Every email that comes from your business is part of your public persona. In today’s guest post, Nate Wright of Small Biz Triage shares lessons he’s learned from writing thousands of emails for clients. ~ Elena
I’ve written a LOT of email campaigns. I sent my first email newsletter when I was in college promoting swing dances 15 years ago, played with list digests after that, then spent a few years fiddling with sales emails, and (finally) made the jump to MailChimp five years ago, and haven’t looked back since.
Now I’ve read all the guides, and best practices, and do’s and don’ts: “Craft a compelling subject line;” “Strengthen your call to action;” “Use better visuals.” But after sending a thousand email newsletters for hundreds of small business owners, I never found myself regurgitating that advice. Not once.
Here’s what I found instead:
Lesson #1: Care Then Sell
Most of our clients want one of two things with their newsletters: (1) to make some damn money, drive sales, trigger donations, etc. or (2) we’ve been collecting emails for three years on a greasy clipboard; we need to send them a newsletter, right?
But what do your subscribers want from your newsletter? Why did they sign up in the first place?
Our instinct usually revolves around something like: “Well, because they care that much about my product/service/cause/widget/idea/movement” or “To get that cool ebook” or perhaps “They want to buy stuff from me” or even better, “Discount Codes.”
Now maybe your subscribers expect that from A newsletter, but I doubt that they want that from YOUR newsletter. Your subscribers want what most human beings want:a sense of belonging, to be inspired, to be happy, to be loved.
Gooey, kumbaya, glitter. Sure. But it’s what humans want. And last I checked, your subscribers are human (or at least I hope so, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Find a way to connect your newsletter into that soft spot and you’ve got something worth sending. We advise our client to not sell for the first three to six newsletters. You need to earn that right. Get your subscribers to care, and the selling part becomes that much easier.
You unearth what they want (a free tip), discover where it overlaps with what you want (a click), then serve it up via an email newsletter.
Be wary of the tempo and rhythm of your newsletter sales efforts. Alternate selling vs. not selling in your email blasts.
SELL, SELL, SELL, SELL, SELL, SELL = Monotone, and doesn’t focus attention anywhere
Share, Share, SELL, Share, Share, SELL = Less boring, and focuses attention on the sales.
Speaking of boring …
Lesson #2: Don’t Be Boring
This seems blatantly obvious. However, for every fascinating / memorable / compelling / useful newsletter draft we’ve encountered, we’ve suffered through 50 boring ones. And, yes, I’ve been guilty of this too (where do you think all my awful examples came from?)
The solution also seems blatantly obvious: Be Specific. Ridiculously specific.
“Let’s say you sell clothes online” – BORING.
“Okay then, you sell sweaters online” – BORING.
“You sell knit sweaters online” – BORING.
“You sell sweaters, knit from llama wool, that you raise in your backyard, much to the dismay of your cranky neighbors” – SPECIFIC. And not coincidentally, NOT BORING.
From top to bottom, replace every bit of boring from your newsletter and replace it with specifics. Ask yourself, “Will my subscriber care about this? Really??” Here’s some rapid fire examples:
FROM NAME: Customer Support <email@example.com> – BORING
FROM NAME: Nate “Llama Man” Wright <firstname.lastname@example.org> – SPECIFIC
SUBJECT LINE: 100% Llama Wool Sale Today – BORING
SUBJECT LINE: Happy llamas don’t spit … or do they? – SPECIFIC
BODY: a list of your products, their prices, and the Spring Sale deadline – BORING
BODY: a picture of a spitting llama, captioned with the oh-so-important discount code: 100PERCENTSPIT – SPECIFIC
P.S. BLOCK: don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube Channel, and Like us on Facebook. – REALLY BORING.
P.S. BLOCK: So my cranky neighbor apparently is subscribed to this newsletter, spying on our allegedly illegal llama slavery operation. Confession time. The llama burger I offered you last Sunday was actually just regular beef.
And speaking of meat …
Lesson #3: Trim the Fat
Here are some parts of your newsletter you should just delete. Right now. Fluff distracts from the true message they (and you) actually care about.
1) Social Media Buttons
Everyone wants “Follow me on twitter” and “Like me on Facebook” buttons on their newsletter. You should have a desired outcome for every newsletter, and that outcome shouldn’t be “more likes on Facebook.”
It’s a LOT of work to get a good-ole-fashioned opt-in to a newsletter these days. So why would I put weeks, months, or years into my business or non-profit website, pull off a small miracle and pick up an email subscriber, spend hours crafting the most exciting newsletter ever, only to ASK this stranger to go to my Facebook Page, where they will certainly spend 1.3 seconds before getting lost in the latest Kardashian gossip on their sister in law’s news feed, then spend 1.3 hours stalking their ex-boyfriend from middle school?
If you really must, social share buttons are the better option. They don’t ask your readers to follow you on a different platform; they ask your readers to talk about you on a different platform.
Unless you’ve been living off-grid on your llama ranch for the past few years, you know mobile matters. Over half of our clients’ newsletters are read on mobile devices. And despite MailChimp using responsive templates, that pretty sidebar will still get buried somewhere down the long thumb scroll of destiny.
Finally, while MailChimp (and most newsletter platforms) provide what appears to be a handy-dandy “preheader” area in their campaign templates, I have come to loathe these things. For those who don’t know, the preheader includes text that will show up in the preview area of the email, just after the subject line in their inbox.
Nuke it. You don’t need it, unless you have a ton of subscribers opening the email on a really, really old computer. Otherwise, it’s extraneous.
If you have legitimate data showing a majority of your subscribers read their emails in plain text, then toss that preheader with that oh-so-exciting “View in Browser” link. Don’t be boring with that, either, though. Try something like, “Stuck in the 90’s? View this in your browser.”
Despite my love of high-speed internet, I still pine for the 90’s with its flip phones, dial-up modems with it’s legendary hiss, beep and static soundtrack, and the final chapter of humanity as we know it – talking without texting. Which brings us to …
Lesson #4: Be Human
Human beings buy from human beings. At the end of every digital transaction, there’s a human being. And despite the fact that I subscribe to newsletters whose FROM block says otherwise, their content is overtly human.
Here’s the thing: It’s not the persona they care about, it’s the person. To this adage, I’d like to add that nobody respects robots, so if you think you’ve got the formula for a perfect newsletter you can copy and paste over and over again, think again. Hell, even our nation’s favorite robot celebrities, R2D2 and C3PO, had remarkable personalities (mostly due to the unlucky dudes working those suits).
Here are some simple ways to inject humanity back into your newsletters:
- Invite the Reply
Let your readers know there’s a human on the other end and invite them to reply. My favorite call to action of all time (and most useful to small businesses), is “reply to this email.” Engaging in dialogue with your subscribers is the only way to dodge mediocrity in the land of newsletters. I’ll usually drop this into a P.S. block: “Think I’m full of ? Hit reply and lemme know.”
- Personalize, Personalize, Personalize
I’m not talking about the generic *|FNAME|* merge tag in the default newsletter template. I’m talking about little nuggets of specificity. As you interact with your subscribers, you’ll learn more about them. It may start with just their email address. Then a first name. Maybe an address from a recent order that reveals their City and State. I’ll even dig into several months worth of click reports (which user clicked on which newsletter links) and create even more personalized data.
When you have this info, you can personalize their content. And why does personalization matter? Because when your subscriber sees that you custom-tailored their newsletter, they realize you care. Who doesn’t want someone to care about them? To make them feel like a real human??
- Add Vulnerability
Remember that kumbaya glittery goodness I mentioned in Lesson #1? Well, one of the best ways to evoke feelings in a reader is by revealing your own flaws. Include a real picture next to your signature block WITHOUT the benefit of Instagram filters. Write like you talk (Y’all dig?). Share your failures (even the truly embarrassing ones).
Remember, there’s no magic formula for a perfect newsletter. I’ve lost count of how many times I adhered to “best practices” and been proven wrong: clients whose subscribers want an email every single day, or a group of subscribers that is in love with the most boring subject lines ever, or those fanatics who truly want to be sold to three times a week even when they only buy once a year.
Every time I’ve been wrong, my transgression can always be traced back to forgetting one basic fundamental: your subscribers are humans and have lives apart from their future transactions with you.
Be caring. Be specific. Be focused. Be human.
Nate Wright has taught and supported countless small business owners strengthening their businesses via better marketing, sales and productivity and has personally designed and launched 1,000+ sales & marketing campaigns for non-profits, startups, and bricks and mortar businesses. He is the owner of Small Business Triage.
Elena is founder of a technology PR agency that works with startups to billion-dollar companies. She is passionate about helping marketers and small business owners with practical publicity strategies, which she's also using for her own bling flip flop company.
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