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How To Write An Email Newsletter (That People Will Read)

By February 18, 2013June 28th, 2015Email Marketing
How To Write An Email Newsletter (That People Will Read)

Writing an email newsletter is a challenge. Correction: writing a good email newsletter is a challenge.

It’s probably one of the hardest marketing emails to write.

If you’re sending out an RSS email, that’s pretty much taken care of for you. Plug in a few data fields and go.

If you’re writing a sales email, you’ve got something to work with; a product or service, a price, a benefit or two and a call to action.

But what about those newsletters? The emails you send out when you don’t have anything particular to sell but you want to “stay in front of” your customers (and someone like me probably told you to send your marketing emails on a schedule)?

What then?

I’ll tell you what then. “What then” is usually someone sitting down and filling up spaces in an email template so you can meet a deadline. “What then” is something generic, probably boring and likely forgettable.

You should consider yourself lucky if people unsubscribe after a few of those. Otherwise it means you’re training your list to be a bunch of brain dead zombies who learn to ignore your pointless, mindless but-I-hit-the-deadline emails along with everything else you send.

So what’s a marketer to do?

Here are a couple of tips for putting together an email newsletter that will keep your readers’ interest and actually do the job of marketing instead of just meeting someone’s content schedule.

Keep It Useful, Interesting And Relevant

The biggest problem I’ve seen with email newsletters is that they’re bo.ring. They literally read like news. And if we wanted to read news, we’d go pick up a copy of the New York Times.

This advice is true of any content you produce, but it seems to be forgotten when it comes to the newsletter.

People will read content that’s either useful, personally relevant or entertaining. If you can’t provide one or more of those things then it might be time to (gasp!) sit this one out.

Instead of trying to stick content into your three designated template spots (intro, content, sidebar…) try thinking about what you can offer your subscribers to fit the “WIIFM” model.

You may not be offering the deal of the century this time. Or have anything earth shattering to share. So keep it light. Make it fun. Do something that will interest your readers as opposed to filling a designated slot on your marketing schedule.

Remember That It’s Not About You

The second biggest problem that I see with email newsletters is that they’re all about the sender. Don’t take the word “news” so literally. Your company’s not that interesting.

An email that’s literally nothing but news about the company that sent it is not only probably irrelevant to its readers but it’s probably also boring.

One newsletter I subscribe to is notorious for doing this and honestly I only stay on this company’s list to make fun of them and have fodder for the “what not to dos”. This company sends monthly emails about the awards they’ve won, the charitable events they’ve supported, the people they’ve hired.

In snippets this might be a nice behind-the-scenes look into the company and its people and values but as a long-form newsletter it’s a real snore.

Keep it focused on your reader. If you’re marketing smartly, you can even spin a story about your latest charitable donation into something that would be relevant, interesting and even useful to your readers, perhaps by letting them know how they can get involved, or how they can bring their favorite charity to your attention.

Always ask yourself what you can do to make the content about the person reading it – not about you and your marketing.

Keep It Short

There’s no rule that says an email newsletter needs an intro, a conclusion, at least three subheads, a sidebar and four footer items.

If you’re stuck on filling spaces in a template, then you’re not marketing – you’re just making work for yourself.

Coming up with content isn’t easy and if you’re spending your precious time filling space for the sake of filling space, boring your readers and neither giving nor receiving value, then it’s just a waste of time.

If you don’t have much to say then keep it short.

One paragraph. A quick note, update, tip or story to amuse your readers.

Get out of “newsletter” mindset, forget the template and see how you can make a single, brief idea work for you and your readers.

Get To The Point

Along with keeping it short, you may want to consider keeping it concise.

You don’t need long explanations and introductions. In fact, some studies have found that people tend to skip intros entirely and get right to the content.

You may feel compelled to say hello to your readers but unless you’re on a first name basis with most of them then reconsider the long-form niceties and get to the heart of the content.

Remember, your email is not a blog post.

Make It Personal

I wanted to mention this as it relates to what I just said about skipping the niceties. You can, in fact, write a blog-post-like email newsletter and still be wildly successful. It’s all in your approach.

I’ll give you two examples – a good one and a bad one – to help you understand this point.

One newsletter I receive comes from a farm where I buy my beef. They send emails that would rival the length of any blog post of mine. Eventually I read them, because they talk about topics that interest me. But it takes me a few days to get through them because they’re kind of news-y. And boring.

I read them, but it’s a bit of work.

The reason it’s so tough to get through their emails is because they’re written like a magazine article. Long and detailed with big blocks of text. Once you get past the snorefest of the language they use, the content is interesting. But their approach is not.

Another newsletter I receive comes from Chris Brogan. He writes long, wordy emails and I find myself riveted to every one. The difference is that he makes his emails personal. I can almost imagine that he has only one subscriber – and that’s me. The content is there, but it’s delivered in an entirely different way than the content in my farm emails. It’s conversational, with a personal tone and a business-casual style, like we’re just hanging out with some tea and scones.

So if you want to go the long, news-y route you need to think long and hard to get past the news and talk to your readers on a personal level instead.

Consider Losing The Sidebar

The sidebar is the red headed stepchild of your template. Eye tracking studies show that it’s the most ignored section of an email. It looks cool and makes us feel as if we’ve “designed” something but it’s not entirely useful and if you’re struggling to find content to put there it’s only going to cost you.

Most people scan across the top of your email then down the left side. To that end, you may want to forget the nicely designed yet often irrelevant sidebar and make sure you have a good heading followed by good subheadings.

Break It Up And Remember The Left-Sided Scan

It’s tough to read a long blog post, web page or email if it’s big chunks of text.

Your English teacher may have told you to start a new paragraph only when you have a new thought but when it comes to the web you should start a new paragraph whenever anything seems to visually extend beyond three or four lines.

Current trends show that more people are reading emails more frequently on mobile where it can be especially tough to get through more than a few lines.

Don’t be afraid to put every sentence on its own line if that makes it easier for people to browse and scan.

And remember how I told you that people scan down the left side? If you use headings wisely then you’ll also be including the most eye-catching and compelling keywords at the beginning of those headings.

Next time you’re writing subheadings consider how you can rewrite them to catch someone’s passing glance.

Use Photos Strategically

Photos can make an email more readable by breaking up big blocks of text but most email clients turn images off by default. Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook… that means none of those people will actually see your photos unless they specifically click the “show/download” images button.

For all you know, you’re spending time designing a lovely email template and adding interesting photos for nothing.

Here’s a better idea. Instead of simply using photos to break things up and assuming that people will care enough to download them (take it from one lazy reader: they won’t) try using photos as an integral part of the content.

Reference the photo in your email, ask a question about it, point out an interesting tidbit.

“Do you see that black cow in the middle? That breed produces the best ribeyes.” (Just a thought for my dear yet dull farmers.)

As a bonus, if you can encourage people to download your images, it will show up in your open rate. Someone may read every word of your email but unless they download your images they won’t show as an “open” in your email stats.

Add A Call To Action

Even if you’re sending out a general newsletter and you don’t have anything for your readers to do, make something up.

Part of successful marketing is training people to do what you want them to do and nudging them closer to the bottom of your funnel.

And you want to train your readers to act. Reading is nice. Doing is better. Ask them to click on a link to read a blog post and share their thoughts, ask them a question and tell them to hit reply to answer. It won’t take much but it’s a crucial piece of the marketing pie.

Keep your readers engaged by keeping them active.

Spend As Much Time On Your Subject Line As You Do Composing The Email

If that sounds like a lot of work, just think of how much work it is to keep coming up with email content that gets ignored.

Before anyone gets to the heart of your email, they see the subject line. And if it isn’t interesting enough to get them to open the email, it hardly matters how fantastic the content inside is.

Write a dozen subject lines for your newsletter and then see which ones sound the most compelling. Ask others in your office, friends or colleagues which they would open.

Subject lines that are timely or imply a benefit or some useful information tend to get the best open rates.

Avoid turn-off words. Some words have been shown to get the lowest open rates, and these include phrases like “final reminder” (people assume they don’t need to be reminded), “don’t forget” (what, am I stupid? Of course I won’t forget.) and “please help” (busy. Later.)

Start by following best practices and remember that you aren’t going to know what really works until you try something. So try, review your stats and try again.

A good email newsletter can help you connect with your subscribers, keep them interested and engaged and set your business up for success when you’re ready to sell.

If you follow these simple tips, test and follow your own successes, you’ll do yourself a better service than simply sending out an email because it’s “marketing Monday”.

What’s helped you with your email marketing? Got any other thoughts on sending out a newsletter? Share them in the comments!

Join the discussion 28 Comments

  • I was nodding my head in agreement through the entire article, these are things that I’ve had countless “discussions” with clients over.

    I’ll add this though…many times organizations send out newsletters that they know their subscribers are going to print; for example, church newsletters frequently get printed and distributed or posted on a bulletin board (to save the double-work of creating a print version). So, before you go about scrapping all the hard work you’ve put into your newsletter to follow all of Carol Lynn’s extremely astute points, take a look at how your newsletter is used by your subscribers, and design/write accordingly.

    Litmus Email Analytics can track printing, by the way.

    • Interesting point… without knowing much beyond what you just said, I might advise those types of organizations to stop thinking in terms of email newsletters and start thinking in terms of print. It could be easier – to format and print – if they just create a PDF or other printable document. They could send those to people via email, or post a link to their website where they keep a collection. Might be a good way to drive traffic back to the site too. Emails don’t always print nicely and they also have the added junk with headers and footers. But that’s a great consideration!

      • I agree, Carol. Your approach is what I advocate as well (post on your website, do the round-up email instead of creating a full-blown “newsletter”). Old mindsets are tough to break.

  • Hi Carol

    I can relate to this as I receive many of those long, boring newsletters myself and guess what? I don’t read most of the content as they go on and on…. I think these people need to read this post and they will realize why they are having so many people unsubscribing from their list!

    On the other end of the scale I love reading Adrienne Smith’s newsletter she sends out, she puts a lot of her personality into them and makes them so interesting, they are not boring in any way! By the way I enjoy yours too Carol which goes without saying lol I like your template for sure…

    Thanks for sharing, enjoy your day 🙂

    • See, it’s all about the personality! If you want to write long emails you have to inject a lot of personality and make sure people care about what you’re saying. Some people like Adrienne know how to keep people interested. Maybe she should give some lessons 🙂

  • I love it! Great stuff here! I really like your point about the reader and not the author. We to give people a reason to actually read our email/newsletter.

  • Hey Carol,
    The Email Newsletter! I find it the most difficult part of writing. We want to engage our readers, but not bore them to tears. There is nothing worse than getting one that is longer than a blog post….I just don’t have the time to read it! I don’t want bells and whistles, I want to read one that is short, to the point, entertaining and gives me a chance for a call to action to respond or ask a question.

    With that in my mind, I have to come up with an email that has those qualities. It is a challenge, and I proof read mine more than I do my blog! What I have found is sharing a short story, maybe about me sometimes, gets them interested. One that had the most reaction was something that I had a problem working on and called myself the “smartest kid in the dumb class.”

    Humor is another thing to stick into those emails. Also I like to end it with something like “What do you think” or some question to get them motivated.
    Of course, it has to be honest and from the heart.

    But…when it comes to my subject line…sometimes I want to pull the hair out of my head! I write about 20 of them before I can chose it. That is the most challenging part of it all.

    Thanks so much for these great tips.


    • Donna, I need to get on your email list! I always like to see what other people do. Stories are great, and so is humor. And I know what you mean about subject lines. They are hard because it’s your only chance to grab someone and get them to read. So you want to make it perfect. I’m going to subscribe to yours so I can stay in the loop 🙂

  • Good tips! Especially “lose the right side-bar” and make it pleasing on the page. I find, that keeping it short and sweet keeps my readers happy!

  • Adrienne says:

    Hey Carol,

    Okay, I define a newsletter as sharing “news”. I mean that’s the point of one right! But like you shared here, most of the ones I’ve signed up for are boring. They post once a month and make it so long I lose interest because it’s all about the posts they wrote, maybe some helpful hints and then promoting a product.

    Now I don’t have an e-commerce site like you very well know so that has always been my definition of a newsletter. I know it might not necessarily be the case but I loved what you said here. If everyone could write theirs keeping in mind the tips you’ve shared then I would probably enjoy more of them and actually learn some things.

    Great job on this outline and I guess I’ve yet to see a newsletter with a sidebar. You know, one I’ve signed up for. Where have I been?


    • There must be some rule in a corporate playbook somewhere that says newsletters have to be one column of text with a sidebar on the right. I don’t know but all the company “newsletters” I get look just like that! News is ok if you have something to share, but not all that boring “this is about me me me” stuff that doesn’t connect with people. I’ve heard your newsletters kick butt 🙂

  • Hi Carol,

    I’ve never really understood why those emails are called “newsletters”, because if they are just news, then, yes, they are so boring.

    The only newsletter that I read is from Carol Look, who is a EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) expert and she makes her newsletters very interesting because she gives her reader an EFT exercise in each of them.

    I am sure she knows darn well that people will open her email, just because they know that that EFT exercise is in there. As you specify here, her newsletters are not TOO long and she sure also ads a call to action.

    I think that anyone writing newsletter should take advice from this post.

    Have you ever told this company to rethink, their newsletter? Maybe you should LOL!

    • Sounds like Carol Look knows how to put together a newsletter! I like the idea of having an exercise in each one. That gives people something to look forward to and it actively engages them. That should be a tip that’s officially added to the list! I bet a lot of people could figure out how to incorporate something simple and engaging like that.

      I will probably never tell that company “hey, your emails are boring!” though sometimes I would like to 🙂 Who knows, maybe someone out there likes them. Definitely not MY cup of tea!

  • Lisa Buben says:

    I loved some of your tips Carol on the emails via businesses. I struggle with some for our retail sites because I usually just send them for sales and charity type things we do and how they can participate in them. This post gives me some great ideas and I love your image used. Great for pinning 🙂 Thanks for sharing.

    • Thanks Lisa, glad to help. I know what you mean, sometimes you’re stuck sending out an email without much to say. It pays to keep it short at that point so people won’t get overwhelmed reading.

  • Chery Schmidt says:

    Great tips Carol! I am subscribed to quite a few different news letters do I read them all Nope, but I do enjoy checking them out to see what is working and what is not. I always pay attention to all of the headlines that come into my e-mail box. Like you said this is the most important part. If people don’t get past the title they will never see what you have inside. Chery 🙂

    • That’s a great idea, Chery. I do the same thing. I have a folder just for newsletters that I’m subscribed to and they accumulate there and get ignored until I want to do some “studying”. If it’s boring to you, it will probably be boring to someone else. So it’s always good to see what others are doing!

  • Nice information especially since I tend to ignore most of any emails that come to me. I glance at them and that’s about it. This information you’ve provided is needed to keep the attention of people like me. 🙂 Thanks for the post. I know I need it as well as others.
    Talk to you later,

    • I ignore a lot too, and then one day I wonder… why am I wasting time ignoring this email? Unsubscribe! Why bother emailing unless you’re getting people to read them, right? There’s always room for improvement, in mine too!

  • Ruth Zive says:

    Also, segment your audience. I hate getting emails from organizations that are stuffed full of information that essentially doesn’t apply to me. If your target market crosses verticals, allows stakeholders to opt in to the ‘newsletter’ or list that most represents their interests. It’s a bit trickier to organize, but i think it pays off in the long run. It speaks to the “Keep it Useful, Interest and Relevant” point. If you take your beef farm example, for instance, you might be even LESS inclined to read it if the articles were meant for distributors or farmers. Great post – I love your style!

    • Great point, Ruth. I bet people get lazy and figure “if it doesn’t apply they won’t read it”. Which is true…. but they might never read it again!

      I have a client with about 1000 people on his list and we segment the heck out of it even though there may be emails that only go out to 30 people. It has to do with their interests, like you said, and would be totally irrelevant to the rest of the list. But it matters to those who get it! Takes a little extra effort but it’s worth it.

      Thanks for the kind words and I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  • WiseStep says:

    Wow. Great article. Thank you for the information and to show what gets read on a website. This article has inspired changes I am going to apply to my personal food blog as well as how I will write email newsletters. Great stuff

  • Husban Ahmed Chowdhury says:

    Hi Carol Lynn Rivera,
    Nice post.
    I think you share great knowledge for corporate newsletter
    . Thank you.

  • Scott P says:

    Thanks Carol.
    I don’t reply to things often, but this was an enjoyable read.