Editor’s note: Updated October 2018.
Want to engage your audience while sharing your best content, deepest insights and brand story? Add a newsletter to your marketing strategy.
If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’re no stranger to the power of email marketing campaigns. Powerful tools for B2C and B2B alike, email is still one of the best ways to push prospects further down the sales funnel.
That said, not all emails need to be sales oriented. Have you ever considered the power of an email newsletter?
If you want a simple, consistent way to engage your audience, newsletters are the tool you’re looking for.
What’s the main difference between newsletters and email campaigns?
No doubt this is one of the first questions on your mind. The answer: Frequency and consistency. Newsletters are regularly occurring emails designed to keep your customers up to date on the latest information you have to give them. They don’t sell products – newsletters simply keep your readers engaged with your business, lasting for as long as your company is open.
Email campaigns, on the other hand, have a limited timeframe, a set number of emails and are generally planned in advance. They’re tools for pushing prospects down the sales funnel, directing them to gated assets, event sign-up pages or, in some cases, sales teams.
That’s an important distinction, so I’m going to repeat it: Newsletters aren’t the place for pushing products.
Newsletters are for building relationships.
They’re a way for you to share knowledge with your customers in a manner that is conversational rather than promotional. Email campaigns are for sales; newsletters are for thought leadership and increasing engagement through storytelling.
Now, if that’s not a concrete enough goal for you, don’t worry. You can use newsletters to boost a variety of quantifiable metrics, including:
- Increasing qualified leads through gated content by directing readers to downloadable assets.
- Building brand awareness by promoting social media sharing.
- Increasing contact between existing customers.
You’re not limited to choosing one option; your business can have multiple newsletters, each with its own goals.
That said, your newsletters shouldn’t be a mess of content. Rather, they should be segmented into different audiences, goals or other criteria and written with a consistent subject.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at the newsletter page for the Harvard Business Review:
As you can see, HBR has 10 separate newsletters, each with its own consistent theme. There’s one for quick advice, one for popular articles, one for tech and more. There’s also a newsletter full of exclusive content shared only with subscribers – a great way for HBR to increase its mailing list and encourage engagement.
What’s more, you’ll also notice that HBR varies its newsletter frequency depending on the category. Some are delivered daily; these are usually brief tips or snippets that can be read quickly and link readers to longer articles if they wish to learn more. Others are roundups delivered weekly or monthly, which is consistent enough to keep readers engaged but not so constant that they become annoying.
So, now that we’ve discussed the various uses of email newsletters, let’s talk about creating them.
Ideally, your newsletters will exist as long as your business does, meaning they’ll evolve with it. Therefore, you should never run out of content ideas.
Now, I’ll be frank: As a writer, the idea of never running out of topics seems daunting. “Surely I’ll run into writer’s block sooner or later?”
Nope! If you ever get stuck, just think of what either your business or your audience has been focused on recently. Some simple ideas include:
This is a way to ensure your email list sees your work (and a chance to show off your work, of course). You can link to your best-performing content (increasing the likelihood that it’ll resonate with your audience) or share something that could use a few more views.
In the HBR example above, you can see that the publication has segmented its roundups into various categories, including leadership, finance, strategy, tech, best of and more. You may not have as many categories (a single bi-weekly roundup may suffice for your company), but the content you include within must be similarly consistent.
If your company is extremely large and incredibly active, you can create a monthly newsletter summing up your latest movements. Be careful of timing here – sending emails too frequently could annoy your audience, while sending them too infrequently makes them think you’re asleep.
Case studies, white papers, infographics, surveys – these are all great details to share with your newsletter readers. Even other writing like exceptional blog posts, LinkedIn pieces, guest blogs and more can greatly appeal to your newsletter audience.
What to include in a newsletter
The specifics involved in writing an email newsletter are similar to that of creating an email campaign. The main difference is the structure of the body. Newsletters provide an overview of several different subjects at once, so the body is best broken up into separate sections for each.
Pro tip: Your writing should be as concise as possible while still saying everything you need in order to convince the reader to take an intended action.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s discuss the structure of an email newsletter from the beginning.
Attractive sender and subject line
The sender and the subject line go a long way toward convincing people to open an email. (Want proof? Go to your spam folder and look at the garbage subjects and spammy “from” addresses. Are you at all interested in what they have to say?)
So, what makes an attractive sender?
- A name: Every guide on writing a B2B or B2C email will tell you to use a human name rather than something like “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Doing so builds familiarity and creates that human connection that is so vital to building business relationships.
What about an attractive subject?
- Information: Readers want to know the email they’re about to dive into is relevant. If they don’t get that sense, they’re more likely to leave you unread than to go searching for the interesting content.
- Brevity: There’s no consensus on the perfect character length for email subject lines. Shorter tends to be better: various guides will say between 55 and 70 characters maximum. That said, shorter isn’t always possible if you want to clearly identify your newsletters.
This is where your newsletter shines. You’re compiling a lot of information about various topics here, so it’s important your readers receive a cohesive package of content while quickly understanding that the text contains information about a wide variety of subjects. This way, they can quickly scan your newsletters for the details that attract them.
Think of how a newspaper sports page is broken into separate sections. Each article is visually separate from another, divided either by spacing or lines. Furthermore, every article is about something different, but they’re all unified under a consistent theme.
Newspaper writing is also generally consistent overall. Each story has a unique tone influenced by the writer, but the masthead has a clearly consistent voice. YouTube commenters don’t write for the New York Times, after all.
Plain text vs. HTML emails
This section talks about the design of your newsletter. Plain text is exactly as it sounds: the equivalent of a basic Notepad document in email form. There’s no text formatting, images or graphic elements of any kind. It sounds boring, but several studies show that plain text actually increases open rates.
One possible theory is that email clients may flag HTML-heavy emails and mark them as something to be filtered. As Hubspot pointed out, Gmail’s default “Promotions” filter tries to catch any sales-rich messaging and keep them out of the inbox. Depending on the email client’s default filter configuration, some customers may unfortunately never lay eyes on these newsletters.
Additionally, email clients display HTML differently: An HTML email opened in Gmail may look different when opened in Outlook. Furthermore, some email clients or browsers can’t display HTML emails at all, nor can screen-reading software for disabled viewers parse through the code. The reasons for this are complex (email client Litmus wrote a handy blog about it here), but the basic fact is that plain text emails offer greater consistency and ensure all of your readers are able to consume your newsletter.
Visually, however, HTML is much more powerful and impactful. You can incorporate your brand’s colors and logos, split the body of your email into manageable sections and link to your website with attractive CTAs. Plus, HTML can introduce hierarchy into your emails via colors and font sizes, making them much easier to digest. Everything looks the same in plain text, making it difficult for readers to quickly identify the important information.
So which do you choose? The answer, of course, is both. Most email marketing platforms make it easy to convert your HTML emails into plain text, so there’s no reason to skip one version or the other.
Also, if you’re worried about some clients not displaying your snazzy HTML email correctly, you can always give readers the option to view the newsletter as a single web page in their browser.
Creating an HTML newsletter template
Just as newsletters are delivered according to a consistent schedule, so too should they have unifying visual elements. To put this in plain speak, a template ensures your newsletters look like they’re parts of a regular series (which, of course, they are).
Creating a template from scratch is complicated and requires some detailed knowledge about programming, design and various email clients, but there are some general visual rules you should always follow:
- Use a fixed width rather than a fluid layout. This means setting horizontal dimensions so readers aren’t forced to scroll from side to side or rotate their mobile devices in order to read a single line.
- Include a header. This adds visual interest, establishes hierarchy and incorporates your branding right from the outset.
- Break the body into sections. Each one will contain a different subject. The sections should be visually divided, and your most important or engaging content should:
- Sit at the top of the newsletter.
- Take up the most space (if your sections will be of varying size).
- Place social icons. You want people to follow your Facebook and Twitter, don’t you?
- Add a share button. This allows readers to share content from directly within the newsletter without having to navigate away from their email.
- Include a footer. This will mimic the footer on your website, reinforcing your branding and providing contact information.
This post from Hubspot has some great examples of newsletter templates if you need some inspiration.
Finally, here’s a brief checklist of other things to include:
- Your logo. It’s the most important visual element of your brand, after all.
- Headings. Important for establishing visual hierarchy and delineating different sections.
- A human face. Adding a face to go along with the sending address increases the human connection.
- Links to content/a CTA. You’ll always want to link back to your website or social pages to increase clicks/reads/engagement/whatever metric you’re looking for.
Newsletters can be jam-packed with information, but they should still be easy reads. Writing one is a bit art (using a voice that matches your audience) and a bit science (optimizing your subject, visuals and copy). Use short sentences and avoid passive voice for greater clarity.
In terms of tone, newsletters are a great opportunity to be personable and enhance the human connection between your business and your readers. Write as though you’re speaking to a friend who knows your industry: You don’t have to avoid corporate jargon completely, but you shouldn’t be overly academic, either.
Also, and I cannot stress this enough: Proofread your work. Every spelling or grammar mistake – even the understandable ones – reduces the credibility of both your writing and your brand. the credibility of both your writing and your brand.
Scheduling your newsletters
Like I said way up above, frequency is a main differentiator between newsletters and email campaigns. Your audience should expect to see your newsletters on the same days in a certain increment: daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly or quarterly.
Now, the exact frequency depends on your content and your audience. If, for example, you plan to create a newsletter showcasing your latest content, consider how frequently you update your blog and create new assets. You’ll probably struggle to include enough information for a daily newsletter, but a weekly or bi-weekly one would work.
Similarly, a monthly newsletter is good for subjects with a few pieces of content – for instance, a summary of company news. A monthly newsletter of your blog posts, on the other hand, will have too much content and readers likely won’t make it to the end.
Still, this doesn’t tell you when and how often to send your newsletters. Unfortunately, there’s no universal answer. What works for your audience probably won’t work for another company’s, and vice versa.
That said, you can use some generalities to get started. CoSchedule has a helpful roundup of 10 different studies on email timing that you can use to establish your own schedule. Experiment with different dates and times and, once you have enough data, review your analytics to see when your audience opens emails.
Understanding newsletter data
You’ll want to give your audience some time to read your emails to get an accurate analysis, so wait two or three days after sending before reviewing your analytics.
The data you’ll want to review includes:
- Total opens/open rates.
- Total clicks/click-through rate.
- Read rate.
- Website visitors.
- Bounce rate.
This will give you a good understanding of how people are interacting with your newsletter.
Yes, we’ve just gone through a lot, but trust me: Writing a newsletter is a lot easier than it sounds. Once you get into a consistent routine, your emails will almost write themselves.
Now tell us: What’s in your next newsletter?