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5 Essential Elements for a Great Newsletter

Engaging, informative e-newsletters can help achieve many content marketing goals. Yes, even now, multiple decades after email’s heyday as the shiny, new thing.

I can give you the statistic on how many content marketers use email newsletters from our latest B2B research – but do you really need it to be convinced? (It’s 69%, by the way.)

You already know this from your own experience creating or receiving e-newsletters. Think of the ones you get from brands – especially those you open and read regularly. The best ones offer reliably interesting, inspiring, or helpful content that rewards you for opening, right?

That’s the opportunity a great newsletter represents – an ongoing relationship with readers that makes your audience look forward to hearing from you. To capitalize on that opportunity, you have to consistently entertain, delight, inspire, help, and otherwise make the attention they give you worthwhile for them.

While their potential has remained constant, newsletter strategies, designs, and engagement preferences evolve all the time. Emails that once worked well may now sit unread in subscribers’ cluttered inboxes – if they get delivered at all.

Now is a great time to upgrade (or start) your brand’s approach to newsletters. I’ve gathered lessons on making your e-newsletter a must-read from several praise-worthy examples, including a winner and finalist from the 2022 Content Marketing Awards.

Note: Though the CMI staff and community admire many creator-driven newsletters, I’ve focused on examples from brands, media companies, and agencies in this article (with one exception).

5 elements of an effective newsletter

If you want your subscribers to look forward to opening and reading your newsletter, optimize for these five elements:

1. Readability

Time-constrained audiences often scan newsletters for exciting ideas and relevant information rather than reading from start to end.

To make scanning easier, use short sentences and paragraphs that get your message across quickly. Use brief, catchy headlines, and section labels to draw their attention.

Revmade’s weekly newsletter provides engaging, readable copy introduced by short labels (highlighted in green for extra attention-grabbing value, as shown in the example below). These humorous, pun-heavy labels get immediately explained in brief, pithy blurbs that entice readers to click to read more about curated and Revmade-created content.

My favorite from this issue:

I hate to burst your bubble: Practicality and profitability seem to be the unglamorous buzzwords driving excitement at this year’s CES. Move over meh-taverse. (Bloomberg)

2. Storytelling value

While brevity works for some, I see more and more examples of newsletters that go beyond headlines and blurbs. They include most of the action within the body of the newsletter without requiring a click.

These long-form newsletters work best when they carry readers beyond the headlines to immerse them in the action. Storifying your content creates a richer experience that your subscribers will anticipate and enjoy reading.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more storified email newsletter than Total Annarchy from Ann Handley (the one creator-driven newsletter I couldn’t leave out.)

The issue from Jan. 15, 2023 (with the subject line AI writing & typewriters: The whole story) opens with a picture of Ann sitting behind an old-fashioned blue typewriter. I’ve included a picture of the opening section, but you can see the full newsletter (and read the entire story) online.

Click to enlarge

Next comes her standard welcome message, then this opener:

Hi friend.
I published a version of this story on LinkedIn last week. This version is better.
Also below is the part I didn’t mention on LinkedIn… because I saved that just for us.

* * *

This is a story about AI Writing and typewriters.

Over the holiday break I lifted a curious grimy, gray case up off the cruddy floor of an even cruddier secondhand shop. It was heavy and bulky, big enough to house… what? A small motor? A human head?

From the very first words after the salutation, Ann weaves her story. She draws readers in by promising her readers will hear more of the tale than she’s shared anywhere else. Then she layers in the details (the crud, the bulk, the what’s-in-the-box of it all).

Sure, you probably guessed from the photo and the subject line that the box contains that turquoise mechanical relic. But I bet you want to keep reading (and please bookmark that issue so you can read it after you finish this article.)

The magic isn’t in the suspense – it’s woven into the way Ann tells her tale, which pays off with some valuable writing advice (and that secret add-on). You’ll improve your writing by doing as she says – but don’t forget to study what she does.

Do as @AnnHandley says in Total Annarchy to become a better writer – then study how to do what she does, says @Joderama via @CMIContent. Share on X

3. Reader focus

Successful newsletters deliver the information and answers your audience wants – not branding messages. Add a human touch to create a sense of personal connection. Use first- or second-person pronouns and write in a conversational tone.

To stay focused on readers who invest time in your brand, ask them to provide feedback and respond directly to your emails. That demonstrates an eagerness to hear what they have to say, which may enhance their desire to listen to what the brand has to say.

Write your #email newsletter in a conversational tone. Use first- and second-person pronouns, says @Joderama via @CMIContent Share on X

Work Life by Atlassian, recognized as a finalist for Best E-Newsletter in the 2022 Content Marketing Awards, serves many goals for the software company,

What you don’t see among the content goals are sales of Atlassian software. That’s not the newsletter’s direct purpose. The newsletter and the blog it supports exist to “inspire, inform, and help knowledge workers excel in their day-to-day work with their teams,” as the company wrote in its CMA application.

In other words, the content focuses on readers’ needs.

The Work Life issue from Jan. 4, 2023, for example, shows how a collegial tone of voice and use of the second person welcomes readers by speaking directly to them. I’ve included an image of the issue below. If you can’t see the image or want to explore the stories, you can read it here.

This issue opens with a letter from the editor (including a picture of said editor, Lauren Marten Parker, smiling from the digital page.

Her note strikes a friendly, caring tone:

January’s call to self-improvement is as difficult to avoid as it is to sustain. Come spring, we seem to have lost hold of those new memberships, radical commitments, or whatever moonshot goals we came up with in the small hours of New Year’s Day.

That’s because building healthy habits and rituals requires more than quick decisions and blind faith. Sustainability and consistency are essential to new personal and team growth ambitions.

We want to help you set the right goals and achieve them, to maintain your momentum even when you feel beat down. These articles were hand-picked to get you off to a great start in 2023, and as the year unfolds we hope you’ll return to them for wisdom and inspiration.

Each story in the issue supports Lauren’s note with a similarly caring tone evident in the headlines. And it wraps up with the inspiring quote shown below from Barack Obama.

“Don’t wait for good things to happen to you,” the quote reads. “If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope.”

Another way to show you care? Ask for a response. You can see how Work Life does this in the image above. Look under the quote from Obama.

That line of blue copy reading “Tell us what you think” hyperlinks to a two-question survey about the newsletter. One asks the reader to rate their impression of the newsletter by choosing from a list of options. The other is an optional request for additional feedback.

4. Clear calls to action

While your newsletter content should be engaging, it must also serve a business purpose. For that to happen, you need to be direct about your brand’s valuable offerings.

Include compelling calls to action to guide subscribers toward the next steps the business wants them to take – such as contacting your sales team for a demo, signing up for a webinar, joining your social media community to keep the conversation flowing, or forwarding to a friend.

Make sure to design CTAs, so they’re easy to spot. Keep the copy brief and to the point. You want readers to understand what they’ll receive when they click the offer and why it will benefit them.

Include compelling calls to action to support your #Email newsletter's business purpose, says @Joderama via @CMIContent. Share on X

Marketing Brew does this well (and no wonder since the newsletter is its primary business). Each email issue ends with a module that asks readers to encourage their friends to become subscribers and outlines the rewards only subscribers can earn.

Take the example from the Jan. 13, 2023, edition (shown below):

Under the heading “Share the brew,” you get this request (and promise of reward):

Share Morning Brew with your friends, acquire free Brew swag, and then acquire more friends as a result of your fresh Brew swag.

We’re saying we’ll give you free stuff and more friends if you share a link. One link.

The copy is clear (and written in the Brew’s signature style). Below that text is a list showing how many links you need to share for each reward (one referral earns you a tote bag, and 1,000 referrals earn you a work-from-home setup). Although the image next to the numbers and prizes looks static above, it’s an animation that rotates through images of the available rewards. That’s the work-from-home setup above.

Now, you can read that issue online. But you won’t see this module in the online version. You have to be a subscriber to benefit from recruiting other subscribers.

5. Attractive, user-friendly design

Don’t frustrate readers by delivering great content in an ugly, cluttered, or difficult-to-navigate package.

Follow email design trends to help the newsletter feel current and inviting, but don’t forget the fundamentals of a good user experience.

For example, use appealing, readable fonts and colors. Include images and subheadings to break up dense sections of text. Organize your information so that it’s easy to scan.

Visit California redesigned its California Now newsletter in 2021 to include modular sections that would support personalizing the newsletter to the recipients’ travel interests (the team worked with a data partner to determine those interests). The results of the redesign contributed to the nonprofit organization’s win for Best E-Newsletter at the 2022 Content Marketing Awards.

The new format created a showcase for the organization’s vivid photography – a significant draw that entices visitors to explore everything the Golden State offers.

The welcome message subscribers receive (shown below) gives a peek at the nature of the redesign.

The welcome email opens with an eye-catching image of California’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge against a blue sky. This cheery, aspirational copy takes up the upper left corner of the image: “Epic road trips, amazing food, urban adventures—the Golden State has it all.”

The audience-focused design mirrors Visit California’s website to create a seamless visitor experience. The navigational elements shown in the image (Places To Visit, Things To Do, Road Trips, Podcast, Travel Tips) echo many of the navigation options visitors will see when they click the links.

The Start Dreaming button evokes the blue of the sky in the image, and the words evoke the classic song California Dreaming.

More tips to make readers’ experiences seamless (and even dreamy)

By implementing those five essential elements, your newsletter has a strong foundation. But they aren’t the only operational elements to consider. Here are some more to keep an eye on:

  • Keep your brand on readers’ minds: By delivering newsletters consistently, you create an expectation of value – something readers eagerly anticipate receiving. And if your content is suitably relevant, compelling, and valuable, they may even set time aside to engage with each issue when it arrives.
  • Make it mobile-friendly: People read email newsletters on their phones as well as (and maybe even more than) on desktops. Check how your newsletter looks on your phone and make sure it’s optimized for mobile viewing across different screens and devices. 
  • Be transparent: Clearly outline what your readers will receive when they sign up – especially if you have multiple newsletter offerings and subscription options. 
  • Offer flexible subscription terms: Give subscribers the option to self-select the content they receive – for example, a daily newsletter or a weekly digest. You can also segment content by topics or geographic region. It makes the newsletter more personally resonant – and helps you gather more data on your subscribers’ interests.
  • Include a name in the sender line: People build trusted relationships with people, not faceless corporate entities. Putting a familiar name in the “from” line can make your messages feel warmer and more welcoming.
  • Use personalization: Email Uplers’ Kevin George says customizing your emails for individual recipients can show you care about their needs and interests. It also helps your content feel more like a personal conversation than an email blast.

The metrics to gauge e-newsletter performance have changed

How will you know if your newsletters are working? While open rates used to be the key performance indicator for email, Apple’s mail privacy protection features (and similar privacy updates from Google and other email providers) effectively shut off marketers’ access to this data.

Fortunately, other reliable and accessible indicators still gauge email performance. For example, marketing strategist Michael Barber points out that email service providers (ESPs) measure a campaign’s success by its deliverability.

To determine whether an email makes it into the subscriber’s inbox (vs. getting sent directly to their junk folders), Michael says ESPs look for clear positive and negative signals of the subscriber’s interest, including:

  • Messages moved to the junk folder or reported as spam
  • Deleted messages
  • Unsubscribes
  • Addition of senders to address books
  • Messages saved in a folder (both default folders and those the user creates)
  • Messages moved out of a junk/spam folder
  • Direct replies and responses to email messages/campaigns

Michael asserts it’s that last signal – direct replies and responses – marketers should pay the most attention to.

Build a more effective e-newsletter to build stronger customer connections

No matter what your content marketing goals, creative ideas, or topics of focus are, email newsletters can help create a connection with your audience and keep the lines of communication open.

Got a great example of an e-newsletter you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Updated from a March 2016 article by Jodi Harris and a June 2010 article by Sarah Mitchell.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute