Email newsletters continue to be an important way for news organizations to distribute their stories and engage with their audiences. And, because it's possible to precisely observe how recipients engage (or do not engage) with content, newsletters are also a powerful tool to analyze audience engagement and develop insights that can be shared with everyone you work with.
A number of Global Voices projects, sections and communities, such as the Newsroom and Advox send out regular newsletters by email.
So, here's a short how-to that covers the key concepts required to send your own email newsletter.
Newsletters are typically sent out using “email marketing services” such as Campaign Monitor, Constant Contact or MailChimp. These newsletter platforms typically have relationships with ISPs to ensure “email deliverability” as you grow your email list. For example, if you sent a newsletter to one hundred recipients using your personal or work email client, your email would likely be flagged by an ISP as spam. But ISPs trust newsletter platforms to weed out spammers (more on this below), so using a service like MailChimp ensures your email newsletter will always be delivered.
Newsletter platforms also make it easy to design email newsletters, manage “lists” and “segments”, and analyze performance.
Global Voices MailChimp Account
Global Voices uses MailChimp to manage newsletters. To get access to the account, contact Jer Clarke, Mohamed El Gohary or Nevin Thompson to get set up.
Lists Versus Segments
Email newsletters need subscribers to be effective, and this list of subscribers is indeed called a “list”. The Global Voices Newsroom has about 20,000 subscribers on its list, and this list is divided into “segments”.
People who conduct email marketing professionally make a clear difference between “lists” and “segments.” The “list” is the main list of email address; a “segment” is based on how recipients have indicated what kind of contact they want, and how often. For example, the GV list of 20,000 email addresses is divided into three segments: “GV announcements”, “daily newsletters” and “weekly digests”.
Recipients may belong to different segments, or just one, but the most important thing is that there is just one list of email subscribers. Creating a new list for “intent” (e.g., “receive daily sends”) rather than just adding to a segment means email addresses become duplicated. This makes it hard to manage the newsletter, and also costs more money (MailChimp and other providers charge according to number of newsletter addresses in lists).
Email providers such as MailChimp are popular because they can assure “deliverability”: your email newsletter will not be flagged by ISPs as “spam” if you send with them (newsletter recipients, however can flag as spam if they like). One way email providers ensure quality and trust to ISPs is by strictly following privacy legislation in different jurisdictions.
CASL, CAN-SPAM and GDPR are examples of powerful legislation that compels marketers to make sure they get “consent” from before contacting email recipients. This means recipients must clearly “opt in” to email communication, and this opt-in process must be clearly documented (note: since Global Voices is registered in the Netherlands, MailChimp generally applies EU email and privacy legislation to us).
In practice, this means you must never bulk-add emails to your MailChimp list unless you have first asked for permission from recipients.
How to Plan Your Newsletter
Frequency: Daily Versus Weekly
The Global Voices Newsroom list has two basic segments: “daily” and “weekly”. The daily segment is sent out each weekday at 7AM EDT, while the weekly is ideally sent out by Saturday 10AM EDT.
Recipients have opted-in to these two segments via a popup on the home page of Global Voices, and these send times have been tested and are generally when people seem to open newsletters the most.
If you have just one segment (i.e., can only send once a week), try experimenting with send times to see what time gets the most “opens” (more on “opens” below).
Frequency and “touch” matter
Although it's difficult to generalize, the more frequently people receive email newsletters, the less frequently they will engage with content. This means that weekly or monthly newsletter sends may enjoy more engagement than newsletters that are sent on a daily basis. Over-frequent email contact can also result more “attrition” (more on this below).
The daily Global Voices email newsletter includes 4-5 stories that are “curated” or selected by the newsletter editor, depending what stories are trending at the moment, as well as with a mind to ensure there is geographic or cultural diversity. The first story appearing in the newsletter also appears as the “subject line” (more on subject lines below).
The weekly newsletter send is made up of the 5 top-performing newsletter stories, in terms of clicks from the previous week, with the “top performer” being placed as the first story in the weekly send, and therefore forming the subject line of the weekly send as well.
Stories appear in image-caption format with a header; there's a general effort to write a caption of about 140 characters or so summarizing the story. There's also an effort made to standardize images by cropping them, as needed, to a 6:4 ratio. In terms of font colors, branding is taken from the logo page and from the GV site itself.
Since email clients typically can only render a limited variety of fonts, the GV newsletter uses common web-ready fonts.
MailChimp's Design Tool
Email newsletters are designed according to sections, such as “preheader”, “header”, “body” and “footer”. MailChimp has a design tool that formats each of these, and it's worth spending several hours fine-tuning the look and feel of each section.
Desktop Versus Mobile
Your email newsletter will look different according to email client (Gmail renders email slightly differently than does Outlook, for example). Mobile email clients will also render email differently. MailChimp's design tool allows you to create and test a version of your email specifically for mobile devices.
Getting your newsletter to look just right (or “good enough”) on both email and desktop is challenging, but it is worth putting in the time to do it right.
MailChimp has an important feature called “templates”. Templates allow you to create and adjust the look and feel of your newsletter. As a time-saving tactic, instead of creating a newsletter from scratch, if the template seems to be working well simply replicate your previous send, and swap out the content.
Image Alt Text and Link Tags
If you can, make sure all images include title and alt text, and, if you can, add descriptive tags to links in your email newsletter. This is for two reasons: for one thing, most email clients block images from first-time senders by default, so your subscribers will almost always see the print content of your email before anything else.
Second, some visually impaired people rely on a text reader to read emails. Clearly labeling images ensures your email newsletter is accessible for everyone.
Although you need to test it to know for sure, it's good to keep in mind that people will interact most with what they see first in your newsletter. The space “above the fold” is therefore valuable. It's worth experimenting to see if a story you think will receive lots of interest will indeed get more clicks if placed as close to the top of your newsletter as possible.
As well, it's also a good idea to consider placing “calls-to-action”, such as requests for donations, or buttons to follow your page on Facebook above the fold.
The subject line is the first way recipients will engage with your newsletter. It's generally assumed by email marketers and engagement professionals that crafting a subject line is a critical part of sending a newsletter, but there's no consensus on what a subject line should look like.
The success of your newsletter can be measured according to three broad metrics:
- Open rates
- Click rates
- List growth versus list attrition
The open rate is the number of people who decided to open and read your newsletter. Open rates are important because if nobody opens your newsletter, nobody is reading your content.
Open rates can be influenced by a number of factors, including how catchy, relevant or appropriate to your audience your subject line is, as well as email frequency (e.g., daily versus weekly) or what time of day your send your newsletter.
Time zones are important. For example, based on opens, 50 per cent of Global Voices's email audience resides in Pacific Time Zone, although a significant number of openers reside in Eastern Time Zone and in and around GMT. So, getting the email into their inbox at the start of their day, in time for a commute, seems to ensure a good number of opens (people residing in and around GMT would get the email in time to read it over lunch).
Measuring “clicks” on a link in an article is also another important metric of success. Taking a look at clicks can provide insights into audience interest, and also how engaging your newsletter headers and captions are. Ultimately, people who click on newsletter links end up on the Global Voices site, which is what we want when we send out a newsletter.
It's also important to understand how your audience engages with email. Not everyone opens an email newsletter right away, so it's best to measure performance over the course of one week. While the most opens and clicks tend to happen in the first 24 hours, audience engagement predictably happens over five or so days — give your newsletter time to perform.
Attrition — the number of people who choose to unsubscribe from your newsletter — is also an important way to determine and gauge engagement.
All email lists will experience attrition. People either unsubscribe or are automatically removed by MailChimp itself. MailChimp does not look at engagement per se, but instead measures the number of “bounces” — an incidence where the recipients’ email address refused to accept the email newsletter. Bounces can be caused by defunct email addresses, spam filters or author automated processes.
To deal with attrition, you should also have some strategy in place to build an audience for your newsletter.
Spam complaints are another indicator engagement. In fact, even if you have a list with 20,000 people on it as GV does, a single spam complaint should be a cause for concern and for examination. MailChimp's relationship with ISP's is based on quality and trust, and so MailChimp has an almost zero-tolerance policy for spam.
The best way to prevent spam complaints is to design a clear opt-in process, and then understand why recipients intended to sign up in the first place. For example, if recipients, during the opt-in process indicated their intent was to receive regular news updates, you would not be able to send them regular requests for donations and so on.
Building an Audience
Building an audience is the toughest part of email newsletters. Global Voices uses a popup on the homepage that asks potential recipients to segment into daily and weekly sends, or updates. Due to the high volume of traffic on the GV site, this has meant that, despite attitrition, the GV email newsletter list has continued to grow from year to year. MailChimp has a basic signup form that is probably the easiest way to start the process of building your list.
Other ideas for building an audience include cross-promoting a link to the sign-up form on different social media channels, or even creating advertising on social media that points to a signup page.
Contact Nevin Thompson, the Global Voices social media lead for advice, tips and tricks for creating your own email newsletter.