Designing effective newsletters has been a significant proportion of my life for the last few years. I will list a few of the things I’ve seen work well, as well as mistakes.
My background is in measuring marketing effectiveness for enterprises. A few years ago I started a company called CME Connect and we work with clients to build their marketing capability. The most common reason clients get us in is they want help with their newsletters. This background will affect my answer in a few ways:
- My focus will be on how to design a newsletter that is profitable. A beautiful newsletter which does not increase revenue or decrease costs has very little interest for me.
- Branding and HTML coding are both important but they’re not my areas of specialty so I will not go into detail
- Some of the things I talk about will be irrelevant for smaller companies. For example managing multiple stakeholders and sign-off.
- We have developed technology for addressing the issues I talk about here and I will use that as an example of how to approach the issue. Most other enterprise-level software has similar features and even if it doesn’t, you can usually achieve the same thing manually with a bit more work. Please let me know if you need to do something I describe using different software.
Return on Marketing Investment
The thing I try to have in the back of my mind when designing newsletters is ROI (or more precisely, return on marketing investment- ROMI). Creating newsletters takes a lot of time and it’s important to keep your budget in mind. Every newsletter you send has an expected ROMI based on how it impacts lifetime value (mainly through reducing churn and generating sales).
The point is that the newsletter generates incremental returns, and improvements to the newsletter make it incrementally better. It is extremely easy to spend thousands of dollars on extracting the last few dollars of return. The best way to design a newsletter is quite different to the way you would design the best newsletter!
The best way to design a newsletter is to spend the appropriate amount of time on it so as to maximise long-term revenue. Everything else is a collection of techniques for how to do this. How to identify things with long-term impacts. How to estimate the costs and benefits of tasks. I find that the single biggest difference is simply remembering that you’re there to create a profit, not to create a newsletter, and everything you do should be evaluated against that goal. Keep that in the back of your mind and it will make a huge difference.
Our software makes it easy to estimate ROMI which is a handy time-saver but it’s easy enough to ballpark yourself. Estimate the incremental difference that this work will create per customer, and multiply that by the number of customers.
The reason I’m going on and on about this is that is that it comes up every day, for example:
- You sit down with your CMO and demonstrate your assumptions showing that a newsletter should have a good ROMI, signing off a budget to run it for a year.
- You are deciding whether to hire an HTML coder and use the same process to decide to do so.
- A product manager suggests writing some special copy for people who have already purchased. You work out how many people this is and estimate the value of the better message to decide that actually a generic message is better value
- You’re considering replacing a photo taking by your assistant with one taken by a professional photographer. This will cost about $600. You guess it will increase the value to each customer by about $0.0005 in incremental gross profit, and you’re sending to one million people. That works out to a $500 return for a $600 investment and stick with the existing photo.
At first you are unlikely to know your incremental ROMI. I would encourage you to not get too hung up on this. Just take a guess, write it down and act based on that guess. The important thing is to measure what your real ROMI was after the campaign and adjust your future guesses accordingly.
If you do this well then a lot of very important benefits fall into place naturally. For example actively trying to build relationships with less active customers often looks bad because they have low engagement statistics. However there is typically a lot of them and they have much more potential for incremental returns so . The emphasis on engaging with each and every customer is one of the biggest differences between a marketing automation system and a campaign management system.
What to talk about
What do your customers want to read about? Do they want great offers? Behind the scenes interviews? Customer success stories? Funny jokes? An effective customer research programme is essential for driving your newsletter programme. It’s important to realise that the priorities of your company such as new product launches is generally not those of your customers and you need to balance between the two.
I am personally a huge fan of tracking via ‘read more’ links, much like Quora uses. If a customer clicks on the read more link then clearly they’re interested. If they don’t then you got it wrong and just wasted their time. Do that too often and they’ll unsubscribe.
This approach has downsides. It requires writing teaser copy (aka clickbait) rather than summarising the subject efficiently so that interested customers do not need to ‘read more’. An alternative method is running a research programme. I’m not a huge fan of this because what people say and what they do is so different. However the general idea of getting information from a proxy is worth remembering.
Depending on the sophistication of your software (and the ROMI), I am a big fan of crafting different messages for every customer. For example if 20% of your customers want to hear what your management team is up to and 60% would rather not then the only way to give everyone what they want is by building an optimal newsletter for every customer. I get into this a bit more later but for now I’ll simply note that this requires tracking every individual’s interests and preferences rather than general trends. Also note that this is the sort of feature offered by enterprise marketing automation but not by the SMB solutions. You’ll need to decide what the ROMI is and whether that justifies an enterprise solution.
You can probably see from this that I take an extremely data-driven approach to content selection. I should point out that I use data to guide me, but I consider it absolutely essential that the marketer retains final control.
Message Eligibility, Relevance and ROI
There’s three main things to think about when deciding what content a customer should receive. People sometimes use these terms and I think this leads to mistakes. I would encourage you to get a system which allows you to work with all three concepts independently even if your organisation is not currently sophisticated enough to take full advantage of it.
Message eligibility is very simple. Who are we allowed to tell this message to? For example if you want to reward your VIPs with a special deal, then only VIPs are eligible for that message. If you are selling alcohol then only people with a verified age will be allowed to see the message. I use strict rules to handle eligibility, e.g. ‘VIP = TRUE’.
Just because someone is eligible for a message does not make it relevant for them. A 40 year old teetotaler is unlikely to be very interested in a discount on alcohol. I measure relevance using propensity models. For new products or in situations where I do not have a good propensity model, I simply build the best one I can. CME has a built in tool for automatically generating simple propensity models based on transactions which makes this quick and easy. If this is not easy in your organisation then (at the risk of sounding like a broken record) remember ROMI - it could well be that a very simple intuition-based model costs so much less than employing a statistical modeller that you’re better saving money.
Your company’s ROI is also critically important. Say you’ve selling two products, one with low margin and one with high margin. The customer has a slightly higher propensity for the low margin product. You will need to decide how to weight the customer’s interests against your company’s. Essentially, do you value short-term profit or building long-term loyalty.
I would strongly encourage you to think very carefully about this. It’s all very well to say that my role as a marketer is to build customer loyalty, but at some point you need to translate that into incremental profit. If you do decide as a company that loyalty is the priority then how are you going to manage a senior product owner begging for their product to be promoted when customer feedback has been poor?
I personally like to combine the message relevance with ROI to give an overall message score for this customer. This is the expected incremental profit from sending this message to this customer. The formula is:
(probability of purchase if they receive this message - probability of purchase if they do not receive this message) * profit from purchase + impact on lifetime value
The value of building a bank of approved content is something I discovered by accident. Every organisation I’ve worked in went crazy as the newsletter deadline approached. Stakeholders desperately wanted changes to their message and/or targeting, That was, until I saw one where it was managed differently and ever since I’ve done my best to get other company’s to adopt their approach.
I feel a bit like I’m sharing my secret sauce but… the magic was to have the newsletter deploy on time every day completely automatically with whatever content has been approved. I’ll try and break apart all the important components
- Newsletters are comprised of message blocks (CME refers to them simply as messages and the entire newsletter as a communication). Everything you do from design to approval should be centered around these messages, not the whole newsletter
- Get your messages approved early. Each message has both its creative (HTML) and criteria (eligibility, relevance) as described above. You can organise with stakeholders to get this approved potentially weeks before the message starts to go out.
- Decentralise as much as possible. The stakeholders rarely interested in doing so in the marketing system. Send them an email with the message to approve and log their response. Where possible, have the different business units write and approve their own messages. You can always require central approval as well if necessary.
- Have plenty of spare messages. For example if you decide to average four messages in your newsletter then write four reasonable messages to get started. Now you can keep improving your newsletter by spending longer but there is no real panic if a particular message gets pulled at the last moment.
- Try to avoid large deployments. If you deploy to ten million people once a month then you’ll get stakeholders pushing for changes at the last minute. If you deploy to 300k a day then the pressure is much lower. Sometimes this is impossible but doing it where possible means you have more resources for the exceptions.
- Remember that recipients receive a whole newsletter, not just message blocks. You need to periodically check how the whole thing comes together. For example you might want a business rule that a newsletter contains a the following blocks: transactional, promotional, feel good and strategic. Without this you might end up sending someone four feel good messages and no promotions.
Make it look good
Good copy writing is important. You can probably tell reading my answer that it isn’t my strength! The difference that employing a copywriter makes is huge.
Sticking to your brand guidelines is also very important. It should be immediately obvious that this newsletter comes from you. Good creative will include plenty of white space, relevant graphics and the correct fonts.
There’s some technical details to writing emails which do not come up elsewhere. HTML in emails lags years behind the web. Three of the main problems are:
- Mobile. While an increasingly high proportion of websites are consumed on mobile, email is several years ahead in this regard.
- HTML engine. For various reasons, getting your email to look the same on different clients is much harder than it is for your website.
I would recommend learning a decent email HTML editor and also getting a licence to Litmus. Testing using Litmus is far better use of time than having half a dozen different clients installed. CME integrates with litmus so that you can easily see how your email looks on a bunch of different clients. Even if the tool you’re using does not do this it is pretty quick and easy to load up Litmus.
Finally I recommend making this an explicit step in your approval process. When you get a stakeholder sign off that they’re happy with a message they tend to concentrate on the content of the message. Explicitly putting on a marketing hat and asking ‘Does this read well? Is it on brand? Does it look good for most clients?’
I’ve hinted at this throughout the answer but I want to call it out explicitly. Monitor how you’re tracking and keep trying to improve. Try A/B segmentation where you send the same message phrased in different ways to different audiences and measure your ROMI.
One thing to be aware of is that we find it takes about seven relevant emails in a row before a customer realises they like receiving emails from you. A single good email will not see a significant increase in engagement. This also means you get very little benefit having a great newsletter but lousy solus messaging. Along similar lines, it’s important that you don’t change too quickly.
I mentioned feedback above when talking about deciding what is relevant. I believe it is very important to read the responses you’re getting to your newsletter and work to incorporate this feedback into your design. Do not send from firstname.lastname@example.org - instead create a dialog. CME is somewhat unique in including a feature for managing replies. If your software does not do this then redirect the replies to your inbound service team.
Lastly it’s not just your marketing effectiveness that you should keep improving. Think about your costs - if you’re spending a long time getting some data each week then organise a data feed or do without it.
Reduce ongoing work
This probably all sounds like a lot of work. It is. Building an effective newsletter requires a lot of things to be going write. What I would encourage is three things:
- Run a trial for a few months in order to demonstrate the newsletter’s ROMI to stakeholders. CME Connect offers free trials, as do most other marketing automation systems. The point of the trial is to get wide buy-in for investing.
- Build as much as possible upfront, you want your weekly deployments to be as efficient as possible. We like to build a marketing datamart with integration from CRM, web analytics and so on. This is a fair bit of work but it means everything else is easier. You never have to
- Choose the right size of marketing platform. If your marketing budget is $20,000/year then a powerful system like CME is just not a good investment. You’ll be better with something simpler - there’s no point having lots of levers to pull if you don’t have the time to manage them! Conversely if marketing is worth millions to your company then do not go out and buy a cheap tool because you’ll spend too long making it jump through loops. Simple campaign tools like ExactTarget, MailChimp and similar can be made to do everything I’ve outlined above but it is incredibly hard. You will end up simply not doing half the work.
This is probably a longer response than you were looking for. The reason my company has been successful is that lots of companies struggle with the points I’ve described. Often what happens is that a company buys our competitor’s product and then can’t effectively integrate it with their business processes.
Designing good newsletters is more about good data-driven marketing than it is about technology. Go back to first principals and other things fall into place. That’s why I started my answer by talking about ROMI. Along similar lines, don’t stress too much about getting it all right at the start - get a good platform and gradually improve from there.
The best way to design a newsletter is work out what each customer wants to hear in a regular and timely manner and tell them. The better you can do that, the better your newsletters will be.
PS: This answer was originally written for Quora but I put a lot of time into thinking it through and wanted to keep a copy.