of fuss).

This is especially so if those sharing links are sharing your eNewsletter embedded on your website (as your generating links to your website as well as to your eNewsletter).

Also, allow for users to easily forward your eNewsletter – and if forwarded make sure that there is a clear path for new users to register if they like what they see.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Pro-tip #3 – Customise

As mentioned, email marketing services providers, like MailChimp, Constant Contact etc. can provide much of the heavy lifting of designing and sending emails as well as list management in terms of subscription forms / user preference forms / unsubscribes etc.

Most users, however, leave forms and confirmation emails in their default settings – usually with third party branding. Now whilst there isn’t anything intrinsically bad in this – it isn’t necessarily the most professional – and highlights that you are using a third-party service.

Most of these email marketing services providers though do provide an option to customise the various forms and confirmation emails. Whilst this can be a pain – we would recommend anyone to do it – as it completes the professional branding of your eNewsletter experience.

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eNEWSLETTER GUIDE:
Pro-tip #4 – Make it personal

A lot of eNewsletters are sent from “no-reply” generic email addresses (i.e. newsletter@). Whilst this can help with corporate branding objectives (especially if your creative with the name of the email address your going to use to send the eNewsletter), it’s not necessarily personal.

Instead, consider using a real email address of someone your subscribers are likely to know. This not only makes the eNewsletter more personal (as is being sent by a person not by a non-descript corporate identity), but allows for the instigation of dialogue as the recipient only has to reply to the email to engage (which they can’t do with a “no-reply” address).

However, there is a downside to this – the sending email address will then bear the full force of any automatic replies people have setup on their emails (for example “Out of office”).

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If you want to find out anymore about any of the issues and tips discussed above, please get in touch with us.

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