Best Practices for Newsletters

I've had a personal newsletter since around 1999. I've found it to be the most effective means of communication the internet has yet to produce. It's portable, open, universal, and personal.

I was asked recently to compile a list of best practices for newsletters, and this is what immediately came to mind (many updates to come): 

  1. The best call to action is “reply.”
  2. Test everything. No audience is the same.
  3. Never let any test impede other best practices. To a certain extent, you shape your audience as much as they shape you. This is more true in editorial newsletters than e-commerce newsletters.
  4. Try not to publish when everyone else does. Tip: test Sundays.
  5. Personalize everything you create and be more honest than what’s comfortable. “People come for the topic and stay for the voice.” — Merlin Mann
  6. Realize what your goals are. If it’s sales, your approach will be different than editorial. But your purpose is the same across all newsletters: to build relationships with the readers.
  7. Optimize for the reader, not for your workflow.
  8. Spend time on the subject line. Nothing matters if it’s not opened. This doesn’t mean to be clever — many newsletters experience higher open rates by simply using the same boring subject line every time, because they have loyal readers who just want to know when their favorite newsletter has arrived. How do you know if this will work for you? Test.
  9. Always opt-in. Double opt-in. 1 active reader is worth 50 luke-warm readers and a million inactive readers.
  10. Readers recognize quality. The hours of work you put in will be noticed. A half-assed newsletter is also noticed. Reputation is the most valued currency in publishing now.
  11. You will never understand what goes viral. This is why you need to put content out consistently. Your readers will tell you what they like. Same goes for products. 
  12. Create and curate. There’s value in both. Information overload has created a need for editors that may be eclipsing the need for content creation. In fact, the most financially successful editorial newsletters are from content curators. And remember: no one cares about your goals, products, or services anywhere near as much as you think. Give them a reason to keep coming back that goes beyond you.
  13. Put your opt-in link everywhere. Put it front and center in your social media profiles, about pages, email signatures, and the front page of your website (as well as every other page on your website).
  14. Personally greet every new reader, if possible, to understand who they are and how they found you. Meet with as many as possible throughout their time as subscribers.
  15. Weed non-readers from popular email services if you’re editorial. Although some readers do open after long periods of time not opening, and make a difference to e-commerce newsletters, email hosts look at how much your newsletters are read, and you risk being seen as spam if you have too much unopened email. Plus, every inactive reader costs you money, so make them count. 
  16. Make unsubscribing easy. Remember, it’s relationships and reputation that matter most. Uphold these principles and unsubscribers may return. Don’t and they never will.
  17. If you want engagement, be engaging.
  18. Don’t over-design it, and don’t actually call it a “newsletter.”
  19. Be consistent. It builds trust and it’s the opposite of spam.
  20. Give way too much before you ask for anything.
  21. Study those who are getting it right, like Dave Pell, Brian Clark, Austin Kleon, Hugh MacLeod, and Jocelyn K. Glei. I subscribe to many more, but these appeal to a more general audience (sorry to friends I left out).