Companies and organizations send newsletters for at least of one of these three reasons:
- Your customers, fans, followers, etc. have demonstrated a need and high demand for receiving a monthly or regular digest of your latest news, events, courses, etc.
- You have regular informative or entertaining material to send such as reports, data, or new sales.
- Someone, usually the owner or boss, thought it would be a good idea and said we should.
And companies and people send newsletters in one of these three ways:
- Laid out in Word or Publisher and printed to distribute inside a company or organization, usually by a receptionist or intern.
- Printed and mailed through the Postal Service and delivered to people’s physical mailboxes.
- Emailed directly to a zillion people who have no idea who you are through an Email Service Provider (ESP) like Mailchimp, Salesforce, etc.
I’m here to tell you that the most common combination is items #3 in both of these lists. Most places most of the time are sending out an email newsletter because someone thought they should be. This usually comes from a place of wanting to “do something” and having no other ideas or inspiration.
Trust me on this because I’ve consulted and sat in on so many conversations about email newsletters. I can’t begin to count up the number of times I’ve tried to get people to understand they are not ready for a newsletter and even if they insist, encouraging them to think more deeply about what they’re doing. Sending monthly newsletters tends to reduce the overall volume of email people send throughout the month. So instead of short, focused, and timely emails about events or features, they’re saved and bundled into a bigger, more unfocused email that’s less timely. Truly all the worst parts.
First of all, newsletters are hard
Newsletters are hard. They’re hard to write, hard to put together, and hard to measure results. This is not the fault of any one person, thing, or technology. In fact, the technology for sending newsletters is very simple. What’s hard is producing things people find interesting, measuring the results, and recognizing where to change things.
These are the things most commonly included in company newsletters:
- A note from the president/executive/manager/etc.
- A “spotlight” on some member or customer.
- A “feature” on a project or product, usually something new.
- A call to get people to follow you somewhere else, like Facebook.
And this is where most of the ideas start and end. I hate all of these ideas for various reasons.
First, no one cares what the president thinks. Most people don’t even care what The President of the United States thinks, let alone what some white guy elected to your board of directors for a one year term is thinking. I have never read a “message from the whoever” that was useful. Not once, ever, and neither have you. Seriously, when is the last time you read one of those “welcome” messages on a website or newsletter and cared one bit about what it said? These are little ego trips and they have no value.
Second, people get hung up on adding a “spotlight” on some member or customer. The reflex to add these kinds of stories comes from a healthy place. Telling success stories about your work with a customer or a team member, especially if this is an internal publication, is good. But these are rarely done well. Do not fall down by emailing people a short list of questions and having them type out responses. They’ll sound canned, usually ask elementary questions like “What do you like to do when you’re not working here?”, and are often too short to be of value. If your job is to dig holes and you sent someone a photo that said, “Here’s a photo we dug” the obvious questions are, “Why? Where? For what purpose? What’s this going to do for me? Does this do something for someone else I care about? Who needed this hole?”
Third, and to add to this point about spotlights: do not have your team write their bios to include somewhere. Bios written by people are the worst. Bios written by someone else is far better. No one likes writing about themselves, most people are not trained for it, and they are tragically dull because people don’t have a good grasp of what about them makes them interesting or talented.
Fourth, a “feature” is just a story. Newspapers do not wake up each morning and think, “What’s our top feature today?” Instead, they ask what their top story is and then feature that in a prominent position, like a front page of their website or paper.
Lastly, if a person is subscribed to you via email they are your most valuable people. Do not encourage them to follow you somewhere else like Facebook because you are weakening your position. You are trading your own list, that you control, and passing that control to Facebook in hopes those people sometimes see your algorithmically calculated posts.
People are always scrambling for newsletter “content”
People are constantly scrambling for newsletter material. For years I’d have regular, “So, what are we going to do for our newsletter?” emails. This is the stuff of nightmares because once people, who usually have many other responsibilities, start wondering what to do with a newsletter all the time, they get into a funk trying to make it go away. “Here’s this and this I pulled together, and maybe we include a photo from our last meeting lol idk?” And suddenly a task that Carl in Accounting or Wanda in IT never wanted gets treated with the same level of thought and concern as this year’s Secret Santa gift. And the photo of a bunch of half empty chairs in a dank office conference room is depressing.
Some people foresee this problem and try to get ahead of it with a Content Calendar or quarterly or annual strategic plan. Thing is, most people can suss out you’re shoveling junk through a chute like this.
I don’t know any formal numbers industry-wide, but most of the newsletter stats I see look like this:
- 20% open rate
- 1-2% click rate
- 0-2 people unsubscribe per email
Open rates are a bit tricky to calculate anyway. I usually assume the open rates are double what they’re reported as, but click rates are spot-on. If someone clicks a link, it’s easy to count. And a click rate of 1-2% tells me no one cares. Seriously, if Apple sent an email promoting the new iPhone and they got a 1% click rate, someone’s head would roll.
Granted, they’ve got iPhones and you’ve got whatever it is you do. But your low unsubscribe rates mean nothing because, think about it: how many times do you just swipe away the same email day after day knowing you could just unsubscribe.
You should print your newsletters and mail them
Here’s how to fix your newsletter:
- Ensure a team of people is dedicated to the newsletter. You need a designer, an editorial board of three or more people, and at least one maybe two people who can write well.
- You should print and mail it.
- You should publish some of the stories online a month after they appear in the newsletter.
If you begin treating the whole thing like a magazine, and I mean a really good magazine, you will see results:
- A print and mailing deadline is a hard thing to move and no one is surprised by the need to print and mail it. It’ll ensure a consistent deadline to keep people focused.
- Since it will cost you more—probably a lot more—you will most likely reduce the frequency you send it from bi-weekly or monthly to quarterly or even every six months.
- Since the cost to print and mail it is higher, you’ll ensure you keep your list clean. You won’t add every Jon, Jamal, and Janet to your list.
- You could, if it’s good enough, maybe even start charging for it.
- Printed pieces, when attractive and printed on nice paper, rarely go straight to the trash or recycling. Pieces like coupon guides printed on newspaper go straight to the trash. Credit card offers with scammy envelopes go to the trash. But a full magazine style piece printed with thick cover paper? People think twice about tossing that because it looks expensive. Truth is, it doesn’t even have to be all that expensive, especially on a bulk postage rate if you have more than 400 people.
- Printed pieces tend to lie around for a while on people’s kitchen or coffee tables. They sit on desks and remind people about you every time they reach over for their cup of coffee. “Oh yeah, I think I’ll read this on lunch today,” they say. No one has ever said that about an email newsletter.
- Delivery rates on printed pieces are very high. Delivery rates on emails that actually land in an inbox that people see and check and maintain and open are low and dropping.
How to fix up your newsletter culture and marketing team
Five—yes five—times in my career I have been involved in a discussion to make a newsletter printed and mailed. The first time we stopped calling it a newsletter and started calling it a name. We gave the publication a real name. It wasn’t, “Did you get your copy of the newsletter?” It was “Did you get your copy of the Acme Times?” It sounds silly, but it works and changes the culture around it. On two other occasions we found people taking this far more seriously precisely because we knew paper and postage cost something, unlike email which everyone just threw into the wind.
And every time this happened I saw the same results and heard the same thing over and over from people of all ages and demographics:
- “I used to throw this thing away,” [when it was designed by a novice in Publisher and printed on a laserjet]. “But now I take the time to read it.”
- After ensuring a qualified, talented designer was in charge of fonts and photography, “It’s so much easier to read. I sit down with this on Saturday mornings while I have my coffee.”
- After ensuring an editorial board was established: “I’m much more involved in this now. My name goes on these stories.” When people’s names go on the mastheads, story bylines, or in the front cover, Holy crap, I’d better make this nice.
- Once people started receiving their copies regularly, “I always make sure my address is updated.” Once someone forwards their mail after a move and they realize they might miss out, they try to get in touch with you to update their info.
Does this always result in rainbows and sunshine? No, because of course some people will just never care that much. They’re busy and they have jobs and families and laundry to do.
But the overall rise in quality and attention to detail shines in so many other places. It keeps a team of people engaged in your company communications. There are people who love seeing their name and photos beautifully presented on paper, knowing hundreds or thousands of other people will see it. And you’ll have something to be really proud of. Plus, when you sit down as an Editorial Board and start working on stories, and I mean really working on stories that are 800-1200 words, with great headlines, formatting, typography, and a point of view with quotes and sources, you start to see the chinks in the armor. You start to realize, Maybe we’re not doing as much as we thought? It’s like a quarterly or bi-annual review that really exposes what you’re doing.
Overcoming objections to printed newsletters
There are naysayers and objections, many of which are valid.
“Won’t that cost more?” Yes, it will cost more. But without knowing what you do I can still almost guarantee if you’re spending money on social media ads, email hosting, and other print mailers like postcards, you could pool all that together and come out ahead in savings and benefits with a printed newsletters.
“Isn’t that old-fashioned?” Yes, yes it is. And that’s precisely what makes it stand out.
“Do people even read this?” Who knows. Do people read your existing emails? Because I’m guessing they don’t.
“Won’t this take more time?” Yes, and it probably should. You spinning one or two people around in a frantic dash each month to come up with some weak news about a project is taking too little time. Taking more time brings more focus and intensity of impact that most things could use a lot more of.
“How do we make more time for this?” Same way you make more time for anything, really. Eliminate the stuff that isn’t working.
“What if this fails?” Then you’ll know it didn’t work. Thing is, you can still count clicks to URLs by giving URLs a short redirect, like “visit us at oursite.com/magazine” and putting features from there to other parts of your site. That’s another benefit—you get print and online material. And if you trickle the stuff from print to the web a month or two later, you’ll have even more reason to read the print version of things while still giving you a flow of material in two mediums.
“Can’t I just print something from Word and mail that? Do I need a designer with InDesign?” You should hire a professional because you printing something on an inkjet printer from Word or Publisher isn’t going to cut it. You want the best outcome here. My insurance agents try to cheap out on this by mailing a folded piece of office paper and it sucks because it feels cheap and was clearly done to be cheap.
At least think about your newsletter a little harder
I got real tired of dealing with most newsletters. They were repetitive, low-value, and done in a cumulative effort of about 1-2 hours.
A good newsletter should probably take closer to 12-14 hours on something that’s done quarterly. But even at that rate, that’s just 50% more time than the cumulative effort of a monthly piece.
It was clear some people just didn’t have enough to share each month, and it showed. Say something when you have something to say and say it boldly and clearly.