No matter what kind of business you’re running, an email newsletter is a cost-effective, reliable, and time-tested way to keep your brand top of mind, distribute your best content, increase website and blog traffic, and drive awareness and sales. But it's important to ensure you're following email best practices to drive engagement.
At this point, the email newsletter is a marketing must-have. But that means the competition for inbox attention is higher than ever, and getting your audience to open, click, and share takes a few extra ingredients (not to mention ensuring your email makes it to the primary inbox in the first place).
In this blog, we’ll share some often-forgotten email newsletter best practices that will help your newsletter generate results. From the highly practical to the creative, you’ll walk away with everything you need to make your newsletter a highlight of your audience’s week.
1. Establish good email deliverability hygiene from the get-go
Email deliverability describes the likelihood that an email accepted by a receiving mail server will be placed in the recipient’s inbox (high deliverability), filtered to the spam folder, or withheld from the recipient altogether (low deliverability). In short, the goal of email deliverability is for an email to land in a recipient’s inbox where it is more likely to be viewed.
Mass sending your newsletter without considering deliverability can do your domain reputation serious damage. There are three keys to email deliverability, getting consent from your subscriber list (and setting them up with a clear expectation of the emails they will receive and how frequently), engaging meaningfully, and being human.
Read more about how to maintain your domain reputation and increase your email deliverability in our email deliverability 101.
2. Define your newsletter audience
Email newsletters are sent to people who have opted in to receive marketing communications from your brand. This covers a wide range of contacts but may include paying customers, hot prospects, cold leads, partners, and your blog audience. Noticing patterns in your customer base and understanding what they are looking for will help you craft compelling newsletter content.
Study your reader’s profile, their primary challenges, and priorities, how they prefer to consume content, why they buy your product and/or service, and what they’d expect from your newsletter. Then, write a sentence that describes three benefits of subscribing.
Sign up to get at-home recovery tips, recipes from our trainers, and exclusive access to events (Fitness as a Service)
Sign up for tips for engaging your employees, hiring the right talent, and creating a positive workplace culture (Employee engagement platform)
Sign up to learn about upcoming growth marketing events, new features, and how you can successfully take your marketing to a new level (Marketing SaaS)
This exercise will bring clarity to your audience. It will also empower you to craft newsletter content for your market-center customers — the 80% who have the most to gain from your offerings and are most likely to respond to your email marketing efforts.
Plus, the sentence you’ve written will inform the copy for your subscribe widgets, meaning any new subscribers will know exactly what to expect. Check out the examples below from the Ortto newsletter and the Instrumentl newsletter.
3. Define your newsletter goal
Most marketers pay attention to standard email performance metrics, such as open and click rates. But it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Set a newsletter goal that goes one step further. You could aim to improve product usage rates, steer customers toward repeat purchases, drive conversations on social, or focus on maintaining healthy brand awareness and fostering strong relationships with your readers.
If you’re an Ortto customer, tracking these goals is simple. Create reports to track the metrics that matter to your business using variables like opened email ‘when Audience name is Newsletter Subscribers’.
These reports can then be added to a ‘Newsletter performance’ dashboard where you can set goals, keep track of progress, and track performance over time.
4. Establish a newsletter frequency, and stick to it
Maintaining a regular email newsletter sending schedule helps readers know what to expect from you. It also gives you a deadline to meet.
Over-communicating with your contacts doesn’t come with any obvious diminishing returns. Having said that, it’s important not to spam your community or set yourself up with a cadence that is impossible to maintain. Consistency is key.
For this reason, we recommend sending a newsletter to your subscriber list at least once a month, and building up to once a week if resources allow. This puts you in the sweet spot of staying in touch frequently enough to stay top of mind while giving you enough time to craft the right message and offer for your audience.
Leaving more than four weeks between sends puts you at risk of being out of sight, out of mind.
But what about specific days and times of the week? Is there an optimal time to send your monthly newsletter? The answers are rather subjective and depend a lot on your audience, industry, and geographic location.
You can do many tests to determine what’s right for your company and audience—and use features like timezone send in Ortto to ensure your audience is receiving the newsletter at the right time for them.
If you have a large list, try experimenting with personalized newsletter send times and content by segmenting your audience based on location and topics of interest.
Once you have a strategy mapped out, you can move on to writing newsletters that convert.
5. Deliver effective newsletter content
So you’ve defined your audience, goal, and send frequency. Now comes the exciting part: Creating your content.
Our guiding principle is to out-teach the competition. Focus on delivering useful, educational content packed with insights that will bring your readers success in their lives and careers.
There are four broad types of newsletters out there today. The one you choose will be largely dependent on your goals for the newsletter. We’ve outlined each below, along with the goals you’ll be more likely to meet.
In this type of newsletter, the newsletter itself is the destination. You will need to ensure you have the time and resources available to create brand-new, exclusive content for each newsletter tailored specifically to your readers.
Pros: Your sponges (people that read every word of your email) will have an experience that keeps them engaged. They’ll look forward to your email landing in your inbox, and may be more like to share. Plus, you’ll create more personalized connections
Cons: This approach puts pressure and a time commitment on dedicated writers to consistently create original content, week on week. If your audience is not particularly large (yet!), it can be a lot more work for fewer eyeballs. Additionally, if your goal is click-throughs to your website or you intend to track click-throughs as an engagement metric, this approach will not work.
Best for: Growing an audience and building a relationship with your reader.
A more common approach that many companies have adopted with great success, is the weekly or monthly digest. In this type of newsletter, you will curate a number of content pieces from your blog, website, or from around the web and share them with an image, a title, and short summary, or both.
Pros: The benefit is that you can repurpose content you’ve already created, such as top-performing blog posts, customer stories, and infographics. You will also benefit from clicks through to your blog, website, social pages, or anywhere else you’re aiming to drive traffic.
Cons: While the digest approach does not require a newsletter-specific piece of content to be created, it does require more than one link. If your content team is on the smaller side, this could mean you need to scale your newsletter back to monthly just to ensure you have at least three content segments within the digest.
Best for: Driving traffic to your site and keeping customers and leads in the loop.
Yep, you guessed it. The hybrid approach brings the two formats above together. This is becoming a more popular approach as it allows for content distribution while giving newsletter subscribers a hot take. Hybrid newsletters will usually contain a little more written content, whether that’s a longer summary of the content or an introduction to the theme you’re exploring that week.
Pros: It’s the best of both worlds! You can offer your newsletter subscribers something more exclusive, without needing to create something from scratch. You will still benefit from click-throughs to your blog or website and can distribute the content you’ve worked so hard to create to an engaged audience.
Cons: It is important to curate your content with some kind of theme in mind. Some weeks or months, this will come naturally thanks to something in the news or a theme you’ve been exploring in your blog. Other editions will require a little bit of creativity.
Best for: A bit of everything! Build relationships with your audience, drive traffic to your site and keep your audience in the loop.
If you feel like you don’t have enough content, don’t let that stop you from sending newsletters. Many have built their contact databases and driven sales simply by curating links to relevant content from around the web. The value-add to your customers is that they don’t have to go out and find these links themselves. They trust (and expect) you to do it for them.
Pros: If you’re a very early-stage startup without a content team, a curated newsletter from the founder or a prominent member of the leadership team could help you establish an audience early. Additionally, if you don’t have a large volume of content being published each week, this approach will allow you to distribute what you do have, alongside other relevant pieces. It also builds goodwill with the companies or individuals you are linking to!
Cons: Obviously this approach will not drive traffic to your own website, blog, or social pages. It’s also less likely to convert leads or expand existing customers.
Best for: Early-stage startups and small teams who want to grow an audience and establish thought-leadership without creating a lot of content.
Over time, you may want to experiment with your approach to land on a format that works for your team, your business, and your audience. The common thread here is that timely insights, stories, and news will keep you top of mind and allow you to build trust with your subscribers.
When it’s time to buy, your audience will come to you because you’ve provided value through teaching, not selling. Remember: writing infomercial-like content that overtly (or even indirectly) focuses on selling your own products or services will turn off all but the most motivated buyers.
6. Write open-worthy newsletter subject lines
Your subject line is arguably the most important part of your email newsletter. It drives open rates, after all — and zero opens means no exposure for the rest of your content.
Take time to craft something that compels your subscribers to open and read your newsletter. It’s important to test and learn, as email is always evolving and the subject lines your audience responds to could be vastly different from the subject lines that grab another audience’s attention.
These best-practice tips, which are based on the performance of our own newsletter and what we've observed with our customers, will help you get off on the right foot:
Keep it short
Subject lines with six to 10 words typically generate the most opens, but it’s worth playing around with A/B testing to see if you hit on a sweet spot.
Speak like a human and avoid spam trigger words
Emails with words like “credit”, “discount”, “gimmick”, “obligation”, and “click here” in the subject line will be more likely to be caught by spam filters. As a general rule, write like a human rather than a robot. This alone will help you avoid using spam words.
Focus on one benefit to the reader
Summarize the email with a focus on one key learning, piece of news, or another benefit to the reader. It can be tempting, especially with a digest or curated approach, to try to cram a bunch of pieces into one subject line. But you will be better off if you go all-in on one hero story or focus on the theme of the newsletter. For example:
Rather than: Myth-busting LinkedIn, growth tactics and email tips
Go with: Are you making these LinkedIn mistakes? 🤔
Use an AI subject line writer
Forget A/B testing, Ortto's AI subject line tool can predict the open rate of your email, and offer up higher-performing alternatives. Our model has been trained on millions of emails, meaning it will give you a more accurate and effective method of identifying top-performing subject line formulas than A/B testing ever could. Try it out today here.
Don’t use first names by default
Once upon a time, just about every email had a first name in the subject line. These days, audiences can see through the tactic, and, for the most part, you’re just wasting valuable words. Instead, use dynamic content fields to address them by name in the body of the email.
Don’t forget the preview text
The preview text in your email will appear directly below the subject line when the email lands in the inbox. If you follow the rule above and focus on just one compelling reader benefit in your subject line, the preview text will give you a chance to share what else is in the email. Take a look at the examples below - you’ll see how our newsletter and Sidekick’s use the preview to add more context to the subject line, whereas Morning Brew uses it to add an additional story.
7. Design a best-in-class newsletter template
Invest in designing a newsletter template that is worthy of your brand. Readers want to be presented with something that’s visually appealing and easy to digest. A quick Google search can bring up countless examples of beautiful newsletters that can help jog your creative process.
Once you’ve nailed a minimal viable layout, you can then swap bespoke content each time you’re preparing a newsletter, and evolve your design over time based on experimentation.
When choosing a newsletter template, you have three options:
Option #1: Create a plain-text email template
While HTML emails are the most popular route for email newsletters, text-based emails are a viable option. They’re also much easier to develop, and can create a more personal experience because they feel like an email you might receive directly from a friend or colleague. The main con is they lack logos or branding.
What plain-text emails lack in aesthetics, they make up for with ease of creation. If you can write a normal email, you can create a plain-text newsletter.
Option #2: Use an existing HTML template
If you’re not a graphic designer but need to send your newsletter quickly, use a pre-designed HTML template. If you're using Ortto, you can choose from one of our responsive email templates:
Alternatively, you can start with a template, make tweaks as necessary, and then save your version as a template to be used again and again. You can also manage the default header and footer, brand book, logos, and default template styles in your Setup. This will make the process of building an email that much simpler next time.
Option #3: Design an HTML template from scratch
If you have the time and resources, work with a designer to create a custom HTML template.
If you're doing this, we recommend compiling or authoring the content that will be included in your first email newsletter before choosing a design to match. This will help determine the number of sections you’ll need, copy placement and image sizes.
Another key consideration — and one of the great marketing debates — is whether you should go with a single or two-column email newsletter.
You have your classic two-column newsletter lovers, who tout the scannability benefits of a more compact view. Not only can you pack in more content using less space, but there are more opportunities to showcase that content above the inbox fold.
Single-column newsletters are more responsive, meaning they easily adjust to different screen sizes. They are also flexible, attractive, and have a lower chance of breaking—regardless of whether you choose to include three sections or ten.
After testing single versus two-column newsletters at Ortto, we concluded that two-column newsletters are easier to digest, but single-column newsletters get more clicks.
While two-column newsletters had fewer overall clicks, the distribution of the clicks was more evenly spread, regardless of how the content was ordered. In other words, bottom-left corner sections were clicked on just as often as those in the first row. While the single-column variation had higher click volumes, these were all concentrated in the first few sections, meaning links near the bottom didn’t get as much love.
If you have a HTML template, you can use the HTML blocks in Ortto to build your email, and edit from there.
Now that you have a template, follow these best practices, tips, and takeaways to optimize your newsletter engagement:
Start with your biggest announcement or best story. The most clicked links are those positioned at the top. Make your copy and visuals attractive, timely, and actionable.
Break up big chunks of text with images, breakout quotes, or formatting
Readers scan emails quickly — often on their mobile devices — searching for interesting links and/or valuable learnings. Make it easy for them to click by creating a visual hierarchy, using white space, font sizes, and colors to rank the importance of headers, body copy, and calls to action.
Attract your reader’s eye with visuals
If you’re sending an HTML email, visually represent each section with a graphic or illustration. Don’t forget to use cohesive images, balanced proportions, and on-brand color palettes. It’s also a great idea to test some gifs to capture your audience’s eye.
Write punchy headers. Structure your newsletter for the skimmer. Most readers will not read every single word, your headers should capture their attention and compel them to keep reading or click through.
Make it personal
People want to hear from people. Match a recognizable human face to your brand by sending your email from a real person, like your founder, CEO, or another spokesperson. In our tests, newsletters sent from an individual at Ortto converted 12% better than a generic company sender like “Your mates at Ortto.”
Encourage readers to follow your brand, share your content, and join conversations on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other active social channels. You should also include links to your Help Center, offer ways people can get in touch with your support team, or encourage your audience to leave a positive review.
9. Measure newsletter performance
Most email or marketing automation software offers basic reporting on email performance. While rough industry benchmarks exist, newsletter performance varies by industry, customer demographics, geography, and business model.
We recommend tracking the following:
Total number of contacts
Every member of your marketing team should know both the size of your database and how many of these contacts receive your newsletter. Set quarterly or annual goals for growth, and incentivize newsletter signups by placing a benefits-driven sentence alongside the lead capture form on your website or blog.
You should achieve 10-20% newsletter open rates when sending to your entire marketing database, and higher if you target specific segments.
Typically, 3-8% of people who open your newsletter will click. However, highly relevant messages backed by compelling offers can drive your click rates up to 50% or more.
If you have a groomed reader base (i.e. you’ve sent four or more monthly newsletters to the same list) and are seeing unsubscribe rates that are higher than 0.3% after each newsletter send, consider revisiting your targeting strategy, content strategy, or send frequency.
Attributed MQLs, paying customers, and upsells
How many leads or conversions are your newsletters producing? Add UTM tags to your email URLs using Google, then track on a cohort basis in Google Analytics or another attribution tool. If you’re an Ortto customer, UTMs will be automatically added to your email links, and tracked in your campaign report, along with metrics like attribution.
Engagement and feedback
How are people responding to and engaging with your newsletters? Gather qualitative feedback by encouraging readers to reply to your emails or embedding a survey link. You can also track social shares on key content before and after sending your newsletter.
When you’re happy with your emails, send yourself a test to check for mistakes like typos, watch out for slow-loading images, and ensure the formatting looks correct on both desktop and mobile. Don’t forget to click on all links to ensure they’re working. Once you’re confident, send the same tests to one or more colleagues. A second (or third) pair of eyes never hurt anyone!
The final word
Email newsletters are a great way to stay top of mind with your customers and your leads. Give yourself some time to test and learn, play with the template, the tone, and the content types or components you share, as well as A/B testing subject lines and send times. Soon enough, you’ll have a well-oiled machine, an engaged audience, and a newsletter you look forward to writing weekly.