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How To Launch A Killer Email Newsletter

Don’t launch your email newsletter blindly–get a head start and learn from my successes, failures, and many experiments over the years.

How To Launch A Killer Email Newsletter
[Photo: Flickr user Nationaal Archief]

A few years ago, when I started working on newsletters, most people thought email was dead. Social media, it seemed, was THE way to reach people.

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But today, thanks in large part to the unknowable ways of algorithms–which have made it nearly impossible to definitively figure out how to reach your followers on social media platforms–the reliability of email as a form of communication has put the newsletter back in the spotlight. Today, newsletters are flooding inboxes. The question isn’t whether or not you should start an email newsletter; it’s how can you create a newsletter people will actually want to open?

What Day Or Time Of Day Is Best To Send A Newsletter?

This is probably the most asked (yet least important) question about starting a newsletter. There is no universal day or time to send an email. Rigorous testing of Fast Company’s Daily newsletter proved that whether we sent it at 6 a.m., noon, or 4 p.m., our open rate stayed the same. Emails have a long shelf life, and users will go back and click on an email that interests them hours, days, and even weeks after you send it.

So, When Should You Send It?

Even if your open rate remains the same no matter what time you send your newsletter, your campaign’s highest open rate will be in the hour following your send time. So you should be mindful and thoughtful about the time you choose. Consider four things here: your workflow, your audience, your competition, and your goal.

Workflow
When does it make sense in your workflow to send the newsletter? Pick a day/time that fits into your schedule, and make sure it’s a time that you can replicate each day or week. Consistency in send time is important in order to become a part of your readers’ routines (and you want to be part of their routine).

Depending on the type of newsletter you’re sending, preparing a newsletter can be incredibly time consuming, and hitting a strict deadline can be stressful. Leave yourself enough time to create, get feedback on, and test your newsletter–more on that in a minute.

Audience
Make sure you consider your users when choosing your send time. Try to imagine what they’re doing at the time they receive your email, and ask yourself: do they want your email then? At 9 a.m. on Mondays, I imagine Fast Company‘s East Coast readers heading in to work, maybe still commuting, maybe standing in line for coffee, maybe already at their desks while our West Coast users are just waking up–and most of those activities give those readers just enough time to skim through the Fast Company Daily.

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Competition
The easiest way to stand out is to be the only new email in a user’s inbox. Scope out your competitors and pick a send time that doesn’t overlap with theirs.

Goal
Finally, consider what you want your user to do with your newsletter. If you’re asking them to click through to take a survey or read your 1,200-word exposé, don’t send your newsletter during their morning commute, when users are likely preoccupied and short on time. That kind of content might make more sense on the weekend.

The Week’s newsletter (left) uses long paragraphs and NYT’s daily news brief (right) uses bullet points and short sentences so you can read and skim more information in the same amount of space.

What Else?

Design
Your newsletter design should be mobile-first, simple, and skimmable. Here are some tips from my experiences over the years:

  • Bear in mind the screen size of your readers’ phones when you’re developing your newsletter’s layout and creating content. Choose bullet points and short sentences instead of paragraphs, and use headers to break up text.
  • Keep your paragraphs short and use lots of headers to break up the material.
  • Do use photos–but remember that they won’t always load quickly, or at all, in certain browsers and email clients. So it’s best to start your newsletter with text, and place photos lower in the email, so they have time to load before your users scroll that far down..
  • Unlike the web, email does not support fancy fonts and complex design because of all the different inboxes, devices, screen sizes, and mail platforms out there. So make sure you test your design in as many inbox types as you can. Many email newsletter management tools feature a render option, which should enable you to see what your newsletter will look like across a wide range of inboxes.

Subject Line
Your subject line is what will make a user either open or ignore your email, so it’s important to get it right. Your subject line can be anything: a question, an answer, a single word, and even a full a sentence–as long as it’s intriguing enough to make your readers want to click on it.

Make sure to test your subject lines, at least when you’re starting out on your newsletter adventure. Many newsletter platforms like Mailchimp have an A/B testing feature that allows you to easily pit one subject line against another by testing your options on a small sample of your subscribers before sending the winning subject line out to the rest of your list.

At Fast Company, we test a series of subject lines on Twitter before we send out our morning newsletter. We send out a bunch of early morning tweets with our possible subject lines (and the links to the stories that each line goes with) and we choose the winner based on which tweet garners the highest engagement rate. That’s how we choose the subject line you receive from us in your inbox every morning!

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Content
Good content, with the right voice and format, is obviously the most important part of a newsletter. Perfecting that, with lots of feedback from outsiders, is really your first step.

Once you have good content, and subscribers, you’ll still need to work hard to keep subscribers hooked. Users will naturally lose interest in a newsletter within the first few months. You need something extra to keep them coming back–-something unique that sets your newsletter apart from the rest. It could be a unique format like the number-centric Significant Digits newsletter, the pop-culture-heavy references in TheSkimm, inside-baseball stories from a niche provider like Nieman Lab’s journalism news digest, or exclusive offers and giveaways–for example, I always open the Creative Market newsletter to get the free design template and font downloads for that week.

Testing

I discussed earlier how we test subject lines for the Fast Company Daily newsletter each day, which is an ongoing method we’ve found to be successful at maximizing email engagement on a daily basis. But there are a lot of other tests–ongoing and occasional–that are important to ensure your newsletter is a success.

What should you test?
Start with your questions or uncertainties about your newsletter, and the problems you think it has. Then ask your subscribers about those things through surveys and observe their behavior on a macro level with A/B testing.

When we set out to redesign the Fast Company Daily, we had our ideas about what needed to be fixed (for starters, it featured bright blue links and wasn’t responsive to different screen sizes). But we knew that before we changed anything, we would first need our users’ input. We started by sending a survey to our most loyal subscribers (the subscribers who open our newsletter the most–this is data we can easily pull from our newsletter service provider, MailChimp), since they were the ones who would be most affected by any changes and, we thought, would be the most willing to give feedback.

We focused the survey on what we ourselves thought were issues with the newsletter, and on aspects of the newsletter that we thought were already pretty good but could be more perfect, like story selection. In the end, we found that the most important questions we asked were:

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“What do you do when you open the Fast Company newsletter?”

This told us, at the most basic level, what the use of our newsletter was–which was important when we considered what our goals were for the redesign. Ultimately we needed to make it easier for our subscribers to skim through the headlines (which is what most users said they did with our newsletter), and try to increase our click through rate (which was our objective).

“What do you like or dislike about the Fast Company Daily?”

While it took a while to read through and identify themes across all the answers to this open-ended question, it was definitely worth it. The answers to the question helped us see problems we didn’t even know existed–like duplicated stories across our newsletters, or lack of labels for our video links.

These long-form answers helped us get to know our users better, so in the future when we consider changes, we have a base understanding of who they are, how they think, and what’s important to them.

Most important question in our initial user survey, which told us what users wanted from our newsletter: to skim through stories.

Don’t Blindly Trust Your Audience (Or Your Own Instincts)–Test Everything!
After we learned what our subscribers said they do with our newsletter, we had to put their feedback (and our own assumptions) to the test and see what they actually did. So, we divided our subscriber base into three sections, and sent each group a different newsletter.

Group A was the control, and received our traditional newsletter. Group B received what appeared to be the traditional newsletter, but with an element or two that differed from the original in order to conduct A/B testing. And group C received something completely different: an email dominated by text, not interspersed with images.

The “A” and “B” newsletters helped us answer some quick questions.We sent A at 7 a.m. and B at noon or 4 p.m. to see whether there was a better time to send the newsletter (there wasn’t). We sent A with one subject line style for a week, and B with another style, to see whether there was a specific subject line formula that worked best (there wasn’t). We put 6 stories in A and 10 stories in B to see whether more stories in our newsletters resulted in a higher click through (it didn’t).

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The original Fast Company Daily, used for test “A” and “B” (left) used for A/B testing. Fast Company Daily test “C” (right)–an all text newsletter used for testing alternative newsletter formats.

Meanwhile, newsletter C helped us test a newsletter type we thought we should be sending, a newsletter that didn’t just contain a list of links and images but instead was dominated by text written by a reporter or editor. For the record, most of our users hated that newsletter–since, as we learned in our our initial user survey and the ongoing survey we linked to every day in newsletter C, all our users really wanted to do with our newsletter was skim through headlines to find what interested them. Paragraphs of text weren’t conducive to skimming.

All that testing led us to our current newsletter format, which is informed by all the lessons from newsletter tests A and B, and designed based on the daily feedback we received from subscribers of newsletter test C.

How Do You Know You’re Succeeding?

No matter what type of newsletter you’re creating, you should be looking to measure success in two key ways: loyalty (the consistency of your users’ engagement) and growth (growing and maintaining your subscriber list). Whether the end goal of your newsletter is to drive traffic, develop brand awareness, drive sales, or world peace, being successful at achieving any goal first depends on the loyalty of your users and the size of your audience.

Driving loyalty
Make sure to engage with your users. Email as a medium is a multi-directional communication device, so make sure to use it that way–not just as a one-way delivery system for your content.

A good way to promote engagement with your users is to solicit responses. That can be as simple as encouraging them to email you back with comments or feedback.

Polls are a very easy way to get your users engaged with the least amount of effort on their part. When we sent detailed surveys to our most loyal subscribers, we had a 30% response rate from them and received some very valuable and lengthy responses from our subscribers. But to find out what the rest of our subscribers wanted–subscribers who might not be as committed to us as a brand and therefore might not be willing to put in as much effort as our loyalest readers–we added polls to the bottom of each newsletter with simple questions like “Did you read the editor’s note at the top of the newsletter?”

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We experienced a higher response rate with 1-question polls because users didn’t have to leave the newsletter to submit feedback. The barrier to participation was low.

1-question poll in the Fast Company Daily that lowered the barrier to participation so that we could get feedback from more users.

You can also get users to engage with your newsletter just by asking questions–for example, Muckrack and other newsletters have daily trivia questions. It’s a good idea to encourage engagement that extends outside of the email–try to get users to engage with you on other platforms, and even at real-life events. TheSkimm has built probably the most loyal subscriber base with their skimm’bassadors program–they offer incentives to users who promote the newsletter, incentives like branded Skimm products, access to early product testing, invitations to events, and a shoutout in theSkimm on their birthdays.

Muckrack’s question of the day (left) promotes user engagement and theSkimm’s Skimm’r of the week (right) acknowledges loyal users.

Make sure to test different engagement strategies and see what clicks (no pun intended) with your audience. If they feel like you hear their voice and that they truly are part of your newsletter community, it’ll be easier for them to feel connected, and they will be more loyal as a result.

Growth
Being proactive about growing your newsletter list is as important as sending your newsletter. But how do you grow your following?

  • Use Your Network: From day one you should reach out to everyone you know to sign up for your newsletter, and get them to get their contacts to sign up, too.
  • Socialize: You should also use social networks to actively promote your newsletter. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn–get posting! You can also use Twitter cards (through Twitter’s ad interface) to promote your newsletter and solicit 1-click signups.
Fast Company Daily newsletter Twitter card to add 1-click newsletter signups to tweets.
  • Partner Up: Look for other people or businesses that run newsletters with a similar target audience and reach out to them to promote your newsletter. If your audience is large enough, you can reciprocate by promoting their business in your own newsletter.
  • Keep it simple! Make it as easy as possible for users to sign up for your newsletter. Don’t clutter your signup pages on your website with multiple fields or lots of text. You want to minimize the barrier to entry.If you have a website, make sure to create a clean, simple sign up box and feature it in a prominent place. Newsletter pop-ups may be annoying for the user, but they are an effective way to get signups–so try to minimize irritation by designing these boxes in an attractive and easy-to-navigate manner.
TheSkimm’s newsletter signup box is clean, simple, and prominent on their site.

Never stop promoting your newsletter, even if you feel like you’ve hit your goal subscriber number. Remember that users can lose interest in your work, so to achieve growth you need to gain active users at a faster rate than you lose them.

Final Thoughts: Always Think About Your User!

One big advantage of an email newsletter is that a user has to be pretty fed up with a newsletter to go through the steps required to unsubscribe. But considering how many newsletters are flooding inboxes these days and how detrimental non-essential emails can be to maintaining a healthy inbox, purging one’s inbox is become more and more important.

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I recently realized it was time to set aside some time and cull my newsletter subscriptions in an attempt to take back control of my inbox. I was ruthless, and cut 95% of my subscriptions. I cut anything that came daily that I didn’t read daily, and kept only newsletters that gave me something I couldn’t get anywhere else. You don’t want me to cut your newsletter out of my diet, do you? No. So make sure you’re always thinking about how you can make your newsletter essential to your user. When your reader evaluates her subscription diet, no matter how consistently you send your newsletter, no matter how much you have tested it, the only thing that will really matter is how good the content is. More on that in another installment.

If you aren’t already a subscriber, sign up for the Fast Company Daily below!