The ultimate guide to email newsletters

Email newsletters remain a popular marketing tool, but if you’re still doing them like everyone did in 2006, it’s time for a reboot.

Typically, that meant full-length stories that required significant scrolling, self-promotional content that provided minimal value, no way to track the most popular articles and other analytics, and little reason for anyone to read them.

Don’t be the newsletter that gets deleted instantly – or worse, marked as spam. You’ve invested time and money into creating and sending it, so you want some return for your hard work.

Here’s how to make it engaging and effective. Read on and learn how to:

  • Segment your email list so you can deliver personalized content
  • Create a distribution schedule and stick to it
  • Provide well-written, educational content
  • Be concise with copy
  • Streamline the design (think mobile)
  • Test, test, test
  • Write catchy subject lines that entice opens
  • Track analytics and tweak accordingly

Let’s dive into these so you can learn how to get your email newsletter off life support.

Segment your email list so you can deliver personalized content

Admittedly, it’s easier to be all things to all people and send everyone the same newsletter. But just as your co-workers don’t share your fascination with ferret racing and soap carving, your readers aren’t interested in the same things. They’re more likely to hit the delete button than waste time sifting through one-size-fits-all content.

Segmenting your email list means breaking your big list into several targeted lists. This allows you to create and send personalized content that appeals to readers’ interests and business challenges. Once they see your content is relevant rather than generic, you’ll see your click-through rates head in the right direction. (See more about click-through rates in the analytics section below.)

How to segment your list

The options for list segmentation are endless. Here are some ways to do it:

  1. Personas: Personas address your customers’ and prospects’ motivations. What do they need? What are their pain points, challenges and goals? How and why does your business provide value for them? For example, if you’re contacting CEOs and chief financial officers about buying your software, their needs and interests are different from those of the technology staff members who would oversee implementation. Segment your list accordingly.
  2. Organization type: Are your clients Fortune 500 companies or enterprise organizations? Do small businesses use your services? What about professional associations? These organizations have different needs, budgets and resources. Targeting your emails by organization type helps drive engagement and results.
  3. Industry: If you partner with distributors and/or sell to other businesses, you probably have relationships across many industries. Group your list by industry and you’ll be able to develop strong relationships with your contacts.
  4. Demo requests, webinars and company events: Who’s signing up for your product demos, webinars and company events, including workshops, training classes and trade shows? You can determine prospects’ and customers’ interests by looking at the attendee lists and the topics for each activity.
  5. Survey responses: Many businesses survey customers routinely. Assuming you can tie answers directly to specific customers, you can create segments based on their responses. For example, if your wealth management firm receives survey feedback that retirement planning is top of mind, you’ve got a ready-made segment.
  6. Website activity: Review analytics for logged-in users if you have gated content on your website. For example, if members of your professional association read legislative updates and position papers on specific topics, you can send them related content by segment.

Tools for email newsletter novices

Marketing automation platforms like MailChimp and Constant Contact make segmenting and sending email newsletters a snap. If you don’t have enough data to break up your main list, start collecting information that will help you customize your list. It’s never too late to start.

Tools for email newsletter veterans

If you’re an email newsletter pro, you might want to kick your marketing up a notch and use advanced automation software from companies like Marketo and HubSpot. Their tools are more robust than MailChimp and Constant Contact, providing capabilities such as lead management, scoring and nurturing; web activity tracking; and social marketing.

Here’s a pro tip: HubSpot offers free customer relationship management (CRM) technology, including everything you need to organize, track and nurture your leads and customers. The CRM is the database that all of HubSpot’s free and paid marketing and sales tools are built on. When you graduate to advanced automation, you can easily add functionality with HubSpot’s paid tools.

Create a distribution schedule and stick to it

You’re off to a great start if people have already subscribed to your email newsletter. Reward them by sending your newsletters on a consistent schedule. Not only will you look like a true pro, but you’ll also help your readers know what they can expect from you.

As a bonus, a schedule will help you get used to deadlines. Let’s face it – we all need them to do our best work.

Here’s a pro tip about meeting deadlines: When you rely on others to help with newsletter tasks such as interviews, writing and distribution, always request assets a couple days to a week before your actual deadline. This will help keep you and your newsletter on track.

How often to distribute

How often you should send your newsletter depends on you and your audience. If you have significant resources to help you produce each issue, valuable educational content to share and receptive readers, you might want a monthly schedule. If you’re strapped for time and don’t have help or your content is scarce, you could distribute quarterly.

Don’t send your newsletter more than once a month or you’ll risk annoying your readers. Create a production calendar that builds in time for all steps in the process. It’s also a good habit to plan ahead for your content so that you’re not scrambling for ideas and articles at the last minute.

Provide well-written, educational content

Avoid self-promotion and create original, well-written content that’s informational and educational. Show the value you provide customers: how you help them solve problems, overcome business challenges and benefit from their relationships with you.

If you’ve segmented your email list, you’ll focus on topics that your prospects and customers care about. Put yourself in your segmented readers’ shoes and ask, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM) as you’re brainstorming ideas.

For example, if the customers at your manufacturing company are downloading a report on your website about how tariffs are affecting the packaging industry, write a follow-up for your email newsletter and explain how you’re proactively addressing the issue on their behalf. That’s WIIFM content.

If you have big news, such as your business is merging with another company or you’re releasing a new product, it’s OK to share it with your readers. Skip the self-promotion, though, and focus on how these changes will affect and benefit your customers. Will they enjoy improved service? Does the new product solve a problem for them? Make your content relevant for them – not you.

Where to get content ideas

Coming up with WIIFM content ideas can be a challenge, especially when you’re overwhelmed with the day-to-day grind.

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Answer “burning” questions: What questions do your customers ask? What questions are common in your industry? Poll your sales or customer service team to learn what’s top of mind. Address key pain points and provide workable solutions. You can make it a multiple-part series with one or two questions and in-depth answers.
  2. Highlight industry trends: Explain the trends and what they mean for your industry, your business and your customers. How can your customers prepare for the changes? Put your own spin on it rather than rehashing what may be available publicly.
  3. Feature expert interviews: Prospects and customers want to know that you’re an influencer and that you offer them value. If you have excellent contacts outside your company or have subject matter experts internally, interview them about timely, relevant topics and share their advice and insights.
  4. Write customer case studies: Most companies use case studies because they’re one of the most effective ways to showcase your expertise, ingenuity and problem-solving skills. They demonstrate the value of working with your company. Each case study should include customer pain points and challenges, your proposed solutions, the solutions the customer implemented and the results.
  5. Share “insider” how-tos: Help your customers get the most from your products with insider tips and tricks from your team or from other customers.
  6. Survey your readers: Ask your email newsletter readers what content they want to see. If the topics are evergreen, create a content bank that you can pull articles from as needed.
  7. Mine ideas from your newsletter and website analytics: Look at what articles were the most popular in the past. You can write follow-up articles or cover topics from different angles. If you have more than a basic promotional website, your analytics can provide excellent clues about what people are interested in. You can look at the pages they visit most often, the pages they spend the most time viewing and your most popular blog posts for intel and inspiration.
  8. Tap social media: What are people talking about on your social media channels? Review past comments and current discussions to identify engaging topics. You can even look at the conversations on your competitors’ accounts to get ideas. Shhh …

Be concise with copy

Shrinking attention spans mean you need to get to the point quickly in your email newsletter. Give readers a taste of your content with catchy “teasers” – that is, short snippets of copy that entice them to click through to your website for the full articles. You can use “read more” or “continue reading” buttons below each teaser.

Driving them to your website allows you to:

  • Learn which articles get the most traffic. Use the information to develop topics and content for your future marketing initiatives.
  • Increase engagement. Once prospects and customers read the articles on your site, they’ll hopefully find other valuable content to explore. The longer they stick around, the better.
  • Lead them to action. Do you want customers to register for company webinars, trade shows and other events? By sending readers to your website, you’ll have an opportunity to encourage registrations (or other activities) with relevant content and a strong call to action.

Emphasize quality over quantity when you’re mapping out newsletter content. It’s better to have two or three concise articles that are relevant and meaningful for your prospects and customers than five or more “filler” stories that no one will read.

Tricks to help you write catchy, concise copy

Don’t worry if you’re not a professional writer. Just follow these steps to improve your newsletter copy. The goal is to communicate with clarity so that you connect with and inspire your readers:

  1. Ditch the passive voice: Passive voice is wordy and makes your subject matter ambiguous. Here’s an example of passive voice: “Action on the proposed project is being considered by the committee.” Active voice makes it clear the subject is doing the action: “The committee is considering acting on the proposed project.”
  2. Delete meaningless words: Why use 10 words when four will do? I want to curl up with a good book in order to relax and unwind completely.
  3. Avoid jargon: Complicated industry terms can alienate readers who aren’t familiar with them. You want your audience to read and act on your message. That won’t happen if they don’t understand it.
  4. Write short sentences and small paragraphs: Look for sentences you can cut in two. Large blocks of copy are intimidating.
  5. Use visual cues. Bulleted lists, tables, pull quotes, screenshots and images enable skim reading, making it more likely people will read your content.

Streamline the design (think mobile)

The design for your email newsletter should be clean, simple, easy to read and consistent with your company’s branding. Readers should be able to scan it quickly. In addition, optimize for mobile. That means making the font size and “read more” or “continue reading” buttons large enough to see and tap on small screens.

Take it easy on images. Mobile devices typically have slower download speeds than desktop computers, so keep the images and file sizes small to help speed download times. As for desktop viewing, keep in mind that some email filters and firewalls may block large images, so you can’t assume they will display.

MailChimp and Constant Contact offer responsive templates that are easy to use, especially for email newsletter beginners. Responsive design means that your newsletter will adapt to different devices and screen sizes so that readers have a good experience.

Email newsletter veterans who want marketing support beyond email automation may want to check out Marketo and Hubspot. In addition to responsive templates, they offer sophisticated software that allows users to build out marketing strategies across multiple channels.

Test, test, test

Test your emails across a variety of browsers, email clients (Outlook, Gmail, Apple Mail, etc.) and devices to ensure they display properly. Email providers don’t read email code the same way. Since there’s no universal standard, you’ll need to do everything you can to avoid embarrassing mistakes before distribution.

Potential problems to look out for include:

  • Copy that isn’t the correct font and size
  • Uneven spacing between sentences and paragraphs
  • Weird-looking symbols that replace your punctuation
  • Links that don’t work
  • Background images that “disappear”

These are common glitches that happen even with established email templates. Don’t let them intimidate you, however. It can take trial and error to correct them, but they’re all fixable.

Email testing and rendering services, such as Email on Acid and Litmus, allow you to preview emails in various environments and inboxes, but they’re not foolproof. It’s always a good idea to test your emails manually. You can do that by sending tests from your e-news distribution account to numerous people (not clients!) across email accounts and note any problems. Correct the issues and then resend to those contacts until you’ve resolved the glitches.

Write catchy subject lines that entice opens

Everyone’s bombarded with email. Clever, attention-getting subject lines can help your email newsletter stand out from the crowd. While it may seem like a no-brainer to use “newsletter” as part of your subject line, it could backfire. It may discourage readers from opening your email because it implies a series, and they’ll be able to read the next one.

Improve your subject lines with these top tips:

  1. Keep them short. A good rule of thumb is six to 10 words.
  2. Instill curiosity. Creating mystery can encourage opens. Examples include, “6 Things Your Email Newsletter Should Do,” “The One Thing Your Email Newsletter is Missing,” and “The Biggest Newsletter Design Mistakes That Kill Engagement.” Be sure they’re relevant for your audience.
  3. Ask a compelling question. Make sure the question resonates with readers. For example, “Do You Make These Common Email Newsletter Mistakes?”
  4. Appeal to readers’ “how-to” instinct. Your engagement will soar if you can show readers how to problem-solve, work better/faster, save money, etc. For example, “Discover How to Rock Email Subject Lines,” and “How to Create Email Newsletters in 4 Hours or Less.”
  5. Highlight industry trends and developments. Focus on topics that your readers care about.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with subject lines. You can also do A/B “split testing” to see which ones grab your readers’ attention. That just means splitting your readers into two groups (50/50) and sending your email newsletter using two subject lines to see which one is the most effective. To A/B test a sample of your list, you need at least 1,000 contacts so that your results are statistically significant.

Track analytics and tweak accordingly

Monitor your email newsletter’s performance to understand its value. Most email service providers include robust analytics features and integrate with Google Analytics.

The metrics you should keep an eye on include:

  1. Open rate: The percentage of email recipients who open an email. Don’t get too excited about this number, however. Increasing opens is a good thing, but the click-through rate is more important.
  2. Click-through rate: The percentage of email recipients who clicked on one or more links. This shows how many people are engaging with your content.
  3. Bounce rate: The number of emails that couldn’t be delivered. They’re categorized by “soft bounces,” which result from temporary snags such as full inboxes or problems with recipients’ servers, and “hard bounces,” which means recipients’ email addresses no longer exist. Remove hard bounce addresses from your list (some email service providers do this automatically) because internet service providers primarily use bounce rates to determine an email sender’s reputation. Having too many hard bounces can make you look like a spammer.
  4. Unsubscribe rate: The number of people who leave your list. Readers will unsubscribe from your email newsletter. If this rate is high from newsletter to newsletter, you’ll need to consider why. Fixes to consider include improving your subject lines and content and reducing newsletter frequency.

When you measure newsletter performance, it’s also a good idea to look at Google Analytics for your website to see the content that people are engaging with. You can see page views, bounce rates, time spent on each page and many other metrics. By linking to the full newsletter articles that live on your website, you’ll be able to see the content that readers find valuable – and you’ll give your site a boost from a search optimization standpoint. You’ll also be able to drive readers to your call to action, whether you’d like them to register for an event, a demo or a webinar, for example.

That’s a wrap!

Now that you know how to make a high-performing, valuable and relevant email newsletter, nothing should hold you back. If you feel overwhelmed, take it one step at a time. You’ve got this!

Does your newsletter need a reboot? What’s slowing you down? Let us know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “The ultimate guide to email newsletters

  1. Absolutely wonderful article–I love The Simons Group. You consistently provide good information and advise.

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