Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Web Marketing Today. Practical Ecommerce acquired Web Marketing Today in 2012. In 2016, we merged the two sites, leaving Practical Ecommerce as the successor.
Writing a newsletter is one of the most difficult marketing stumbling blocks for a small business owner. You know it’s a task worth doing, but every week or month the email newsletter deadline rolls around and you think, “What I am going to say in the newsletter?”
The good news is that if you can carve out even 90 minutes, you can get that newsletter done. Here are six tips for helping you develop your newsletter.
1. Keep It Short
You have a lot less to write than you think. An email update does not need to go on forever. In fact, it shouldn’t. Your readers are busy. They don’t have the time to read a lot of text, even if it is interesting. By keeping your emails short, you train your readers to think of your newsletter as an easy commitment. If they know they can read it in less than five minutes, they are more likely to open it and read it regularly.
Consider this: According to the website usability firm Nielson Norman — of Jacob Neilson, the usability expert, “On the average web page, users have time to read at most 28 percent of the words during an average visit; 20 percent is more likely.”
Short is good.
2. 3 Content Pieces Are Enough
Having three pieces of content in your email updates are enough for a fine newsletter. Aim for one long article plus two shorter pieces. The long article can be about 500 words. The shorter pieces can be 150 to 200 words. That means your entire email can be just 900 words.
The average consumer reads about 200 words a minute. That 900-word goal means your subscribers can digest your newsletter in 4.5 minutes. That’s a low time commitment. If you deliver useful information, you may actually deliver on the promise that the email is worth their time.
By cutting length and paring down to three pieces of copy, you’ve made things a lot easier for your readers, and for yourself. One medium-length article and two shorter bytes should be easy to write for a newsletter.
But still, what are you going to write?
3. What Do They Want to Know?
Remember the website FAQ page? It’s basically a customer service page that is supposed to answer the most commonly asked questions.
The trouble is, in reality, most businesses’ FAQ pages aren’t very helpful. Most people never think to look at them. They just call customer service or your receptionist and ask the same questions, repeatedly. It would be helpful to reduce some of those frequently asked questions and it will make better use of your customer service representatives’ time.
Enter your email newsletter.
Newsletters are ideal opportunities to tell your customers things you wished they knew, or questions they want answered. So before you write any of your 900 words, head over to whoever answers the phone and have a chat.
Find out what confuses people. What needs to be explained to them? What part of your business do they need a brief lesson on? What could they be told that would make their experience with you better? After fifteen minutes of this conversation you will probably have at least five different topics that should be explained to your customers. You only needed three topics, so toss out the two most boring ones.
4. ‘Newsjack’ and Curate
If you didn’t trigger enough ideas talking to your customer contact, look to the news. Have you read anything interesting recently? Are there any news developments in your industry or big national news stories that you could tie into your business? Is there any interesting but not terribly important news that might make your readers smile? All that is excellent material for a newsletter.
Remember, you do not need to write professional-quality research articles. A relaxed, friendly piece in your own words is fine. Short book reviews are good. Tools, tricks, and apps you like are good too. You only need a few paragraphs of content.
If someone else has written an excellent article that you enjoyed, you can include a short part of it in your newsletter. Include a link back to the original article. This is not cheating provided you use only a short portion of it. It is sharing good information with your readers. You don’t even have to write it.
5. Outlines Are a Writer’s Best Friend
After your talk with the person who’s closest to your customers, and you scan through the week’s reading highlights, you should have plenty to write about. Pick the three easiest or most interesting items and dive in.
But some days the words won’t spill out on the page. That’s okay. You have a secret weapon: the outline.
Start your outline with a blank piece of paper. Put the big idea for the piece at the top. Make a list of ideas underneath. Leave space between those ideas, and if you think of sentences around them, write those sentences down.
By this point, you actually have most of your article written. All you have to do is fill in the blanks. In fact, you may even be able to have your article simply be a list. It won’t work for every subject, but it works often enough. People love lists. Lists get read. Do not feel like you’ve cheated if you include a list.
Carry index cards or a small notebook. When you have a 5-minute block of downtime, whip out one of those index cards. You can have a well-defined outline scribbled out in minutes.
6. Get Feedback
You’ve got your three pieces, but you’re not done yet. Bring your three articles to someone savvy and have her take a look. It’s best to have your articles reviewed when they are already laid out in your email template, complete with active links.
Ask this person to spend 15 minutes reading the email and clicking the links. Ideally, you will also trust her enough to make light copy editing changes, and maybe to adjust a headline to make it better.
If your time is tight, it might be tempting to skip this step. You may not want to interrupt your ad hoc proofreader from her primary task.
Interrupt her anyway.
Sending an email with a typo in it is really painful. It looks unprofessional. But even that does not cover the agony you’ll feel when you realize you’ve botched it. Spend the extra time and have someone — anyone — look at your email before it goes out, even if you don’t see any errors.