Top-Load Your E-Newsletter for Better Performance

One of the things I love most about writing for ClickZ is the conversations I have with readers that, in time, become wonderful working relationships.

Case in point: over the years, I’ve corresponded back and forth by e-mail with Diliana Villamar-Nunez, director of demand generation and data management for Towers Perrin, the global professional services firm.

We first started chatting in 2005 about starting a quality assurance (QA) lab to make sure the company’s e-mail messages were rendering properly and later talked about their Webcast registration Web site.

Then last year, Villamar-Nunez told me that the company was experiencing a decline in open and click-through rates — a trend that, I reassured her, was occurring almost everywhere. She asked me to conduct a training session for her staff and others at Towers Perrin who contribute to the e-mail creation process — editors, designers, marketing managers, and so on.

To design the training, I asked her to send me samples of the e-mail messages she wanted to improve. For starters, she sent her event invitations. I was relieved because that’s an area where I have a real expertise and was able to immediately identify some improvements we could make to boost open rates and event registrations.

But then she sent over samples of the company’s e-newsletters and asked for suggestions. While I had some instinctive thoughts on how to improve reader engagement there, e-newsletters aren’t really an area where I have “a formula for success” as I do in event marketing. I told her so, but she asked me to see if I could do some research and consult other e-newsletter experts for their recommendations.

I’m glad she pushed me to do it, because I learned a lot. I consulted experts such as Michael Katz, founder and chief penguin of Blue Penguin Development; Mark Brownlow, publisher of Email Marketing Reports; and fellow ClickZ columnist Stefan Pollard.

Between the three of them — and some research, case studies, and eye-tracking maps I found on MarketingSherpa — I compiled a list of e-newsletter best practices and incorporated them in the training.

The training was very well received, but the proof is in the pudding: whether the training recommendations actually ever get put into action.

That’s why I was thrilled recently to get an e-mail from Villamar-Nunez reporting that they had redesigned one of their e-newsletters, Monitor, and both open and click-through rates had increased dramatically.

In a month-to-month test, unique open rates went up from 16.4 percent to over 27 percent — and are now up as high as 30 percent. Even more important to the hard-working Towers Perrin people who write the e-newsletter content, click-throughs to the full text of the articles shot from 3.7 percent to over 11 percent and are now up to 12 percent. That’s the first time since the first days of publishing that Monitor achieved double-digit click-through rates.

So what’s the secret? Click here to see the before and after. (There are three samples that are displayed vertically, one right after the other.)

In the old design, Monitor had a dignified banner treatment — but it didn’t look like the masthead you would expect to see on an e-newsletter. Perhaps more important, many of the articles weren’t getting read because they were too low down on the screen to be seen.

I suggested that a table of contents with links be added to the top of the e-mail and that a real masthead treatment be created. As you can see in the next sample, Towers Perrin graphic designer Shelomo Dobkin took this idea one brilliant step further. He put the table of contents in the banner itself, and in such a way that it isn’t blocked by Outlook’s annoying image-blocking feature. Then he created an eye-catching “magazine cover” masthead with a photograph (which will be rotated periodically to keep things looking lively). This magazine-cover masthead was tested against a “no masthead” version — and won.

Additionally, we saw results in eye-mapping studies indicating that people focus more attention on the left side of an e-mail. So Dobkin moved the less-important sidebar over to the right, allowing readers to pay more attention to the main articles. Another improvement made was to add a “Read more” link under each article instead of the former “Click here to continue” link, which wasn’t as directional.

These improvements, while not earth-shattering, did the trick. People are now reading much more of the content. In fact, in February the last article in the e-newsletter had the second-highest click-through rate. This never would have happened in the past, because it used to disappear way below the initial screen. In addition, the Towers Perrin Web site is receiving 1,100 more visitors a month.

As a result of the successful redesign, we will be able to answer another question that came up in training: how do you reengage lapsed subscribers after a long time of inactivity? I suggested that Towers Perrin send out an e-mail announcement about the e-newsletter redesign, stating how other readers are finding it so much easier to read and inviting the lapsed readers to take a second look.

Will this reengagement invitation work? Stay tuned and I’ll let you know.

Keeping e-newsletter open rates high is a constant challenge for most marketers and publishers. What have you done recently that has worked? Share your techniques with Karen for a future column.

Does your company or client offer one of the best online marketing products or services? Nominate it now for one of the 2009 ClickZ Marketing Excellence Awards!

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