The revival of email newsletters and the rise of mobile-first email

How did you start your day today? If you’re anything like me, you probably started it at the breakfast table hunched protectively over a cup of coffee, blearily reading something on the screen of your smartphone.

And, again if you’re anything like me – or thousands of other people now subscribed to one of the myriad newsletter offerings that have sprung up across the web – that “something” was quite likely an email newsletter.

The industry has seen a huge resurgence in email newsletters over the past few years. Awareness of this trend seems to have begun in 2013-2014, when a number of insightful articles were published musing on the sudden renaissance of the humble e-newsletter. TechCrunch wrote about ‘Why everyone is obsessed with email newsletters right now’; Wired examined ‘Why email newsletters won’t die’.

Industry gurus trade recommendations of their favorite newsletters. If you’re a marketing director, chances are you’re subscribed to (or have at least heard of) Scott Brinker’s ‘Chief Marketing Technologist’. If you’re in the tech industry, you might be subscribed to The Register or WIRED Awake.

In the age of social media and an abundance of content, why is the humble email newsletter suddenly thriving? In this article I will take a look at how the biggest recent innovations in email marketing have aided the rise of email newsletters, and how you can learn from these to be smart about your own newsletter efforts.

A screenshot of the latest WIRED Awake newsletter from 22 May 2017.

The newsletter renaissance

There appear to be few statistics which deal with current trends in email newsletters specifically (as opposed to general email marketing statistics), but the anecdotal evidence surrounding their revival is strong. Read an article on almost any given blog and when you go to navigate away, a pop-up will appear imploring you to “subscribe for updates!” or “don’t miss a post!”

Companies who once badgered their customers for Facebook likes and follows are now much more likely to solicit subscriptions to their email newsletter.

There are some common-sense reasons for this: social media provides such a torrent of information that it can be futile to try to keep up with everything, and with the demise of RSS feeds, email newsletters have emerged as a way to receive updates from your favorite content creators in a handy, easily digestible format.

They’re personal, but also social; they’re easy to share, and sit neatly in the intersection of content marketing and email marketing. You can use them to promote your own content, or position yourself as an industry leader with your finger on the pulse by curating the best articles and insights from around the web.

These attributes go hand in hand with a major shift in the way that we consume email: increasingly, users are accessing email on their mobile devices, where they can read and sort through emails on the go.

This has taken the act of reading email away from desks and into the user’s pocket, making it convenient for consumers to read emails anytime, anywhere.

In 2016, Gmail reported more than 1 billion monthly active users, with 75% of them on mobile devices, while the Litmus State of Email 2017 report found that 54% of email is now opened on a mobile device.

And according to the Adestra 2016 Consumer Adoption and Usage Study, 40% of users aged 14 to 18 and 29% of users aged 19 to 34 say they always use a mobile device to sort through their emails before reading them on a desktop computer.

In an interview for a recent ClickZ Intelligence report on ‘Email and the Age of First-Person Marketing’, email marketing strategy consultant and veteran of the email marketing industry Jeanne Jennings asserted that email on mobile devices is the biggest change in how consumers have been using email over the past two or three years, and one which continues to snowball.

“Back in the day, only business people had Blackberries, which let them access email on the go,” she said. “But now, everyone has a smartphone, so everyone’s got access to their emails twenty-four hours a day.”

“Email is with us all the time.”

Responsive design and automation

Email marketers have adjusted swiftly to this trend, adopting responsive templates which adapt to the size of a user’s screen. According to the 2016 State of Email Design, 72% of email marketers now use a responsive design in their broadcast and segmented emails, while a further 20% have opted outright for a mobile-aware design, which is optimized for smaller screens. Just 8% reported that they use a desktop-centric design for their emails.

Smart use of email automation and targeting has also helped to fuel the newsletter renaissance, as it’s now possible to segment your email lists and target them with the most relevant email content, increasing the likelihood of engagement and decreasing the likelihood of disaffected users unsubscribing from emails they feel are not relevant to their interests.

Auto racing company NASCAR is an excellent case study of how automation can help drive up engagement with email newsletters. Tim Clark, Vice President of Analytics and Insights at NASCAR, told ClickZ Intelligence how NASCAR employs automated triggers in its newsletters, and the results that the marketing department has seen.

“We send a ‘weekend preview’ newsletter on a Friday, and if fans open it – whether they click through or not – they are added to a segment, and they’ll receive the weekend recap email on Monday,” he explained. “If they don’t engage at all, then we won’t send them the recap email on Monday.”

“We’ve been using automation in our email marketing for around the past two years. The open rate on the preview email has been extraordinarily high, and the open rate on the Monday email is even higher. And I think that makes sense – if you’re engaging on the front end, you’re certainly more likely to engage on the other end.

“To see both of those numbers going up, and the unsubscribe rate either staying flat or going down, is a pretty good indicator that we’re managing our list the right way.”

How can brands take advantage of this trend?

With all of this in mind, should you jump on the bandwagon and add a newsletter to your email marketing strategy?

The email newsletter ‘space’ has become increasingly crowded over the past few years, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set one up – as long as you’re smart with how you go about it. Here are some points to bear in mind.

Make use of automation to tailor your newsletters to your audience. List segmentation, automated triggers, and personalization all contribute to making your email newsletter a truly personal experience for your readers.

Don’t expect to get things exactly right on the first try; test different send times, different subject lines, different copy, and gather data about what your audience responds to best.

Use a responsive or mobile-aware template. Your audience will be quick to unsubscribe if your newsletter isn’t optimized for the mobile devices they’re reading on. Litmus’ State of Email 2017 found that 43% of consumers marked promotional emails from a brand as spam because the emails didn’t display or work well on a smartphone.

You can do this by making sure that your Email Service Provider (ESP) has mobile-responsive capabilities, or if you use an in-house email solution, implement a responsive or mobile-aware design.

Optimize your newsletters for on-the-go. Bear in mind that your user may well be reading them in spare moments while out and about, rather than sat at a desk. This means they may be engaging with the email in bits and pieces, so breaking up the content into manageable chunks is a good idea.

They may not also have time to engage with long articles, so give the newsletter some inherent value beyond just linking to content – include summaries, tips or ideas.

Avoid large images or multimedia, as these can be costly to download for subscribers who are using data to connect to the internet, and can also provide a slower and less user-friendly experience on a small screen.

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