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Thursday, October 24, 2013

How to write an email newsletter

Newsletter In my ongoing series of posts about email, I've been looking at different models for periodic email newsletters, and thinking about how to better connect with my various readerships.*

For the past year I have been using weekly email newsletters on courses I am teaching. I am very happy with the model I have for doing this, both in terms of using Blogger as a content management system (CMS) and multimedia authoring tool, and the content and format of the messages. Although it is difficult to gather evidence in support of the dark social model, feedback from student questionnaires has been encouraging. I'll be writing more about that at some point in the future, but in this post I want to consider my more public facing blogs.

Last week, and after considerable thought, I announced that my longest running blog, MicrobiologyBytes, is moving to a weekly publication schedule. There are a number of reasons for this, but one of them is to allow me to avoid the information overload that comes from frequent posting, and develop a more engaging relationship with readers - something which has been lost as the number of blogs and the volume of content has grown over the years. Over the last couple of weeks I have been looking at alternative formats for email newsletters and deciding which way I want to go. But before plunging into the details, I'd like to quickly rehash the reasons behind the change. Number one is content overload and consequent loss of engagement. There's a very old AlertBox post about different categories of email which is as true today as when it was written (Protecting the User's Mailbox). This maps directly onto the problem with frequency of posting - longform once a week blog posts now jostle for attention beside short form content such as SMS and Twitter ("Protecting the User's Cognitive Space"). To protect my blood pressure, I'll reserve discussing colleagues unable to distinguish Reply from Reply To All, and Send Email To Students versus Send Email To All Course Participants, for another occasion. But this isn't an entirely negative move, I'm focusing more on the positive outcomes, such as the now near ubiquity of responsive design allowing enhanced engagement through mobile devices.

In essence, after looking at a considerable number of examples, I have concluded there are two types of email newsletter. One is the linkfest. This can be original content but is much more commonly simply a collation of previously published items. Linkfests come in two flavours, highly visual, where images serve the main come-ons to the links, or primarily text based, with some sort of branding or splash image to reassure recipients that they're not looking at spam. These are by far the most common type of newsletter. But to me, they miss a huge trick, which is the major reason I am interested in this.

Just as there are two categories of email - functional (e.g. submission receipts) and conversational - the second category of newsletter seeks to engage the readership rather than simply push more content at them. This clearly takes more work, but is the major advantage of the format. This isn't about competing directly for attention with social networks. It's about developing a much more engaged relationship with readers. There is a clear parallel with blog post style, simple sharing of a link versus writing crafted to give the impression that you are sharing the poster's inner thoughts. The newsletters I am planning to write are about relationships rather than publishing content. This arises from my experience of using newsletters with students to manage the information flow on courses I am teaching. Although much of the content I will share will consist of discussing links to content published elsewhere, the style will need to be open rather than closed, and aimed at generating conversation rather than pageviews.

Which brings us back to the issue of metrics - how do you measure success in this area? I'm coming to the conclusion the answer to that has something to do with ... Google Analytics - although it's not easy to differentiate between various sources such as email and RSS. I have a number of experiments going on right now, and I'll publish the results during my dark social workshop at SpotOn London 2013: The Dark Art of Dark Social: Email, the antisocial medium which will not die.



*See what I did there? Used the word "series" to make it look like there is some sort of planning behind my ramblings about dark social.



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