Newsletter Know-How

No matter how hard you work to build a usable, interactive Web site, your site will receive little traffic if you don't promote it. One of the most effective--and inexpensive--ways to market your Web site is through one of the simplest Internet technologies available: email.

No matter how hard you work to build a usable, interactive Web site, your site will receive little traffic if you don't promote it. One of the most effective--and inexpensive--ways to market your Web site is through one of the simplest Internet technologies available: email. According to Forrester Research, email newsletters have an average response rate of a whopping 18 percent--that's compared to an average click-through rate of .65 percent for banner ads. Not only can you use email newsletters to drive traffic to your site, you can also use them to earn revenue through ads and build consumer relationships and loyalty.

With our newsletter know-how, we'll show you how to sign up subscribers, format your copy, and send your newsletter out regularly. Soon you too will have millions of subscribers hanging on your every word.

Signing Up Subscribers
Build your mailing list in several different ways.

Writing and Formatting
Tailor your newsletter to your audience and keep them engaged.

Sending
Learn about sending your newsletter and maintaining your subscription list.

Signing Up Subscribers
Building a user base for your newsletter can take time, but at least gathering the email addresses is simple. Using an HTML Web form to collect subscribers' addresses makes the job easy. You don't have to get fancy, but you'll want the form to be eye-catching to attract users. Builder.com uses this code to sign up subscribers:

Click for code

To get subscribers, put the sign-up form on every page of your site, if you can. At the very least, include it on high-traffic pages, such as your home page. Where you send the addresses you collect will depend on whether you plan to send the newsletter yourself or outsource sending it. If you outsource it, your application service provider (ASP) will most likely maintain the database to which the addresses are sent. The company will probably even provide you with the sign-up form to post on your site. For example, ListBot clients can use this ready-made form to collect addresses. If you look at the source code, you'll see that the addresses go to www.listbot.com/cgi-bin/subscriber:

<form method="post" action="http://www.listbot.com/cgi-bin/subscriber">
 <table border=0><tr><td colspan=2>
 Join our mailing list!<br>
 Enter your email address below,<br>
 then click the 'Join List' button:<br>
 </td></tr><tr><td>
 <input type=text name="e_mail">
 <input type=hidden name="list_id" value="listbot_letter">
 <input type=hidden name="Act" value="subscribe_list">
 </td><td>
 <input type=image src="http://www.listbot.com/subscribe_button.gif" border=0 width=88 height=31 alt="Click here to join our mailing list!">
 </td></tr><tr><td colspan=2>
 <font size=1 FACE="Arial, Helvetica"><a href="http://www.listbot.com/" target="_blank">Powered by ListBot</a></font><br>
 </td></tr></table>
 </form>

Opt-in Only
You can also use a newsletter subscription checkbox within a larger form. For example, when users are registering a product, ask them if they'd also like to receive your newsletter. When you do this, however, leave the newsletter checkbox deselected by default. This forces the user to "opt in" for your newsletter. Granted, if you leave the box checked, you may get more subscriptions because users didn't see it or take the time to deselect it. However, when such users get your newsletter, they may consider it spam. Not only will this lessen your company's reputation in their eyes, but it will also create more work for you when they unsubscribe, as they will most likely do. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen recommends being as up-front as possible about newsletters. He suggests offering explicit information about what type of information the newsletter will contain, how often it's sent, and where users can see a sample newsletter before signing up. This will help you avoid the appearance of having spammed your customers, when in reality they didn't know they had signed up for your newsletter.

Scamming Leads to Spamming
Of course, there are other, quicker--but less ethical--ways to build up your subscriber base. You could spider the Web, collecting all the published email addresses that you can find, and add them to your subscriber list without notifying anyone. Needless to say, these people did not choose your list. Although this technique could indeed give you a very large list--numbers that may even provoke a sales lead or two--no reputable business should use this method. If your inbox has ever been spammed, we don't need to tell you how annoying it is.

If you have the money and want to build up a list quickly, you can always buy an existing mailing list from a list broker, such as Lighthouse List Company. These brokers tend to have industry-specific lists, so you may be able to find a targeted audience. However, you'll want to check whether these are opt-in lists. The recipients will be much happier to receive your newsletter if they have asked to receive it or newsletters like it. Whichever method you choose to gather email addresses for your list, your most important task is to write compelling copy in an engaging format so that your subscribers become loyal. If you do this well, your subscriptions should increase with each edition of your newsletter.

Writing and Formatting
A newsletter's substance and style will vary depending on the site's target audience. Nevertheless, there are some common techniques that you can use across industries to improve your newsletter's usability.

Substance
First of all, you want to get and keep your subscribers' attention. According to Jupiter, only 15 percent of all email readers read messages to the end. In fact, more than half read only the first few sentences before deciding if they want to read more. So snappy headlines, copy, and even subject lines are crucial. The exact tone will be determined by who your audience is, but your aim is to set yourself apart from spam by keeping the email specific and relevant to the reader.

Writing to your target audience while keeping your own purpose in mind is the highest priority. For example, if your main goal is to drive traffic to your Web site, then write short blurbs that "tease" users to click for more information. On the other hand, if you are promoting a special deal or sale on your site, give the users all the information they need for the transaction. You can also write content that exists only in the newsletter, such as a weekly column, in order to establish a relationship with your subscribers. Once they feel they know you, they're likely to visit your Web site more often.

You can also sell ad space in your newsletter--or have a company such as E-target.com sell ad space for you. Finally, always include unsubscribe information in each newsletter. This information can be located at the very bottom, as long as subscribers can find it without feeling trapped. After writing your newsletter, make sure to spell-check it and have several other people read it all, checking links and correcting errors, before sending it. Builder.com's newsletters, for instance, go through an editor and a copy editor before they are sent to a test list and then out to subscribers.

Style
When you organize your newsletter, be sure to keep it short. Just as most people don't want to read the Great American Novel on the Web, they don't want to read it in email, either. Break up paragraphs after a few sentences and use subheads wherever possible to separate blocks of text. To further ease the newsletter's readability, consider using a table of contents at the beginning. Subscribers can easily scan the text to find what is of interest to them without getting bored and hitting the Delete key.

Formatting your newsletter in HTML can make it much more engaging. More than 80 percent of email clients can support HTML-formatted messages, and studies show that HTML newsletters have higher click-through rates than plain-text newsletters. To create an HTML newsletter, you just code it as you would a Web page. However, you'll want to test how it looks in several different email clients; most programs support only simple layouts. In other words, skip the complex tables and fancy frames. Also keep in mind that the more images and multimedia files you include in the newsletter, the longer it will take to download. Your best bet is to offer both plain-text and HTML versions of your newsletter so that your subscribers can choose the one they want. If you stick to plain text, either break your lines before they reach 80 characters in width or choose Word Wrap while writing the newsletter and don't insert breaks at all. If you don't stick to these guidelines, your newsletter could appear pretty funky, because most email clients display about 80 characters per line.

No one can tell you exactly the best way to format your newsletter; after all, you know your users best. Because different audiences expect different styles, there's no uniform advice for formatting a newsletter. However, if you're stuck for formatting ideas, there are plenty of free templates available. Or look to newsletters you admire for design hints.

Sending
Send your newsletter at regular intervals so that your subscribers get used to seeing it and even look forward to it. Don't send it more than once a week unless you have some compelling reason to do so, such as your company launching new products. People get a lot of email, and you don't want your hard work to go into the trash just because your subscriber is overwhelmed. Whether you send your newsletter once a week or every other month, pick a day and time and stick with it.

The Low-Tech Option
At a minimum, you can send out your newsletter using an email client such as Eudora or Outlook. Just put the recipients in the BCC: field (so that subscribers can't see each other's email addresses) and paste the newsletter into the body of the message. This method will work for a few dozen subscribers, but when your subscription list expands, manually maintaining the list will become tedious. Each time someone wants to be unsubscribed, for instance, you'll have to go into your address book and delete that user. This may not sound like a big deal, but studies show that 5 percent of the addresses on the average list become invalid each month. If you have several thousand list members, you'll soon realize the need to automate these tasks.

Setting Up a List Server
That's where list servers come in. You can install server software that lets you automate the maintenance tasks of administering a newsletter while also keeping the job in-house (some of these programs are even free). Most list servers let you track click-throughs, unsubscribes, invalid addresses, and even pass-alongs (when a subscriber forwards your newsletter to someone). Gordano's GLList is a list server that does just that. We'll use its free trial to set up and administer a newsletter in a matter of minutes.

You can install GLList to an existing NTMail/GLWebMail Server (Gordano's mail server), to another mail server (remote or local), or by itself. To install GLList, just follow the installation wizard; you'll also need a Web browser on your system to access the user interface (Gordano recommends Navigator 4.0 or later or Internet Explorer 4 or higher). To create a new list, choose List·Add and select the domain where you want the list to live. Next, in the Account Type drop-down list, select List and type the name of the list (without any spaces). Choose the name carefully, as this is what the list will be called in list commands that subscribers can use. Type and confirm the password and select Next twice to complete creating the list. You can also use the List Wizard to create a new list (found under List·Add). Each list requires a control account, but GLList automatically creates one called "GLList." You can use this control account to test out the software.

To add members to the list, choose Action·Join and select your list. Enter an email address and click Join. You can also add members by sending an email message to GLListcontrol@.com with the content "join GLList ". You'll receive a confirmation email, and the subscriber will receive a welcome message. To post to the list, you can email your post directly or use GLList's Web interface. When you're setting up your list, make sure that only you have permission to post to the list (otherwise you'd be creating a discussion list rather than a newsletter). Enter the subject and the newsletter text and select Send. That's all there is to it!

Although most list servers have graphical user interfaces that make them easy to use, you'll still need someone to install the software, generate reports, and analyze trends. If you don't have the staff to maintain your own list server, you can outsource the job.

The No-Fuss Option
As your list grows, it may be easier to outsource tasks. Dozens of fee-based and free ASPs exist that will maintain, monitor, and even promote your list for you. For example, for $99 per year, ListBot will send your newsletter, provide you with a Web form to collect addresses, maintain a database to collect information about your subscribers, and manage the subscribe/unsubscribe functions automatically. The company even offers a free version that includes ads, but you can't import an existing subscriber list, and there's a smaller message size limit (100KB for free; 250KB otherwise). Other ASPs, such as GoBizGo, include newsletter management in their Web design services.

Subscriber Sign-up Code

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