5 Questions to Ask Before Starting a Newsletter

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Content Marketing

Thinking about a B2B newsletter launch? That’s great, but it raises a lot of questions. Usually, the first one to come up is whether this could a profitable project, or will it end up just being a time sink? Will it give you a fresh channel to communicate with your audience, or will you just alienate them with what they perceive as spam?

Making a move into any new content marketing channel is a big commitment. It deserves some deep thought. The good news is that many have gone before you – there are plenty of B2B newsletters around. This isn’t like jumping into a brand new social media platform.

In some ways, that predictability is almost a drawback with B2B newsletters. Let’s face it – they’ve got a rep for being boring, and many deserve it. But despite that rumor, most of the B2Bers who publish a newsletter have good things to say about them. As you can see in the CMI/MarketingProfs charts below, 81% of B2Bers currently have a newsletter already. 60% of them say they’re effective.

A 60% success rate may not be wild success, but newsletters are ranked higher than even blogs or infographics in terms of their effectiveness. That suggests they’re worth a try.

Before you try them, though, it’s worthwhile to ask yourself some hard questions. While newsletters can work, they also require quite a few resources to get them right. You’ll need the content, the design, and the marketing, of course. Then there are deliverability issues, getting subscribers, and proving at least some results. And it’s not like you don’t have other things to do.

To help you move forward with confidence – or to backburner this until you’re ready – consider these five questions. Answering them now could set you up for better results later on.

1. Are you willing to go light on the sales pitches?

Let’s start with the hardest issue: Publishing what you want to talk about versus publishing what your audience is actually interested in.

This is the core conflict of content marketing – and the secret for how to not be boring. If you want people to care about your newsletter, it’s going to have to be interesting and useful to them. That means you can’t oversell. You can’t squeeze much more than 10%–20% of promotional and sales content into your newsletter without it getting boring.

Email newsletters, as you know, are a form of content marketing – not a form of advertising. And while B2B newsletters can include mentions of sales and promotions, never do the hard sell. Avoid even the soft sell, as much as you can.

I realize it’s hard to balance this advice with the need to get results. But using your email newsletter like an advertising channel isn’t going to work. Most people (unless they’re in advertising) don’t voluntarily seek out advertising. They don’t want to read about press releases, product launches, or employee promotions – unless it benefits them.

But content that helps them do their jobs, and makes them look smart if they share it? They’ll read that.

So make your newsletter like that. Leave the advertising and promotion for the trade magazines, where someone might actually look for it.

2. What content are you going to put into this newsletter?

Now that you understand how little space you’ll get for company promotional content, what else do you have to publish?

How much educational content can you produce? How easy or hard that is depends on your industry and your niche. There may be only so many things that can be said about phone systems, or printer cartridges, or corporate taxes – at least things people really want to read.

Fortunately, there are ways around this.

  • Keep your newsletters short
    Newsletters are not magazines. They don’t need ten pieces of content to be effective. Better to have just one piece of content that’s really well done, interesting and useful than five content pieces that make even us marketers say “ho hum.”
  • Use content from your social media channels
    It is absolutely fair play to include your social media activity in your emails. The two channels should be friends.
  • Curate here and there
    “Content curation” means sharing third party content with your audience. But don’t just grab a few articles to fill space. Well-curated content includes your commentary, too. And the content your share must be exceptional – as Morra Aarons-Mele writes in The Harvard Business Review, “Most of us don’t want more content – we want less, but better.” That’s what curation offers. And it can make up as much as 30% of your newsletter content. It’ll even get you leads.

Of course, all of this content should go into a mobile-friendly email design. It should be in different formats, too – a little video, audio, and visual content always adds some interest.

Consider adding exclusive content, too. That gives your readers a real incentive to sign up in the first place. Here’s how The Content Marketing Institute adds their exclusive content. Once a week they publish a short (not this short – the image has been cropped to fit this screen) essay about their industry that’s not available anywhere else.

3. How often are you going to send it?

Just the simple matter of frequency can have massive consequences that affect what results you’ll get, and how much work it takes to get those results.

If you’re launching a newsletter, I would warn you off daily emails. First, they’re a huge time commitment. Second, it takes a really great newsletter to have daily frequency and not wear out the subscribers.

So what’s ideal? Once a week is reasonably safe. One a month is okay, too … but you might risk being forgotten by your subscribers. Once a month emails are infrequent enough that they often just get ignored (unless your content is so good that people notice and are happy when the newsletter arrives).

Test frequency

But really the best way … is two ways: to test, and to give people options.

Testing your emails’ frequency is going to take time. To do it, marketers typically split their list randomly into two groups, then mail to one group with Frequency A (let’s call it once a week), and to the other group at Frequency B (say, every two weeks). They’ll continue with that for at least a month, possibly two months.

Then they’ll compare the results. You get the best answers if you look beyond metrics like opens. You might even look beyond click-through rate, perhaps to how much businesses was generated from the two lists over that time, or how the overall engagement levels of each of the two groups compared.

The other approach is to just let people choose. You can do this by sending an email asking people to pick their preferred frequency, or you can offer them choices right as they opt in. You can also start asking them in every email you send. Usually this is done somewhere in the footer, like Buffer has done below:

4. To segment or not to segment?

“Segmenting a newsletter” means you’ll have two or more versions of it. This has some major benefits, including that you’ll be able to deliver more relevant content to your subscribers. That usually results in higher engagement rates, and most likely, higher sales.

It also means more work. Almost double the work, at least for the email production people. I once watched an executive decide to publish six versions of a newsletter, then be disappointed when their staff no longer had time for other projects. Granted, those six email versions did get more clicks – and sales – but the lift wasn’t worth all the additional work.

Of course, with the right automation system it is possible to create dynamic content in email newsletters. It works roughly like this:

  • When a piece of content is created, it gets tagged with whichever audience or topic it’s suited to
  • Then when the weekly email is being set up, the email’s producer gets to pick from a list of fresh content for each version of the newsletter
  • In the most sophisticated systems, she’ll even be able to see which pieces of content have performed best in terms of shares or leads

That’s a great tool if you’ve got it … but most small businesses don’t. They’re reliant on an already-busy marketer to assemble the newsletter each week.

Now, despite all the warnings I just gave you about this, segmenting can definitely be worthwhile. Especially if you keep it simple. At launch, commit to no more than two versions of the same newsletter. Maybe one for prospects and one for clients. Or if your business has two distinct audiences, create newsletters for them. Like buyers and sellers for a commercial real estate business. Or employers and workers for a staffing agency.

If there is no clear benefit to creating two versions of your newsletter, don’t do it.

5. How will you measure success?

This is one of those questions that has no right answer. I think most of us would love to just say “we measure success from direct sales.” But it’s rarely that easy. Which is why most companies don’t measure the success of their newsletters that way. Instead, they’ll spread the success factors around.

Top-level metrics might include:

  • Open rates
  • Click-through rates
  • How many new subscribers they get each month
  • Direct sales from the limited promotional content they put into the newsletters

That’s a fine start, but usually marketers will want to dig a little deeper into measurements like:

  • Net new growth (the number of new subscribers minus how many people opted out)
  • List growth rate (the number of net new subscribers divided by the number of subscribers at the beginning of the measurement period, expressed as a percentage)
  • Leads generated (how many people click-through on an email link, but then ended up downloading a content asset, or used a calculator or other interactive tool)
  • The value of the leads generated
  • The close rate of the leads generated

If you’ve got a sophisticated CRM in place, you’ll be able to track each individual prospect’s path through your emails, through their downloads and ultimately through their interaction with sales. This can be extremely powerful information, but don’t use it to a point that things get creepy or invasive. Some of us don’t like to be harassed with five emails and three phone calls just because we downloaded an eBook.

Remember that all these measurements have two fundamental discovery goals:

If a metric doesn’t answer either of those questions, or can’t be part of the answer for those questions, it may not be worth tracking.

If you are segmenting your list, consider tracking each segment separately.

Key takeaways

Many marketers get good results from their B2B newsletters – but not all of them. How you answer these five questions will tell you a lot about which camp you’ll end up in (the marketers with the effective newsletters, or the marketers with a problem):

  • Are you willing to go light on the sales pitches?
  • What content are you going to put into this newsletter?
  • How often are you going to send it?
  • Will you segment your list?
  • How will you measure success?

Back to you

What do you think of your company’s newsletter? Which questions do you wish you asked yourself before you launched it? Leave a comment to tell us what you think.

Ready to start testing segmentation for your newsletters but you don’t know where to start? Download Act-On’s eBook, How to Prioritize Your Leads by Segmenting & Scoring Your Audience, to learn the three layers of segmentation and best practices for lead scoring.