To improve your email newsletter, think like a content strategist

June 2022
7 min read
by Elena Berger

If you work in the communications department of a think tank, you probably have a job description that includes something like: “Interpret the organisation’s research outputs for key audiences.” While this is accurate — you do indeed have to read and understand the work, identifying the most valuable details for press, policymakers, academics, and so on — at some point, you’ll probably stumble on an unspoken part of your role.

What the researchers are putting out and what your audiences want to read are not always the same thing, and it’s up to you to bridge that divide.

Nowhere is this more true than in email marketing. For small organisations, we might be talking about a monthly newsletter (maybe weekly for organisations that have the staff to support it and a communications strategy that relies upon email). That’s one email to get across all the important things that are going on in the space of a month, in an interesting way, no matter what else is going on in the world. Quite a challenge, to say the least. And looking at your open and clickthrough rates, which often remain relatively constant no matter what you do differently, you might never have even noticed that this divide between outputs and audiences existed… until COVID happened.

Sometime around March 2020, email marketing managers everywhere watched in horror as their metrics took a nosedive. Why? And what is there to be done when this happens?

Let’s talk about the ‘why’ part first. It helps to consider what you’re actually measuring when you look at metrics like email open rates and clickthrough rates.

You might not always think of it this way, but there are two very important things that your email program — or any form of digital communications, for that matter — needs to succeed:  Trust and attention.

Trust can be kind of a fuzzy concept, as important as it is: It has to do with your brand, how well you’ve staked out a niche for your organisation where readers count on your expertise, the consistency of your communication, how much your communications align with an audience’s needs and expectations over time. In the case of email, trust also has a technical component: your emails have to be safe to click on, come from a recognised address, and consistently make it into inboxes instead of spam folders.

We would argue that, outside of times of crisis, your open rates are actually measuring trust — not the quality of your content in a single newsletter, but the quality and consistency over time, combined with how people feel about your overall value as a brand. It’s probable that your ‘openers’ are largely the same each month, that your brand champions are going to come back no matter what you include in the newsletter.

The other thing that you’re looking for is readers’ attention. This is a comparatively simple concept, but a tough one to get right. It’s about how to reach people in a sea of other emails, at a time when the attention spans are at a record low and the number of things to worry about is at a record high.

Think about email success as a kind of virtual flag. Trust is a little like raising the flag up the pole: it requires strength and time, but once the flag has reached the top, it’s generally going to stay there unless something catastrophic occurs. Attention is more like the fabric’s motion: it changes with the slightest shift in the breeze.

Attention is what email marketers had to grapple with in March 2020 when audiences around the world, in all professions and industries, suddenly were consumed with learning about and worrying about a single topic: the global pandemic.

Disheartening as it was for many communicators, this moment provided an important lesson and a chance to reset. That gulf we talked about — the gap between your organisation’s work and its intended audience’s interest — is actually always there, it’s just not always visible through looking at metrics.

So, what is to be done about reader attention, in times of crisis and beyond? The work of meeting audiences where they are is what content strategists do every day — and you don’t have to have that title to know that it’s your job. Here are five ways that emailers (and all communicators) should think like a content strategist to solve the attention problem:

1. Understand the landscape.  You’re not communicating in a vacuum. To be an effective communicator — whether it’s through an email newsletter, social media, a blog, or any other platform — you have to follow current events. That’s a big job, and it can be stressful. But it’s key to your success. If you’re an email marketer, you have the added responsibility of understanding the technical and data aspects of the job, the same way a social media specialist needs to know how social platforms operate, how algorithms affect engagement, and so on. At the end of the day, you can’t communicate effectively without thinking about the context in which you and your readers operate so that you can adjust to on-the-ground realities.

2. Pivot towards your readers.  We know that your leaders have expectations about what you include in a newsletter. Don’t let that overshadow your readers’ expectations. If COVID is all people are talking about, think about ways to meet them there. Is the research you’re highlighting tangentially related to COVID in some way? Connect the dots through your summary of the work, employing COVID as a hook. Does the organisation have work from two years ago that’s suddenly relevant again? Use this as an opportunity to extend the lifecycle of older work. This is probably already happening on search engines, so you could look to see what’s suddenly popular again on your website and follow that intel.

An important caveat: Don’t force a connection where there is none, because that chips away at trust. Again, take a lesson from websites and search engines. If you jam irrelevant keywords into the metadata of your content to fool search engines into serving your content to more people, you’ll find that the search engines are onto you; they’ll actually penalise you over time for tricks like that. So will your newsletter readers.

3. Test.  If you don’t have a good sense of which way the wind is blowing, do what email marketers and content strategists have always done: test out different versions. Run a subject line A/B test, or try different content in the top position of the newsletter. Limit your efforts to measuring one thing per A/B test, so the results are clear — and make it a meaningful comparison. (So, don’t just change a single word in the subject line, make it substantively different so that you can reasonably guess at what moved the needle.) A/B testing is something that many smaller communications teams don’t make time for because of the number of demands on them. But it’s an important tool, both for understanding your audiences and for being able to communicate their needs to your leadership.

4. Coach the subject matter experts.  If you can’t identify relevant content for the newsletter, you may need to add the role of ‘coach’ to your job description and talk to the people who are creating your organisation’s content about how to be more aligned with your audiences. Is there a particular topic or author you’d like to include next month? Is there a way that a piece of content can be written better or titled more effectively? Build cross-team alignment and coaching into your process. Put it on meeting agendas. You may ruffle some feathers, but then again, you may find that this kind of expertise is exactly what your colleagues want from you.

5. Go straight to the source.  It’s easy to fall into a pattern of one-way communications, especially when it comes to broadcast email. In social media, two-way conversation is built in through the features of the platforms; you probably couldn’t avoid reader response if you tried. But in email marketing, we mostly don’t hear from the people on the other end, unless you’re the person sifting through the main inbox. If you want to know what people think of your work, ask them. This could take the form of an annual survey or a monthly poll (which has the added benefit of providing some interactivity), or you could identify a group of readers willing to talk to you personally. However you do it, don’t forget that listening is as important to your success as speaking.

Follow these content strategy practices and you’ll be able to help your organisation weather any storm.

What else do you do that’s not written in your job description?  Tell us on Twitter.

Elena is a content strategist at Soapbox. She is based in Washington DC.

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