It’s 2014. With all the ways we have to communicate with our clients and customers, do we still need to send out regular email newsletters? Some small business owners weigh in.
The Pros Say Yes…
When we put out the call and asked small business owners whether an email newsletter still has a place in the marketing mix, we were overwhelmed with the response. Almost everyone gave a loud and enthusiastic YES, especially those who work in some aspect of marketing, like Liam McCarthy.
McCarthy is a member of the team at Wow Internet, a digital marketing company based in the UK, and he thinks email newsletters make sense for just about all businesses. “I think that a newsletter can certainly be a viable option for all businesses, regardless of size.” He says the beauty of the email newsletter is that it brings a consistent readership back to your site.
That said, McCarthy acknowledges that it’s important to keep some points in mind when developing an email newsletter, one of the most important being how well the newsletter displays on mobile devices. “If it is unreadable on mobile, that could lead to a huge drop in subscribers. A plain-text newsletter without images can prove to be the most beneficial when it comes to click-through rate,” McCarthy says.
David Fischer is from Solutions for Growth, a marketing company for small businesses. One of the company’s specialties is developing email newsletters for clients. He says, “Newsletters are an ideal tool to stay top-of-mind and remind people of your business. Out of sight, out of mind applies, because if you don’t remind people of your business, they forget about you.”
He, too, believes email newsletters can work for most—if not all—businesses. “There is no business that can’t benefit from it,” he says. “We serve clients from dentists to tattoo parlors to oilfield equipment to bakeries and everything in between.”
Fischer points out that great email newsletters don’t just happen, however. Fischer says, “Email marketing is easy to do, but hard to do well. Make sure you follow best practices so that the campaigns are effective.” Those best practices include creating compelling content—and understanding the goal of your content (e.g. to educate or to drive sales) and planning your content with an editorial calendar.
Small Business Owners Say Yes, Too.
It might seem easy (and perhaps a bit biased) for marketing firms to say that email newsletters are a must-have item, but what do other small business owners have to say? Based on the feedback we received, they are in agreement with the pros.
Katie Schwartz, owner of Business Speech Improvement, echoes Fischer’s “top-of-mind” comment above. She says, “The newsletter goes out every week. Right now, I use Constant Contact to send it out. The ROI on it is not easily measured, as people may receive it for a long time before they contact me, or they may forward it to someone else who then contacts me. I still send it out, though, because it’s a good way to get the name of my business in front of people who matter.”
Ron Holt is CEO & founder of Two Maids & A Mop, which provides residential cleaning services in thirteen markets across five US states. Last year, Inc. Magazine recognized the company as the fastest growing cleaning business in the nation, and Holt believes his weekly email newsletter is a big reason why.
Holt credits a healthy-sized and constantly growing opt-in list for some of the success. “We currently distribute the newsletter to approximately 15,000 people. Believe it or not, every single one of our subscribers voluntarily subscribe to the newsletter. We offer a free, live quote service on our websites and potential customers have the option to join the newsletter while asking for a free quote. Getting new subscribers has never been very difficult because we promise to offer one free house cleaning every week to one lucky customer. Everyone wants a free house cleaning so we’re certain that this free service offering is the primary reason for the growth of the subscriber base.”
Of course, a healthy list is only part of the formula for success, which brings us to content.
Creative Content Rules to Roost
And by content, we’re talking more than simply what’s in the newsletter itself. We’re also talking about the almighty subject line, which most people—email gurus and business owners alike—agree can make or break a campaign.
A variety of tools and methods exist that allow you to test subject lines. Some email vendors provide tools baked right into their software. You can also conduct split tests and try out different subject lines on a small segment of your list. You’d use the “winning” subject line for wider distribution.
Katie Schwartz, mentioned above, says it’s worth the effort to test out your subject lines. “My open rate also increased when I tested my subject lines at SubjectLine.com, so I could find out which ones would be more effective, and why.”
Even if you win people over with a strong subject line, your core content still needs to deliver on whatever that subject line promised. So what’s the best type of content to send out? Here’s where business owners’ experiences diverged, based on the stories they shared with us. This is good news, actually. You might think there’s only one “magic formula” for awesome content, but the truth is there are many magic formulas…you need to find the right one that works for your audience.
For Ron Holt and Two Maids & A Mop, the more personal content, the better. Vacation photos, family photos, and slice-of-life vignettes are all items he shares in the newsletter along with more “traditional” content, such as cleaning tips.
Holt says, “The purpose is to humanize the business and it works…It’s an email version of Facebook basically. But it works because we actually have people cheering for our business’ success. We’re human and not a greedy corporation.”
Shaun Eli is a stand-up comedian who has been building a subscriber list since he started performing over 10 years ago. He uses his email newsletter as a way to share his material and increase his exposure.
He says, “Every month I send out a few jokes that I wrote that late-night TV didn’t buy.” The email is usually 5-15 jokes, and he’s quick to note that, “this is original comedy, not the hacky old stuff people usually email each other.” He also intersperses stories from the world of stand-up along with a clickable link to his schedule page and occasionally something about a new show he’s doing. But he says he tries not to make it too promotional. “I want the newsletter to be fun, not a big sales pitch.”
As for the results? Eli says, “I do get people hiring me because they get the newsletter. It’s a couple of hours a week to a few thousand people, and I plan to keep doing it. I haven’t calculated ROI because I’m probably working at it for minimum wage, but sometimes it’s not all about money.”
The focus of the content described above is less about the business or business person. In other words, it’s not self-serving and overly promotional. When talking to content marketers, that’s the advice you’ll typically get. “Follow the 80/20 rule,” they’ll say, which advises content creators to make 80 percent of the content about the reader and her needs and 20 percent about the company. But it’s important to note that this is only a guideline, not a hard and fast rule.
Joann Marks discovered this for herself. She’s the founder and CEO of Cosmetic Promotions Inc., which provides promotional marketing for the beauty industry. Clients include Rite Aid, CVS, and Walgreens as well as manufacturers such as P&G, Coty, and Revlon.
Marks says she followed the conventional wisdom and sent emails with articles that could be helpful to the client instead of sending promotional emails. “We spent an enormous amount of time on these helpful articles (how to improve sales, how to cut expenses, how to make your marketing dollars go further, top 5 tips, etc.) and sent them out about six times a year. We also posted the articles on our blog. The response was not great. We were able to improve our open rate by changing the subject line and sending it to the non-opens two more times. But still, I don’t think one email got us more business.”
That changed, however, when Marks shifted the focus of the email content. She explains, “This year we switched to a monthly self-serving format that features three short sections highlighting a service of ours. [It's] very clean, very easy to read with links for more information. This has been much more successful for us.” She says one recent email resulted in a $25,000 job only minutes after the email went out.
Marks emphasizes the fact that her clients are not consumers, but rather manufacturers or retailers who use her company’s services to promote their brands. It makes sense, then, that her audience responds better to “just the fact” content instead of warm and fuzzy articles.
All of this goes to show that creating compelling content involves understanding your audience and its needs. Develop your buyer personas first and your content second, and don’t be afraid to test different types of content to see which ones get the most traction with your audience. Consider trying case studies, before and after stories, behind the scenes, useful tips people can use right now, exclusive offers, “just the facts” emails, and contests. Varying your content tends to be a smart strategy unless your audience demands/expects a specific type. Again, it comes down to your audience and your goals.
Still Skeptical? That’s OK. Let Analytics Guide You.
Even though you may hear (from this article and elsewhere) that an email newsletter is “where it’s at” for small businesses, that doesn’t mean every small business owner on earth agrees…or that it’s the right strategy for EVERY business on the planet.
If you’re one of those businesses on the fence, let something more scientific—like strong analytics—guide you. That’s what Peter Keller, founder of FringeSport did. Started three years ago, FringeSport manufactures and sells strength and conditioning equipment via ecommerce and a bricks-and-clicks approach in its non-traditional retail outlets in Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio.
Keller explains his initial reluctance to issuing an email newsletter…and what happened once he made the decision to try it. “We had been somewhat ambivalent about sending out email newsletters. I personally didn’t like receiving them, and I was worried about the perception of spamming our customers. But some of my entrepreneur friends told me I was crazy and that email marketing is a huge component of their businesses. So, we made sure that our analytics were dialed in on the newsletters and we began sending them on a regular basis. With mainly natural growth off our existing list (i.e., few attempts to build the list beyond collecting ‘opt-outs’ at checkout), we drove more than $50k in incremental revenue in the second half of 2013 alone.”
Keller keeps a close eye on Google Analytics and he reviews five key points for each email blast he sends out: revenue, abuse complaints, open rates, clicks, and unsubscribes. As for ROI, Keller says, “I have a marketing person who handles our email campaigns, under my direction. I’m a fixed cost in our business, and I make the marketing person pay for herself in terms of margin generated by our email campaigns.”
If you’re a small business owner reading this and your stomach hurts when you hear the word “analytics,” know that you don’t have to go overboard with your review. The key is being aware. Keller offers this advice: “Engage your analytics from the start. You don’t have to look at everything, but pick three to five metrics and benchmark every email you send against them.”
HubSpot has a helpful resource called The Go-to Guide to Creating Email Newsletters that People Will Actually Read. And it has a smart post called 6 Signs Your Email Newsletter is Failing (and How You Can Fix It). You can also check out “e-Newsletter Fundamentals” from small business newsletter guru Michael Katz of Blue Penguin Development.
Do you send an email newsletter? How’s it working for you? Share in the comments.