Email Newsletter Boost: Five Ways (plus one) to Pump it Up

Bike pump by Flickr user mhall209
Pump up your newsletter (not just your tires). Photo by Flickr user mhall209.
In the last couple years I’ve had many conversations about email campaign strategy that invariably veer towards the oft-dreaded topic of “email newsletters.” In most cases staff hate their newsletter, have trouble defining why they put together the newsletter (which is often a heavy lift internally) and report open and clickthrough and other action rates that are headed nowhere but down. The 2011 E-Benchmarks report from M+R and NTEN report an average clickthrough rate of 2% for email newsletters.

Done with intention and skill, email newsletters are a good opportunity to provide a consistent drumbeat of conversation about your work and people that is needed to consistently engage and build relationships. Notice use of the word “conversation” above. Most email newsletters are mimicking old print brochures, magazines and newsletters that couldn’t be interactive, responsive or timely. This is most often boring. Take some time to play around with interaction. Ask people questions, work in a poll or quiz, have an action opportunity but make it unique to the newsletter – something special the reader can look forward to each month.

We’re going to expand a bit upon that last newsletter idea here with five ways to ramp up the email newsletter. Inspiration for this comes from a great recent post by Matt Krautstrunk over on the Blue Sky Factory blog – well worth checking out.

Let’s first define email newsletter. A newsletter is the regularly scheduled informational piece. Usually it goes out monthly but could be weekly or bi-weekly or some other at least sorta regular pace. The newsletter is distinct from time-sensitive action alerts, fundraising appeals and similar communications. This doesn’t mean that a newsletter shouldn’t be timely and responsive to current events but that isn’t typically its role.


I don’t know about you but just the word newsletter screams out “blah, blah, blah.” Dull. Mundane. Filler. The sort of thing that if it came to me via paper would go straight to the recycling bin. And consider the fact that it is 100 times easier to click delete or just ignore an email than it is to bring a piece of mail all the way from the mailbox to the recycling.

Be unique and memorable. For most nonprofits this won’t mean being outrageous or over the top but you need to nail it with the newsletter title, subject line and design (particularly the use of layout and alt text in the header, which is what people will see in preview mode with images turned off).

You can also personalize the voice of the newsletter. Include a personal introduction from the executive director or a key local leader in the organization – someone that will help the readers make a personal connection to the organization.

#1: Unique regular feature

You might remember reading the weekly Mini Page in the newspaper when you were a kid. I do and it’s still there. Now, our kids look forward to Wednesday mornings when the Mini Page shows up in the newspaper (Yes, a printed newspaper that kids want to read. Shocking.)

#2: Sharing is caring

Make it drop dead simple to share articles and the newsletter itself on Facebook, Twitter and other networks that are important to you and your audience. Which brings up another point – have a web version of the email readily available for sharing. It’s somewhere between hard and possible to link to an email message in someone’s inbox. Emphasize sharing the message, making it easy to subscribe (should the message be shared or forwarded). Hype or preview the newsletter on Facebook or Twitter (e.g. “If you’re subscribed you’re going to read a great story by Robert Redford on the Yosemite River. Why not subscribe now?”)

#3: Focus

Your reader’s attention is short. Short. You can suck them in but it has to be great content. Prioritize your best and/or most important content. Make it easy to find. Use clear and inviting headlines. Don’t try to give everything the same attention. Readers will scroll down a bit but they’re not going to go hunting for content they don’t know about. Try a couple different layouts. Put the main article up top with headlines and links to other articles at the top but in a sidebar. Try a one column design that puts the main article at top and links to other articles below.

#4: Rock your ALT tags

It has become fairly standard for email clients to not display images in email by default. If your email is image-heavy or your headers, links or even the whole email is an image then readers aren’t seeing anything if images are turned off. ALT tags can save your bacon. These insert text under the image that can describe the image or make a call to action for you.

Example of email newsletter with images turned off
Example of email newsletter with images turned off
The two images here provide a great example of how poor ALT tags end up telling the reader nothing. Don’t rely on reader curiosity or goodwill and hope that users will click the display images link.

ALT tags are also a necessity for vision-impaired users or anyone else using a screen reader.

Example of newsletter message with images turned on
Example of same message with images turned on
Campaign Monitor, a great resource for all things email, put together an article in 2010 about ALT text and how it renders in various email clients. Not all email programs treat ALT text the same. Some will only show short ALT text messages. Some will let you style it with CSS – which can make it more readable and stand out – but many won’t.

It’s worth noting that not all images need ALT text. It can get in the way. If an image is purely decorative – a flowery border, perhaps – then don’t sweat the ALT.

Keep ALT text brief but informative. Test your messages, especially image headers and key images near the top, with images off in different email clients to see what your users will see.

#5: Pay attention to stats

What are people clicking on? What are open rates and clickthrough rates? Can you push them up? A/B testing of link/feature placement, images, and text. If you have a legitimate goal in mind then it’s probably worth taking the time to see how you can increase progress towards that goal. If you’re not checking the stats then maybe the feature isn’t actually important.

Bonus #6: Get rid of your newsletter

Finally, test getting rid of the newsletter or only sending it to discrete segments of your audience. This might be a tough sell around the organization, especially if your newsletter is being used as a way to give some email coverage to topics that don’t make it into action alerts or other email messaging. But you may find that the newsletter isn’t worth the effort or that some folks respond better to more issue or action-focused emails.

Email newsletters can serve a purpose and are more likely to do so if you take the time to set clear goals, test, track results and optimize your design and content for your audience. But don’t just throw out a newsletter just because someone says you should.

2 thoughts on “Email Newsletter Boost: Five Ways (plus one) to Pump it Up

  1. Great post, Ted! I’m actually doing an “Ask the Expert” session for the RI 501 Tech Club in a few weeks on eNewsletter best practices, so this will definitely come in handy.

    The “get rid of your newsletter” bonus really stood out while I was reading. To me, those who would eliminate their eNews may be those who haven’t followed your other five points. Sure, those weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, etc. emails can take lots of time and effort, but the next time you are complaining about the never ending eNews cycle, take a look at your stats.

    At an organization I’ve worked at, the day the monthly eNews was sent was consistently the day with most website visitors and greatest level of interaction each month. Even though most of the time there was not a direct ask, the eNewsletter would raise some amount of money – sometimes hundreds and sometimes thousands – simply by placing a donation button above the fold.

    Sure there can be negatives such as decreasing open rates, low click-through, and list churn, but I bet folks would be hard pressed not to find a silver lining and some great stats. Besides, I look at each and every email as an opportunity to improve the next. That’s why I play the game 🙂

    1. Great thoughts, Shana. Killing a newsletter is probably a final option and it should be a strategic decision not hastily made. But it should be as much a tool in the toolbox as anything else. In too many cases there are not clear, solid goals and good implementation for email newsletters. And not enough attention is paid to stats. Seriously, if nothing else then the idea of dispensing with the newsletter should make folks think better about why and how they’re doing it. And then the rest of these tips – and others – can be implemented with intention. Thanks!

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