Newsletter can be a fantastic way to increase visitor retention and bring back old users while providing you with an additional revenue and contact channel. However, while many sites offer newsletters, few take full advantage of the potential of this communication method and many fall flat out their feet failing to deliver a meaningful communication on time… or at all.

Part I of this article takes a look at what is required to put together a functional, useful newsletter. This means covering the basics, establishing a send date, determining what content to include and producing something that, while by no means elegant, gets the point across and drives in traffic.

Content: We often leave content to the last moment, assuming that a quickly written article or a few paragraphs about what’s happening with the site will suffice so long as the format looks good and the message is delivered. However, if your focus is on building a truly successful and long running newsletter, content has to come first. Content is what people read your newsletter for and what keeps them reading. Really well done newsletters are something you look forward to seeing, not merely glanced at before hitting delete the delete key.

Newsletter content generally takes one of two paths. You have newsletters that are all about the site they are promoting with facts, updates on new features, member highlights and you have truly informative newsletters with subject oriented content. Which you chose to develop really depends on your goal – newsletters that focus on the site tend to have lower read rates but work to really promote the community. Those with more informative content are read more but require more effort to put together. An ideal solution may be to combine both, offering mostly informative content but with a section devoted to site statistics and news.

Creating content for your newsletter, especially informative and relevant content, can be a time consuming process. By leveraging your popular discussion topics and pertinent topics you can speed up the copywriting process. Short articles, helpful tips and common reminders often serve as great content pieces. In busy months supplementing articles with forum events can work to help you meet your deadline.

Case Example: When ScubaBoard.Com first started sending regular newsletters the focus was on site updates and events with a few highlighted threads but little to no direct content. After measuring open rates it became apparent that these newsletters had little draw and were rarely forwarded to friends or even clicked on (low CTR). Rather than dropping the newsletter concept a change was made to include a paragraph or two on a relevant, seasonal, topic such as summer travel, safety tips and so forth. After sending a few newsletters with this format open rates have increased for both new and repeat users but perhaps more interesting, more newsletters are forwarded on to others and opt out rates have dropped. A further example of the power of content based newsletter came a few months ago when ScubaBoard delayed sending a monthly newsletter by a few days to help promote a new contest. During this period the staff received several inquires from users who were concerned that they had not received their copy of the newsletter. This response implies that shifting from self promotional messages to more niche focused content has resulted in almost immediate increased newsletter loyalty, in fact the newsletter is now a feature of the site rather than just an addon.

Content and readership is important to any newsletter but ultimately as a marketer, you are probably equally interesting on leveraging the newsletter to bring traffic back to your website. In the case of community sites, revenue is often a result of eyeballs and clicks this conversion becomes even more important. Accomplishing this is really a matter of properly teasing users and since newsletters are by definition rather short, with one or two paragraph articles, this can done by leading your content into longer articles, forums or other features of your site. This works exceptionally well if you are using seasonal or popular discussion topics as the basis for content. The goal of your content should be to give readers just enough information to entice them to click to the site to read more without cannibalizing the newsletter and turning it into a list of links. The popular marketing site,, does a fantastic job of summarizing new articles and linking users back to their site while providing enough content for readers to see the newsletter as valuable its self.

Another fantastic way to utilize newsletter for bringing traffic is through the use of interactivity, contests and cross-promotions. Users, especially community users, like to interact, be it via a discussion, a poll or practically any other feature. By offering users a chance to do more than passively read you increase the likelihood that they will make it back to your site. Promotions and contests take this to an even greater level by allowing readers to take advantage of some sort of special opportunity. For community sites promotions normally mean partnering up with another site to offer a special discount on a product, a free event or something else of value to a reader. Contests allow you the opportunity to collect valuable feedback and demographics while drawing even more users with the promise of something for free.

Many times community owners avoid contests and promotions fearing that it will cost them more than it will make (negative ROI) but this should rarely be the case. Companies spend millions of dollars to market to the same users who frequent your site so chances are there is at least one organization that is willing to give you a free product in exchange for promotion and possibly marketing leads. This even applies to small sites and although the prizes will generally be smaller, the effect is still the same. By offering special deals or giveaways on a periodic basis you can form solid relationships with potential advertisers and also make a major stride in user loyalty as users will start to know your site for giving them these opportunities, and everyone loves a deal.

With your content in hand the next step in preparing your newsletter is formatting it. The debate between html formatted and text formatted emails seems to be intensifying as SPAM filters become more sophisticated and stricter by default. HTML proponents claim that most people still receive their messages and that the HTML format allows for far more interesting content thus better click through and open rates. Text advocates claim that HTML is difficult to get past SPAM filters and often does not appear properly, they advocate for sticking to plain text to insure delivery and ease of use. There is of course multi-part messages which are both text and HTML, this is generally a better solution than HTML alone but because the code remains in the message, the same problems may arise with SPAM filters. Whichever format you chose it is important to realize that email clients are much different than browsers. Most clients tend to have smaller display windows than a standard browser, they may require images to be downloaded manually for html emails and they almost always display formatting differently than a standard browser. There are also implications on delivery rates and spam law compliance which is explained in part III of this article series.

Regardless of your delivery type, try to keep your newsletter looking the same month to month to insure proper branding and recognition. Also focus on keeping the format simple as it will allow more email clients to properly display the message. In HTML messages include your normal logo and navigation links to let users get back to your site. In text versions, end with a footer containing popular links to provide navigation to those who want it. If possible take elements directly from your site to hold the brand – users don’t often associate email with the site it originates from which can negatively impact read and even opt-out rates.

How often you send your newsletter is almost always a matter of how much you have to say. Studies show that emailing users between 12 and 22 times is optimal for insuring high open rates and low op-out rates. In the case of a newsletter sending monthly is generally the standard but frequency can be increased or decreased based on content availability and demand. Some publishers chose not to obey a campaign calendar opting instead to send mailings only when they feel they have enough relevant information to share. Others feel that they have so much content to send that a bi-weekly or weekly newsletter is required; this especially applies to sites with large lists and in-house editorial staff. However, unless you have a compelling reason to send your newsletter on a different schedule, the start of each is generally ideal.

Actually sending your newsletter is the final step in getting something working out the door. How you send is dependant on how sophisticated your newsletter is and how big your list is. Most forum programs have internal email features which are generally limited to sending text versions. The advantage of these systems is of course the ease of integration and accessibility but they come at the cost of power, flexibility and features. Another option for sending is to install a more robust newsletter or email management script which supports HTML formatting, multiple versions and hopefully some level of email queues for larger lists, this of course will still require you to send the messages via your servers which pts you at risk if your host is not email friendly.

If sending in house doesn’t provide you with the features or power you want, consider using an external vendor. Vendors come with the highest cost (usually 6-10 cents per message) but they take the burden of software mishaps and some SPAM concerns off your hands. There are a whole range of vendors to chose from but in general you will want one who can import your list on a one-off or recurring basis and who has an internal opt-out (or even better, double-opt-in) compliance system to help alleviate SPAM risks. From there the sky is the limit with vendors providing entire hosts of tools from advanced reporting to integrated segmentation abilities, time delayed messages and far more, although most of those features are probably not of much concern for a monthly newsletter.

By putting together an interesting message with clear site links in a format that people recognize you have accomplished your basic goal of delivering a working, useful newsletter. Of course this is only the basics of any newsletter but if your intent is just to get something working published, you’re probably already done. If however you want to further optimize, to measure impact and tweak delivery and open rates then look for Parts II and III of this article series... coming soon.