by Sierra Godfrey
When Writers in the Storm asked me if I would write a post about how to design a newsletter as a follow-up to Steena Holmes’s excellent post on The How and Why of Author Newsletters.
My first thought was “sure, but that’s easy!”
Of course it’s easy—for me. I’m a mild-mannered graphic designer by day. But the truth is, it isn’t that easy to people who don’t design graphics for a living. And as it turns out, there’s more to designing an effective newsletter than just some slick graphics.
To help me illustrate what you need to do, I asked my client Lorrie Thomson to help.
Lorrie is a women’s fiction author whose debut novel, Equilibrium, was published in August 2013. I designed Lorrie’s website and I also did her Facebok page and You Tube channel to ensure complete visual consistency. That is, no matter what account of Lorrie’s you visited, you knew it was Lorrie.
That was the goal—and it’s the goal for any business in which you want to promote and protect your brand. (What’s your brand, you might be wondering? Answer: you.)
I didn’t design Lorrie’s newsletter, however, although we always meant to get to that eventually. Meanwhile, Lorrie has sent two newsletters since her publishing debut, and I wanted to see if they’d been successful. The open rate—or the percentage of people who opened the newsletter—wasn’t huge. So that was one of things I wanted to help resolve.
But first, let’s talk about the basics of designing a newsletter.
1. Sign up for a newsletter service.
Steena touched on newsletter services in her post. Most newsletter services are free to use (but usually cost a small amount to send the emails), allow a high degree of customization, and provide excellent statistical information.
Statistics let you know who is opening your newsletter, what they’re clicking through to, and all kinds of other valuable knowledge—so you can better focus your content. We’ll talk more about how to focus content based on statistics below.
Some high-quality and easy to use newsletter services are MailChimp and Vertical Response, both of which I have used and liked. Other services I haven’t used but which come recommended are Constant Contact and iContact.
Note: To find a comparison of top email services, click here.
One of the biggest advantages of a mailing service is that they adhere to anti-spam laws so you don’t have to worry about it. Plus, they automate subscriptions and unsubscriptions, which can be a nightmare to manage on your own.
One last note about newsletters and services. They assume you obtain your list members legitimately—that is, people willingly subscribed. Do not add anyone to your list who hasn’t opted in. It will only annoy them and your newsletter will have had zero effect.
2. Decide how the newsletter should look.
Here’s the part where you might groan and say, “It’s easy for you. I don’t even have Photoshop!” Don’t worry. If you’re not hiring a designer, then a good newsletter service will provide templates. Typically, you can use a wizard, a template, free-form text, or upload a professional design.
Tip: if you hire a designer for your website, ask about newsletter templates, You Tube, Twitter, and Facebook branding to be packaged in as well.
Here are some thoughts from Steena and I on the the subject:
- Steena Holmes said in her post: "Newsletters should match your website brand or your book cover." I agree.
- Also keep in mind, subscribers may not remember they signed up for your newsletter! Make sure your name is displayed prominently.
- Also, include a picture of both you and your book somewhere in the newsletter text to break up the chunks of text and increase readability.
If you’re not sure how to recreate a graphic, the best bet is to go with your name, large and clear.
Lorrie Thomson’s first newsletter used one of the stock generic templates provided by her newsletter service, Vertical Response. It was fine, but it lacked her name and any other identifying information about her:
For her second newsletter, Lorrie went in and pasted a graphic from her website and her picture. Now we have her book and her photo.
Much nicer! But it could be better. I wanted to see her name blazing across the top, bigger. That’s an easy fix. Steena recommended using the same format each time with a newsletter, and you can do this nicely with a template that provides graphics for each section. That’s what I did for Lorrie. Here’s the third version, which I designed for her as part of this post.
Everything is simple here—I made custom graphics for the header and the subheads. The rest I took from Lorrie’s web site. You can do this, too. Read on.
3. Get your hands a tiny bit dirty.
You can customize a newsletter with a little work. I’ve created a blank template for you to use. Click here to download.
Note: There are a few steps to complete once you go to that link so that you can use the template.
- Right click on the newsletter template and select Save As.
- Save it as an HTML file (choose HTML from your file type drop down box).
- Then you can upload the HTML file to your newsletter service.
- Addendum: You can also open the file in a text editor like Notepad and select all the code that way (just do a Control- A on a PC to get it all quickly).
You’ll need to play with the HTML a tiny bit. Here’s how to do it:
- Create your own image and then upload to your web space. Use the header and subheader images in my template as a size guide—download them and paste your own graphics over them.
- Upload the images to your web space. In the HTML, replace the full image URL in my newsletter template with yours. For example, your image URL might be “http://www.yourname.com/images/yourheader.jpg”
- Find http://www.sierragodfrey.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/header.png in the code and replace this with yours. You also might be able to upload directly into your mailing service; if so, do this after the next step.
- With your mailing service, start a new draft email and click on the “code” or “HTML” view.
- Copy the entire HTML code for the newsletter template and paste it in your draft email code view.
- Make sure to test your links and make sure that all your images are showing up correctly. Common problems include not pasting the image URL properly.
4. Use statistics to focus content.
I sent out a holiday mailing to my business clients last year. After the mailing, I checked my statistics. I could see that my mailing had an 83% open rate (people opened the email and looked at it), which was pretty good.
I included a link in the email where people could download a PDF of gift tags I’d specially made for the holiday mailing. The download had a 20% click through rate—all right, but not great. That got me thinking. If fewer people opened the link, perhaps the link wasn’t well placed or it wasn’t relevant.
This statistic allows me to rethink my links and what I was presenting. You can do the same thing—and you should do it each time you send out a newsletter. Try different things and then pay attention to the statistics. This is called conversion testing and marketers do this all the time.
- Lorrie’s first newsletter, the one with the generic fall template, had a 52% open rate and a 0% click rate (meaning no one clicked on any links in her newsletter). That’s not so hot.
- Her second newsletter with branding she’d included still had only a 56% open rate, but a 1% click rate. With a mailing list that hovers near 100 people, that wasn’t good enough.
So now that we know our challenge is to get Lorrie to have a higher click rate, we’ll consider different ways to encourage that.
5. Use content strategically.
Scott Stratten, the clear-talking mind behind the UnMarketing brand, says that there are three categories we put email in when it arrives in our inboxes:
- Spam/trash/not reading.
- Will read later.
- Must read/react.
Great article from Scott: http://www.unmarketing.com/2013/03/21/avoid-the-cleanse-how-to-keep-your-subscribers/
Obviously, we want our newsletters to be in the third category. Scott suggests creating a relationship with the reader before the newsletter even arrives—and you should.
Your newsletter signup page should thank the reader for signing up. Be funny. Be unique. Engage with readers, because frankly, newsletters are asking a lot: they ask a reader to spend time in their regular day of email deluge to read yours.
Steena made the point very well that newsletters are about the reader, not the author. What can your newsletter do for the reader?
6. Email subject titles are incredibly important.
CopyHackers did a test for newsletter subject lines and found that the emails with the name of the sender in them had a higher open rate. According to their tests, CopyHackers says including your name in the subject line increased conversion rates.
Note: Other findings were interesting too—be sure to read their article ~ http://copyhackers.com/2013/03/email-subject-lines/)
Lorrie’s first newsletter had the subject “Fun Fall happenings” with the 52% total open rate. Her second newsletter had the subject “E-book sales, blogging, and book clubs" with the 56% total open rate.
Her third newsletter had the subject “Wrap up the holidays with Lorrie Thomson's signed Equilibrium.” It had a 50% open rate one day after sending, which was excellent. Even more promising, it had a 3% click rate. So more people were opening it faster, and they were clicking on links. With a full week of people getting back to work after Thanksgiving, this out-of-the-gate result was already looking good.
You can view Lorrie's 3rd newsletter here: http://hosted.verticalresponse.com/1432533/46cae1d457/542767569/80c567efe4/
As CopyHackers says, be conscious of your subject lines and conduct your own experiments. Play around with it, but think about subject lines as part of your newsletter design. Test different ways. Include your name.
7. The Art of War for newsletters?
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says:
“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”
Sun Tzu probably didn’t know that his point about engaging people applies equally well to newsletters as it does to war. If Sun Tzu had sent out newsletters, what would he have done?
- He would have chosen a good mailing service so subscription options are easy for his readers.
- He would have known that people have a limited amount of time to read email, so he would engage the reader from the get go by creating a relationship.
- He would make sure to use graphics that reflect his branding (my guess is his involve knives) and his name would blaze clearly.
- He would craft subject lines to capture the reader’s attention and he would definitely study his statistics to see where to improve – so he could deliver that extraordinary newsletter.
Have fun with your newsletter and remember that even if you don’t get it right the first time, you can keep playing with it—but do try different things.
Have you created some newsletters already?
Are you willing to share what worked and what didn't?
Do you have any questions for Sierra?
We want to hear all about it down in the comments!
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Sierra writes fiction that features strong heroines who grow from the challenges they face and always get the guy in the end. A graphic designer by day, she lives in the swampy yet arid wastelands of the San Francisco Bay Area with her family. She has zero will power when it comes to chocolate. In fact, she is the inventor of mix-less trail mix -- just leave the chocolate chips.
You can find more of her sass at www.sierragodfrey.com.