Tips for Building Clickworthy Newsletters

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Photo by Stephen Phillips – on Unsplash

Newsletters are a key avenue B2B journalists use to share information with their readers and advertisers. B2B journalists want to make sure these newsletters are getting opened and its links are clicked for success.

During ASBPE’s 2021 National Conference Weekly Topic Webinar series this May, Scott Costa, publisher at tED magazine, and Nicky Herron, online editor at tED magazine, offered attendees tips on how to generate compelling content for newsletters and write headlines that get clicks. Audience members had a lot of questions at the webinar, and some questions weren’t answered due to time.

“Nicky Herron and I had a great time during the ‘How To Build Clickworthy Newsletters,’ webinar on May 18, and we hope we were able to provide some best practices and strategies to help you with your efforts,” Costa says. “As we said during the webinar, we went from an admittedly really bad e-newsletter to an ASBPE award-worthy e-newsletter, but it took a few years, some really creative redesign and a strategy built on living our brand every day.”

Costa and Herron provide responses to some questions that were unanswered during the May 18 webinar in the Q&A that follows.

Q: If newsletter content is all generated for e-news, and not from the magazine, do you have staff exclusively writing for the newsletter, or are the same writers finding time to write print features and newsletter stories?

A: It’s a combination of both. We have three freelance writers who write mainly for our websites and e-newsletter but provide a few columns for the magazine. We have 10 to 15 freelance writers who exclusively work for the magazine and don’t do anything online. Our online writers need to be able to keep a strong source list (which we provide most of the time) and the ability to turn a story around for us very quickly because we might want it posted the next day.

For example, let’s say dozens of container ships are docked off the California coast and cannot be unloaded, and they happen to be carrying products that our readers sell; we would post that story immediately. Then we would turn to one of our feature writers to find out what our readers should tell their customers while everyone waits, what can be done to find replacement products and how long this backlog of container ships is expected to last. We would want to turn that for the next day in our e-newsletter.

For the magazine, which would come out weeks later, we might have that writer do something on what our readers should do to prepare for future situations when they can’t get the products they need, and what warning signs they should be looking for to make sure they are not repeat “victims.”

Q: Who are the people who supply your team with features? Are they freelancers?

A: It’s admittedly difficult to be an online feature writer. You have to be ready to turn stories for us very quickly. You have to be a little pushy with potential interviews because we don’t want to wait multiple days for online stories that are developing right now. We only use freelance writers. We do not take “sponsored” content, although we do accept story ideas that may include an interview with the company that provided the idea. But we only have three regular freelance writers for the website and e-newsletters.

Q: What issues do you run into with your readers as far as email programs blocking images or mangling the design?

A: When we rebuilt our e-newsletters a few years ago, we did it at a time when our momentum was really heading in a great direction. Our open rates were strong, and we were getting emails from subscribers saying they were not getting the newsletters for some reason. We had to use every tool we own to get the word out that our members needed to update their spam filters, including making phone calls and talking to IT employees about what needed to be done to “unblock us.” We feel very comfortable right now with our delivery rates and do not have any reports of slowdowns because we have an image for every story in the e-newsletter.

Q: Can you provide detail about paying the Associated Press to publish its news stories on your website?

A: We have a subscription to the Associated Press that we pay on a yearly basis. It is less than $4,500 a year to have access to any AP story, and $15 for every AP photo that we use. We have been using AP for a number of years and have no problems with the service. You can look into subscribing here. A lot of times they will give you a two-week trial to see if you will use enough content to make it a valuable subscription. 

Q: How do you “own” a story? What kind of planning is involved as a story is developing?

A: I can say that for years I have been able to recognize what I am good at and what aspects of my life are a lost cause. When I was in grade school and numbers turned into letters, I was done with math. I just threw in the towel and knew it wasn’t for me. But, every day, I can look at analytics to see what our most-read story was, and then take 10-15 minutes and come up with five to 10 more stories that we can do about that topic.

Someone told me a long time ago that I should look at a billboard and come up with five stories about that billboard. Since we have the analytics and know which stories most people clicked on our e-newsletters, we can take a few minutes every day to strategize. What questions would our readers ask about this topic? Who would they ask? They don’t have the time in their busy days or know how to contact those people to get those responses, but we can do it for them. When the analytics start to drift, we will know when it is time to move onto other topics.

We will stay on top of developing stories and talk about it every day in our planning meetings. There used to be an art to realizing when readers have had enough of one topic. Now we have analytics that we can trust to make that decision for us.

Q: Do you A/B test any aspects of your e-newsletters?

A: We test everything before it goes out. When Nicky Herron, the online editor, is done creating the daily newsletter, she sends it to me and our editorial assistant to go through, make sure all the links work, the headlines have some punch, the subheads don’t give the whole story away and it looks really pretty. Our goal is to have the e-newsletter to our subscribers by noon Central Time, because our analytics shows if it goes out any earlier or later, we will not get the maximum potential number of opens.

Q: How do you coordinate editorial coverage across your platforms?

A: If you can believe it, it’s actually worse than ever before. We just started doing 24 digital-only magazine issues a year last September. Since we aren’t printing and mailing, we can make last-minute changes to the editorial. I hope I am not making anyone’s brain explode by saying this, but we don’t have a cover story yet for our July magazine issues and beyond. I don’t know what events are going to take place (thank you pandemic), so I am not committing to anything right now.

… We meet as an online editorial team every day at 9:15 a.m. We want to know what is happening, what news we can expect and how we should prepare the newsletter. Things are going to change throughout the morning, but at least we have a base plan to move forward. We keep in contact throughout the day to make sure we are on top of any changes. We also find that “breaking news” gets a lot of attention, and we tell our readers when it is breaking that day. It’s another way to generate interest in the newsletters and punches up your subject lines. But don’t overuse it. Breaking news is for breaking news on major events only.

Q: You have impressive data on open rates. Why is it important to keep track of that information? How do you use that data?

A: First, I want to build some internal pride in what we do. We work really hard, and it has taken us a long time to get those open rates. When we crawl out of bed early in the morning, battle with the kids to get them going and grind out an 8-hour or more day at work, we need some satisfaction that the work we have done is being looked at by our readers. Having a 60% open rate reminds us that we are doing it right and that people outside of this office are recognizing our work.

Second, marketing departments from advertisers want to know your open rate. When we show them, they are usually on their back foot as they look for discounts on their ads. And, by the way, we don’t offer discounts in our online and e-newsletter ads, no matter how many you buy. A 60% open rate is like having 500 pairs of Air Jordans. I know I can sell every pair for $500, so why would I give you a discount if you want to buy two pairs? I believe I will sell all 500 and get the $250,000.

Equally important is our subscriber list. The biggest company CEOs, presidents, vice presidents, national and regional managers and salespeople all subscribe to the e-newsletters. When you combine the subscriber list with the open rate, we can show our success on two levels.

Q: What’s the best advise you have for ASBPE members looking to improve their newsletters?

A: Think like your readers every day. It is so easy to think about yourself and strategize about what you would like to read. Your readers might be completely different.

Break through the clutter of all the other news. Your readers only have minutes to consume all of the day’s news from all sources in the world. Then they have other tasks, and their news consumption time is gone. You spend your day gathering news and deciding what to send out. Your day is completely different from your readers’ days.

It sounds ridiculous, but your readers have phones that contain all the world’s knowledge. They can go to any website in any country and find any information they want in the palm of their one hand. Your job is to break through that ginormous mountain of news for just a few seconds in that small window of time when they can consume news and get their attention. How are you going to do that today?

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