Clues for Successful Email Newsletters

If you run an email newsletter, you may have noticed there’s a lot of new competition.

Editor & Publisher (E&P) reports that 41 percent of standard print publications now have email adjuncts. The strongest growth is among business-to-business (B2B) titles.

The economics we’ve discussed here for years is behind the trend. Click-throughs are higher on email than on Web banners. Costs are relatively low, and profits can be very high.

According to the E&P story, many print publishers are now depending on email to fuel their growth.

My guess is, however, that a lot of them are going to be disappointed.

I’ve noticed two disturbing trends in these letters. First, they’re not always pure opt-in.

For instance, I recently got a card from a popular trade publication that will remain nameless, asking if I’d like a free subscription. I completed the required form but was then informed that I would be on a waiting list and would get its email newsletter in the meantime.

Now do you think this phony opt-in bait-and-switch tactic is going to make me a loyal reader of either the email newsletter or the print publication? (I don’t think so.)

Another, bigger problem is that most of these so-called “newsletters” are dry, dry, dry. They basically consist of links back to the publisher’s Web site, perhaps with a summary paragraph on each story. Oh, and lots of ads.

This is awesomely Clueless. Email is a far more personal medium than print. It demands a different writing style.

Also, email and print are very different media. If you want your email to be read, you’re going to have to have it written — preferably by a writer, and preferably by a writer with something to say.

The best email newsletters don’t just offer news, but opinion and wit. They leave you thinking. And they don’t just leave you clicking back to the author’s home page. They open your day by opening your mind. They may be funny, they may be controversial, but they are never boring.

Unfortunately, this is not the way print publishing works. Too many of these newsletters are being run by committees or foisted off on young drudges. The result is garbage, product that is little better than the spam it claims to replace.

Don’t expect things to change soon. Because they’re tied to existing trade lists (and people who don’t want to lose the print product), these letters can build circulation quickly. Also because they’re tied to print publications (and print ads), they may have pretty high click-throughs, at least at first, as readers connect electronically to the companies whose ads they’ve seen for years.

But these are short-run phenomena. As readers become savvier, they become choosier. They may not unsubscribe (and risk losing their print fix), but, over time, they won’t read boring newsletters closely. They may not even open them.

Let me summarize. If you want your newsletter to be read, make sure you have something to say. If you want to build a list of fans, encourage them to pass your newsletter along and keep them excited.

Now go and sin in my inbox no more.

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