Six ways to craft winning e-mail newsletters

There is a spot for tried-and-true technology when newer media are hogging all the screen time.

There is a spot for tried-and-true technology when newer media are hogging all the screen time

Not long ago I was giving a presentation on using electronic media in a nonprofit setting. We talked about tools such as Web sites, blogs and podcasts, as well as things like video and RSS feeds.

During the question-and-answer portion at the end, one woman raised her hand. “I notice you haven’t said anything about e-mail newsletters,” she said. “Does this mean we shouldn’t be doing them anymore?”

The question took me by surprise. I didn’t intend to leave out e-mail newsletters. Maybe that’s because they don’t seem as exciting as some of the newer technologies.

So if you ask me, yes: E-mail newsletters still have a place in a communicator’s lineup. But they need to follow some guidelines to be effective.

To get one practitioner’s perspective, I talked with Jill Hronek, director of marketing and communications for The Sherwood Group, an association-management firm in Deerfield, Ill.

Sherwood produces about 10 electronic newsletters for its clients, which include professional societies and trade associations. Here are some best practices that The Sherwood Group follows when it crafts an e-mail newsletter for clients.

1. Make it viewer friendly

When Sherwood’s clients first started offering their publications online, the typical association simply took its print newsletter, saved it as a PDF and posted the file on its Web site. So the newsletters appeared online but were really just an archive of a print piece.

Nowadays, most of those online newsletters are standalone pieces that either supplant or supplement a print publication.

Most of the newsletters follow a common model for e-mail newsletters: a list of headlines above brief story synopses, with links to complete articles online. The actual stories reside on an association’s Web site.

Like other online media, Sherwood’s e-newsletters use links to enhance their content. Some stories link to areas on an association’s Web site; other stories link to external resources.

2. Craft a compelling story

One exception to the aforementioned format is an e-mail newsletter for a group called AUTM: the Association of University Technology Managers. The content for AUTM Update, a biweekly newsletter, exists entirely within the body of an e-mail message.

To keep the content focused, articles are very short—maybe a paragraph or two. The stories tend to fall under the following headings:

  • Society news
  • Alerts telling members about products and services the association provides
  • Deadlines
  • New features at the annual meeting

Another e-mail publication, for Sherwood client Utilimetrics, follows more of a newsmagazine format. According to Hronek, Utilimetrics News(which is available to members only) contains articles that are more research-oriented feature articles. Utilimetrics News goes out 10 times a year.

The Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, a longtime Sherwood client, focuses strictly on society news in its e-mail newsletter. At one time, society news showed up in INMM’s peer-reviewed journal. But, by pulling out the less technical information and putting it into an e-newsletter, called INMM Communicator, the journal could focus more on scientific articles.

Hronek says, “We wanted to keep the journal as pure as it could be and have an [added] opportunity to get out in front of members.”

INMM Communicator employs somewhat of a hybrid print-online format. Readers can peruse the editor’s message, a one-page summary of the issue’s contents. If they want to read other stories, the table of contents along the left-hand side links them to other stories in the issue. Readers can also print out the complete issue, if they want to read it offline.

ISSCR, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, uses the same format. However, unlike some of Sherwood’s other clients, ISSCR sends its e-mail newsletter, The Pulse, to anyone who wants to be on the mailing list — not just members. So readership for the e-newsletter is about 5,000 or 6,000, even though ISSCR only has about 3,000 members.

3. Stay in front of your audience

TV network executives know the importance of scheduling. Airing a show on the same day every week, in a prime slot, is crucial to a program’s success. Likewise, Sherwood’s e-newsletters go out on a regular schedule.

Some of them are biweekly; those always go out on Wednesdays. Those that are less frequent usually go out the first week of the month.

Several Sherwood clients still issue print publications. So e-mail newsletters allow those associations to reach their members in a different way, in between other regular communications.

4. Involve your viewers

Some of Sherwood’s clients have used collaborative tools such as online discussion forums and Listservs.

“When there’s a special interest group set up, those people who are interested will talk about a topic,” Hronek explains. “We’re in the process of trying to tie more things together so people will use the collaboration tools more. So if there’s a topical article, then we’re adding the article on a discussion group and people are adding comments about an article topic.”

5. Check your ratings

Staff members monitor the readership of Sherwood’s e-mail newsletters.

“We usually compare the broadcast e-mail statistics to the Web site statistics,” Hronek explains. “We use the tracking that comes with our broadcast e-mail service to see how many people have clicked through; we also compare that to our Web statistics each month and see if people are consistently using an area of the Web site or not.

“Annual meeting stories always get more hits than the rest. Articles about careers are usually a pretty popular area, too.”

6. Find the right channel

Sherwood’s clients are just starting to look at using social media in their communication efforts.

At this point, the e-mail newsletters that Sherwood produces don’t harness the power of technologies such as podcasts or video, let alone social media. Only one of Sherwood’s clients, AUTM, has a blog, and it’s not tied to that group’s e-mail newsletter in any way.

Hronek explains that she and the rest of the staff are trying to make sure their clients have a clear idea of why social media are important and what’s involved in entering that arena.

When it comes to blogs, for example, “They think they need one, but nobody [in the volunteer ranks] really wants to put the time and effort into doing the blogging,” Hronek says. “Everybody thinks they should be doing it, but nobody knows how to do things or what they’re useful for.”

She concludes, “We’re trying to help [clients] make meaningful decisions about launching some of their social media tools, not just launching them for the sake of launching.”

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