The Recipe for a Great Email Newsletter

The email newsletter is the cornerstone of many content marketing campaigns. But for their relative popularity and importance, it’s surprising how many bad examples show up in our inboxes every week. Let’s break down some of the more successful examples and find out what they’re made of.

Before we get into too much detail, let’s lay some groundwork. “Email newsletter” isn’t just another name for email marketing. It’s not a sales pitch, or a product announcement, or a coupon, though it may contain those things. Newsletters are regularly produced and distributed communications that you can use to share interesting content with current and potential customers. And they’re permission-based, meaning you only send them to people who sign up for them.

“Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them,” writes Seth Godin in his seminal blog post on permission marketing.

So with that, let’s talk about some ways you can create and deliver your own “anticipated, personal, and relevant” email newsletter.

Know Your Audience

The first step towards a successful newsletter is to define who, exactly, your audience is. If you don’t know that, it’s hard to know what to send or when to send it. Think about your current customers or the customers you hope to attract with your newsletter. And remember, you may have more than one audience. As content marketing expert Joe Pulizzi explains, “Almost all businesses have different types and levels of customers. To be most effective, the ultimate distribution of your content should not be one-size-fits-all. Group your customers into different buying groups (also called buying personas), and treat both the content and the marketing to each group as separate.”

Knowing your audience(s) is critical to creating relevant messages that they will actually be interested in receiving. If you have a variety of customers with different interests, desires, or decision stages, consider creating separate lists for each. You can always reuse content across these lists, but each newsletter should be tailored to the specific needs of that audience.

Volusion customer The Oregon Duck Store uses several different email newsletters to communicate with the wide variety of customers. As they explain: “Sign up for our mailing list or any of our free email newsletters and receive reminders, updates, and information for various departments throughout the store. Choose from Student, Faculty, Literary, Digital, Creative, Spirit, or Precious Cargo E-Newsletters. Subscribe to one or all seven!”

Create a Schedule

Once you know who you’re trying to reach, you can decide on a schedule—not just when you’ll send, but how often. There’s no single right answer to these questions, so do what’s best for your company and your customers. Don’t have enough time or content for a weekly newsletter? Maybe you should plan for monthly. Monthly newsletters too long? Try weekly, or bi-weekly. If you’re just getting started, plan for once a month and then reassess your schedule after a few newsletters have gone out.

As for when to send, according to a recent study by MailChimp, the best times to send an email are on weekdays between 2pm and 5pm, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Of course, these are just general suggestions based on averages from millions of emails, so your timing may vary depending on your industry and audience. To determine the best days and times for your emails, you can test a few options and monitor the results (more on that later).

Once you find a schedule that works best for you and your customers, be consistent. If you can, send your newsletter out on the same days and at the same times so your customers know when to expect them.

Choose a Delivery Method

Once you know the who and the when, it’s time to figure out exactly how to send your newsletter. Volusion partners with a variety of email marketing services that make creating lists and sending newsletters super easy. Two of the most popular are Constant Contact and MailChimp.

Constant Contact offers an industry-leading email marketing platform with a strong focus on customer support, coaching, and powerful tools. Plans start as low as $15 a month, with a free 60-day trial.

MailChimp is another great option with a friendly, easy-to-use admin that helps simplify the process of managing your email campaigns. Best of all, MailChimp offers a "Forever Free Plan" for users that have less than 2000 subscribers.

In addition to our partnerships with these and other great email marketing services, Volusion customers can enjoy a built-in newsletter tool. Within the Volusion store admin, users can create newsletters, manage email lists, and even create groups for customers with specific interests or needs.

Create Great Content

Once the planning is over, it’s time to get down to the business of creating content. The first step is to make sure you’re creating something worth sending, reading, and sharing. You’re not paying for stock, printing, stamps, or any of the other trappings of a physical newsletter, so invest a little in the quality of your content and your design. You owe it to your brand and your customers.

Many email marketing platforms offer free or affordable design templates that can help you create a great looking newsletter. Volusion customers can also purchase custom email newsletter designs from our in-house design team.

With the design in place, you can start creating content. This may include new product announcements, interesting customer stories, how-to videos, photo galleries, or anything you feel like sharing. The key here is to avoid the hard sell. Focus more on interacting and sharing, less on selling. Nobody wants blatant sales pitches in their inbox every week, and they’ll respond by unsubscribing and never looking back. As Seth Godin explains, “Permission is like dating. You don’t start by asking for the sale at first impression. You earn the right, over time, bit by bit.”

If you’ve created separate lists or interest groups, honor them. Keep your content on topic and to the point. You can repurpose content from other communications, from social media or from your website, but make sure it’s meaningful to that audience—don’t just add things to add them.

And lastly, you don’t have to create it all yourself. If you read a great article from an industry resource or get an interesting story from a customer, feel free to share that in your newsletter. But try to keep a balance between creation and curation—many readers will be turned off if all of your content comes from somewhere else.

One of my favorite examples of great newsletter content comes from Best Made Company, an outdoor tool and equipment maker “dedicated to equipping customers with quality tools and dependable information that they can use and pass down for generations.” Their weekly email update typically contains three short announcements, most often a new or featured product complemented by an article related to the product, and then another interesting post from their employees and partners. The writing is great, the photos are beautiful, and the content is always interesting, meaning I look forward to their email every week.

Promote & Share

If you do all the preceding steps right, your email list should grow consistently and organically over time. But that doesn’t mean you have to sit around and wait for it.

Place a prominent callout on your site inviting visitors sign up for your newsletter. Like the Oregon Duck Store and Best Made Company examples above, you can include a brief description of the newsletter so users know what to expect.

You can also include a link in your order confirmation pages or emails to invite customers to sign up. This is especially helpful if you have interest groups about that specific product or related topics that they are likely to be interested in.

Within the newsletter itself, be sure to include links that let subscribers share articles and posts with their friends through social media and email. And don’t forget to share a link to your newsletter on your own social networks whenever a new one is ready.

Lastly, be patient. Planning and creating an email newsletter is often a chicken-or-egg situation: do you create a newsletter to build your email list, or wait until you have a list before you start your newsletter. My recommendation is to start a newsletter now, and patiently build up your list.

Measure & Refine

How will you know how you’re doing if you don’t measure? Use statistics like open rates, clicks, and referral traffic to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.

You can include links to different pages or products throughout your newsletter, then track which ones are clicked the most, helping you understand the types of content, topics, and messages get the most response. If you find that certain topics are shared and opened more, consider creating more content around those topics. You can also use these metrics to determine the best days and times to send you emails. If more users are opening your emails in the afternoons than mornings or evenings, try to time your communications for maximum effect.

Lastly, open rates and bounce rates can help you identify potential problems with spam filters. If a particular newsletter has an uncharacteristically low open rate or an unusually high number of returned emails, something in your newsletter may have been improperly flagged. Check out this great article from MailChimp on ways to avoid spam filters in your email newsletters.

Time to Start Cooking!

Whether you already have a newsletter program or you’re just getting started, these tips can help you create emails that your customers will be excited to read and share. As with any other recipe, this is just a starting point. Feel free to share your own thoughts and suggestions below. We’d love to hear them!