The 10 commandments of B2B newsletters which are read, not deleted

Article by OneFish TwoFish.

It’s fair to say that both hard and soft copy newsletters have been rather overused. If we’ve read ‘Welcome to our Spring newsletter!’ once, we've read it a zillion times. This kind of Newsletter-For-A-Newsletter’s sake leaves us as cold as it does you.

So the trick is to take a completely different approach. Here are the 10 commandments of effective newsletter writing. Flout them and join a thousand other wasted words in the spam folder….

1. Don’t call it a newsletter
We hate newsletters. You hate newsletters. So don’t call it a newsletter. See Commandment 2 for alternative ways to describe your newsletter.

2. Make it useful
At work, we focus our time on activities that provoke thought/interest; make us look good in front of our boss; help us do our job better, or save time/effort on an existing activity. We’re in survival mode. If your newsletter doesn't tap into at least one of these, it is unlikely to survive.

Classify your newsletter into a high business-value communication which clearly signposts it as being for your particular niche e.g. Small Business FD business bulletin, Change Management Monthly Resource Book, Managing Sales Teams: Inspiration and Insight.

For example in the Results International newsletter, we title it ‘Ideas for Inspirational Leaders: 60 seconds on…’. As it’s pitched to Director/CEO level, we make it clear it’s for their level and highlight how quickly they can 'onboard' the new idea. The idea is for a member of your target audience to consider it so useful to their work, they just HAVE to subscribe.

3. Theme each edition
Unplanned newsletters can be a bit of a random jumble of whatever information is easily gatherable at the time of publication. This is confusing for the reader and not very memorable. By planning themes, you will signpost the great content much more clearly and also leverage future topics at the sign-up stage.

Let’s take the Change Management newsletter as an example. Possible themes might include: effective change programme communication, stakeholder management, project management, avoiding typical derailers, measuring success.

If I was a Change Manager I would be much more likely to subscribe to a newsletter which clearly laid out the content of upcoming editions. And when I received the newsletters, I would read more of each of them, knowing they knit together into a comprehensive concept.

4. Use regular features
The theming concept works well in partnership with regular features. This means a layout of article types which is repeated in each edition. These might include a thought article, an interview, a top tips section, a news feed, a case study, an interactive poll etc. The format depends on the focus of your newsletter.

A trick gleaned from successful magazines is that regular features help the reader navigate and quickly absorb the information as well as keeping their interest, edition after edition. To avoid ‘me-too-ism’ make sure you create sections that will work well for your content and give them interesting names. For example in the Xancam newsletter, we call the interview section ‘The Big Three’ and ask each VIP three killer questions on the topic for that edition.

5. Turn content gathering into prospecting
Use the process of pulling together content as an opportunity to engage with your target audience. For example if you have a very senior and strategic contact who is difficult to sell to (or to get on the phone for that matter), you could interview them for an article. It always surprises me how willing scarily-important-people are to speak when they know they’re not being sold to.

If you’re feeling particularly brave, why not pitch to a number of people you haven’t met but know by reputation. Tell them you think they’ll have something useful to say on the subject and would they consider contributing a quote, a piece of insight or a tip? With just five of these you’ve got yourself a pipeline – or at least the potential for one.

6. Don’t oversell or undersell
Ok, there are two ends of the spectrum to avoid. At one end is a pure advert. At the other is a newsletter full of fascinating content, all provided for free with no indication of the company behind it and what they do. Steering a course between advertiser and sucker can be tricky –here’s how:

  • If you have something very relevant to sell on the back of the theme, you can insert one advert for this. But it should be in the style of ‘find out how to…’ rather than ‘buy it here!’.
  • Always include a 'call to action' at the end of each click-through.
  • Make sure that as many sections as possible link through to something on your website.
  • Once people have clicked here, they will often click around to find out what you do.
  • Include your contact details and a short description of what your business does in every newsletter
  • Make sure all content links clearly to something you do. Be wary of writing anything which is interesting, but doesn’t conceptually link to something you can sell. 

7. Absolutely, positively no parish news
We’ve all done it, but we can definitively confirm that parish news makes you look small, inward looking and local. So no matter how great the Director’s wedding photos are, or how fun that Fun Run you all did for charity really was, keep it out of your client newsletter.

The only exception is if you can tie it clearly into the theme. But the link should be good and strong. Not tenuous (and definitely not tedious).

8. Make it look fantastic
There are lots of awful looking email newsletters out there – mostly created by non-designers using online newsletter building tools. If you refuse to pay a designer to lay out each issue for you, then the bare minimum is to use a system like Newzapp which will create a really solid template in your branding which makes whatever you add look good.

A key issue is monitoring how the newsletter will look in the preview pane, before the images are loaded. At this crucial download/don’t download stage, the newsletter has to look great or the decision will not go in your favour. Some recipients will read newsletters without ever downloading the images – so if yours is readable without images, so much the better.

9. Build your subscriber list
Size isn’t everything, but the larger the number of the right kind of subscribers the better (obvious really!). Optimising the organic growth of your list is a given. This means having a clear sign-up page (with all your forthcoming issues listed, plus examples of previous editions) on your website. Add ‘calls to action’ which link to this page from everywhere you can think of: your email signature, relevant articles on your website, other people’s newsletters, forum signatures, marketing collateral, press releases and so on.

Proactive growth of your list is optional – but it can be the only way to get started. If you have a list of people who already know you one way or another, send them a ‘premail’ explaining that you think they would be interested in your newsletter and that they can subscribe/unsubscribe below (your choice as to whether you force them to opt in, or opt out). You can do the same with cold contacts – but expect a far lower response rate. Don’t deploy ‘opt out’ for cold contacts – only opt in.

We have worked with organisations who just send their newsletter to bought lists and wait for people to unsubscribe. Technically this is not spamming (as long as it is a business email address, there is a clear unsubscribe option and you are using a list which permits this type of communication). However, this can often be perceived as spam with important brand implications – so treat this course of action with caution.

10. Be proactive with the clicks
Your newsletter provider should furnish you with a clever report explaining who opened your newsletter and who clicked each link. If your newsletter is non-salesy and insight-based, then any direct selling on the back of clicks will be poorly received (e.g. Hello Mr Burns, Big Brother tells me you innocently clicked on an article in our newsletter just now – I am now going to assume you’re happy for me to enthusiastically sell our services to you.). So don’t do this.

However, a bit of clever and targeted follow up can work wonders, for example:-    a follow up email to those who clicked on a particular link e.g. ‘If you liked this article, you might be interested in our webinar on 24th April.’ Or a follow up call for feedback to those who downloaded something e.g. ‘I saw you downloaded our white paper and wondered if you’d give us some feedback when you’ve had a chance to read it’.

To find out more about Onefish Twofish, visit their website here.