Newsletters are a time-honored way to communicate broadly with your constituents and stakeholders, but there are decisions to make about how, what, when, and more. See our general information about HTML e-mail.
Do you need a newsletter?
Think long and hard about this question, because the answer should not be an automatic yes. Consider:
- Does your audience need to hear from you on a regular basis?
- Are you going to have enough content to justify whatever frequency you choose?
- Are you going to be able to stay on top of it?
- If your audience is large (or becomes large), can you afford the cost of a premium e-mail marketing service?
People get a LOT of e-mail with a LOT of content. Even if they’re really plugged into you, they may not necessarily be interested in everything that is going on with your organization. If you’re satisfied that the answer is yes to these questions, then it’s time to decide:
Electronic or print?
You don’t see many print newsletters anymore, and for good reason. They’re expensive to produce and send, it’s a hassle to keep up with address changes, you don’t know if they’re reaching your audience, and not many people sit down and read them anyway. It bears mentioning that they are not environmentally friendly, even if you spring for recycled paper and plant-based inks. That said, it still depends on your audiences. If many of them are older, it may actually suit you (and them) to primarily generate an electronic newsletter but use some fairly simple style coding to generate print versions of key articles on more of a one-off basis.
But assuming the number of people in your audience who a) need to hear from you, and b) prefer a printed newsletter is very small, electronic is almost certainly the way to go.
Advantages of electronic newsletters
In general, electronic newsletters are:
- Faster (to produce and send)
- Easier (to create and modify)
Pitfalls of newsletters
It wouldn’t surprise us to learn that most newsletters die on the vine. Say you settle on a monthly frequency. After a couple months, you’ll be thinking, “Geez, didn’t I just put one of these together three weeks ago?” Next thing you know it’s bimonthly, then quarterly, and so on.
Organizations have news cycles just like anything else. What if something exciting and timely happens, but your quarterly newsletter doesn’t come out for another six weeks? Or, conversely, what if newsletter time rolls around and you don’t really have much to put in it? Do you plug in a bunch of extraneous content no one’s interested in just to fill the space?
E-newsletters depend a lot on lists of names and e-mails. You probably have a list of some kind, but how accurate is it? Did the people on it already agree to hear from you? All the major e-mail marketing companies have strict policies about the provenance of contact lists; if your list isn’t clean and accurate, you might get a lot of bounces or spam reports, and that can be enough for them to suspend your account.
What makes good newsletter content
Most organizations pack way too much content into their newsletters, including full articles with tiny text instead of short intros and links. Too much content suggests a lack of sophistication, audience knowledge, and focus, and most layouts are created while thinking only about the screen in front of you, while a growing chunk of your audience is looking at it on a much smaller screen.
Good newsletter layout, like any good design, guides the viewer to the most important content with judicious use of white space and headings, and clearly delineated interactive elements like buttons and links.
Lists are great, even if only as an intro to something more complex. Good photos always help your cause. Key events or dates are good. Easily digestible stuff like your favorite Tweets from partner organizations are useful as well. If you have an archive of old photos or publications, do some kind of throwback. Think of your audience’s interest and goodwill as a tiny flame. Your job is to keep it going and maybe grow it a little by carefully layering on some small bits, not dropping a dump truck full of logs onto it.
Your job is to keep it going and maybe grow it a little by carefully layering on some small bits, not dropping a dump truck full of logs onto it.
Of course, there are political considerations. Maybe your boss says to include that whole 800-word article, or to list every single event between now and the next newsletter. Sometimes you may have to capitulate, but there are lots of articles by people who do this for a living that can support your arguments for less being more. The analytics can help make your case as well.
E-newsletters do’s and don’ts
- Favor great-looking photos and graphics over long blocks of text
- Size text large enough that it is readable on a smartphone
- Ensure your template is responsive and mobile-friendly
- Test your e-mails on multiple clients, from Outlook to Gmail and beyond
- Carefully watch your analytics to see what kinds of articles or sections people respond to
- Curate and scrub your lists carefully and regularly
- Approach it lightly
- Over-commit on your frequency
- Overestimate your audience’s time and engagement level
- Put full, long articles in the e-mail itself