Email newsletters – how to

Email marketing systems enable companies and organisations to send email updates, newsletters and invitations to a list of subscribers.

These systems help you with the safe collection of subscriber email addresses, the building and sending of your emails, tracking engagement (showing you which subscribers open and click your messages), and subscriber clean-up – removing email addresses when someone unsubscribes or when their email address is no longer reachable.

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Why email newsletters are important | Suggested tactics | Creating your newsletter | More advanced things you can do | Suggested resources

Why email newsletters are important

In a world where so much attention is focused on social media channels, there is evidence to suggest that email marketing is still effective, and continues to be one of the best ways to build relationships with your audience online, reminding them about what you offer and encouraging them to visit your venue or engage with your services more frequently.  Email newsletters can potentially reach bigger online audiences in meaningful ways, and some services are free to use up to a certain number of subscribers.

Email newsletters can inform your subscribers about new exhibitions, upcoming events, new products in your shop, or any deals and discounts. This helps you keep in touch with your visitors and others who may be interested in your institution, and gives them a reason to make a visit soon.

You can also use newsletters to share more detailed content, news and ideas with your subscribers, to help them better engage with your collections and exhibitions. This helps you to engage farther-flung subscribers, for whom a visit may not be possible, or subscribers who have problems travelling, such as those with mobility issues.

Suggested tactics:

Building a newsletter signup form

Email newsletter providers usually offer a simple way of creating a form for your potential subscribers to fill in to join your list. Your form will have its own URL which you can direct people to from your website and social media channels, but many can also be embedded within a page on your website.

The minimum information you need from your subscribers is, of course, their email address, but depending on how you intend to write your newsletter content and segment your list (e.g. regionally) you may also want to ask their name, their company name, which area they live in and which of your products or services they would like news about. However, be aware your potential subscribers may not want to give you a lot of personal information upfront, that a complex and time-consuming form is much less likely to be completed and submitted, and that there is no point asking for data that you’re not going to use.

You need explicit permission to add people to your email newsletter list. You should use ‘double opt-in’ on your newsletter signup forms – this sends an email to your new subscribers when they sign up, asking them to confirm that they definitely want to join your list. For any data you collect you must ensure you comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These are strict data protection rules that carry very heavy fines if breached, and are something that you need to be aware of. AIM’s (Association of Independent Museums) guidance on privacy and data regulations for small museums is a good starting point in this area.

Creating your newsletter:

Templates

Most newsletter providers have a range of pre-designed templates that will give your campaigns a unified look and feel. You can customise these with your own colour scheme, logos and fonts. It’s best practice to select a responsive template design, which will make sure your content still displays clearly by automatically resizing it to fit whichever device your subscriber is reading it on – a full-sized computer screen, tablet or mobile.

Calls to action

Your newsletter subject line and preview text, which your subscribers will see previewed in their email inbox, are quite short pieces of text: they need to be intriguing enough to make your subscribers decide to open your email and read it, so make sure they are concise, interesting, and contain a call to action if possible. For instance, as a subject line, “Museum April Newsletter” is less interesting than “Don’t miss the Museum Dinosaur Rampage this Easter!”

Within the body of your newsletter, think about what actions you want the reader to take – do you want them to click through to buy event tickets, to read an interview with a curator, to watch a video about your collection, to share a suggested Tweet with their networks? Don’t just say “Click here”, but make it clear where clicking a link or button will take them through to – for example, if your reader ends up on a sales page they weren’t expecting, they are likely to close it immediately.

Images

Images can really help to bring your newsletter content to life. If you’re highlighting objects or art from your collection, a beautiful photo of them can be very attractive – but make sure that you have permission to share the image for publicity purposes, and that you include a credit line underneath with all the copyright information.

If you’re promoting an event, using an illustrative shot helps your ticket sales. If you’re running a craft workshop, include an appealing shot of the crafts that people will learn how to make. If you’re promoting family activities, use a photo of a happy family looking excited about doing the activity! This will help your subscribers imagine themselves in that situation, subtly persuading them that this would be right for them.

For improved accessibility, it’s best practice to add alt-text to each image explaining what it depicts, to help people who use screen readers. People reading your newsletter on their mobile or tablet expect to be able to click on images as well as links in the written text – so if you’re using an image to promote something you want people to click through to, include the URL in the text as well as underneath the image.

Length

The length of newsletters really varies: you may have a two paragraph-long announcement to make, or you may want to include several snippets and links, each with a line or two of text to introduce them. Bear in mind that your subscribers may be reading on a screen as small as a mobile phone – overall, it’s best to keep things short and snappy, and link out to longer pieces of content.

Copywriting

When you’re writing an email newsletter, always keep in mind who will be reading it, and what actions you want them to take as a result – and re-read them before sending them out to make sure that what you’re writing will land in the right way. The newsletters that people look forward to opening express an individual voice, without too much technical language – don’t be afraid of bringing some personality and excitement into what you write.

Plain text versions

Not everyone will have HTML enabled when they read your newsletter, meaning that they won’t see your carefully designed template and photos. Most newsletter services will give you the option of creating a plain text version of your newsletter, with the same text and links but without the images and formatting. When you do this, it’s worth taking a couple of minutes to read through the automatically-generated plain text version and delete any unnecessary, left-over code that may make it difficult to read.

Legal compliance

Email newsletters must clearly indicate who you are, that you’re selling something (if you are), what the promotions are, and any terms and conditions – for instance, if you’re running a competition. You don’t have to publish these in full in the body of your newsletter – they can be linked to.

Your newsletters must also include your organisation’s physical address, and a link for your subscribers to opt out of further emails by unsubscribing themselves from your list. Most newsletter services will include these fields in the footer template area, which shows up at the bottom of your email campaigns.

More advanced things you can do:

Reports: tracking open and click rates

Email newsletter service providers can give you data reporting on how many subscribers, and what percentage of your total list, open and click on each of your newsletters. These are calculated automatically with tracking pixels – a tiny, invisible image which is added to your email campaign. When a subscriber opens your email newsletter, this image is downloaded from the service’s server and they count it as an open.

However, tracking pixels are approximate rather than completely accurate, and can both under and over-report opens. Also, if your subscribers don’t download images in email by default, and they choose to read your newsletter without downloading the pictures, they won’t be counted as having opened it.

It’s worth reviewing the open and click rates of your newsletters to get an idea of how useful they are to your subscribers. A high open rate indicates that your email subject lines are interesting to your readers, and good click rates show that the readers who opened your newsletter found the content relevant to them

Testing

Before sending out your newsletter to your entire mailing list, it’s worth looking at a preview version showing how it will display on different devices, to double check that its formatting is clear. Then it’s a good idea to email a copy to yourself and someone else on your team who hasn’t seen it before, to check that all the links work and there are no spelling mistakes.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with slight changes to your email newsletter text and layout – if lots of your subscribers close your email quickly without clicking on links lower down, this may mean that they’d prefer shorter newsletters from you.

A/B testing is a technical facility offered by most email newsletter service providers, enabling you to send slightly tweaked versions of your newsletter to small subsets of your subscriber list. This can help you determine which version of your newsletter gets the highest open and click rate, so that you can choose this version to send out to your whole list. You can test different elements such as your subject line, the newsletter content, and the precise time of day you send out your newsletter.

Segmentation

Segmentation means looking at sub-sets of subscribers to your mailing list who have something in common, so that you can target them with customised messages. For instance, you might want to re-send an email newsletter with a slightly altered subject line to your list subscribers who didn’t open it the first time around.

You might want to send a more persuasive targeted sales message or discount code to your subscribers who clicked through to your museum shop or ticket sales page, but didn’t end up making a purchase, as these people could be considered “warm leads”.

Re-engagement campaigns

Unless you have a very small subscriber list and your email newsletter service is still free, the price you pay per month is based on your number of subscribers, so the bigger your list gets the more you are charged. It is good practice to run ‘reengagement campaigns’ – identifying the people on your list who do not open your emails, and inviting them to either engage or unsubscribe.

To do this, you would create a segment of subscribers who, for instance, haven’t opened any of your emails in the last 6 months – you can try to re-engage them, ask them more about what they’d like to learn from you and whether there is other content you’re not sending them that would be more relevant – and ultimately remind them that they can unsubscribe from your list if your newsletters aren’t relevant or helpful to them. Subscribers who remain inactive can be removed from your mailing list, saving you money from the number of subscribers that you pay for each month, and helping to keep your list healthy and engaged.

Autoresponders

Autoresponders are sets of emails that you create to be sent out automatically, triggered by certain events – for instance, when somebody joins your mailing list. You could begin with a welcome message and offer, then follow up a week later with an introduction to some of your team and their current projects which might be of interest, or encourage your new subscriber to follow you on social media.

You can also use autoresponders triggered by people’s previous behaviour – for instance, if they bought family tickets to your Santa’s Grotto last Christmas, they may well be interested in bringing their family again this Christmas, so you could make an autoresponder that goes out to this segment of your list saying “Remember how much fun this was last year? This year we have even more reindeer!”

Because these messages, once you set them up, are automated, you don’t need to worry about logging in and taking the time to send them individually – and of course you can still send your regular newsletters as well.

Further reading:

Gov.uk – Guidance around direct marketing

Association of Independent Museums – General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) guidance for small museums

MailChimp.com – About open and click rates

MailChimp.com – About A/B testing campaigns

ConversionXL.com – Beginner’s guide to email segmentation and personalisation

Style Factory Productions – Autoresponders: what they are and how to use them

LinkedIn – Subject lines and creative copy in arts email newsletters