E-newsletters allow a business to stay in touch with its customers on a regular basis. They give you the opportunity to establish yourself as a "thought leader" in your area of expertise, be that in designing toys for rare parrots or providing software to keep your personal finances straight. They are also a great way to create viral marketing, because if your customers find the information useful they may forward your e-newsletter to others, thereby helping you grow your customer base.

"Done right, they will give you a return far better than any other marketing strategy," says Tamara Gielen, an independent e-mail marketing consultant who has worked for such companies as Cognos, eBay, and OgilvyOne. "But success largely depends on two things: relevance and permission. Sending irrelevant messages to recipients who didn't give you permission to e-mail them will not only hurt your brand, it is also the fastest way to get blacklisted with the major ISPs. The last thing you want is to be perceived as a spammer."

So, how do you get permission, and how do you create relevant e-newsletters?

The following guide will cover how to get permission by building an opt-in e-mail list, how to create compelling content and attract readers, and how to choose an e-mail newsletter provider.

Dig Deeper: E-Mail Marketing Solutions

Get Permission: Build an Opt-In E-mail List

The first order of business is to build a quality list of customers -- customers who have given you permission to send them e-mail newsletters. "Collect this information wherever and whenever you are making a connection with a prospective customer," advises Eric Groves, senior vice president of global market development for Constant Contact, an e-mail and online marketing tool provider. If you have a store front, for example, have a sign-up book by the register and ask people to fill it out and include their e-mail address so that you can send them your e-newsletter. "There's been research done that if a local business asks a customer for their contact information, over 60 percent of the time they will give it to you," Groves says.

Collect e-mail addresses from your prospects and customers at a variety occasions, such as the following.

  • Promote your e-newsletter prominently on every page of your website and in each transactional or customer-support e-mail, Gielen says.
  • Use paid search to drive prospects to your e-newsletter sign-up page.
  • At trade shows, events, or meetings, ask your customers and prospects to sign up for your e-newsletters.
  • Use your business's Facebook page to collect contact information for people who want to sign up, Groves suggests.
  • Identify third party e-newsletters that target your prospects and customers and investigate how you can work with them to promote your own e-newsletter, Gielen says. "Work with third parties to drive their audience to a page where they can sign up to your e-newsletter either by having them send a dedicated message on your behalf (this is often referred to as 'list rental') or you could include a banner in their e-newsletters (often referred to as 'e-mail advertising')."
  • Give something in return when someone signs up for your e-newsletter, such as a discount, a white paper, or a free report, Gielen says.

Use all offline channels you currently have to drive e-newsletter subscriptions, whether they be direct mail, advertising, catalogs, flyers, or feedback forms, Gielen says.

Be careful with rented lists. "Make sure the list owner sends the e-mail on your behalf. If the list provider promises to give you a list of email addresses, walk away. It's not worth the risk of getting blacklisted because the list is old, contains spam traps and lots of bad addresses," Gielen warns. Most email service providers, such as Constant Contact, won't even allow companies to import rented lists into e-mail newsletter products because it would violate terms of service, Groves says.

Remember that permission is important, so don't add an e-mail address to your list unless you have the owner's explicit permission to do so.

Gielen advises to use a double opt-in process when you're collecting email addresses in places other than your own website or when the email capture is part of a contest or sweepstakes. "Double opt-in means that you ask people to confirm their subscription before you add them to your list. That way, you can be sure that all the e-mail addresses that end up on your list are correct and the people on your list are truly engaged." she says. "On your own website, your Facebook page and your blog there's usually no need for a double opt-in process." Gielen says. However, she does recommend sending an email that welcomes the news subscribers, tells them what they can expect and how they can unsubscribe."

Dig Deeper: Finding and Using E-Mail Newsletter Templates

Be Relevant: Create Valuable Content

A successful e-newsletter consistently provides value to the recipient by offering relevant content to the readers. "It's not about you, but sharing what you know," Groves says. "If you do it well, recipients will forward it on to others."

Keep in mind that your customers may be solicited via e-mail with scores of offers every day. They eventually tune out the "buy from me" pitch. But they're more likely to read something that helps them become more knowledgeable about a subject that interests them. "Different content offering might include how-to guides that help readers get better at what they do, tips on how to get the most out of the product or service that you sell, background articles on topics that your readers find interesting, surveys, contests and sweepstakes, and promotions such as discounts or free shipping," Gielen says.

A restaurateur might have the chef send out tips on cooking, such as "What to do if you put too much salt in a recipe," Groves suggests. During the holidays, they might send out a newsletter item on what great wine goes with turkey for Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, a landscaper might write an article about plants that deer won't eat. "That's something people can use," Groves says. "They're going to take that and forward it to their friends and say, 'Check this out.' You're sharing knowledge and getting engagement. They already know what you sell."

How can you figure out what your target audience considers to be relevant content? "One way is by asking them on the sign-up form or via surveys and polls," Gielen says. "Another way is by analyzing their behavior. Which links do they typically click on? What kind of subject lines typically trigger them to open your e-mails?"

The articles in the e-newsletter should be brief, Groves advises. And there shouldn't be 42 different items. "A simple one-article newsletter is a fantastic tool," he says. In addition to articles, you might add a calendar of events that might interest readers and, perhaps a link to a promotional offer at the bottom. "If you're writing about California Chardonnays, you might say, 'Here is a real special Chardonnay that we just got in.' That's fine if it's all tied together."

Design for the Preview Pane
Once you have built your list and determined what kind of content your readers value, it's time to develop an effective template for your e-newsletter. The first thing to keep in mind is that most e-mail clients do not display images by default, Gielen says. "The top right two to three inches of your template is what people see in their preview panes, so if your template has mainly images in that area, most readers will not see anything in their preview pane," she says. "Make sure you design your template with this in mind." Think of the preview pane area as a teaser area, and use this area to grab the reader's attention. The information in this area should be compelling enough to make the reader open the e-mail, download the images, and scroll down for more information.

Keep Design Professional
Pick a layout that is going to look professional and render well. Groves says that Constant Contact has 400 different e-newsletter templates alone. You don't have to worry about how to create HTML, but you do need to look at the colors, create images, and think about layout so that it renders well. Most e-mail clients have images turned off as a default, so it's not necessarily a good idea to put a big company logo on the top of the image in the preview pane because it won't load, Groves says. Instead, have that logo lower on the page and just write the company name in regular text at the top of the screen. Choose colors that look weak and reflect your brand. Groves recommends two online tools, Color Cop and Color Schemer, which can help you choose colors. "You don't have to be a graphic artist," Groves says. Lastly, leave some white space for your readers so the e-newsletter doesn't look too dense and is easy on the eye.

Write a Compelling Subject Line
The subject line (and your sender name) is what convinces someone to open your e-mail, Gielen says. You can ask a question, state a benefit, or add urgency, as long as you don't try to deceive your readers. "You should keep your subject line short," she says. "Most readers see only five to seven words, or 50 to 60 characters, of your subject line, so your most important words should be right in the beginning." Also, make your subject line dynamic. Don't use the same subject line over and over again. Finally, tell, don't sell, what's inside. A subject line that tries to sell something is often perceived by readers as spam, and the chance they will delete your e-mail without opening it is much higher.

Choose an E-Mail Service Provider
Don't use Outlook to send out your e-newsletter. Apart from some very nasty deliverability problems you risk running into, you will not have any reporting for your e-newsletter whatsoever, Gielen says. Without the necessary reporting, how will you know how your e-newsletter performs?

There are a number of very good and affordable e-mail service providers out there, like Aweber, Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact, MailChimp, eROI, iContact and others. "By using an e-mail service provider, you won't have to worry about any of the logistics, you'll know exactly who opened and clicked and even creating a professional looking template will be a piece of cake," Gielen says.

Manage Your List
Each time you send out your e-newsletter, you'll find e-mail addresses that no longer exist or people that have unsubscribed from your list. It is of the utmost importance that you remove these e-mail addresses from your list before you send out your next e-newsletter, Gielen says. "If you don't, you risk running into legal problems, as well as being blacklisted." Remember the two rules of sending e-mail newsletters: relevance and permission. If a customer revokes their permission, you need to respect that. But, Groves says, next time the customer comes in to your store or makes a purchase, follow up and ask to make sure they didn't unsubscribe from the e-newsletter by accident.



Additional Resources

How to Write Effective E-Mail Newsletters
Tips from Web Market Central, a portal for interactive marketing professionals.

E-mail Marketer's Club
Discuss e-mail marketing trends, issues and tactics with other e-mail marketers.