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Best Email Newsletter Practices

I started publishing Web Digest For Marketers in April 1995. It was the first email newsletter on Internet marketing. It originally was meant to support my consulting and public speaking lines of business. It was the sideshow. It's now the main event.

I've learned a lot about the changing nature of this business. I also had to unlearn a lot too. In fact, if you're not willing to unlearn, you're apt to miss the scent of where things are going next.

Below I give you my latest practices and insights for publishing an email newsletter. Enjoy.

1. Visualize Your Audience: First things first. Clearly identify the audiences you are addressing. You may have audiences within audiences. Some may be prospects, some may be leads, others are already clients or opinion leaders. Put a face and name to each of these cohorts and ask what content you can provide them that they can't get elsewhere.

The audience for my Web Digest For Marketers email newsletter is Internet marketing practitioners, opinion leaders, journalists/editors and directors of marketing. The newsletter's editorial is aimed at mid-size to large businesses. The tone and content of the newsletter is written with an "insider" style that assumes the reader knows a certain amount about Internet marketing. The leads that the advertisers get from their ads in the newsletter bear this out.

2. Subscriber Acquisition Is Paramount: Unless you budget resources for your newsletter's acquisition of new subscribers, you will quickly find yourself going backwards in list size. Email addresses are abandoned easily. You can lose 25-35% of your subscribers in a year unless you have a comprehensive plan for getting new ones.

But just because you are ravenous for new subscribers doesn't mean you shouldn't be choosey about where they come from. You need to be very selective or the results at the back end will be unsatisfactory, whether that back end is online sales, leads for third-party advertisers or client prospects for your consultancy.

3. Consider Co-Registration Programs: Perhaps the most underutilized page on a website is the "Thank You" page that comes up after someone subscribes to your newsletter. Instead of merely saying, "Thank you for subscribing, see you later," why not offer the visitor the opportunity to subscribe to other email newsletters as well? In turn, those newsletters send you as many new subscribers as you send them by offering the same to their new subscribers. Vet these newsletters very carefully. Look at how traffic gets to their sites. Check out their content, integrity, reputation, Alexa rank, affiliations and inbound links. This often means you'll be cooperating with your competitors. That's OK. It's done all the time.

4. Offer Premiums for Subscribing: Tens of thousands of Internet marketers have downloaded my "Essential Search Engine Marketing Resource Guide" right after they subscribed to Web Digest For Marketers. Yes, I am sure a few just subscribed for the guide and immediately unsubscribed thereafter, but that is an insignificant percentage. The guide also gets passed around and serves as my virtual ambassador to those who are not familiar with me or my newsletter.

5. Let Subscribers Sample Before They Subscribe: One of the biggest "misses" I see on sites asking people to subscribe to newsletters is the lack of a sample or current issue of their email newsletter. People want to know what they're signing up for and how often it's published.

The other big mistake I see is that many email newsletter publishers don't offer a crisp punch list detailing reasons why you should subscribe. How will this newsletter serve me? What's the value proposition? Give me detailed specifics that convince me to give up my email address to yet another party I've never met face-to-face.

Be sure to have an obvious link to your privacy page that clearly spells out how you protect a subscriber's email address from falling into the hands of the bad guys. Be sure to put a subscription field on the privacy page. Some of the most popular pages on my site are the privacy page and the current issue.

6. Use SEO to Attract Subscribers: In order to get more subscribers, you need more traffic to your site. A few years ago I made the reviews from Web Digest For Marketers available publicly instead of charging $49 a year for a subscription to my archives. I wasn't making that much on the annual fees and the search engines then found nearly 1,000 marketing site reviews to spider. My Alexa rank, site rankings and subsequent subscriptions zoomed.

Using your email newsletter content on your site needs to be well thought out. If your newsletter is full of industry news, it will not age as well as more "evergreen" content. For example, "how to" content is always popular, as people so often turn to the Internet to figure out how to do one thing or another, both in the b2b and b2c space.

You also want to publish to your site often. The search engines are paying much more attention to how frequently and recently your site is updated. Think about it. When you do a Google or Yahoo search, you want to see the freshest results first, right? That's what search engines want to serve up to their users.

7. Scrutinize Your Subject Lines: You've got roughly 35 characters (including spaces) if you want your readers to see your complete or near complete message in the subject line. I see some newsletters put the date in the subject line, which takes up valuable screen real estate. Why bother? The email has a timestamp on it anyways. Other email newsletters put part of the name in the subject header. A couple years back, I elected to remove the moniker [Web Digest] from the subject line and simply put "Larry Chase's Web Digest For Marketers" in the From field. This left me 12 more extremely valuable characters to use to describe the actual topic of each issue.

When it comes to subject line copy, each word needs to work hard. Yes, there could be urgency in the wording, but then again you don't want it to sound unnecessarily hyped up. Look for words that resonate with what your subscribers are thinking and talking about. For my audience, current "hot" words are SEO, Optimization, ROI, Deliverability, Site Traffic, etc. If you want to see what's on the collective minds of your audience, use a keyword suggestion tool like KeywordDiscovery.com or see what is drawing high bids in your category in AdSense or AdWords.

8. Keep Your Email Layout Simple: You want your email newsletter kept simple for a number of reasons:

  1. More people are reading email newsletters on portable devices like Blackberries and Palm Pilots. These devices don't always render the extra scripting as your desktop email program does. I hear from subscribers that some newsletters are not even able to be opened on some portable devices because there's just too much extra code that the device doesn't know how to interpret.
  2. Like most editorial products, your email newsletter is most helpful when it creates clarity out of chaos, and there is an overwhelming amount of informational chaos out there on the Internet. So the look and appearance of your newsletter should telegraph order and ease of use.

9. Focus on Deliverability: Let's face it. The size of the email universe is staggering. Seriously consider employing the services of an reputation monitoring firm such as Habeas. (Disclosure: Habeas has advertised numerous times in Web Digest for Marketers).

If you're going to use an email service bureau, do your research by purchasing an unbiased, third-party report detailing who is tops in that field. Do spend the money. It's worth it. It's a daunting task to change email service bureaus. I know. I've done it a couple of times. You want to avoid it.

One of the critical aspects of such a service is how attentive they are to ISP relations. In other words, how well do they monitor and get you off of blacklists? Also pay attention to their client list. If they're servicing questionable companies or condoning questionable practices, this will quite possibly have a disastrous impact on your own deliverability.

BTW, it goes without saying that you want to put all of your newsletter content through at least one sp0m filter tool to prevent your newsletter from winding up in bulk or junk folders.

10. Mind Your Meaningful Metrics: Yes, everyone talks about open rates. But that metric is much less reliable now because over 50% of the email applications out there default to not importing the graphics, which is how open rates are measured.

At the end of the day, your success can really be measured in terms of leads, prospects and conversions. Clickthroughs are a better indicator than open rates, but they aren't the final gold standard either. Look, you can have lots of people clicking through to a site or landing page, but what does it really mean if they do zippo when they get there? The Internet is an interactive medium. Typically the aim of most campaigns is to get a visitor to take some sort of action. If he or she is not buying something right off the bat, you then want to measure the quality of the lead or prospect who has perhaps downloaded a white paper or registered for a Webinar, for example.

11. The Skinny on Running Ads in Email Newsletters: Web Digest For Marketers is supported by the revenue from its advertisers. For over a decade, I've seen what works and what doesn't work in this b2b e-marketing email newsletter. Short, precise messaging on a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of my readers wins the day. Typically, three bullet points explain why a particular white paper or Webinar is worth my readers' time.

Essentially the advertiser is saying, "Stop reading Web Digest long enough to go and register for what is being offered right here." DM'ers call this the two-step approach, as you aren't asking for a sale immediately. It is a common b2b direct response tactic. Ads that ask for the sale right in the ad typically don't earn back their investment.

What is interesting about these ads is that the response rate tail is getting longer as the medium matures. People hold onto their issues in a "Read" folder or a "Web Digest" folder for later review. As a result, I see the clickthroughs rising many months after a particular issue's publication date. One advertiser told me recently that he got registrations for a Webinar 9 months after the event. So leave your landing pages up for a long time, and make sure your Webinar is archived well after the fact on that landing page. Try to make white papers evergreen for at least six months or longer.

12. Multichannel Your Newsletter: In order to increase your "footprint" on the Internet, you should consider augmenting your email newsletter with a blog and an RSS feed. I wouldn't replace your newsletter with a blog or RSS feed, nor would I exactly duplicate the content of your email newsletter in these other two channels. This can lead to the cannibalization of your own email list. Your blog and RSS feed will help people find you in search engines and allow them to see you in news readers. These two media are very good for building traffic and awareness of your firm's site.

I do remain very skeptical of most blog and RSS advertising. I know in some IT industry blogs, ads can fetch triple-digit cpm's. But I think this more the exception rather than the rule. Also, those ads and mentions should be clearly identified as ads or else your blog (and therefore your firm) will lose credibility, which helps no one.

13. Final Tip Unlearn: Unlike traditional marketing, where once you've learned certain principles you were good to go for your entire career, Internet marketing and email newsletter publishing are moving targets. This nascent medium causes people's habits to shift from desktops to laptops to Palm tops and cell phones. The rate of this change seems to be accelerating. This means you need to revisit your assertions fairly often. I've noticed that which was true a few years ago is no longer true. Other truths that became outdated come back in a new form. In short, keep your eyes and mind wide open. LC