HTML Newsletters: Content’s the Thing

What’s the secret to launching a visually compelling, results-driven HTML e-newsletter that will generate more qualified leads, inspire customer loyalty, reinforce your brand, establish your company as a thought leader, lower your cost of customer acquisition, shorten your sales cycle, and possibly deliver an incremental stream of revenue?

Whew. Can an e-newsletter do all that? The answer is yes, if you approach regular e-communication with your prospects and customers with both a strategic focus and an eye for detail.

In fact, if there is one thing email marketers agree upon, it’s that the devil is in the details. This point was made several times last week at’s E-mail Newsletter Tactics conference in Reston, VA.

But to get back to what the secret is — it’s the content, stupid!

If your e-newsletter isn’t consistently engaging, relevant, and so useful that your readers want to print it out or pass it on to their colleagues, you’re not likely to achieve the business objectives you’ve set (see above).

So how do you choose the content to fill your e-newsletter, issue after issue? Try putting on an editor’s hat while thinking like a marketer. It’s a bit tricky because, of course, you’ll be itching to promote your product or service.

But that’s not really what your opt-in subscribers want to read about week after week or month after month. Your best bet is to take some time to figure out what your audience is interested in.

Think carefully about your product or service and what problem it solves for your target market. What is their “pain point”? If you’re marketing to other e-marketers, it’s a pretty safe bet that they want to hear about calculating return on investment (ROI) or the current trends in response rates.

But if you’re writing to a highly focused, niche audience, they most likely want to hear about how the latest industry issues affect them. Remember, to them it’s all about “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM), not about what you want to tell them. (If you want to be reminded how “niche” B2B niches can get, take a look at the dozens of communities on VerticalNet‘s home page.)

E-newsletter content is a big topic, and I’ll continue to write about it. Here are a few quick tips on effective content for B2B e-newsletters — and specifically, those in HTML format.

Less Is More

This is a good rule of thumb, whether for text or HTML. Beware of throwing so many tidbits and teasers into your HTML version that you make your readers dizzy. Use your layout to clearly package one main topic — your lead story. Then, if you have regular features or departments, run them down the left- or right-hand column.

Don’t worry about number of words so much as number of different articles, topics, and “fast facts.” Your readers are saturated with information. Be kind — dole yours out in digestible bites. You want to leave a lasting impression, both with design/layout and with content. So concentrate on one topic per issue.

Link Strategically

How many and to what? Again, there’s no absolute right or wrong. The Economist sends out a nice-looking weekly e-newsletter with a navigation bar linking back to its Web site. That works because it’s in the business of selling content. Maybe it’s right for you because you want to promote certain areas of your site.

ICONOCAST, the insider-ish HTML-only e-newsletter about Internet marketing, features an “Archives” tab at the top — great idea if you want to send readers back to previous issues on your site.

The point is, think strategically about why you’re using links.

Link to Sell (If Your Readers Approve)

The cleverest use of links I’ve seen recently is in an HTML newsletter from Network Solutions (NSI). The lead “story” is titled “The Dot Com Lifecycle.” Each “stage” (first, secure your online identity; second, establish your Web presence; etc.) is described in a few lines of copy. A text link within each little paragraph takes you to the product page on NSI’s site where you can (surprise!) purchase a domain name, an affordable Web site, and so on.

Personally, I felt a bit cheated when I clicked through. I was expecting more content, not a direct sell. But, according to the company’s online marketing manager, this appeals to NSI’s small-business target audience. The quarterly e-newsletter goes out to hundreds of thousands of NSI customers, draws a response rate “in the single digits,” and results in a steady rate of conversion to sale (she wouldn’t say how much).

Voice and Personality

This is key. If you want your e-newsletter to develop a loyal following, it’s got to have a personality, even a bit of quirkiness. Get that personality into your subject line. Use it in all your copy. Even if you’re sending your e-newsletter to hundreds or thousands, write as if it’s one to one.

Anna Zornosa, CEO of Topica and one of the speakers at the E-mail Newsletter Tactics conference summed it up: “Spend money on copywriting expertise. It will have an awful lot to do with whether you get the response you want.”

(Note: Those of you who tried unsuccessfully to read the article on about measuring the ROI of e-newsletters, try again. MarketingProfs’ server was down last week.)

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