What 100 newsletters taught us

what we learned from 100 newsletters

By Chris Gillespie, Founder, Find A Way Media

Marketing Is A Mirror

A company’s marketing says a lot about them. Stock photos say, “We haven’t defined our brand.” Retracted emails say, “We aren’t very careful.” And a blog that hasn’t been updated in months says, “Warning: The team here is a bit of a revolving door.”

Nowhere are these signals more apparent than in a company’s newsletter.

Newsletters are an oasis. They’re among the last owned audiences and marketers can say, do, and be anything. They can use sarcastic GIFs and expletives if that’s what readers like. Yet most newsletter marketers squander the opportunity.

We studied 100 B2B newsletters and rated them on design, writing, and utility in an effort to improve our own. Here is what we learned.

1. If you want subscribers, simplify

Newsletters have a subscriber sign-up journey. It begins when prospects look for your form, accelerates when they get their first email, and culminates when they like it and decide not to opt-out.

newsletter sign up journey

But most marketers appear not to have taken their own journey. We struggled to find the forms on one third of the blogs. One – the startup blog SaaStr – asked us to fill out as many as 11 fields, none of which they later used to personalize anything, as far as we could verify.

After clicking submit, many directed us to a blank landing page with no navigation. We came looking for content and reached a dead end.

Each step in their sign-up processes was helpful, offered guidance, and kept us reading

Twenty-two percent of companies never emailed anything at all. Of those that did, less than half bothered to customize the confirmation email and essentially frittered away their first impression.

Newsletter journeys aren’t difficult on purpose. Marketers simply haven’t conducted the most basic of all checks: a user test. No surprise then that self-described design-driven companies such as the business card printer MOO and software firm InVision got top marks in this area. Each step in their sign-up processes was helpful, offered guidance, and kept us reading.

To mimic newsletters like MOO and InVision:

  • Put your form in an obvious place

  • Only ask for a name and email

  • Direct readers back to the blog after they click “submit"

  • Customize your confirmation email

  • Send a welcome email right away

  • Explain the value of staying subscribed

Read the full study.

2. Personalization may not matter

Only 8 percent of companies in the study personalized subject lines or email bodies, and no companies in the top 10 percent of performance did.

Zero of the top-performing newsletters used personalization.

This might be because newsletters are, by their nature, already personalized. They’re a narrow channel of communication to a self-selecting contingent of subscribers who have specifically asked to be emailed. If you’re writing on topics they’re interested in, your emails are already personal, and adding their name to the introduction may not make a difference.

A lack of personalization didn’t hurt top scorers: They wrote intriguing, precise emails about interesting subject matter. What more could a reader ask for?

3. You can send as often as you like – if you’re good

The average newsletter in the study sent 5.8 emails per month, but emailers in the top 10 percent sent an average of 10.8 – nearly double. That’s not what you’d expect in an environment where pundits cry daily about how readers are overloaded with marketing communications, but to the victor go the spoils.

When what you write is relevant, intriguing, and pretty, you can get away with emailing more often.

The average newsletter felt long and took conscious effort to consume. The writing was full of jargon and cliché, and the designs were complex and distracting. Top-performing newsletters, on the other hand, were clearly written, and had beautiful but simple designs. Our team actually found the good ones harder to assess because we became absorbed reading them.

When what you write is relevant, intriguing, and pretty, you can get away with emailing often. But until your audience demands it, once per week is probably a safer cadence.

4. The prettiest newsletters were short

Newsletters with the best designs were mostly under 300 words, newsletters with okay designs were under 500 words, and ugly newsletters were all over the board, but tended to be longer.

If you want a good-looking newsletter, be concise.

Design score chart.jpg

5. If your subject lines can’t be intriguing, at least be honest

The best subject lines in our study artfully withheld information, made us want to know more, and then actually delivered in the content. Take, for example, this subject line from CB Insights:

clueless CEO sells company

We clicked, expecting to be disappointed. But here’s how the email began:

Hi there,

On April 17, 2017, my dad died.

And so for the last 13 months, I've been working at CB Insights while also running his chemical manufacturing company based in India.

Interested? We were. It was real, heartfelt, and among the best. The worst subject lines, on the other hand, were the exact opposite. They made hyperbolic promises, used trodden clichés and overt manipulation, and then offered disappointing email content. For example, the emails behind the following three subject lines were poorly-disguised marketing pitches:

  • 3 more ways you’re throwing money away!

  • this is pure gold!

  • Stop losing your best employees now

We can’t all have as heartfelt and gripping emails as CB Insights, but you don’t have to. If you can’t be clever, at least be literal: Subject lines that simply tell it like it is, such as “This Morning’s News Headlines,” at least built trust and sometimes worked.

Want to see the best designed and written newsletters?

Download the study: