The Complete “Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast” Arc

Note: A nine part arc based on an podcast interview, all here

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Part 1

Email newsletters are incredibly goal dependant and email newsletter metrics must match their goals or they’re guaranteed to fail. That’s the rub; Is the email newsletter intended to contribute to a company’s revenue? Are newsletters part of the marketing channel (it’s not an obvious yes or no)?

I’ve written elsewhere about NextStage’s research into email newsletters and email marketing. Recently I was interviewed by AllBusiness.com’s Chris Bjorklund on the subject and that interview has become two podcasts (see links below).

I’ll also be posting the individual Q&A from that interview here for those who want a written record. Not everything covered in the interview is documented in print, so the best bet is to listen and take notes along the way.

First up, What are the key elements to think about in your design so that you get maximum ROI?

I think the thing I’d offer first is that, like everything else we’ve studied, certain rules and formulae emerge if you’re willing to put the time and effort into discovering them.

That said, the single most important factor was knowing what type of device your audience would most likely be viewing the newsletter on first. Let me explain that so your listeners understand.

We learned that it’s not uncommon for certain demographics to get their emails on mobile devices. Duh, right? But what we learned was that many people who get their emails on mobile devices either technically or mentally mark certain emails for “follow up”. Not in the sense of “I have to respond to this” but in the sense of “this is important so I want to devote some time to it when I have time to devote to it”.

One of the hallmarks of the mobile, pda, smartphone demographic is a metric we call “organization”. This means they value the concept of “organization”, of “being organized”. It doesn’t mean “they are organized” and this is crucial. We did a different and ancillary study that determined if this segment was more organized or less organized than other people and we discovered a micro-segment that actually used their device as a means of active organization. The rest of this segment pretty much all claimed their device’s organizational value and when you looked at their time-activity usage you saw that it was just another distraction and lowered their life-efficiency by measurable percentage points.

And this doesn’t begin to touch on the people who want to show you something on their iPhone, Smartphone or whatever. Sometimes these people (not all!) remind me of that Stuart character on MadTV that continually says “Look what I can do!”

So, whether these people are actually more or less organized than the rest of us, one of the things the majority seem to do is see something on their smart device and flag it as something they want to explore in a different setting.

This isn’t just true with mobile, pda style folks. Is your newsletter about family health issues and you know your demographic is 30-somethings with small children, for example? That email probably isn’t being read on a PDA. Also (and here’s a trick we learned), if you can time delivery to when you know someone in this (or similar) demographic is sitting at their family computer — note “family health” and “family computer” — and can deliver that email newsletter into their inbox when they’re sitting at their computer, you’ve just increased the relevancy of your newsletter to them.

This is a psychological factor that lots of people miss out on and it’s not specific to health. We saw it in finance, pet care, lots of places.

Once you get past knowing what device subscribers will be using when they first see your newsletter, you get into things like content, relevancy,

Relevancy is a demographic issue and it’s closely tied to distribution frequency and actionability. Distribution frequency is “how often will subscribers get a copy?” and actionability is “when can subscribers do something that benefits them based on the information provided within?”

Send out a daily newsletter without no immediately valuable action items and you can watch your subscription base go down to nothing. Send out a monthly newsletter that requires subscribers to act immediately to recognize value and watch your subscription base go away.

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Part 2

This time out a brief note on color.

Colors were very market, gender and age group specific. This wasn’t surprising based on other research we’ve published.

Another factor that was demographic-dependent was “Content Completeness”. This goes right up there with relevancy, distribution frequency and actionability. Content Completeness is a measure of how much work a subscriber has to do in order to recognize value from the newsletter. If the subscriber can derive actionable value just from the newsletter, that’s very content complete. If they have to follow a link that goes to a page that requires them to read something then click on a box to accept a condition that goes to another page…, that’s not at all content complete.

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Part 3

This time we address “Your insights and advice about designing newsletters are based on studying more than 1400 Email newsletters, and then just 200 of those in depth.

What kind of patterns emerged?

What emerged was that the most successful — and success was defined by the newsletter authors — newsletters followed some very common patterns. We actually found six basic “styles”, if you will, that the most successful newsletters followed as far as layout, messaging, graphic element placement and so on. We call these styles “masks” because it didn’t matter what content was behind these masks, so long as your newsletter was wearing one of these masks it was going to work.

More significantly, different masks worked better based on audience, topic, distribution frequency. The one exception was the mask for mobile and handheld devices. Pretty much if you knew your audience would be oepning the newsletter on a handheld device there was only one mask to work with.

One group did something that I thought was very clever; they did some kind of programming that allowed the email to know what type of device it was being opened on. Don’t ask me how it was done because I’m not a programmer, but this was genius. The newsletter used the same basic mask if it was opened on an handheld, laptop, desktop, etc. This was done so that people who opened it on a handheld could then find the same information in roughly the same position on their desktop. But what the newsletter designers did was show more of each item’s story when the newsletter was being opened on a non-handheld device.

This was genius because people got hooked — as I mentioned before — using their handheld then got reeled in when the opportunity was there. Very nice.

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Part 3a

This time more answers to “Your insights and advice about designing newsletters are based on studying more than 1400 Email newsletters, and then just 200 of those in depth.

What kind of patterns emerged?

In general different masks worked better for different purposes.

Things that worked and things that didn’t — this is literally a two-edged sword. I will never be able to emphasize enough that knowing your market, your audience is key to success in any marketing. Let me give you an example.

I just started a newsletter for several reasons and I used our research to help me figure out what to do. Evidently a standard for email blast subscription response is about 10%. I did three email blasts and got almost 90% buy-in simply because I designed my introductory email along certain principles.

First, it was very much a “Joseph” email. People who’ve read my other writings, talked with me, seen me present or listened to a podcast could quickly and easily recognize my tone, my voice, my language. In other words, I made it as One-to-One as possible. This is a significant factor in getting people to respond.

Psychologically, people will respond to a person, to a personal request, far more often and far more rapidly than anything else. Now, I don’t know lots of the people on my subscriber list and most of them know me. I can still make it personal even to those people I don’t know personally by (essentially) demonstrating that “person” they are responding to. This is easy to do with a little training and listeners can contact NextStage if they’re interested.

So anyway, I knew my audience and MORE IMPORTANTLY I knew what they expected and gave it to them.

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Part 3b

We left off answering “What kind of patterns emerged?” with a discussion of delivering on audience expectations. We continue with a count of what’s important.

So let’s count things out know; 1 – Know your audience. 2 – know what they’ll expect and 3 – make sure they get it.

In my case I knew their first expectation was to get more of the “Joseph” experience and I made sure they got it. Also, in the first actual email, I told them what I’d be putting into future emails. Again, I’m setting expectations that I can meet.

Next, I gossiped. Not about the industry and not about people, but about a project I’ve taken on for fun but that also has pretty great significance in today’s social media world; I’m building a blog bullcrap meter for a company. They want to be able to determine if a person writing a blog believes what they’re writing about or is just, you know, cruising and making things up as they go along.

Note that we’re not talking about audience response. We’ve been analyzing if readers believe a blog is authoritative or not for a while now. This is a tool that determines if a blog’s author believes they themselves are an authority or not.

So think of it; does the person blogging about how safe an commercial airplane is really believe what they’re saying? Yes, take the flight. No, book another flight.

Also, who has more confidence in their industry? The company blog telling me that their baby medicine is safe better have more confidence in what they’re writing than the person blogging about their visit to Nova Scotia, don’t you think? But if they don’t, there’s a flag that medicine might not be as safe as taking part in Celtic Colors on Cape Breton.

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Part 3c

So your listeners can benefit in their own newsletters by following some simple rules; know your audience, set expectations, meet expectations, create an extension of an already favorable experience. Another thing I did was reward them for simply signing up. I offered a discount on the newsletter research. The only way to get that discount is through the newsletter. We’re experiencing almost 3-to-1 newsletter to website conversion on that alone.

The reason all these things are two-edged swords is because — in my opinion — companies and individuals don’t do the right kind of market research to understand their audience. Especially in today’s world, this is imperative and is something I really emphasize when I talk on the topic; People want that human touch, that’s #1, and people want economy, simplicity, and are willing to pay any price to get it, that’s #2.

So know your audience, know what they want on every level — this is expectation — and give them what they want on as many levels as possible. This has often been called “managing expectations” and it’s really not. That’s old school and, although still useful in some situations, I think it’s losing its losing ground to waht we call “experience management”. This is tremendously important in today’s information-rich world. Give people the experience they want — indeed, they crave — and they’ll reward you by giving you more and more opportunities to manage their experience for them because they trust you to give them what they want.

This is basic.

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Part 4

Here we answer “What are some of the ways to measure your audience’s response to your newsletter?

This is a hot topic right now – measuring response. To anything. I’m working with Eric Peterson and the WebAnalyticsDemystified group on what we’re calling “The Engagement Project” to come up with a metric and a way of measuring exactly what kind of response and how much of a response you should expect from your marketing efforts.

Measuring response at the machine level is fairly straightforward. Did they open the newsletter? On what device? How many times? Did they follow a link? Did they download something? Basically, did they do something the author wanted them to do?

Beyond that you get into reader psychology. This is where you find out why they responded the way they did and how to change that response, if required.

This is where Engagement and its different definitions begins to play a role.

Let me give you another example; did people get back to you about something in your newsletter that wasn’t a link or clickthrough? Did they call or email? With a comment or question. There are a few things in our newsletter that were placed just for this purpose, to get a very specific and very unobvious response because it allowed us to determine what was engaging them — what was driving them to perform specific actions, what was causing them to think, what were they reacting to and in what non-obvious ways.

This is a standard research method in cognitive science research and, amusingly, is also used in magic shows.

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Part 5

Here we start the second podcast in the series and answer “If links are important — the next question is — how many of them should I have? (You said odd numbers are better.)


Again, this is something from cognitive science and psycholinguistics that is directly applicable to marketing materials. Give people a binary decision path — Yes/No, LinkA/LinkB — and they’ll essentially stop. Believe it or not, two links is too much information for most people to deal with.

But, three links? That’s fine. They can literally chose the middle road. This is something I talk about when I explain “Priming”, what magicians call “Forcing”. You can design a page or newsletter so that people will chose the link you want them to follow just about every time and not realize they’re doing it.

Once you get beyond three you start seeing Likert style responses. Likert and biasing responses are things researchers and questionnaire designers are very familiar with. You can basically force responses by the number of options you offer and their placement. Even numbers of options tend to be excellent for forcing results, odd numbers are good for getting real responses.

Key Elements for Maximum Email Newsletter ROI – Email Newsletter, Email Marketing Podcast Finale

Here we discuss how viral and newsletters merge.

Your regular listeners probably know we did a podcast about viral marketing. One of the things I wanted to explore was how viral “I” was in the newsletter. There’s a link in the newsletter itself to sign up for the newsletter. The only way to access that link is to have a subscriber send you their copy of the newsletter. There’s also a page on our website that’s a copy of the newsletter.

That web page is offered to people who are subscribing after the fact, so to speak. That web page also has a “sign up” link. We’re getting about double the subscription rate from that page being passed on as from the email itself being passed on.

This is what I expected. Companies that use NextStage regularly often consider us a trade secret and keep us on a short leash. This is an example of the same thing. People who got an email keep us close. People who find us after the fact tend to share.

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