I’ve been tracking email newsletter trends for my entire career. The majority of our clients send regular newsletters, and it’s my job to know what used to work, what works now, and what’s going to work tomorrow.
Recently, I’ve encountered a few misconceptions about email newsletters, namely that they’re an “outdated” communication channel. This could not be further from the truth, and if anything we’re seeing more creativity, higher engagement, and better results from today’s newsletters than ever before. In fact, if I find out that a potential client has moved away from the email newsletter due to subpar results, my first question is always about the content. For the most part, newsletters that underperform are… bad.
Bad newsletters are bad, but good newsletters are great.
On the flip side, good newsletters perform exceptionally well and are often a brand’s leading channel. The New York Times has one of the most robust newsletter machines out there, with over 50 subscriptions for every stripe of reader, and they’ve found that their newsletter readers consume twice as much content as those who don’t get newsletters and are twice as likely to become paid subscribers. Why? Well, there’s one huge difference between newsletter subscribers and most of a brand’s other audiences: they’ve opted in. They’ve asked for regular content to be delivered to their inboxes. If the newsletter is high quality, they might even look forward to it each day, week, or month. And if they’re millennials, it’s likely their favorite way to communicate; 73 percent of millennials prefer communications from businesses to come via email.
Still not convinced? Why the newsletter is worth your time.
Newsletters have another big benefit over channels like social media or search engine marketing: reaching people through these other channels relies on the platforms’ algorithms, and — as we’ve seen time and time again — those algorithms are subject to change at a moment’s notice, leaving marketers scrambling. When it comes to your email subscribers, your list is your list. No matter how many times you change email marketing platforms, your audience stays with you.
That’s not to say we should abandon these other channels — not at all. Rather, email newsletters should be one part of a well-rounded, multi-channel content strategy that also includes elements like website content with good SEO, guest articles in targeted publications, social media, search engine marketing, traditional and digital advertising, direct mail, podcasts, and a whole host of other possibilities, depending on your marketing objectives. 83% of B2B companies are using email newsletters in this way, as one part of their larger content marketing programs.
But how do you make sure your newsletter performs?
I get it. Lackluster open rates and click-through rates can be frustrating. Is your subject line not catchy enough? Should you have added an emoji? Do you need more video? Less video? Are you not even sure if your open rates are good or bad? (To set some baseline goals, MailChimp’s email marketing benchmarks by industry are useful, but one note: these benchmarks are for all email marketing, which includes straight-up promotional emails. Expect newsletter open rates to be a bit higher on average.)
I have read thousands of email newsletters, and ultimately, writing a successful one comes down to two things: meaningful content and an authentic voice. Here are our specific do’s and don’ts to help you get there.
- Regurgitate your web content. Too many brands think a newsletter should be simply a list of recent blog posts with links. A few links sprinkled here and there are fine, if they’re relevant to fresh content you’re providing exclusively for your subscribers.
- Create content that is primarily self-serving. Think instead about what would be valuable to your audience and give them a reason to open, read, and click.
- Sell hard. Sure, you can use your newsletter to (sparingly) promote your products or services, but, again, think about what your audience wants to read and give them mostly that. An overly salesy newsletter shows disrespect for your subscribers’ inboxes and is a quick way to rack up unsubscribes.
- Nail your voice. Email newsletters are personal; they arrive in our inboxes, addressed just to us. The content and tone should also be personal, too, and should embody the vision and voice of your brand. Try viewing every newsletter through the eyes of someone who has just subscribed and is new to your brand — do the content and tone help them understand who you are.
- Be consistent. No need to reinvent the wheel every time you send a newsletter. In fact, subscribers appreciate knowing generally what to expect each time they see you in their inboxes. Choose a format and stick to it, then send at a regular cadence, whether that’s at 8am every morning or on the third Thursday of every month.
- Lose the formalities. Because newsletters are personal, they can be more casual than other communications you send. Of course, “casual” is relative and depends on your brand, but if your tone is typically buttoned up, this is the environment in which you can loosen that necktie just a bit. (Note: this does not mean you can bypass checking your content for spelling and grammar mistakes. Always, always get a second set of eyes to proofread your newsletter and send a test email or two before you schedule it for real.)
- Give people a compelling reason to stay subscribed. With the onslaught of email most of us receive, many people are becoming more protective of their inboxes and hitting that unsubscribe button the second a subscription no longer offers them enough value. To guard against this, it’s important to provide something in every email that will make them remember why they signed up to hear from you in the first place. We find that content that teaches the reader something new or gives them a tool that will help them in their job performs particularly well.
- Give people a reason to share. One way to increase your email list is to create inherently shareable content that recipients can’t help but forward to friends. Again, useful tools and educational or how-to content tend to do well.
Want to see firsthand what a high-quality email newsletter looks like? Here are three of our favorites — subscribe to see what we mean.
- Austin Kleon’s newsletter. Kleon is a writer and artist who sends a weekly list of 10 things he thinks are worth sharing. It’s fairly lightweight — just a list of 10 links — but the resources he curates are often enlightening and they help to create a connection with the reader by revealing his personality and interests.
- AIGA’s Eye on Design. This newsletter not only contains highly targeted, meaningful content, but it’s also visually captivating, which is on brand for this professional association of design.
- Culture Amp’s The People Geekly. This employee feedback platform company sends a weekly round-up of content that’s relevant to people far beyond their target demographic of HR folks, attracting pretty much anyone who wants their workplace to be happier and more productive.
Of course, I’d be remiss not to include Trekk’s monthly newsletter. If you want to see how we apply our expertise when it comes to our own email marketing, subscribe here. And connect with me on social with your comments, questions, and feedback — I’d love to chat about your audience and how to increase your engagement.
Header photo by Samuel Zeller.