Getting Readers for E-Mail Newsletters

I can erase an incoming e-mail newsletter so fast that the delete key shoots sparks. For months on end, I can stare at the same e-mail sitting in my “gonna read that as soon as I get a chance” box. This is a nightmare for an e-mail marketer.

You can increase your response rates and your pass-along readership with a few simple style changes and some common sense. E-mail marketing isn’t that different from paper-mail marketing. The package matters, and good direct marketing techniques can increase your readership.

Sell it with the subject line. This is the most common mistake. Many good newsletters start with “ABC Company News Update,” or something like that. Who cares? Would you open an envelope that said, “Advertising and Sales Materials Inside”? Consumers get hundreds of e-mail messages a week; executives get hundreds per day. We all skim through the list of subjects and decide what to read and delete the rest.

Subject lines become the table of contents for your inbox. You have to provide clear, meaningful information or you will be deleted. If the subject doesn’t provide a compelling benefit to the reader, he will never open the message. Also, only the first six to 10 words are visible on the screen, so keep your subject line brief.

Keep it short. You can offer a free Maserati at the end of a four-page e-mail message and not one in 50,000 readers will notice it. People read much less on the screen than they do on paper.

Four paragraphs is the upper limit. Even if you write more, no one will read it. Worse, when people glance at a very long e-mail, they are likely to send it to the “I’ll read it someday” pile or delete it. In the fast-moving online world, your message is just not worth the time. Find one or two great points, sell them well and sell them concisely.

Use a good table of contents. A clear table of contents is essential at the start of your message. If you tell people what is coming, they are more likely to make the effort to scroll down and see what is in the body of the message. If they have to wade through it to see what is there, they are more likely to give up and delete it.

Most newsletters blow this one. For highly designed HTML newsletters, all you can see in the preview is a logo and maybe a banner ad. We know no one clicks on banner ads, especially if that is all that can be seen. For text newsletters, usually all you see is an advertisement or a thick block of text. Give people something better so they will open it.

Send it midweek and midday. There are times when newsletters always get deleted in bulk. Don’t send your newsletter at these times. Anything that arrives on a Friday is toast. People are trying to get out of the office and enjoy their weekend – with an empty inbox. Everything unimportant gets wiped. Mondays are just as bad. Send your message Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday.

The same rules go for time of day. Don’t send your message after 3 p.m. It will get lost in the end-of-day rush of mail or sit until the next morning’s delete session. But, there is plenty of time to read during or just after lunch.

Make it about them – not you. Content does count. People don’t subscribe to catalogs or direct mail – but they do like magazines. Why not send something of interest to your readers instead of another list of specials?

I love hand-held computers, and I get all these newsletters with special offers from hand-held-computer catalogs. I don’t read them. One catalog sends me short “how-to” tips about using my computer more effectively. I look forward to that newsletter and I buy from that company’s Web site.

Proper unsubscribe instructions. It’s not good to annoy readers. In a connected world, they can e-mail thousands of others, spreading bad news about your company. Improper unsubscribe instructions are at the top of the list of ways to annoy people online.

Here are the rules:

o You must have clear instructions on how to unsubscribe in every e-mail. Not only in the welcome message, but also in every single message.

o Readers must be able to do it by e-mail and not by going to a Web page. How is a person supposed to unsubscribe if he is reading e-mail on an airplane? There is no way to connect to the Internet, click on a link and fill out a form if you read mail away from a phone line. Every list management program offers this feature, so turn it on.

o Provide a way to contact a real human. More than 5 percent of unsubscribe attempts get screwed up by readers. Even though it may be the reader’s fault for failing to follow instructions, you will get the blame. Make sure a real person is scanning the incoming mail for problem cases.

If you do not do this, you risk serious consumer backlash that can severely embarrass your company.

Don’t use spam words. This is a hard one for direct marketers. Many of the words that work best in direct mail have been claimed by the spammers – words such as “free,” “special offer” and “discount.” Unfortunately, messages containing these words are often deleted automatically by spam-blocking systems at Internet service providers or in consumer e-mail programs. If you put these words in the subject line, you may trigger the software that automatically identifies you and your company as spammers. If this happens, your messages – now and forever – will get erased before anyone sees them.

Write it well. Most e-mails are boring, full of typos or look sloppy. E-mail is a text-based medium. Write like a pro.

Avoid HTML newsletters. Many e-mail programs can’t read HTML e-mail, and many users turn that feature off. This includes all older e-mail programs, wireless e-mail and many hand-held computers. Your HTML message looks like garbage to them. Why reduce your response rate by sending messages that a significant percentage of your readers can’t even open? Always keep a text-based publication as your standard version and only offer the HTML as an enhanced option for those who you know can read it.

Who is it from? Pay close attention to how the message is addressed. Many corporate newsletters look amateurish because the official newsletter has the return address as that of the personal e-mail of the head of marketing (or the intern who sent it). People don’t read mail that looks like a cheesy promotion instead of a proper publication. Besides the subject line, this is the next most important factor when people decide which messages to read and which to delete.

Use few ads. Readers don’t mind advertising as long as it is reasonable and professional. Never put more than two ads in an e-mail, or it will look like junk mail. One ad is better. The first ad should be after the first paragraph of your content. Would you watch a television show that made you watch all the commercials before the show? These rules ensure that consumers feel that they are getting good information value in return for their exposure to advertising.

Include contact information. What good is marketing if no one can find you? Don’t forget to include a link to your Web site in the header and footer. If you aren’t worried about an overwhelming flood of consumers, you should also put the address, phone and e-mail addresses of your salespeople in the footer, especially for business-to-business marketing.

Here is the common theme for these tips: Everyone has too many e-mails to read, and it’s easy to delete the ones that are troublesome. You can win more readers and keep them interested with these etiquette and formatting tips. Having more readers leads to a better response rate – and that is good business. None of these tips costs a cent to execute, so why not improve returns with a few simple changes?

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