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The uptapped potential of newsletters: Experts share why they work and how yours can work better.
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Sara Wiseman

September 1, 2012
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With all the buzz about social marketing, many retailers are so busy tweeting and asking for Facebook “likes,” they’ve forgotten the true jewel in the lotus: their customer email list.

It’s true; the younger generation considers email to be hopelessly slow—about as modern as a telegraph. But if your customers are ages 30 and older, email remains a fantastic way to reach them.

That means creating a powerful e-newsletter campaign that establishes you as the brand leader—and allows you to build stronger, deeper relationships with your customers.

Why email?

Why would someone use an e-newsletter anyway, when there’s all this social marketing to focus on?

“Email works,” says Julie Niehoff, Constant Contact’s ( regional director for Texas. “Out of a hundred people, there’s a smattering who are on Facebook, on Twitter. But email is a core piece. Even the people who aren’t savvy on social networking are on email.”

That said, what kind of a response should a store owner expect from a newsletter that’s doing well? “Between 17 and 20 percent is an average response,” says Niehoff. “Most are getting a little higher. But when you think about a 1 percent average return on direct mail, it’s a significant difference.”

Aside from the response rate, what makes newsletters effective is that they reach people directly, says Niehoff. “When you have someone’s email, it’s an intimate, real relationship—it’s a one-person-to-one-person relationship, and it matters. It’s crucial to maintain that trust.”

What about spam?

Store owners often worry about spamming. “But it’s not about worrying about spamming,” says Niehoff. “It’s about making sure you’re not doing it.”

The safest way to get permission to add someone to your email list is to have a sign-up sheet at the front counter or to directly ask customers if they’d like to be on your newsletter list. You also can use an opt-in form on your website. “If they’ve signed up on your website, there’s no surprise. They expect to hear from you,” says Niehoff.

It’s all about building brand

Because newsletters reach clients directly, they’re a great way to communicate your brand, says Jennifer Larsen Morrow, president of Creative Company (, an award-winning marketing and branding company in McMinnville, Ore.

Founded in 1978, the firm has done work with clients in a wide range of categories—non-profit, finance, education, food products, manufacturing, business-to-business, business-to-consumer, and more. But Morrow’s experience with her own company’s newsletter has taught her three things: Keep it short, relevant, and compelling.

“I make it a point to keep each newsletter under 300 words, and to stick to one topic,” she says. “A lot of people try to make it too long, and nobody has the time anymore.

“We’ve also used links that generate traffic directly to our website and blog. If you click on a link from the newsletter, it comes up with a landing page that captures your information,” she explains.

Morrow can track how many recipients actually open her e-newsletter, which “helps us tune up our message; I can see what people are interested in, and write to that,” she says.

Stats also let you track the response to your emails and create specialized lists from responders, explains Niehoff.

Keep it interesting

Headers are crucial in newsletter marketing—the difference between being opened and being trashed as junk mail. “We’ll use either a header that intrigues or has a benefit,” says Morrow. “So often people will just say ‘My Monthly Newsletter’ in the header, but that’s a mistake.”

Once people actually open the newsletter, Morrow makes strong use of what she calls the “deck,” a series of three to four sentences in a font larger than the main body copy. “Even if that’s all you read, it will pull you in,” she notes. “People don’t read anymore; they scan.” So she recommends including a strong headline, deck, two or three subheads, and clickable links.

Tone of voice is also crucial. “Especially in retail, you want to make it conversational, light, and fun—not stuffy. You want to have the same tone as if someone walked into the store and was having a conversation with you.”

Niehoff suggests focusing on headers using a 2-2-2 principle: “The header needs to capture your attention in two seconds, the first two words in the header matter the most, and you need to answer the question, ‘Why does this matter today?’”

And, if you’re using a linked graphic, make sure you’ve got a text link, too; mobile devices don’t always display graphics, she notes. With so many people now using smartphones to access their email, it’s important to keep them in mind when designing your newsletter.

Be the authority

Morrow follows a simple principle when creating a newsletter: Focus on what interests the reader, rather than on pushing her own agenda. “There are two reasons for that,” she says. “One, I want clients to read the newsletters. But it also positions me as an authority in the field.

“Most people go to a specialty retailer because there’s knowledge they can’t find anywhere else,” she continues. “Customers want advice, not just a place to buy stuff. So you can use your newsletter to put in little tips and recommendations they can’t get elsewhere.”

Another way to be the authority is to share experiences. “You can use a story about customers, such as ‘A customer came in looking for this, and we helped them in this way,’ or a quote that a customer gives. People just love stories.”

Offering a discount is also a way to get people to open your newsletters, but then it’s just another sale, Morrow warns. “Instead, that special could also be a freebie, or ‘Come in and say these words and get something extra.’ I always like doing value-added rather than discount, because it keeps the perceived value higher.”

Niehoff agrees, suggesting you offer newsletter customers something they can’t get anywhere else: a special offer or an advance preview making them the first to know.

How often is too often?

How often should you send your newsletter? About once a month, Niehoff advises. “Don’t oversend, and keep it on a regular schedule. That doesn’t mean you have to send your newsletter on the third Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. like clockwork—it’s not that kind of pressure.” But do make a point to stay in front of your customer regularly.

Morrow says keeping newsletters consistent, such as doing a series, really works. “I’ve done a series of 15 newsletters in the past and numbered them. I would actually get calls where people asked, ‘Can you send me the ones I missed?’”

The video advantage

“Text is good, a picture is better, and video will be clicked more than anything else. So much so that we’ve added tools to our service [Constant Contact], to make adding video easy,” says Niehoff.

What kind of video? Tests comparing video with and without faces show people prefer to view videos with other people in them. “Products sell, but put a human in your video…” and they sell better, she says.

This is where small retailers have the advantage over big business, she notes. “With big business, there’s nothing relatable, but with an [independent] retail store, there’s that one person, the owner or other charismatic person. Having a video with that person in it expands your ability to create real, personalized relationships with your customers.

“You don’t need to be fancy, either,” Niehoff suggests. For most retailers, “a simple phone camera will do the trick.”

16 Hints for Newsletters That Work

  1. Keep each newsletter to no more than 300 words
  2. Stick to one main topic per newsletter
  3. Link to your website or blog, and use the tools provided by your newsletter service to track open rates and what recipients are clicking on
  4. Put your main message above the “fold” or scroll line
  5. Use a “deck” (a three- to four-sentence headline) to pull readers in
  6. Have a clear offer with a call to action
  7. Make your offer special, not just another sale
  8. Share experiences, share knowledge, tell stories
  9. Always include a clickable link, not just a clickable image
  10. Track clicks by interest, and create new lists with these subgroups
  11. Don’t oversend, but stay consistent; monthly contact is ideal
  12. Make headers engaging, not just “My Monthly Newsletter”
  13. Watch out for filtered words in headers: Free, guarantee, credit card, card, or even complimentary are all words filters will block
  14. Monitor your stats, and try new approaches based on what you’ve learned
  15. Use video to increase interest
  16. Remember: It’s about the people, not the products

Sara Wiseman is a branding expert, an intuitive, and author of Becoming Your Best Self, Writing the Divine, and Your Psychic Child. She is a contributor to DailyOM, and hosts a radio show, “Ask Sara.” She has released four healing music CDs with her band Martyrs of Sound. She offers private consults and training; for more information, visit