Framework for building an email newsletter

Once or twice a month I write up a framework that entrepreneurs or startups can easily re-work to fit their own needs. Last month I talked with a couple of startup founders and a small business owner about email newsletters, below is the framework that came out of it. This and other frameworks are available in a public google doc, and can be used / edited for your own purposes without any restrictions.

People and businesses send crappy emails all the time. We tolerate it because there is some value being exchanged or because we have some type of relationship with them, but ultimately if you don’t respect your audiences’ time and attention they’ll unsubscribe the second they think they can get that value elsewhere or if they just get annoyed enough.

Seth Godin wrote something related to that back in 2011 (links here and here) calling it the “attention economy.” With technology increasing the things that demand our time, it’s an idea that will probably continue to grow in importance. 

The most important thing to keep in mind with email marketing / newsletters is that while they are usually labeled as owned properties, they are also earned via the trust of your audience.

If you’re not familiar with those terms or you’ve heard them but can’t remember, here’s the basic rundown:

  • Paid - it’s what it sounds like, you pay someone money to promote your content and/or link. Includes things like TV spots, print ads, banner / display ads, paid search, promoted posts / content on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

  • Earned - originally this just referred to when a newspaper or TV / radio station wrote a story about your company or product, but now it’s expanded to include online reviews, blogger coverage, likes / retweets, comments, shares, etc. Sometimes you’ll hear the phrase “organic” or “organic reach” used in regards to SEO, content marketing, and social networks. In reality every social platform or search engine will eventually start limiting what your followers, fans, or audience is going to see, and then force you to pay to reach them. This is problematic for large brands, but a much bigger hardship for small business owners and early stage startups.

  • Owned - this is where emails fit in, “owned” just means you own the means of distributing content directly to people. It can be a blog, website, online or physical store, app, or publication that you run. You can use any of these to reach people at any time.

Email is probably your strongest owned channel, but using it consistently and respectfully is important. Here’s a basic framework you can use / edit as you see fit that will help you do that.

Platform

There’s a lot out there already on how to select an email provider, so I’ll just point to a couple of good overviews + offer some quick thoughts.

How to Get Your Email Newsletter Off The Ground (The Next Web)

How to Create an Email Newsletter People Actually Read (Hubspot Blog)

Whatever platform you select, it should make it easy to:

  • Test / measure - even small things like typos or weird displays of a character or image will throw your audience off. Look for an email service that makes it easy to quickly test your emails, you may need to send them to yourself multiple times and look at them on multiple devices. It’s also good to be able to access open rates, click-thrus, etc. though for reasons I’ll mention later these are better for setting baselines than telling you in an absolute way whether your emails are working.

  • Optimize for both mobile devices and desktop - your email provider should automatically convert content to smoothly display across a variety of devices and make it easy to simulate what your audience will see (Mailchimp does this well, and you can test it for free). There’s broad evidence (and I have specific product / company experience that verifies) people spend more than half of their time on mobile, but they often do deeper research on desktop.

  • Get new subscribers - a good, simple button on your website, blog etc. that says something like “join 486 entrepreneurs learning about how to build a business from scratch” goes a long way. Testimonials, data, etc. that show you are already reaching and providing value to people is what’s called “social proof.”

  • Personalize messages - this includes things like adding <<First Name> parameters to your email so that when someone signs up and gives you their name you’ll be able to start emails with their name e.g. “Hey Laura.”

It also includes being able to segment lists based on actions people take with your emails, demographics, etc. At the beginning this won’t be as important, but if you do offer a product or service in your emails being able to sub-segment people who’ve clicked through to learn more is an example of how you might be able to later personalize content e.g. “Hey Laura, thought you might be interested in [service you offer / product you sell]” with some assurance that it might be useful to them.

Content

Obviously you can setup a platform correctly and still screw up relating to your audience. Mostly, people do this by sending awful emails. There’s a key question that can help you avoid this:

How can I provide some value and / or inspiration to people on a regular basis that leads to them reaching out to me when they need information on or want to purchase the product or service that I provide?

If you already have customers or even a handful of people that are your target customer (or audience) you can also use Google Forms or SurveyMonkey to ask them directly what would be useful.

Once you answer this question (and you should regularly revisit it) it’s a good idea to create a template for your ideal newsletter, edit it, and then have your target customers and/or advisers or mentors review it.

Here’s a general structure I put together for a couple of friends who just started their businesses (one is a chiropractor, one does healing / spiritual work), but yours may vary depending on the research you do.

  • Inspire - share a personal story, a moment that stuck out to you recently, or something you’ve learned in your career about healing / taking care of one’s body.

  • Reading list / links and resources - provide something valuable, share what intrigues you, and /or  some ways people can optimize their own health or become more aware of what their body needs.

  • Info on your services / special offers - if you connect to people on those first two items, that’s when they’ll be willing to consider doing business

  • Referrals - this should come once you’ve established your newsletter, and you may want to consider sending a slightly different version to sub-segment of your list that you know have purchased your product / service already.

Note: I actually consider referrals to be one of the strongest metrics for your business. We’ll say we like something when we don’t or buy from people we don’t always feel good about, but we’ll almost never recommend a product or service to someone we know that we don’t believe in.

Hubspot (email marketing software) also did a good writeup with some examples of email newsletters that are doing a good job of these sorts of things.

Tone, Timing, and Consistency

It’s partially addressed in the previous section, but tone is something you should also think about. The editorial “voice” of your emails matters a lot, and while it usually takes on a combination of the company’s overall mission and the personality of whoever’s writing it, you may want to put some time into developing a quick editorial guide / framework.

Consistency is also critical - pick a day / week / month and stick to it. The reason for this is that we unconsioucly pay attention to how consistent people are, and brands and businesses are held to an even higher standard. It also helps to think of how we intake information, the 1st or 2nd time might not always stick with us, but if we build a relationship with someone and remember them, the 3rd or 4th could be a tipping point.

Along those lines, you’ll want to think about things like what else someone is receiving, what you’re asking them to do, what the timeframe is. An e-commerce business where you run a 48 hour sale is a lot different than building an online content platform where people share and read things in a different manner.