E-Mail Newsletters That Sell

In a recent column, I predicted email newsletters will become critically important in a world of inboxes chocked full of spam. They’ll provide a way to break through that clutter and develop relationships with consumers.

I’ve talked with a number of publishers who have provided some outstanding statistics that confirm my prediction. E-newsletters are opened at a 60 to 70 percent rate, sometimes even higher. Those with sales offerings produce results some 50 percent higher than standalone email. And the complaint rate is virtually nil.

In its July 2003 issue, Business 2.0 published results of a survey of consumer attitudes toward media types. E-mail newsletters ranked number 3 of 12 (behind print and TV) as most trustworthy and least annoying.

It’s easy to understand why advertisers are developing and testing newsletters in droves.

I’ve spent the past weeks researching e-newsletters, seeking out exemplary examples from which we can learn winning strategies.

In all the newsletters reviewed, the true gems share two characteristics:

  • Content is king. Good newsletters contain valuable, well-written, I-want-to-read-it-now content. They are publications you’d save for future reference; ones you read from beginning to end, then pass along to family and friends. They’re written in plain English and provide information you can use. It’s clear the publishers really understand their subjects. They don’t regurgitate previously published or generic information.

  • Content trumps sales. These newsletters are predominantly content driven. Although each contains ads and/or promotional copy to varying degrees, emphasis is clearly on content, and lots of it. Abstract concepts and ideas are fine, but supporting detail is critical to effectively evaluate claims and make decisions. It’s those details that make good newsletters valuable and worthwhile.

Sales and new clients result when you credibly establish your expertise. Whether you’re selling mortgages, beauty products, financial information, or dog food, content is the driving force behind building relationships with customers and prospects via email.

It’s obvious the editors and publishers of the best newsletters take a lot of time to carefully craft content and presentation. They pay a lot of attention to fine points, including making sure the following sections are appropriately included:

  • Return address. The return address must be a real one that works. It should remain the same with every issue so recipients recognize it (along with the subject line). Changing the sender line serves no purpose and is not recommended.

  • Subject line. It should include the newsletter’s name, type of content, major benefit of the issue, issue date and number, and a reminder to forward to increase the pass-along rates. A good example: [Health Focus” Exclusive Report: Dealing With Stress Effectively 05/03 #239 Pls FWD.
  • Masthead. A masthead provides information about the newsletter and publisher, as well as contact information. You need this for inquiries from potential contributors, other publishers, and Web sites that might want to carry your content, as well as for potential clients and business partners.
  • Table of contents. A table of contents presents the content of your newsletter so readers can pick and choose what they want to read. Good HTML newsletters also provide anchor tags so readers can skip directly to articles without scrolling.
  • Actual content. Each article should include the author’s name, photo, brief bio, and email address, as well as a short synopsis and links to further information, such as related Web sites, source, or background material.
  • Promotion. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with tooting your own horn, selling products, and/or spreading the word about your company in your newsletter. People who read your publication will come to view you as an expert. As a result, they will want to patronize your business, whether by ordering a product/service or becoming a client.

What’s immediately obviously about the way the best newsletters promote their offerings is subtlety. It’s through editorial, not shameless pitching. No banners shout product availability. No flashing red type tries to draw attention to a sponsor.

Back in 1995, I was a part of a team that launched a Web site for small business owners and employees. There were thousands of articles and checklists, all free and without any obligation. People didn’t have to register to access the information. Below all the free stuff were links where we sold books, magazines, software, and related products and services. We learned although our customers had access to so much free information, they still bought products to supplement those free offerings.

The same formula works for newsletters. People assume because you’re an expert, products and services you recommend are appropriate and of good quality. Of course, your credibility depends on selling and/or recommending only good quality products and services.

Finally, the best publishers always make sure:

  • All links work.

  • There are no typos or bad grammar.
  • A printer-friendly version is provided.
  • There is an easy way to send the newsletter to a friend.
  • Fonts are readable (critical for newsletters targeted to seniors).
  • A text-only email version is available.
  • If content is not original, the source is credited.
  • Complete and simple unsubscribe instructions are included, and they work. (Some newsletters include a “vacation unsubscribe” option so people can temporarily suspend subscriptions, then restart them on a certain date. A nifty add-on would be to send all missed issues at that time!)

Stay tuned. Next, case studies of the best newsletters to provide information you can use to guide setting up response controls for your newsletter projects. Keep reading.

Meet Paul at the Jupiter ClickZ Advertising Forum in New York City on July 30 and 31.

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