Newsletters are often one of the touchpoints with the broadest and most consistent reach across an organization or product’s subscriber base. This, combined with the common trend that newsletters are often lower-engagement than other lifecycle-based messaging, makes newsletters one of the highest-value areas for optimization.
This blog will focus on 5 steps to developing or enhancing a newsletter program with opportunities that can benefit both new and established programs.
Know Your Audience
The first key to developing a successful newsletter is knowing your audience. Understanding key demographics and activities for audience members as well as current engagement with newsletters and other parts of your touchpoint program will be helpful in understanding your subscribers’ expectations. It is also helpful to understand how homogeneous or differentiated your user base is–are they all in the same industry and role? Or are there varying levels of interest and engagement (for example, casual/recreational users and those that have more of a business or professional usage of the product).
In addition to gathering demographic information and quantitative engagement data for an existing (or adjacent) program, it can also be useful to ask other questions about how subscribers were acquired and their historical behaviors, including:
- What were subscribers promised at sign up? Was there an incentive tied to subscription or is subscription driven by content value?
- What is the experience for new subscribers? Did subscribing require a single or double opt in?
- How engaged are recipients in current newsletter content and other adjacent program content? How do we measure success and decide which content is included in our newsletter?
Gather Input Directly from Users
In addition to analyzing all existing information about your audience and program, it is important to gather feedback directly from your users, often via surveys or polls. Asking users directly how frequently and when they want to receive your content, what topics and areas they find interesting, and how best to package the content are invaluable, since you can only learn from what you’ve done in the past and may not know what to try in the future without collecting new ideas.
It is also important to gather the perception current (or prospective) subscribers have of your brand and newsletter, to understand what pre-existing opinions you may either benefit from or have to overcome as you build your newsletter audience.
Subscriber surveys, polls on social media (especially LinkedIn for B2B organizations) and user interviews are all great ways to gather feedback and ideas for your newsletter and help guide the schedule and content of your program.
Build your future vision
Once you have compiled internal and external feedback from your audience, it is time to decide what the ideal perceptions and opinions of your content are under the new or enhanced newsletter program.
Develop Your Theme & Identity
Since newsletter communications represent a recurring but infrequent touchpoint with your audience, it is important to have theming and visual cues that represent your brand, audience expectations, and the content the audience can expect from the newsletter. Establishing and maintaining consistent editorial and creative guidelines help build familiarity, reputation, and engagement with your long-term audience members.
Refer to the type and format in different sections. Examples include:
- Length & format of content: providing the first few lines vs. summary. Do you want the reader to click through for more info or get all the info they need from the email?
- Type of content to appear in each section: is this forward-looking trends or retrospective of past events?
Refer to the visual presentation and design for the newsletter. Examples include:
- CTA buttons vs Text links
- CTA copy
- Color, alignment, and appearance of CTAs
- Numbers, colors, or other symbols indicating priority or importance of topics
Developing an identity and consistent creative and editorial guidelines for a newsletter helps users know what to expect when they open an email. Establishing this identity early on also helps maintain familiarity while we optimize and iterate to improve performance later on.
Optimize, then Personalize
Once you have collected feedback from your audience and developed an identity, launch the newsletter with your best guess at an optimal format. After establishing the newsletter, you can begin to iterate on your design and plans based on A/B testing results. Ideally, your newsletter team has a plan at launch of the areas for optimization, so that you can have several tests already lined up and quickly gather insights and adapt to these learnings. Here are some top tips for maximizing return on your testing process:
Work from biggest to smallest.
Starting with optimizing for open rates often gives the biggest return on effort because getting users to open the email is key to realizing any benefits from optimizing content. Start with subject line testing; subject line and preheader length, consistency vs freshness, and understanding of which topics are most likely to result in opens are great places to start. Once open behavior is optimized, focusing on CTAs (if clicks are a key goal) or other action-oriented areas of the email is the next great opportunity area.
Isolate variables and run multiple tests.
Iterate into best practices by testing 1-2 variations at once. Don’t change everything at once or run too many variations, or you risk statistically insignificant or contradictory results. Check out ContinuumGlobal’s blog post on subject line testing for guidance on achieving statistically significant test results based on audience size.
Start simple and build into complexity.
Fortunately, some of the simplest tests (like subject line testing) are often some of the easiest to execute. Prioritizing simple, easy design changes (like button color) over complex structural changes (like one column vs 2 column layout) is OK! Similarly, optimizing the initial template, layout, and CTAs before moving on to more complex versioning and personalization solutions is a great idea.
Here are some great ideas to start building your test plan:
- Subject line length
- Subject line content, personalization, and emojis
- Preview/preheader text copy
- Newsletter length
- Use of images/GIFs
- Number of pieces of content
- Frequency (1x/wk vs 2x/month)
- CTA buttons vs text links
- Alignment of CTAs & location relative to content
- CTA copy, size & color
- Copy format (title, description length)
Testing Best Practices
Just like all other email programs, optimizing a newsletter program will be most successful when using best practices to ensure that results are valid and add value as quickly as possible.
Understand sample sizes. Your audience size (and expected response rate for the measured KPI) should determine how many variations to include in each test. An organization with only 100-200k newsletter recipients will most likely only be able to test 2 versions at a time and still may struggle to get statistically significant results, but an audience of 1-2 million will be able to test a higher number of variants. It is important to be disciplined about this because over-extending the audience size will lead to non-statistically significant tests, so it is better to test fewer variations and get solid results than waste time testing without being able to draw conclusions.
Repeat tests to ensure results. While we try to construct tests to isolate the one variable we want to examine (example: short vs long subject line) it is best to repeat the same type of test with several different pieces of content to ensure those results generalize to most situations. Some organizations use a “rule of three” to confirm results under different conditions (eg. testing emojis in the subject line with 3 different subject lines).
Create a library of learnings. Accumulated learnings are a huge asset for your team, and to realize this value it is important that these are easily accessible and cataloged for new team members and also for sharing with other groups that might benefit from the same learnings, like website, social, or paid search teams.
Once your newsletter program has established a successful voice, cadence, and format, it’s time to grow! Use other platforms, communities, and channels to increase your subscriber base. These include:
- Adding a newsletter signup to other onboarding, transactional, or promotional emails
- Promoting newsletter signups via social channels, community forums or message boards
- Soliciting newsletter signups from colleagues, clients, and networks via LinkedIn
- Adding a newsletter opt in (or notification of default opt in) to product registration flows
- Using industry events, conferences, or free content (eg. blogs/webinars) to drive sign-ups
- Adding an exit-intent pop-up to website
- Run an online contest that requires newsletter signup for entry
- Offer gated content as incentive for signup
- Contextual or targeted advertising
As you roll out various efforts to grow your subscriber list, don’t forget to measure throughput and optimize your data capture form! Also, watch for increased opt out rates after particular efforts and understand which acquisition sources are generating engaged recipients.
Benchmark & Track Performance
From the beginning, tracking performance and benchmarking KPIs for a newsletter program should be top of mind. Understanding average send size, typical open and clickthrough rates and noting specific links or topics that attract unusually high numbers of clicks should be part of regular review of newsletter performance. Trends should be monitored over time to ensure that any technical issues, such deliverability or link tracking issues, are caught and remediated right away.
Key Metrics to Monitor
Remember that measuring the performance of your newsletter program doesn’t start and end with the email engagement. Monitoring should extend to the end point of the newsletter, whether it is your website or an app, and monitoring the performance after they hit the landing page is also important. At a minimum, your benchmarking and tracking should include:
- Send volume
- Open rate
- Clickthrough rate (including ability to drill down to click rate or # clicks by link)
- Bounce rate
- Opt out rate
- Website sessions and/or conversions sourced from newsletter
- Other website or product KPIs (time on site, page visits, conversions, etc…) sourced from newsletters
Now that your Newsletter is off to a great start, make sure you are building for long-term ease of maintenance and development.
Maximize Templetization. Using template systems to build your newsletter program will reduce development effort and increase brand consistency. Templates can also reduce the quality assurance resource needed since changes are minimal.
Create a library of newsletters you admire. We all receive newsletters from many organizations in both our personal and professional lives. Create a library of your favorites, whether it catches your eye for design, subject line, CTA layout, or something else. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and getting inspiration from other emails is a great place to find new ideas.
Stats for Success
Need more inspiration or support to develop your email newsletter? Here are some stats to motivate you!
81% of B2B marketers say their most used form of content marketing is email newsletters. (Content Marketing Institute, 2020) and 31% of B2B marketers say an email newsletter is the top channel used to nurture leads.
GetResponse engagement rates by # of newsletters per week shows open rates drop off when sending >5 emails per week.
The New York Times newsletter readers consume twice as much content as those who don’t get newsletters, and are twice as likely to become paid subscribers. Greentech Media’s newsletter visitors spend 80% more time on site than visitors from other channels. (Parse.ly, 2018)
Engagement with email newsletters has positive correlation with product retention from Lenfest Institute.
Need help developing or growing your newsletter program? Seeking to optimize your customer touchpoints by leveraging testing, insights, and data-driven personalization? Contact ContinuumGlobal to learn more.
About the Author
Hillary Bliss is the Sr Director of Data & Analytics at ContinuumGlobal, a leading Marketing Services agency with a dedicated and dynamic team who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. ContinuumGlobal creatively scales marketing operations at pace and with ease, making marketing operations more agile, cost-effective and scalable.
Hillary is a data scientist with a Masters of Statistics and an MBA from Georgia Tech and has worked on direct marketing program strategy, customer behavior and marketing spend analysis at major retailers in the United States. She currently leads the Data & Analytics practice at ContinuumGlobal focusing on helping quantify, visualize, and optimize impact of consumer touchpoints for major technology clients including multiple Google product lines and Fortune 200 companies like Coinbase.