Information on email marketing for small and medium-sized businesses, online stores, and bloggers
Sometimes the world of email marketing can seem a little complicated. How do you make sure your subscription process won’t get you into legal trouble? How do you maintain your list of subscribers? And how do you even get subscribers in the first place?
We’re going to answer these questions (and a few more) in this article, alongside a step-by-step video on how to create and send newsletters.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
An email newsletter is an email which is sent out on a regular basis (e.g. weekly or monthly). It can be in HTML (displayed within a design) or in plain text format.
As you’ll probably know by looking at your inboxes, email newsletters are a popular medium for businesses. 83% of B2B marketers, for example, send email newsletters as part of their content marketing strategy.
Typically, newsletters focus on providing informative content to subscribers (they’re not called newsletters for nothing!). It might feature just one topic, or include content relating to different topics.
Newsletters are different to other types of marketing emails, such as autoresponders (e.g. welcome emails), transactional or triggered/automated emails. However, they can sometimes overlap. Each has an important part to play in any successful email marketing strategy, so newsletters should be used to complement these emails, rather than being an alternative to them.
Despite the disadvantages, it’s hard to ignore the strong arguments in favor of sending email newsletters. Cost-effectiveness is probably the most compelling of these, as they’re relatively cheap to send. And email marketing, on the whole, provides an average ROI of 3800% (according to Salesforce). That's good enough reason for us!
Once you have the content locked down, you’d be surprised how simple the process of creating a newsletter is! The following video shows you how an email newsletter is created, using two different tools as examples – MailerLite and ActiveCampaign.
As is the case with most providers, both offer a graphical editing interface. Using the drag & drop editor, you can add the building blocks you want to your newsletter. It’s incredibly easy, and you don’t need any programming skills.
> Click here for some in-depth reviews on a variety of newsletter tools.
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To run a newsletter mailing list, an absolute must is list management. This will enable you to maintain a list of subscribers in a database and filter and sort them into groups. Depending on the software, integration into CRM systems may be possible, but it’s not always a simple task.
And then you’ll need an editor to create the newsletter. One of the features you’ll need is the ability to test the design in popular email and webmail clients (such as Outlook, Gmail, and Apple Mail).
Responsive templates are absolutely essential as more than half of all newsletters are read on mobile devices these days. For this reason, you need to make sure your emails display well on smartphones using optimized newsletter templates. If you're not keen on the templates provided by the ESP you choose, you can use a dedicated email template builder (most of which you can use for free!).
But don’t forget that you'll also need some well-defined processes, such as subscribing (ideally via double opt-in) and unsubscribing, as well as a way to deal with invalid email addresses.
All of the tools we review on EmailToolTester provide the above features – you can check them out here.
Deliverability rates are also extremely important. We’ve been running tests for a number of years and can confirm that different newsletter services do have different deliverability rates. Of course, as a good marketer you should always follow best practices like list cleaning and keeping subscribers engaged with high-quality content, but you also want a provider that takes deliverability just as seriously as you do! ActiveCampaign and MailerLite are our top providers in this area.
Traditional newsletters (such as the print variety) tended to be more company-focused. They often contained company announcements, new product releases, awards, and other generally snooze-worthy information.
Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. If you had subscribed to your company’s newsletter, what sort of information would you want to see? And what would quickly make you hit ‘unsubscribe’?
The very best email newsletters we’ve seen (and the ones that usually perform better) feature content that’s relevant to the reader. Often, it’s information that’s:
Their newsletters are simple, but brilliant. Check out this one promoting the last season of House of Cards, styled as an email from the president. It certainly grabs your attention! We also love that they regularly include animated GIFs from their TV shows within their newsletters – what better way to bring their product to life?
At EmailToolTester, we are suckers for good design, and that’s why we love online art retailer Society6’s newsletter. Each one feels handcrafted, with eye-catching illustrations and designs. There’s also plenty of interesting content for their artistically-inclined audience. We don’t even mind receiving their regular promotional emails, as they’re always so beautifully presented!
Lily Lines, by The Washinton Post
A good newsletter doesn’t need to be heavily centered on graphics. Lily Lines is a newsletter that provides short, snackable bites of daily news to its readers (busy women on the go). The content is primarily text, but subscribers take the time to read it. Why? Firstly, because the convenient format solves a legitimate problem for them (not being able to stay up to date with current events). Secondly, it gets straight to the point.
What makes each of these newsletters work? It’s simple – each has been created with their specific audience in mind. Are your readers likely to be on-the-go? Make your email mobile-responsive, and your text short and succinct. Are they more creative, visual people? Focus on design and images. And if you have multiple audiences, tailored newsletters is the way to go.
Finally, another important consideration is frequency. In an ideal world, subscribers would choose how often they receive emails from you. This isn’t always possible though, so be sure to choose a frequency that’s useful to your readers, without being annoying (warning – it’s a very fine line!).
In order to boost your success rates, it’s a good idea to A/B test (or split test) your newsletters. This is a great way to test subject lines or calls-to-action and works by splitting a small, randomly selected subset of your mailing list subscribers into two groups.
Each of these groups will then receive one of the two emails, meaning that you can measure which is more popular and therefore use that one. Keep in mind that, for an A/B test to make sense, you should at least have 2000 subscribers on your list.
Most newsletter services offer this feature but it might be reserved for higher-tier plans, so make sure to look out for this.
In theory, sending out HTML emails is free. You just open up your usual email program (e.g. Outlook) and you’re good to go. However, you’ll probably run into several problems pretty quickly. First of all, creating HTML emails in Outlook is rather complicated. And secondly, you have no means of analysis, or automating subscriptions or unsubscribes.
However, a good newsletter tool doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, there are several providers who offer plans that are completely free. Even if you need expert features, and have an ever-growing subscriber list, your marketing budget may be able to cover this quite easily. For instance, if you want your email newsletters to reach 5,000 people in a month, you’re looking at somewhere between $25 and $45. And if your emails go out at irregular intervals you can use a prepaid plan, meaning you only pay when you actually send out a newsletter.
Go ahead and check out our newsletter calculator if you want to get a better idea of how much email marketing might cost you! Just enter the number of emails you think you might want to send in a month, and the calculator will tell you what the most popular providers have to offer.
Yes, of course. There are different options. You can hire an email marketing agency, for example. Two of our team members have worked for such agencies in the past. It's the most professional way to do email marketing but it comes at a high cost. Depending on how much you want to outsource (copywriting, campaign and artwork creation, project management etc.), it will cost several hundred Dollars per newsletter campaign, if not more.
A cheaper way, would be to hire a freelancer. To do that you should check out platforms such as Upwork, FreeeUp or Freelancer.com. There you can find professionals from all around the world with the skills you require. A big advantage of such hiring platforms is that you can see their previous ratings. However, you usually have to pay a fee to the marketplace if you manage to find someone.
A lot of components come together when sending out an email newsletter: a software or web application that creates the newsletter, and an email server that sends it out. Generally speaking, you’re free to manage each of these components separately. You can install the newsletter software on your server or client computer, and then use the email server provided by your web hosting provider (e.g. Namecheap or GoDaddy).
Unfortunately, most of these email servers aren't suitable for sending out a massive number of emails. Most servers shut you down when you try to send out several hundred emails in an hour. One way to deal with this issue is moving to an external email server such as Mailjet or Sendinblue.
Another option, which is really more theoretical than anything else, is running your own email server. A quick cost/benefit analysis often makes this an unrealistic option for most small businesses. Sending out emails isn’t that much of a problem. However, if your email server doesn’t have a good sender reputation, your emails won’t be accepted by major email services such as Gmail, Yahoo, AOL etc.
If you want to take the easy way out, you can opt for a hosted email system. Here, the provider doesn’t only give you access to the newsletter software – it also takes care of maintenance as well as deliverability for you. You'll often get some templates to start with, too. These kinds of newsletter tools are our focus here at EmailToolTester:
There are two legal concepts you should know about:
The CAN SPAM Act states that you can send (almost) as many emails as you want as long as the recipient does not unsubscribe (opt-out principle). However, there are a number of email services (such as Mailchimp) that will demand proof of an existing opt-in for your subscribers.
This is due to the fact that it’s not good for a newsletter provider when large numbers of people complain about emails sent through their servers. Many people will simply mark your newsletter as spam and, all of a sudden, the email service provider’s server is moved to a blacklist. Obviously, the provider will want to avoid that.
EU and Canada
In Canada, there’s a different principle. In this case, you need to be able to prove that the recipient explicitly subscribed to your newsletter. The best way of doing this is through a double opt-in procedure. Here, the subscriber receives a confirmation email with a link they have to click, in order to actually join the mailing list.
Countries within the EU take this even further. The introduction of the GDPR means that, aside from having double opt-ins in place, companies must be crystal clear in the language used on sign-up forms, and have defined procedures in place for processing and storing data (among other stringent requirements).
There are some exceptions – existing business relationships, for instance. If you have a current customer, you can usually send them emails without their explicit consent. If you want to find more information on legal questions regarding email newsletters, follow this link to read up on the legal situation in the USA, Canada, and the EU.
What about purchased email lists?
There are providers who try to sell you such lists and, in some cases, they even have opt-in proof which would hold up in a court of law. However, most email services we know of won’t let you use those kinds of lists. They don’t want to risk their good sender reputation, so they prohibit the use of purchased mailing lists. Statistics clearly show that the number of complaints is higher than the number of successful clicks for such lists.
In the long run, your best strategy is good content. If your content adds value to people’s lives in some way, they will talk about, and recommend, it. So try and stay away from sales-driven advertising emails as much as possible. Instead, we recommend you use email marketing to invest in good customer relations.
You can also boost your subscription numbers by offering benefits: Our sister site, WebsiteToolTester, for instance, found out that offering a free ebook to every new subscriber caused significant growth (by a factor of ten in this case). A pop-up can get you even further – but be careful not to annoy your readers!
All you need is the right provider?
More tips and tools can be found here:
Download free newsletter templates here:
27 Nov 2019 – A/B testing and deliverability section added
09 Nov 2018 – Information about outsourcing
15 Jun 2018 – GDPR section updated
31 Jul 2018 – Video added