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7 Questions That Will Turbocharge Your B2B Newsletter

Christopher Gillespie

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Is your newsletter doing enough to capture your readers’ attention?

Newsletters, with their wholly owned audiences, are the last of a dying breed. As the big social networks have gone pay-to-play and digital ads have grown more expensive and less effective, newsletters ought to be flourishing. So why do so many struggle?

Eighty-one percent of B2B marketers publish a newsletter. But 59% say earning email opens is among their biggest challenges.

Find A Way Media analyzed 100 B2B newsletters over a three-month period to discover strengths and shortcomings. After making changes to its own newsletter, Find A Way enjoyed a 42 percent uptick in signups and an increase in general engagement.

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Here are Find A Way’s findings summarized in seven questions that can help you turbocharge your B2B newsletter.

1. Is Your Sign-Up Journey Riddled with Land Mines?

To keep, you must catch. And that’s where the trouble began. Many newsletters in Find A Way’s study made it difficult for users to sign up. It was clear some hadn’t subscribed to their own newsletter, otherwise they may have noticed when emails didn’t send or when images didn’t load.

Of the 100 businesses that advertised a newsletter, only 78 ever emailed anything after sign-up. Whether those non-senders canceled their newsletter and simply forgot to remove the form was unclear.

Statistics from the study:

  • 33% of forms were difficult to find, often below the fold
  • 13% sent some emails to spam
  • 22% never emailed anything at all

Your newsletter has a journey. Like any journey, you have to think through the steps from awareness to post-click and apply the same deliverability due diligence you would to any email campaign.

chart outlining the journey of a typical newsletter sign-up

If your sign-up journey is full of land mines, expect casualties. Many directed us to a landing page with no links or navigation, leaving us to wonder whether we had successfully signed up. Others sent confirmation emails that were simply templates from their email provider. Only half sent a welcome email with links to resources or articles to keep us moving along our journey.

The best newsletters, on the other hand:

  • Made the form easy to find
  • Made the value of signing up clear
  • Only had 1-2 form fields (email, or email and name)
  • Directed new subscribers to post sign-up content
  • Customized their confirmation email
  • Sent a welcome email

Lesson: Sign up for your own newsletter. Buff out points of friction and help your “buyers” buy.

2. Are You Preaching or Having a Conversation?

Many business blogs are wrecked on the shore of their own self-interest. The same goes for newsletters—they like to talk about themselves.

A simple test can tell if your newsletter has narcissistic tendencies: Is its purpose A or B?

A) To create dialogue with and among readers?
B) To earn a traffic bump to the blog?

Most newsletters in our study were acolytes of purpose B. They simply forwarded links to things they had written and never asked questions. As readers, it felt preachy and unwelcoming.

But some, like the startup data provider CB Insights, practiced purpose A. Their newsletter took hard, often controversial stances (such as sharing embarrassing quotes from famous CEOs) and the debate spilled over to Twitter. As a result, the company earned many times greater reach and has gathered a community of what’s purportedly the biggest newsletter in tech: more than 500,000 subscribers.

CB Insights newsletter subscriber growth through 2017. Its newsletter hit 500,000 subscribers in September 2018.

“Don’t be boring, especially in B2B,” said Anand Sanwal, CEO of CB Insights. “The reality is most B2B newsletters are jargon-infested drivel. And that is because people think that in B2B, you need to be boring, serious and buttoned up. Most B2B newsletters forget that people reading their content want to be educated but also like to be entertained.”

Lesson: Take a stance, ask questions and start a discussion.

3. Do We Have a Moat?

Does your newsletter have, as venture capitalists say, a moat? Does it offer something unique and defensible that readers can’t get elsewhere? Or is it the same old stuff they can find on your blog, repackaged as an email?

We identified four newsletter formats in our study:

  • The Hard Sell: More sales pitch than newsletter
  • The Forwarder: Forwards links to blog posts
  • The Summarizer: Forwards links with a little added context or fun
  • The Homepage: Offers insights and analysis not available elsewhere

We found a great disparity between the formats of the top 10 percent of newsletters (as ranked by a group of panelists) versus the average newsletter.

Top-performing newsletters overwhelmingly favored the Homepage and Summarizer formats, which include various types of content from podcasts to research to tweet threads, and offer insight and analysis to contextualize the news.

Many had an editorial tone that was clear and recognizable. InVision’s emails, for example, were short and punny. Optimist’s told the backstory of each article. Gallup’s organized content from its site and discussed why the stories mattered. For each, there was a clear reason why readers would want to remain subscribed, lest they miss out.

Lesson: Be more than a forwarding service. Find your moat.

4. Are Your Headlines Inoffensive or Better?

The subject lines from emails in our study ranged from clever and intriguing to syrupy and cloying. The worst read a lot like infomercials:

  • 3 more ways you’re throwing your money away!
  • Is Facebook dead for B2B marketers?
  • Stop losing your best employees now

My initial reactions to these: “I don’t believe you,” “Please stop declaring things dead” and “You don’t know me.”

But the best subject lines? We couldn’t help but click them:

  • Clueless CEO sells company
  • How to Build an Empire from Your Spare Bedroom
  • wow: terrible emails

Aside from being shorter, the best subject lines piqued our curiosity and then made more sense upon reading. The first subject line about the clueless CEO? That’s about how the author’s father passed away and he was forced to fly back to India to handle his affairs and find a buyer for his company.

Sure, you can’t whip up a heavy headline like that every week, but those top-ranked newsletters consistently found meaningful stories to tell.

So, what about the OK subject lines? They may have been dull, but they at least conveyed the email’s contents without being off-putting. For example:

  • Applying Journalism Ethics to Content Marketing
  • Top 5 ways to streamline your email workflow
  • This morning’s news headlines

You could do a lot worse. (Many did.)

Lesson: Do no harm. If you can’t be intriguing, it’s better to be literal and accepted than mawkish and disliked.

5. Are Your Takeaways Buried by Jargon?

Even when a subject line snared our attention, the author sometimes lost us in the email body. They retreated to the same clichés that haunt so many B2B companies and made it difficult to decipher their meaning.

The example above ended by saying “You’ve got this, Chris!” But I didn’t. I didn’t “got this.”

Many emails used imprecise language (low-hanging fruit, seamless, optimize) and made unsupportable claims (smartest, leader, market-leading solution) that eroded the trust of our panelists.

The best-written newsletters did the opposite: They were clear, brief and 13% shorter on average. Clarity kept our attention and made the takeaways stand out.

“When it comes to writing, it’s all about style, tone and layout—how the reader consumes the content,” says Tyler Hakes, principal at Optimist and author of one of the highest-ranked newsletters in our study, as well as the email above. “Whenever I sit down to write an email to our subscribers, I try to think about the story behind the post that I’m sharing. I want to lead the reader into naturally wanting to click the link and finish the story, almost like a ‘read more’ button.”

When newsletter editors took the time to evict jargon from their copy, we read more and were more inclined to stay subscribed.

Lesson: Learn to edit the jargon out of your emails.

6. Are Your Emails Painful to Look At?

I needn’t rehash the topic of readers’ dwindling attention spans or phobia of too much text. Yet one-third of newsletters ignored all available advice and committed a number of design errors, including:

  • Multiple columns
  • Fonts smaller than 10-point
  • Double- or triple-headlines
  • A disorienting wall of text
  • Unrelated pictures

Many companies clearly hadn’t proofread their templates. Emails from an employer solutions source feature the text “Love your job!” in the header, despite being a newsletter for employers. Likely, someone borrowed a template from their consumer team and forgot to update it.

But good newsletters? Those were actually more difficult to judge because we got lost reading them. All used a single column, had appropriately sized text that we could read on our phones, and when they included an image, it added to our understanding of the content.

For great examples, look at newsletters by Moo, Pantone, InVision, Siegel+Gale, and Campaign Monitor.

side by side comparison of good and bad email newsletter templates

Lesson: Ditch your email provider’s templates and spring for a custom one to make your message clear.

7. Are You Sending Consistently Enough?

While some of the lowest-performing newsletters dropped us into a batch-and-blast cannon (one sent an astonishing 28 emails in one month), other low-performers also sent the least. Low performance, then, was correlated not with too many or too few emails, but randomness—what we took to be a lack of strategy.

Medium- and high-performers were much more consistent. And surprisingly, the high-performers sent nearly twice as many emails as medium-performers.

Where the average company sent 5.8 emails per month (with a median of 5), the top 10 percent sent nearly double: 10.8 emails per month.

send frequency analysis of email newsletters

Here’s the takeaway: When you’ve nailed the first six questions on this list, and you’re being consistent, you’ve earned your audience’s attention and can send as often as you like. The trick is earning that trust before increasing your frequency.

Lesson: Use an editorial calendar to send consistently. Increase your frequency as your audience demands it.

Most marketers send newsletters. Most newsletters struggle because of sign-up land mines, preachy or jargon-infested content and painful design. But with a few small changes, yours can yield fantastic results—swelling to tens of thousands of subscribers and producing a torrent of earned attention that spills over onto social media.

Image courtesy of Pexels

Christopher M. Gillespie founded the content studio Find A Way Media to help brands ditch the jargon and grow by telling stories. He manages the newsletter The Beat, which helps writers hone their work.