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Make sure your email newsletter is working

Make sure your email newsletter is working Joseph Carrabis

How many readers use email newsletters? What's the success rate?

Are these simple questions? Yes and no. There are six basic email newsletter forms. There are many more subvarieties, and there are six that universally produce desired results -- one highly specific to mobile devices. You may be using email newsletters, but are you using the best ones for your audience? Determining success rates has meaning because it is a view into whether or not you're using the correct newsletter form for your audience.

Let me muddy things much further by giving you a few more things to consider:

  • Who benefits from reading your newsletter?

  • What's your newsletter's persona?

  • What does "engaging" someone really mean?

Who benefits from reading your newsletter?
Is your newsletter for you or for your subscribers? Who does it benefit directly?

If the answer is that it directly benefits you then you've already lost the race because there's no reason for subscribers to open your newsletter and read it. One of the major problems we discovered in our six-year email newsletter study was that the majority of them went unopened. Subscribers might not unsubscribe, but they certainly delete newsletters when they don't offer them value.

The amount of time it takes subscribers to open a newsletter after they receive it is based largely on two variables: 1) how often the email newsletter is published; 2) how much personal or business value they believe they'll receive from the newsletter.

Here's a warning sign that your newsletter is becoming less useful to its subscribers: the time it's taking them to open the newsletter starts to grow. This is more critical than any unsubscription rate. People unsubscribing demonstrate that they want to keep communications open.

What about simple deletion? Your newsletter (that is, you) is a simple nuisance not worth their time -- a periodic press of the DELETE key is more time- and cost-effective than the subscriber looking for the "unsubscribe" link on your newsletter or going to your website .

And when a subscriber does go to your website to unsubscribe? Then you have a chance. These folks are looking for value and asking you to give it to them.

Know your newsletter's persona
People like to look in mirrors. Narcissus spread his genes without discrimination. One of the ways people look into mirrors is by what's called ego-identification, and this goes far beyond mirrors. People look for themselves in products and services and smart marketers know this.

There are many ways to show people reflections of themselves-- too many to enumerate here, although I will offer that the industry uses the concept of ego-identification frequently. The industry calls it personae. This begs the question: do you know your newsletter's persona?

In the previous section I wrote "your newsletter (that is, you)," and this leads directly into the use of personae in newsletter writing and publishing. Not only do subscribers need to believe your newsletter will provide value, they need to see themselves in it and in you. You want to be trusted, and the quickest way to be trusted to is demonstrate that you -- as represented by your newsletter -- are just like your subscribers.

We discovered in our research that subscribers are often a subset of customers and website visitors. This means your website and marketing designs can be different from your newsletter design. Case in point: NextStage's home page has a 19 percent bounce rate (web analyst and fellow iMedia author Stephane Hamel tells me this is amazing). The NextStage home page is designed very specifically for our historical audience. (That, and I think our regular audience members have come to know we use our own website to test theories, so they come to figure out what we're doing and why.)

The newsletter we just published uses what we call Mask 5. This mask was chosen because it most easily allows us to demonstrate value. It is a close reflection of what our subscribers expect, and it allows the persona they have of us (hence allowing them to keep their own self-concept of personal persona) to remain intact.

To rebrand or not to rebrand…
Sometimes the power of a persona is to allow your audience to keep theirs. This may be a sophisticated idea to some, and it is actually quite simple. Think of someone you've known for a very long time but whom you haven't seen for a while. Then you see them and they've changed their look, their job, found or lost religion -- done something that redefines them. This friend was a mirror and now that mirror is reflecting something very different. The result is that most people question who they think they are when they re-encounter their life-changing friend.

Now think of a company that's gone through a radical rebranding. Radical rebrandings handled poorly (Think "New Coke") are costly in more ways than one.

The key is this: are you or your company well known or recognized? If so, don't rebrand yourself in your newsletter. The safe way to promote a different look and feel in your newsletter is to keep elements of your old persona in tact. Using myself as a case in point, Eric Peterson suggested I make my blog posts prettier. I replied that if I did, people wouldn't believe I'd written them.

The response equation and engagement
People are responding perfectly to your newsletters, your marketing and your website. They may not be responding as you want them to, but that has more to do with your not appreciating the mathematics of engagement than anything else.

First, what is engagement? I can tell you what NextStage means by it: "Engagement is the demonstration of attention via psychomotor activity that serves to focus an individual's attention."

What's attention? "Attention is a behavior that demonstrates specific neural activity is taking place."

Can engagement and attention be measured on websites? Yes and no. Yes, these are routine measurements. No, traditional web analytics won't do it.

Elsewhere, I'm having a great discussion with some of the leading experts in the field on The Future of Web Analytics. One of the things I'm learning is that nothing traditional web analytics is doing deals with psycho-emotive and psycho-cognitive behaviors.

In case no one's noticed, marketing occurs in the mind long before it occurs on the page. Unless your measurements take into account how your visitors are thinking, you're measuring machinery, not people.

So people not responding as you wish to your web page, marketing material or newsletter? Well, they are responding, and perfectly. Exactly as your marketing material and understanding of your audience dictate they should be. Don't blame your audience or your marketing materials if the response isn't what you want.

Take a lesson from large animal husbandry; you train an animal to respond to a cue but the response isn't what you want. Well, you trained them. They're responding exactly as they should to the information you've given them.

Want to change their response? First reward them for the response they're giving you, and then use the reward to direct their attention to the response you want them to give. Knowing how to reward them means knowing what motivates them. This goes back to understanding how their and your newsletter's personae interact.

Success in marketing in general, and in newsletters specifically, has many parts. The three discussed here are:

  1. Make sure your newsletter provides value in and of itself. Using your newsletter to drive customers elsewhere is a dying proposition. The ubiquity of information on the internet is causing subscribers to require value in the newsletter itself. Find value there and they'll follow you for more value elsewhere.

  2. Your subscriber base will be a subset of your general audience. Specifically, it will be a subset that has stated they want to enter a relationship with you. Make sure your newsletter has enough of you via persona to make that relationship worth keeping.

  3. Provide value to people who want a relationship with you and they will be engaged at the psycho-cognitive and psycho-emotive levels. That is exactly where you want them engaged. Forget clickthroughs and traditional measurements because unless your information is designed to satisfy them you'll never know. They'll just delete your newsletter and you'd rather they unsubscribe. The former indicates they're ignoring you, the latter that they're still interested, just not in what you're offering them at the time.

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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