Newsletters - the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

As with everything else on the Internet, your readers are just one click away from sending you into oblivion.  If a visitor leaves your website, there's always the chance that they'll come back.

If a reader elects to unsubscribe from your newsletter, what they're really saying is "I want nothing more to do with your organisation" and your line of communication is severed.  Permanently.

It's far preferable that a recipient of your newsletter simply ignores what you say, than them choosing to unsubscribe.

The Good

Catchy subject line The first point of contact with your newsletter is the subject line in the email that transports it.  A catchy subject line will encourage recipients to open your newsletter.

If you have subscribers who are regulars and with whom you have a trusted relationship, you can get away with something very specific and say things like "January product updates".

Interesting content Your newsletter should contain useful and interesting content.
Scannable content Multiple short items that a reader can quickly scan through is preferable to long articles that require a lot of reading. Give the recipient a quick overview of what's in each article so that they can click on a link to read more on the topic that interests them.

It's far better that a recipient of your newsletter reads just one item because it looks interesting, than them ignoring all that you have to say because they don't have time to read everything.
Simplicity Your newsletter is there to inform.  Keep it simple, succinct and relevant.
Informative content Newsletters are great for making announcements, providing information - and for building your reputation and establishing trust.
Relevant content Keep your content relevant to the intended recipient, even if it means sending out different newsletters to different recipient groups or unique categories of contact.
Personalise What comes across as friendlier and more respectful - a newsletter that says "Dear John" or one that says "Dear most valued client"?  Especially when the recipient is just a lead and not yet customer.
Acquire business intelligence A quality newsletter, sent out by a system that's capable of doing so, can automatically identify your readers' interests, allow you to develop targeted campaigns and keep track of who opened / clicked on what topic.

A really smart system can boost your Google visibility as well.
Topical content This is where your newsletter content aligns with consumer awareness around a particular topic or subject matter.

For example, if there's a lot of publicity about a car race, and your products boost vehicle performance, that's an ideal opportunity for you to tap into that heightened interest to show what your business does.
Authoritative content Newsletters help build your credibility.  If there's information from an expert that aligns with your business, or one that reinforces what you say, don't hesitate to cite and link to that expert's article/s.

Courtesy requires that you seek permission from the author.  It's also essential that you properly attribute any third party content, else you might be in breach of copyright.

The Bad

Boring subject line Email subject lines like "Monthly Newsletter" or "Governor's Report" or "Latest Update" are sure to deter people - particularly new additions to your mailing list - from going any further.

Unless, of course, they're already a captive, enthusiastic reader.

Attached or linked PDFs Attached PDFs or brochures require effort by the reader to download then read the attachment on the off chance that there might be something interesting.  By and large they can't be bothered, many mobile devices can't open a PDF document anyway, or the PDF is very difficult to read on a small screen.

What's more, an attached PDF is seen as a signal that you're trying to sell something.
Talking about yourself Yes - we know that you're enthusiastic, important and have lots to say about yourself and your organisation.  But really - who else cares?  Certainly not the reader who is looking for useful information or hoping for a solution to a problem.
Hard sell Nobody likes being sold to, least of all being sold something they don't want or need.  These days readers are knowledgeable (thanks to Google) and well informed. They probably know who your competitors are, and the chances are that they know more about your competitors' products and services than you do. 

Consumers choose to buy - they hate being sold to.  They buy on the basis of their being informed.  Indeed, a hard sell is likely to prompt the reader to check out your competitors if they're in the market for what you're trying to sell.
Fancy layout Stylish - yes.  Fancy - no.  The fancier your layout the less likely it is that your recipient will be able to view the newsletter as you intended.  Embedded images are risky, too, because some email systems strip them out and display them as attachments instead.

Email systems are poor at replicating the glamour and presentation of a web page.  What looks good to one reader will likely look shoddy to another.
Spammy subject line Terms like "Special Offer", "Big Discounts Now", "Buy Now!" and the like are give-aways that the email is trying to sell something.  Assuming that it even gets past the recipient's or your ISP's spam filter in the first place.
Irrelevant content Talking about maternity clothes when your audience are engineers, or talking about machinery when your audience are interested in fashion is a sure way to lose your reader's interest.

The Ugly

Poor spelling / poor grammar There's little else that screams "unprofessional" more loudly than poor spelling and poor grammar.  Even though you might not know how to use an apostrophe, your readers will.  A title such as "Governors Newsletter" will grate on your readers and show you up as careless or incompetent.
Poor quality images This is another element that shows you up as either careless or sloppy.  If you do include images, it's essential that they're properly exposed, sharp and relevant to the newsletter's content.
Photos of your MD or the author Unless you're a real celebrity (to others, that is - not just to yourself), trying to use your own photo as a way of attracting interest simply shows you up as being self-indulgent and not in tune with your readers' interests.
Amateur graphics If you don't have professional graphics as a newsletter header, don't use them at all.  Ugly headers include childish font, off-brand logos and clashing colour schemes.

These all come across as hopelessly amateurish - and make you look the same way.

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