Writing Newsletters People Actually *Want* to Read

 In Marketing

The secret is in the list. We’ve heard this so many times with regard to growing our businesses. In fact, publishing is a great way to connect with and nurture current and potential clients. Newsletters can announce new products or company news, educate readers on industry trends and topics, and provide valuable links to events, resources, and media. They are also a great tool for branding and personalizing your company online.

But getting people to actually open your newsletter and even skim it, when they are faced with hundreds of other competing emails and inbox clutter — that’s really the challenge.  Even Ben & Jerry’s shocked the marketing world with their announcement last summer that they were discontinuing their enews in favor of social media, although apparently just their UK division, as it turned out. (Check out Erik Qualman’s cool take on that here).

For those businesses seeing low open rates (20% of your subscribers is considered good), read on for some best practices that can turn your e-newsletters from the best thing nobody read, to marketing gold. Here are some tips for boosting your open rate, your clicks and your sales.

Rules of the Road:
You want your readers to look forward to receiving your newsletter. Include a sign-up form on your website, your blog, your e-mail signature tag, and your social media profiles. Do not add people to your list without letting them know, or you will look like a spammer. The general rule is if someone has given you their business card, they are inviting you to keep them up to date on your activities.

When you do a mass import of contacts to your list, include a short paragraph on what readers can expect, how often the letter will be mailed, and even a link to a sample copy. Make sure your “From” designation is a recognizable and familiar name. Do not use “info at dot com” as a from name, as this is a spam trigger. The CAN-SPAM Act requires that your email give recipients an opt-out method. Your newsletter provider typically automatically includes this in the template. Finally, be sure to include all your social media profiles, so that readers can connect with you in between issues if your e-news.

Simple Subject Lines:
Shorter is better. A lengthy subject line will most likely be cut off on most e-mail programs anyway. When creating subject lines, try this checklist, based on the Four “U” Approach to headline writing.
Useful: Is the promised message valuable to the reader?
Ultra-specific: Does the reader know what’s being promised?
Unique: Is the promised message compelling and remarkable?
Urgent: Does the reader feel the need to read now?

Relevant Content:
It’s important to educate and even entertain your readers, but keep selling and promotions to a minimum. Your copy should be 2/3 informative and 1/3 sales. Quality content can include case studies, industry news, interviews, and reviews of resources available in your niche. You can also vary your content by adding videos, podcasts, and resources such as white papers or industry reports, into your publication or as links. If you’re not sure you’re hitting the mark with your content, try sending a survey where readers can indicate their preferences, and offer a free book or resource as a reward. Most e-mail providers such as iContact, Constant Contact, Mail Chimp, Emma, and others, include a survey tool. You can also make your content interactive, such as including a quick poll relating to an industry topic.

Personalization and Segmentation:
Research has shown that inserting first names into your salutation, and even your subject line, can increase open rates by as much as 10%. I have received emails from prominent online marketers that mention my first name at least twice, both in the salutation and the body copy.  You can also segment your readers by organizing them into niche groups, or allowing them to subscribe to specific content areas. Check with your host or provider on the toolkit for this.

Balance in Design and Copy:
It’s important not to go overboard with excessive copy, graphics, and links, or you will overwhelm your readers, and they will either delete your messages, or unsubscribe. Three brief stories (200-300 words) with accompanying graphics and links, are typically sufficient. Keep images simple and minimal, particularly since many readers have the image setting turned off on their email. Your newsletter needs to make sense without them. You should also break up your stories with bullets, headlines, and subheads, and make sure to differentiate one story from the next. Make good use of your sidebars to highlight important stories or events, and keep sidebars simple and uncluttered.

If you have a longer article or a post from your blog, avoid excessive scrolling by linking to the blog or article rather then reprinting the entire piece, particularly if you want readers to subscribe to the blog. One or two “calls to action,” such as “Like” me on Facebook, or “subscribe to my blog,” are all you need.  While you can publish an email with just one topic, you may lose readers who aren’t interested in that topic.

Provide both HTML and plain text versions. Most hosted email services allow you to set this up automatically. Some readers prefer the mire polished HTML look, while others won’t be able to view an HTML version due to firewalls and filters.

Balance in Frequency:
Set up a publishing schedule that works for you and your readers, and stick with it. Once a month is the minimum you should be mailing, while once a week is preferred to maintain a regular connection with your subscribers. It’s better to send even one story weekly, then wait 2 months and send excessive amounts of copy.

Do you have any best practices to recommend? Please share your ideas!

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