Everyone loves to prognosticate about the future of email, including whether or not anyone still reads it or if we’ll soon be able to check it via our refrigerators.
For better or for worse, email remains a ubiquitous form of communication today. According to a July 2012 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, we spend 13 hours per week dealing with email. Thirteen hours! That’s a whole season of “House of Cards,” you know. Not surprisingly, there’s a cottage industry of apps, like Mailstrom, Unroll.me, and The Email Game, designed solely to help people manage their inboxes more efficiently.
Here in higher ed, we often rely on email newsletters to communicate information to key audiences. That could mean a university-wide email to all faculty and staff, a departmental newsletter sent to alumni, or anything in between. But no matter the size or scope, the challenges remain the same.
Email presents a narrow window of opportunity within which we can attract attention, communicate information meaningfully, and spur action. And we’re competing with the dozens or hundreds of other messages in someone’s inbox.
I like to think of content strategy as simply being thoughtful. Just as I likened the idea of focusing on readability to respecting your audience, I think about content and communications plans as a way of being considerate to readers.
People are constantly interrupted by little buzzes and notifications compelling them to check their inboxes — let’s make it worth their while.
Email Newsletter Checklist
As with all content, email newsletters are not self-indulgent exercises. We should aim to impart relevant, useful, and timely information. We should also be mindful of people’s time and present that information in a quick and easy to read format. (On a related note, according to a report by Return Path in September 2013, 48 percent of email open rates come via mobile devices. Within the education industry, that rate jumps slightly to 50 percent.)
In short, we need to make email communications matter, and make them easily accessible an readable. But how do we achieve this?
Depending on your available resources, you may be the one producing your email newsletter. Or maybe it’s an administrative assistant or intern. As always, we need to support our content creators, particularly those who are not full-time communications professionals. They may not understand overarching communications goals, institutional style, publishing best practices, or content calendars.
Here’s a checklist to keep in mind when planning and crafting your newsletter content. You may need to tweak it to meet your unique needs, but it can help guide the production of an email newsletter.
1. Set your goals, know your readers
The first step in putting together an email newsletter isn’t selecting a mail service or a template — it’s determining your goals and your readers’ needs.
What do we want our newsletter to accomplish?
- Increase awareness of certain deadlines and requirements
- Boost attendance at events
- Drive readership to news stories or announcements
- Encourage donations or other kinds of participation
One way or another, all content within your newsletter should map back to one or more of these goals. Establishing goals helps you create, select and prioritize content. In your content calendar, I would even encourage you to create a shorthand by which you indicate which goal(s) a chosen piece of content supports.
In thinking through these goals, remember that successful content thrives where those goals intersect with user needs. So, who is your audience and what are they looking for? What content and information can you provide that advances your goals while meeting your readers’ needs?
2. Maintain a content calendar
A content calendar is key to a successful newsletter. It can serve as an archive and reference for past newsletters as well as a platform for planning future issues. You can organize it by different sections of content you may want in your newsletter. And you can also use it to ensure that what you are planning can reasonably be accomplished with given time and resources.
Generally speaking, you should be consistent from newsletter to newsletter in terms of how much content you include and how you format and present. This helps create reliable expectations among your readers—they will be able to more easily navigate your newsletter and comprehend your content. A content calendar will help hold you accountable to your plan for your newsletter.
You may consider establishing some recurring features for your newsletter. These could be a featured class or student group, a faculty profile, event previews, select content from your social media channels, or a relevant community organization you want to highlight. A content calendar helps you keep track of what content you have planned for these features, or any content rotations you may devise.
3. Draft your content
It can be tempting if you, say, send a biweekly departmental newsletter, to cram in everything that happened within the past two weeks. That may be a long newsletter! Do people want to read all of that information? Or if your newsletter is daily, are you creating content just to fill space?
Again, let your organizational goals and your understanding of reader needs lead the way. What are you trying to accomplish and what content will compel this audience to help you achieve those goals?
As far as your content goes, general web writing best practices apply — be clear, be concise, be readable (short paragraphs, section headers, bulleted lists), use the active voice, avoid jargon, and so on.
Let your website be your partner in newsletter production. If you have news to share, you want your website audience to discover that information too, right? Update your website with new and relevant content before linking to it from your newsletter. This relieves your newsletter from the burden of containing, say, all of the 300-word bio of your new program director. You can instead tease the director announcement with a smart blurb and a snazzy photo, then link to your site.
4. Create your subject line
Your subject line lets people know what to expect out of your email. It’s perhaps the most important content element in your newsletter since it is what they’re going to see when the email notification appears on their smartphone screen or browser popup, as well as their inbox.
That’s a big job for 30 to 70 characters (and often, the fewer the better!), especially when you consider the benefit of including keywords.
Every email you send should have a unique subject line, though you may consider blending consistent (e.g. “Your Meet Content Monthly Newsletter”) and changing (e.g. “April 2014”) components. You may also consider how your subject works in tandem with your “from” field, since the two often appear bundled together.
Some examples from the fictional institution Widget University may look like:
- Widget Alumni Bulletin March 2014: Our New Mascot Is… (55 characters; sent from Widget University Office of Alumni Relations)
- News Digest – March 31, 2014 – NY Times, NBC, Salon (60 characters; sent from Widget University News Office)
- Spring 2014 Updates: National champs! (39 characters; sent from Widget Athletic Boosters)
5. Use best practices for images
As we know, photos and graphics can be compelling content, but they can also be a double-edged sword. The same best practices we reference when creating images for the web apply to email, as well. You never want to trap your text in an image file, as it will not be seen by those using screen readers, as well as users who don’t automatically download images in emails (which includes many mobile email clients).
Similarly, image-only emails are a bad idea, because you’re providing a reader with no alternative for getting the information. For email, photos and graphics work best as complementary content, not carrying the bulk of the communications workload. And of course, be sure to employ clear, descriptive alt text!
6. Craft your calls to action
While drafting and curating your content, you should also identify your key calls-to-action (typically three to five), mapping them back to your goals, and articulate how you will measure their success. How do we present these calls to action such that they were clear to the reader? The answer is two-fold: language and links.
We want to set up our calls to action with clear, engaging language that communicates what this content is about and what action we want the reader to take.
Do you want your readers to enroll? To volunteer? To read? To submit? To attend?
Use links judiciously as not to set the reader up for option paralysis, and use plain, actionable language in the link text:
- Learn more about our scholarship winners
- Sign up for training sessions
- Volunteer with us on Service Day
If you’re using graphical calls-to-action, be sure there is appropriate alt text on the image file, as well as supportive language in the accompanying text.
Lastly, take note of what text and links will remain consistent from issue to issue and their placement in the newsletter (e.g. website and social media in the top header, contact name, email, and phone number in the footer). It is important for readers to be able to find this sort of transactional information easily, so as readers scan your email, reinforce that importance with consistent placement and nomenclature.
7. Determine a consistent schedule
The value of a consistent frequency and send date/time for your newsletter (e.g. first Wednesday of the month; every Friday at 10 a.m.) serves to both to build a sense of expectation among your audience and give yourself a structure within which to plan and produce a successful newsletter.
In advance of that send date, you should define consistent deadlines for:
- Content creation/curation (including photos and graphics, if applicable)
- Content review (Whose role is this? How much time do they require?)
- Production (using your preferred email tool, or simply written out in a document)
- Proofreading/testing (This may be last, it’s most certainly is not least! You have zero takebacks with email, and nothing is more annoying than the follow-up email correcting an easily avoidable error or typo)
Once we’ve determined our goals, how will we know whether or not our newsletter is helping us achieve them? And how will we use that information to adjust content going forward?
If you’re using a service like MailChimp or Constant Contact to send your email newsletter, you’re going to get some valuable statistics. Just like with web analytics, it’s important to evaluate these on an ongoing basis to ensure that your newsletter efforts are successful and not wasted time.
If you make substantial changes to your newsletter — like, say, a new format for your subject line or highlighting new types of content — be sure to keep those changes in mind when looking at your numbers over time, so you can correlate specific modifications to changes in your statistics.
Some statistics worth paying attention to include:
- Open rate (how many read the email; aim for 20-40 percent)
- Click rates (how many click on a link; aim for 2-15 percent)
- Forwards (how many shared with friends; an increase in this number indicates a heightened value to your content)
- Unsubscribes (the fewer the better, of course; a spike indicates a problem with your content, so compare to previous newsletters, determine what change, and course-correct)
- Conversion rates (how many people took desired actions; you want to see this rate increase, as it should indicate how successful your newsletter is at attaining your goals)
- Bouncebacks (the fewer the better; make sure your list is up to date)
- New signups since your last email was sent (a good indicator that readers are sharing your content and increasing awareness of your organization or initiative)
Before You Hit Send, Think Again
Remember: an email newsletter, just like a blog, a website, or a Facebook page, is a publication. We need to think twice and publish once to ensure we are not wasting our readers’ time — and our own.
Providing guidance to email newsletter publishers can only help improve the quality of the product and, ultimately, reflect more positively on the institution as a whole. Here are a few universities that do a good job of sharing best practices for email:
- University of Washington Marketing and Communications, particularly their how-to guide [PDF], sample metrics [PDF], and best practices [PDF]
- University of Illinois Springfield Web Services [PDF]
- Pace University Marketing and Communications
- University of Michigan Student Life
What does your email newsletter process look like? What are your challenges or success stories?