Refreshing Your Email Newsletter
This article was created by Wild Apricot, providers of membership management software for associations, nonprofits and clubs. It is designed to help the staff and volunteers of small non-profit and membership organizations that are just getting started with supporter communications and engagement.
Is an email newsletter part of your communications mix?
You've likely produced a printed newsletter since your organization began, and now you probably offer a PDF or online version on your website. But have you really thought about your e-newsletter as a pivotal piece in your email marketing efforts? Even if you are using a number of other communications channels, an e-newsletter is a cost-effective way to:
- keep constituents informed about your organization
- drive traffic to your website
- maintain regular exposure for your organization with external audiences (e.g., media, government, other non-profits, etc.)
Although there is a flurry of activity around new social media tools, email - when conducted effectively - offers a convenient way to provide up-to-date information right into the subscriber's in-box through real-time delivery. If you simply converted your print newsletter to an online version, or if you are just getting started with a web-based newsletter, you might want to step back and take a good look at your e-newsletter to be sure it is meeting your objectives.
What Are Your Newsletter Objectives?
If you haven’t articulated your e-newsletter’s goals recently (e.g., in a yearly communications/marketing plan), it might be time to re-establish and prioritize your list of objectives. For example, is your key goal to keep members, volunteers or donors informed about your organization’s news, activities and accomplishments? Or is your newsletter your main form of promotion for regular events or activities – for which you want/need them to take action (e.g., register/volunteer/donate)? Setting clear objectives will help steer your decisions on scheduling, layout and content.
Refreshing your e-mail newsletter
Once you re-confirm your objectives, you should take a good long look at the format, design, content delivery method and scheduling to be sure all are optimized to meet your goals. After all, your e-newsletter is competing with an ever-increasing “rising tide of bacon email” that is flooding inboxes, so you need to give your subscribers a reason to open your email and, hopefully, read the newsletter contents.
Here are a few things to consider if you are just starting out or you are reviewing and revitalizing your newsletter:
What about your layout / design?
Many non-profits and member-based organizations are concerned that their communications shouldn't appear too expensive to ensure you aren't perceived as using funds that should be applied to serving the organization’s mission. This means you need to strive for a balance between a slick or too-sophisticated design and one that is too dull, or uninspiring. If you have someone develop a good, clean layout format that incorporates your organization’s logo and design standards, it should help with readability while also projecting a cost-effective image.
The first thing to remember is that an e-newsletter is not a print newsletter – they are different media. People read emails and online material very differently than they do print versions. If you are lucky enough to have them open your email, you are likely going to have to deal with a short attention span and high expectations. People usually scan an email so it is extremely important that you follow a few online design techniques, including:
Capture the reader’s attention with a focal point:
This might be through a high impact header or masthead; a bold headline or a photo that draws the reader’s eye to the lead story. Don’t forget to make it clear whose newsletter this is – e.g., have your logo and organization name clearly visible if it isn’t part of the masthead.
Offer a clean, crisp design:
- Keep it simple: the eye gets confused if there is too much going on – e.g., too many photos or visuals or a busy layout without any white space.
- Use color effectively and boldly (in concert with your corporate design guidelines)
- Don’t use too many fonts or typefaces and be sure body text is readable (especially if your audience is over 40)
Guide your reader through:
- Offer a table of contents
- Break up the content...
- with effective headlines and sub-headings - for skimmers/scanners
- with bullet points
- with diagrams or visuals
Effective scheduling -- timing is everything
You may have established circulation timelines to suit your production schedule. But have you ever considered which day and time are best for sending your e-newsletter? The quick answer is – it depends on your audience. For example, the majority of business-related emails are opened between 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday – with 11 am being a suggested sweet spot. But your recipients may want to read your e-newsletter at home or on the weekend, depending on your content and their profile (e.g., men, women, students, type of career, etc.).
As Nancy Schwartz (GettingAttention.org) suggests: “timing is everything. It’s the gatekeeper to having even a chance of connecting with your target audiences.” Schwartz recommends doing some research to get to know your supporters’ preferences so you can connect with them at the optimal times. Once you better understand your audience, you can figure out when to best connect with them. For example, you might want to reach out when others aren’t and also consider weekends when your audiences have more time and attention for you.
If you are looking at the frequency with which you send e-newsletters, you need to determine if your recipients want a more comprehensive edition with all of the news, or more frequent, smaller versions or information bites. If you are unsure – why don’t you conduct a member/supporter online survey to find out your readers’ preference. Of course, scheduling may also need to coincide with event or program timelines if you are looking for time-sensitive registrations, program commitments or donations.
Content is Critical
You can create an appealing newsletter design and figure out the best time to send it to your subscribers, but your content is the critical ingredient to success. I think the following quote from Maureen Carruthers’ LowHangingFruit says it all: “Create content your people will want to share. ...Your people are the kindling of your potential viral wildfire. They are the ones who will use your content to introduce your nonprofit to their friends.”
Your e-newsletter is a great vehicle for nurturing your relationship with your member/supporter/volunteer. And while the subject matter will be dependent on your organization’s scope or mission as well as your communications objectives, here are some guidelines you might want to consider when developing your newsletter content:
Get their attention to get the email opened!
First impressions DO COUNT when it comes to your email subject line and newsletter headlines. You’ve heard it all before – you need to offer interesting and intriguing subject lines to get your email opened. This doesn’t mean being too clever or controversial – since the title needs to be linked to your newsletter topic or lead story to let the reader know what to expect.
Offer value: provide useful, actionable information
Rather than thinking about what you want to communicate this month or this quarter – try to turn it around and figure out what your readers might want to hear. What are their expectations from your organization? And don’t assume your readers have heard about your organization’s work or an issue that has arisen in the industry. While it may seem like old news to you, it’s very likely they haven’t heard about it yet. Demonstrate what their membership fees or donations are enabling your organization to accomplish and talk about goals and plans.
Your e-newsletter is not the Wall Street Journal! While you need to write tight, concise copy, your readers are subscribing to, and hopefully reading, this newsletter for a reason, so be sure your organization’s unique culture or voice isn’t sacrificed through attempts to sound professional. On the other hand, be sure you don’t lay the industry jargon on too thick. Try to find a balance – with a clean crisp writing style that also suits your organization’s style or persona.
How much content?
As noted earlier, the nature of an e-newsletter dictates brevity. Many e-newsletters (including Wild Apricot’s) offer three to five brief overview paragraphs with links to the rest of the article through a “read more” link back to your web site. This is an effective way to drive traffic to your web site. Alternately, you can include short articles and updates and refer readers to other areas of your website for more detail – e.g., the entire member survey report (if the article is an exec summary).
An e-newsletter isn’t an advertisement, but it is still a great vehicle for promotion. Be sure to provide:
- as many meaningful links to your website as possible;
- enable sharing through, (e.g., Twitter; Facebook; LinkedIn; Digg; StumbleUpon, etc.);
- promote additional communications channels, such as your blog or forum
- encourage dialogue - here is how Wild Apricot does it in our newsletter:
As I noted earlier, there is a lot of spam and bacon flooding our email in-boxes every day. Unsolicited email is always suspect and won't generate the same response as a newsletter to which members subscribe. That's why you should make it easy for readers to subscribe to your e-newsletter (see example below). At the same time, you need to have an option to "unsubscribe" on your newsletter - but consider putting it toward the bottom - you want folks to have to read or scan through before they consider canceling their subscription.
Measuring E-newsletter Effectiveness
One of the strengths of email messaging is that it offers analytics. Most email platforms (including Wild Apricot) automatically record some or all of the following data:
- Open rates
- Reports on who clicked on links in your newsletter (e.g., links to your website)
- Subscription information - e.g., unsubscribe and new subscriptions
- Undelivered, no longer valid recipients.
Be sure to set an initial baseline for all of the items you are measuring or tracking, so you can analyze the data - e.g., a few months after you start collecting for trends. Sit down and take stock of where you stand and figure out if you need to further tweak your content, design or processes to promote effectiveness.
We hope you found this E-newsletter article helpful in getting started with or re-establishing your e-newsletter's objectives, refreshing its look and feel and beginning to analyze its related data.