Todd Smart has strong views on e-mail newsletters. As well he might, for his company, BeTuitive Marketing, specializes in helping clients build relationships through e-newsletters and blogs. We recently sat down with Todd, the founder and president, to ask him his views on the art and science of e-zine publishing. Here’s what he had to say:
E-Zine IQ: What are the ingredients to a successful newsletter?
Smart: Content that has a tangible value is the most important ingredient. When you provide valuable, timely and relevant content for free that readers would normally pay for, newsletters can be used as a relationship-building tool for your business.
E-Zine IQ: But how do you gauge relevance for a third party?
Smart: You must understand what prospects and customers think is valuable. A lot of companies look inward instead of outward, and the newsletter becomes all about them. When we’re working for a customer that hires us to develop their newsletter, we ask what kind of information will make their customers’ and prospects’ lives better. We want to know what difficulties they experience, so we can alleviate them. Ultimately, we’re looking for the answer to this question: What kind of information is so valuable to your subscribers that they would pay for it? Now, I’m not asking that they do pay for it. But the discovery process of formulating a newsletter and putting together relevant content depends on where the reader places importance.
E-Zine IQ: How about the development of a content strategy to serve the company?
Smart: It’s important to have a background understanding of what the company feels its growth opportunities are. Knowing the three hot service offerings and two top products that will drive the company’s business for the next 30 months allows us to develop, weave and disperse relevant, timely and valuable information that will meet company objectives.
E-Zine IQ: How important is tracking?
Smart: What people read is a leading indicator for future purchasing. Let’s say a client wants to gauge interest in Product B. So we shape the content in such a way that the newsletter headlines focus on Product B, and we use ExactTarget to track the click-throughs to those headlines. Often times, we hear clients say that they see their customer base is much more interested in Product B than they ever thought. Tracking click-throughs—and providing that information to your sales team—helps sales identify the leads that are most interested in the product. It doesn’t close deals, but in B-to-B, it can be a fantastic indicator of future purchasing–so sales can focus energy on appropriate products. When a customer leverages the click through analyses we provide, we feel tracking can provide up to 40 percent of the value of doing a B-to-B electronic newsletter. If you’re not paying attention to your results, you’re not seeing the same value as someone who has created a strategy for acting on the tracking analysis we provide. By leveraging that information, you can see a significant increase in the value provided by your newsletter.
E-Zine IQ: How important is design?
Smart: Design is incredibly important. When I first got into the business, I thought it might be 20% or maybe 30% of a newsletter value’s, but now I think it’s closer to 50%. Design draws people in—that is, if the design is functional, and not just a pretty picture.
E-Zine IQ: What do you advise?
Smart: Many people use the auto preview pane in the viewing window to strategize. They look at that space, approximately the top 275 pixels, to determine if it will capture reader attention. That strategy works. It’s like the space above the fold in a newspaper; that area generates interest and draws readers in, letting them know what they will get in exchange for their time in reading. On the flip side, I see some companies using the entire auto-preview space for a masthead and banner, with nothing that communicates the value a reader will get from opening the e-mail. It’s important to differentiate your communication from other communications. For example, our newsletter has five balls that increase in size as part of the masthead. Each month we customize that piece depending on the season. The balls are consistent with our branding, but we tweak the design monthly, to stand out and be different.
E-Zine IQ: What about text vs. HTML?
Smart: We test text vs. HTML. Text, written in a conversational tone, will often get a very good response. But you lose the branding impact, so there is a give and take with that. As people work their way through their in boxes, they try to determine if the mail is personal or commercial. When someone sends plain text, it looks like a personal e-mail and engages the reader for two or three sentences while they ascertain the nature of the correspondence. If the e-mail is in HTML and the reader is in a hurry, they may put it off till after hours. With HTML, it’s one extreme or the other. If your subscriber is interested in your communication, HTML works well, but we do recommend that you mix that with periodic text e-mail to be most effective. The e-mail we create with ExactTarget’s software allows us to fully utilize both text and HTML formats, since some users have restrictions on what they can receive.
E-Zine IQ: What do you see in the future for e-mail newsletters?
Smart: As we increasingly get inundated with information, only newsletters that have relevance and value will rise to the top of the heap that readers sift through. And I think if you look at newspaper, radio and TV, it’s not hard to say that newsletters will move in a more visual and interactive direction. Newsletters that are put out as an afterthought, without a significant amount of strategizing, will have a miserable outcome, and those will disappear. As with all quality marketing, newsletters will have to continue to provide more value to readers.