Whilst maligned in some quarters – usually because of poor execution and planning – eNewsletters offer significant and tangible benefits to businesses in developing relationships with existing and potential customers as well as with broader marketing & sales activity.
This guide will focus on email Newsletters (eNewsletters), although much of the advice will be equally applicable to printed variants.
NEWSLETTERS: PROS & CONS
But firstly, it’s worth highlighting some of the benefits and disadvantages of eNewsletters.
THE BENEFITS OF NEWSLETTERS:
- 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 mindshare and build trust
- Brand development
eNewsletters can allow you to position yourself as an “expert” or “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.
THE DISADVANTAGES OF NEWSLETTERS
- 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 you're developing with your customers it needs commitment. Content and structure need 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
there are alternatives to Newsletters nowadays, which may be more effective for your business - social media and instant messaging for example. However, these are generally less structured – which may or may not be a good thing.
NEWSLETTERS – THE BASICS
THE BASICS - OBJECTIVES
As with all marketing activities, clear objectives should be set, reviewed, and appraised as necessary for your newsletter. For example, these could include:
- Increase customer engagement
- Increase customer retention
- Increase customer value
- Increase sales
- Improve brand awareness
- Provide structure to marketing and sales activity.
The last point is worth expanding, the presence of a regular customer communication, such as a newsletter, can act as a mechanism for a business to structure and schedule its marketing activity.
Ideally, the objectives, where possible, should be measured and monitored over time and reviewed accordingly if over or underperforming.
BASICS – THE LIST
As with all forms of direct marketing, everything depends on the list – the marketing database. Quite simply, the better the list – the better the results.
Ideally, you will have a structured email marketing/distribution list that is properly permissioned (GDPR) in that the recipients have either given you permission to use their data for marketing purposes or you have a legitimate legal basis for you to do so (“legitimate interest”).
The list should be accurate and up to date, hold an appropriate level of information (i.e. not an excessive amount of information) and be easily manageable to allow for unsubscribes/change of preferences by the recipients.
CREATING THE LIST
If you’re an established business, chances are you will have the foundation of a marketing database with your existing (and previous) customers – this is a start, and for some businesses – sufficient.
However, for newer businesses or those with smaller customer bases – the creation of an effective marketing database can be a significant challenge. It&rsquo's neither a quick nor easy process but investing time and effort in it will see significant rewards.
Whilst it might seem obvious, you need to give potential subscribers to your email marketing list a reason to subscribe. People are unlikely to subscribe without a reason to – WIIFM (What’s in it for me).
With that in mind, the following can help with growing an email marketing list:
- Make it easy
Make the subscription process as simple and accessible as possible. Whilst it would be nice to know everything about a subscriber, all you really need is their name & email address. Don’t hide the signup form either, make it visible and easy to find.
- Strong call-to-action (CTA)
Associate a strong value proposition with each instance of your signup form, for example:
- Explicitly explain the key benefits of becoming a subscriber
- Offer added value content to subscribers
- Offer discounts on signup and ongoing special offers for subscribers
- Personalise your CTA’s
Wherever possible personalise your CTA to what you know of your website visitor - at a minimum this will be the content they are viewing so make the CTA relevant
- Promote using other media
Promote and link to your signup form (landing page) in as much communication media as you can, for example: within email signature blocks, and on social media profiles and posts. Don’t limit it to just online media, consider brochures, flyers, business cards, invoices, and receipts.
- Sharing is good
Encourage the sharing of your email newsletter as much as possible both on social media and by being forwarded – ensure that you have a mechanism to allow people to signup from the email if it is shared.
Incentivise existing subscribers to “recommend a friend” with special offers or discounts
- Giveaways & competitions
Get people to signup as part of the entry process, and make sure any prize is appropriate to your business.
And not to forget, like a lot of things, great content will always attract an audience.
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:
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.
BASICS - 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 the publication of your eNewsletter and do your best to hold to it.
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 an 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.
A top tip is to develop a publishing schedule that 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.).
BASICS - FOCUS
Three things here – subject, storytelling and objective.
- 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 the content isn’t planned.
- Storytelling - people like stories, and arguably some of the best marketing ever executed has been story orientated. If possible, therefore, try to make 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.
- Objective - the overall eNewsletter might have several objectives (see the section above), however, for each individual edition there should be one overriding objective/call to action - what do you ideally want the reader to do? 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 storytelling (producing a narrative for the eNewsletter) comes to the fore.
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:
- Buying guides
- Product reviews
- Industry insight
A benefit of delivering effective “WIIFM” to subscribers is that it can reflect positively on your brand and start to develop positive brand associations.
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.
CONTENT #3 – SECTIONS WITH CALLS-TO-ACTION (CTA)
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 – 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 clear CTA’s.
CONTENT #4 – KISS LANGUAGE AND LENGTH
Different media have different scales of readability and engagement – some are good for short simple messages, and others are 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 (too long, didn’t read.
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 into 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 – a more appropriate medium for detailed content.
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.
CONTENT #5 - 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 inboxes 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 worthwhile 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 be 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.
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. A 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.
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/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-web safe 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 it).
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 of 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.
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 from 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 fallback “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).
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 that is styled in CSS rather than an image (which may not be downloaded). Also, consider use of an emotional colour that 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).
TECHNICAL #1 – UNSUBSCRIBE / COMPANY INFORMATION
Email marketing communication is governed by a lot of regulations – 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.
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.
Under various regulations and directives (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 a 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
TECHNICAL #2 – TEST, TEST AND TEST
In summary – test, test and test again, then test some more.
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 around 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).
PRO TIPS TO STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD
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 downside is that this involves extra work and loss of personalisation.
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.
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.
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 you are creative with the name of the email address you’re 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 it's 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 set up on their emails (for example “Out of office”).