When it comes to marketing channels, the newsletter is the dependable workhorse. New and flashier channels come and go, but the trusty newsletter has continued to be the backbone of content marketing distribution strategy – delivering vital traffic on a measurable and predictable basis.
Setting up an infrastructure for your newsletter program is as important as the content that fills it and, sadly, many companies are operating blind when it comes to their newsletter success metrics. In this post, I’m going to walk through the five essential steps that you should be taking when you build out your content marketing newsletter optimization strategy.
1) Create a Documented Strategy
Whether you’re setting up your newsletter for the first time or you’ve already got one in place, creating a newsletter strategy is a vital step to success. By outlining your goals, tactics, and KPI’s, you’ll create a dependable, predictable, and measurable reference to keep you on the path to success. Your strategy should outline all of the important aspects of your newsletter:
- Email cadence
- Number of articles per newsletter
- Target open rate
- Target clicks/traffic
If you have historical information to work from, some of this data will be available, and putting it in writing gives you targets to reach for. Target open rate and target clicks/traffic are metrics you’ll need to look to your previous data to get benchmarks for, but if you’re working from scratch, here’s a good resource on benchmarks.
For those starting a brand new strategy, identifying the cadence, volume, and structure for your newsletter can be more of a struggle. While setting a cadence may seem deceptively simple but, for many marketers, it’s a source of downfall. Deciding how frequently you want to send your newsletter depends on answering one key question: how much content can I publish weekly with absolute confidence?
It’s easy to get overly eager and start sending out newsletters twice a week, but if you can’t cover that cadence with fresh, quality content, then you need to scale back. Even if you can frequently get more content out in given weeks, you shouldn’t increase your cadence unless you can guarantee that output every single week for the foreseeable future. The reason is simple – familiarity breeds habit, and habit makes for loyal readers. When your readers know to expect a new newsletter on a predictable rhythm, they’ll be much more likely to engage with it than if you sporadically send them out as soon you have new content.
As your content marketing becomes more complex and your publishing methods become more efficient, it’s likely that you’ll have more content to put into your newsletters, which could prompt the need to increase your cadence. If this is the case, then you’ll be faced with a more complicated cadence question: how much content should I distribute per newsletter? Sending too many newsletters can cause readers to unsubscribe, while too few and your subscribers won’t see all of your content. This is where your newsletter layout strategy becomes vital to success.
2) Layout and Formatting
When thinking about your newsletter format, there are of course some subjective design decisions that you’ll make, but when we think about layout and design, ultimately we want to look to one deciding metric: the highest possible click-through rate. This is not the only metric we associate with newsletters, of course, but it’s important to understand the importance of the click-through rate when it comes to design. Typically, marketers focus heavily on three newsletter metrics:
- Open rate
- Click %
- Click-through rate
Let’s take a look at each of these individually to see how they relate to your layout.
While essential to success, the open rate of your newsletter has little to do with the design; it is purely the result of a compelling subject line. Even a poorly designed email can enjoy strong open rates with a good hook. With regard to your newsletter layout strategy, it’s not a metric that will be affected by layout decisions you’ll make.
The click % of your email is the percentage of people who clicked your email out of the total sent. If your open rate was weak, then so too will be your click %. This joint success means that it’s not a measure you can use to benchmark the layout.
This leaves us with one true yardstick of the email design – the click-through rate (CTR). This metric tells you the percentage of people who opened an email and then ultimately clicked a link. Because it only looks at those who opened the email, it discounts any negative or positive effects of the subject line. This is the benchmark that tells you how valuable the layout and design of your newsletter is.
With CTR as our target metric, this leads us to the decision on what format to choose for your email. Branding and design will factor largely into this decision, of course, but when thinking about architecture your newsletter can ultimately fall into 3 distinct options:
Option 1: The Simple Newsletter Format
As you might imagine, this format focuses on a clean, simple layout, and is the method of choice when you want to keep focus on individual pieces of content. This decision may be a consequence of your publishing cadence, or it might be that you want to spotlight your deeper pieces of content, but the desired result is the same – to get the highest return from a single article.
When focusing on this format, A/B testing will play a very important role as there are a number of variables you’ll want to test in order to find the right balance, such as:
- Short description vs long description before call to action (CTA) button
- Article title above or below article image
- Text link to article vs CTA button
- Including or excluding a ‘related articles’ section
- Adding a product/sales related footer CTA
Luckily, with a single article format you can easily A/B test with high degrees of confidence in the results, and you’ll find your optimal format in no time. If you have more content than can reasonably be divided up into individual article newsletters, then you’ll start looking to options 2 and 3.
Single format newsletter: First Round Review, Think with Google
Option 2: The Complex Newsletter Format
You’ve undoubtedly seen a massive variety of multi-article newsletters across an even wider spectrum of quality. There is no hard science to this format except for one key element – make sure it renders cleanly across mobile and desktop. This advice aside, there are a number of approaches you can take for choosing a complex format.
Many email service providers offer a variety of layout options and there are a multitude of premium email templates out there that offer mobile-tested HTML, but what we’re looking at goes beyond the visuals. Choosing the general format is largely a subjective matter but, for data-driven success, we want to make sure that the format performs by driving the most traffic possible. To do this, we want to test the article against one key outcome: click performance.
Most email service providers or marketing automation software allows you to look at email performance by clicks, and what we’re looking for in the data is the point of diminishing returns in our newsletter article number. If by adding a fourth article, fifth article or more shows clicks decreasing in a significant way, then you’ll know to limit the number.
Diminishing clicks can be interpreted in a few ways, but the two most notable metrics are:
- Global Clicks: If, by adding a new row of articles, you see a decrease in the overall number of clicks, this could indicate that your readers may be suffering from the paradox of choice. This is the worst outcome as all other articles suffer and you’ll want to keep an eye out for this most of all.
- Article-Level Clicks: While less severe, if you find that each new row gets fewer and fewer clicks, you may find that the volume of traffic in a new row is too low to justify adding it to the newsletter. It may be more beneficial to add an additional newsletter or spread the articles across more newsletters.
Finding this optimal layout will involve lots of testing to find the right combination of article columns, row sizes, etc, but it will leave you with a newsletter whose format is backed by performance data. Once you know this magic number, you may still find that it doesn’t satisfy all needs, which leads us to a third option.
Responsive template formats from MailChimp.
Option 3: Choose Your Own Adventure
If the data doesn’t support a complex newsletter format or the optimal article number is fewer than your publishing cadence, then the alternative option is to create subscriber options that allow the readers to choose what they see. This can be a more laborious project, but if your content selection is deep enough, allowing subscribers to choose their ideal newsletter will result in a better user experience and higher engagement.
Many marketing automation software programs offer this option and allow you to create a secondary page after subscription that will enable subscribers to choose the topics or tags that interest them most. Don’t be afraid of offering this secondary page for opting in – readers appreciate choosing what they receive, and you’ll learn more about individual leads than you would through a single newsletter option.
3) Setting up Newsletter KPIs
Knowing what to send and how often to send it is a great start. However, to truly succeed it is essential that you have a KPI plan that you can use to measure success. Often marketers will look at each individual email and check the open rate, CTR, and other metrics to benchmark against industry standards. Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow you to see the whole picture and misses out on the metrics that affect your growth and long-term success.
Creating a Newsletter Scorecard
One incredibly valuable tool that you should be employing is a newsletter scorecard. This will be the document that you rely on to see how your newsletter is performing over time, and will also aid in diagnosing issues before they become problematic. The particular scores you keep in your newsletter scorecard will depend on what defines success for you, but some baseline metrics should include at least some of the following:
- Open rate
- Click-through rate
- Total subscribers
These metrics won’t seem particularly revolutionary, but how you use them is what will define success. By tracking them over time, and comparing each newsletter against the overall average, you’ll be able to ‘score’ a newsletter. If you like your Excel formulas, you can even create an automated scoring formula. For example:
- Open rate > 10% of than average = A
- Open rate > 5% of than average = B
- Open rate = average (variance of 4%) = C
- Open rate < 5% of than average = D
- Open rate < 10% of than average = F
These percentages will differ depending on how much fluctuation there is from the average, and indeed how reliably consistent the average is. There are numerous ways you can score your newsletter, but having a set of criteria that you can track over time is the most important aspect. By being able to see a trend such as decreasing open rates or increased unsubscribes will allow you to pivot before it becomes a serious problem.
Creating a measurable analytics framework
All email service providers (ESPs) and marketing automation software programs will be able to provide you with the above metrics out of the box, but to gain real insight into your newsletter KPI’s you’ll need to make sure that you’re set up with a solid analytics framework.
If you’re a user of Google Analytics, there are some default metrics that you should be tracking, as well as behavioral conversion goals you should look into measuring. To get the most out of your analytics, you should aim to hit these three points:
- Channel traffic information
- UTM parameter tracking
- Behavioral goals
Channel Traffic Information
If you’re not familiar, Google Analytics (GA) allows you to segment reports by acquisition channel, of which email is a default. You can easily drill into this channel to see how much of your traffic you’re generating from email, and you’ll be able to see it tracking over time. Google Analytics allows you to create custom dashboards with ease, and these will help you view this drilled-down information at a glance rather than having to dig for it each period you generate your analytics reports.
The trouble with this reporting in GA is that it depends entirely on you tagging your emails with the correct information so that it can accurately categorize. The most common method of doing this is by using UTM parameters.
I won’t get too into the weeds on this, but a UTM parameter is simple string of text that you add to the URL in your email hyperlinks that GA uses to determine the source, medium, and campaign of that link. You don’t need to learn any complicated code to use UTMs, you can in fact use a simple tool from Google, but the theory of how to use them is important.
When you think about using UTMs, you will want to remain consistent with your tags so that you can keep them all neatly together in GA. Here is the typical way to think about them:
- Source: This is typically the program that drove the traffic to your site. Examples like newsletter, nurturing, sponsored email, etc.
- Medium: This is the method by which it arrived, such as email, Twitter, etc. Your nurturing program may operate across different mediums, but the source is still the same.
- Campaign: This is the individual send that drove the traffic, such as today’s newsletter or a product launch. Keep it unique enough to be able to track it back to a calendar event, but not so specific that you it provides no reporting value. Giving each link in an email a campaign would not provide any meaningful information, for example.
This is an optional, and highly subjective option, but GA has a powerful goals feature that allows you to record actions that users take that are specific to your business. I won’t go into the details on how to set them up, but here are some examples on how you can use them with regard to your newsletter:
- Form Fills: Measuring how many form fills result from your newsletter visits
- Newsletter Subscriptions: Emails are frequently forwarded, and visitors may not be part of your database, so measuring the volume that opt-in will give you an indication of the shareability of your content.
- Pricing Page Visits: If you are B2B or an e-commerce site, you may hold value in newsletter visits being moved towards a conversion page.
There is a limitless array of options that depend on your business needs, but exploring GA’s powerful goal feature will allow you to measure highly customizable actions in a way that the standard reporting cannot.
Now that you’ve set up an infrastructure to record the success of your visits, it’s time to optimize how many you can drive through your newsletter.
4) Optimizing Newsletter Performance
Once you’ve got your content, and you’ve created and tested a design format that works for your brand, there are some steps you can take to take your newsletter from good to great.
Choosing an Effective Newsletter Name
This may sound almost painfully obvious, but you would be surprised how many brands miss this step. There are plenty of occasions where your brand name alone will be the ultimate choice, but here are two different situations to be aware of:
- Heavy marketing/system email distribution: If your brand sends out a large or highly frequent volume of emails, it may be difficult for your newsletter to cut through the noise. Setting the sender name apart may be the key to not only differentiating your newsletter, but also setting up expectations for the reader.
- Not thinking about your reader’s inbox: This is most often a mistake made by e-commerce sites, but when it happens it’s infuriating. When you think about the naming of your newsletter, it’s important to not think internally, but how it will appear to your reader.
The ultimate answer to these issues, however, will come from testing which we’ll deal with a little later.
Be Mobile Friendly
This should go without saying, but when you create your newsletter, consider the user experience on mobile. Depending on the industry you work in, open rates on mobile can be above 50% in many cases and building a newsletter that does not operate well on mobile is a catastrophic failure. Luckily there are many reputable options for templates, and also some great tools, such as Litmus, that will allow you to be certain that all of your readers enjoy the same quality experience.
Responsive Template Example from Constant Contact
Be Inbox Friendly
When it comes to newsletters, marketers spend a lot of time thinking about the subject line, but not nearly enough time thinking about the intro text that follows. While mail clients are generally good at pulling in text from emails, they’re at the mercy of your newsletter setup. One way to get ahead of other marketers is to build your newsletters in such a way that allows you to get as much of your story across in that intro line.
5) Always, always be testing
Once you’ve gone through all these laborious steps and you’ve finally built a newsletter that performs well, don’t just rest on your laurels. You should always strive to improve the performance of your newsletter, as well as all of your other marketing properties, with A/B testing at the heart of that.
A/B testing is a mindset all of its own, and I could write on the topic for days, but with regard to your newsletters you should have a calendar set up to test all kinds of variables. There’s no limit to the things you can test, but be sure that those changes are isolated enough that you can say with certainty that they resulted in the improvement. Here are a few testing options to get you started:
- Image-heavy newsletter vs. a personal text-heavy version
- Inserting personalization tags (e.g. first name) in the subject line or email intro lines
- Intro lines that are recurring vs article-specific – “Check out this week’s latest posts”
- Creating unique images with CTA’s vs default article images
- Putting intro text ahead of the articles vs just article content
- Testing an early morning send vs an afternoon send
- Alternating days of the week
- Single column article layout vs multi column challenger
- Changing the newsletter ‘from’ name – NewsCred vs NewsCred Newsletter
- Making the newsletter sender more human – ‘Liam from NewsCred’
Testing is easy, but implementing the successes from your tests takes a little discipline. The best way to handle this is to set up a testing calendar. By laying out all the tests ahead of time, you’ll be able to declare ‘winners’ and implement the changes easily. Without structure, it can be too easy to get carried away with tests or to entirely forget. The easiest way to build a testing calendar is to set KPIs that you want to hit to decide on a winner.
Once you get into a rhythm it becomes a cultural shift to always be A/B testing, but more it also keeps your content performing at its peak. You should never be satisfied with a particular open rate, CTR, etc. There’s always a way to improve!
We’ve covered a lot in this post, but the most important thing to remember when it comes to your newsletter is have a structured plan. There will be elements in this post you may adopt, and some elements you may disregard, but having a plan that you can refer to and benchmark your progress against will allow you to be consistent, accountable, and results focused.
In addition, you should aim to deliver a newsletter that is built on logic – test your emails, measure your activity, and know that each newsletter you sent was intentional and comes with measurable targets. If you build your program based on logic, you’ll have a framework for success.
Now that you’ve set up an infrastructure to record the success of your visits, it’s time to optimize how many you can drive through your newsletter.
Liam Moroney is a Demand Generation Manager at NewsCred.