How to build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers

January 30, 2019
January 30, 2019 Carol Forden

With the advent of Facebook privacy and data issues, GDPR requirements in the EU and sales organizations have long complained about the ineffectiveness of email newsletters compared to personalized emails.  So, how do you build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers?

Today, consumers are ad agnostic, and Facebook has seen a drop off in sign-in by users, and recent evidence suggests that not only is the email newsletter (eNewsletter) alive and well, but it also increases conversion rates and increases sales.

If you’ve put in the time and hard work to create an eNewsletter that people read, then you’ll be able to turn those readers into paying customers.

Twelve critical aspects of a great eNewsletters that  you can do to increase sales

Before We Do, Let’s Review A Few Points On Human Psychology

Every Sunday at around 5 PM I have the same conversation with my family: “Let’s make a meal plan for this week and prep the vegetables we’ll need. Let’s meet in the kitchen in 30 minutes and start.”

Thirty minutes later we’ve ordered takeout, and not one of us has moved from the couch or broken away from playing on social media or a video game.

I’m willing to guess that your Sunday rituals are similar after all we are all human.

Like everyone else, people, including your customers are lazy when it comes to things they don’t have to do.

This is why you need to make it as easy as possible for your customers to buy from you, don’t make them jump through needless hoops to purchase.

If your customer cannot find the “Buy” button or if your offer is confusing, your readers will abandon the eNewsletter and potentially unsubscribe.

The goal is to reduce the amount of friction between the reader and the action you want them to take (usually a click to your landing page or website).

Why ordering takeout is so appealing (vs. preparing and cooking a meal) is because it appeals to our inertia.

Inertia is the customer’s natural state when they’re skimming through your email or eNewsletter.

The challenge in selling through your eNewsletter is moving a passive “reading” experience into an “action-oriented” experience.

Below are eleven specific action items that you can take to overcome a readers’ inertia and turn them into buyers.

1. Have a Clear and Easy To Find Call-to-Action (CTA)

CTAs are where you tell your reader what action you want them to take.

For your CTA to be effective, it needs to be both easy to locate and to understand.

If there is any ambiguity in what someone needs to do, they will abandon the email and not take any action, other than to close the email.

How to build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers

This is an email newsletter sent by B Capital to its clients, where they list a giant block of employment opportunities.

Notice how inconsistent the terms of the ask(s), and the CTAs are and how they require the reader to take extra and unnecessary steps.

Don’t you think that a simple “Click Here To Apply” would have resulted in a better engagement at the end of each listing?

In the copywriting arena, we like to say “Clear beats clever,” and that is especially true with CTAs.

You want to use clear, easy to understand the action you want and obvious phrases in your CTAs such as, “OUR WORK,” “BUY TODAY,” “JOIN FREE FOR A MONTH,” “RESERVE YOUR SPOT,” “SIGN UP FOR FREE,” or “GET YOUR TICKETS.”

Bad CTAs are ambiguous or simply require work on the part of the reader. For example, “FILL OUT THE FORM TO BE CONTACTED,” “TRY NOW,” “START HERE,” or “HOW CAN WE HELP YOU?,” or “NEED/WANT MORE INFORMATION?”

To add insult to injury, they ask the reader for more work.

Take a look at all these conflicting CTAs:


How to build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers

The more clear and obvious your CTA, the better your conversion rate will be.

2. Go Deep Into A Topic

A company newsletter doesn’t have to be lengthy or overwhelming, but it should be consistent and have a clear purpose.

The first step for any eNewsletter is to start by defining your goal for such communications.

Yes, you want to create a personal connection with your customers and build their trust and confidence in your business.

Beyond those general purposes, however, there are other objectives you should be clear about.

A newsletter should “solve, not sell.”

A regular email should resolve your customers’ problems.

Always keep your average customer in mind, and compose a newsletter that addresses what they care about.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t promote products and services; you just need to do so in a way that addresses what your customers are thinking about.

Newsletters that inform or solve problems can also lead to higher sales.

Before preparing any newsletter, ask yourself what your clients are caring about this week or month, and how your business can address their concerns or desires.

A fast and easy way to come up with topics for the newsletter is to poll your employees; ask them what customers have been most interested in over the past few days.

Red Bull does an excellent job of focusing on one topic and going deep with the topic:

How to build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers


3. Have a Singular Offer

Most companies do what I call “offer stuffing.”

Too many purchase options are packed into their newsletter (see the example above) which confuses the reader.

General Assembly is an excellent example of a company that does the opposite. They use a “singular offer.”

Their emails showcase one specific offer AND ONLY ONE.

Typically, it’s an upcoming course, or it can be a new product, service they are introducing to the market, or an upcoming event.

By spotlighting one offer, they have time to explain who it’s for and why it’s valuable and why you should purchase.

If your readers are already reading and looking forward to your eNewsletter, then you want to respect their attention by providing valuable content, not fluff.

An offer is extremely valuable if it’s relevant to the reader and the reason for signing up to receive your emails and eNewletters.

For General Assembly, the people who sign up for their email list are interested in honing their software development and digital marketing skills. So, an email with an opportunity in which to do that is extremely relevant and valuable.

What’s more, notice how visually appealing this email is. It’s focused, it’s clean, and it doesn’t visually assault you with large blocks of text or lists.

How to build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers

It also follows rule #1: There is one unmissable call to action (“RSVP”). And the offer is clear, specific, and focused.

You reduce the power of your ask as you increase purchase options.

When it comes to buyer behavior on email, less is more.

If you’d want to learn more on this topic, take the time to read Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper’s paper “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” and Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice).

4. Be Precise In Your Offer

Earlier I explained that people are naturally lazy.

Ambiguity in your offer requires work since your reader has to decipher what you’re getting at.

And work (again) discourages people from taking action.

Our goal here is to reduce the amount of friction between your readers and the action we want them to take.

To keep your readers’ attention and get them to take action, your offer needs to be crystal clear while they’re skimming it (most people are scanning your emails, not reading them).

Here’s what I mean by an “ambiguous offer.” It sounds like, “Our representatives would love to talk to you more about what Xxxx (our company) can do for your company. To learn more, click here.”

First, this makes the reader do all the work which we’ve already established is a considerable deterrent.

Second, the reader now has to decipher what “can do for your company” means.

Is this accounting services? Operations? Sales support? Marketing? Are you going to manage my social media?

Why should I care?

What exactly can you do for my company?

This is the kind of language that will turn off busy readers.

You have 3-7 seconds to appeal to the reader who is scanning your email. You cannot afford to generalize.

Alternately, this is what a clear and specific offer reads like:

“Next week, we are hosting 25 of the world’s top sales professionals at our growth summit. Join CEO Matt Karney from Sigmond’s and three-time Best Saleswoman of The Year, Jennifer Duncan of Treetop Hospitality for a 50-minute presentation on How To Succeed Without a Digital Sales Team at 10 AM EST. Click here to buy your tickets. Limited seats available.”

This language is specific and precise, leaving no room for confusion.

The reader has two options in how they react to this, “I’d love to go to this!” or “This isn’t for me.”

This is your goal.

You want to turn some readers off and some readers on by being specific and precise with what you’re offering.

PROTIP: Put a deadline on your offer. Urgency and scarcity provoke action. If time is running out, let your readers know, so they don’t miss out.

5. Focus on a Specific Audience

I’ll never forget the day I received a brief from Georgia Pacific (GP) for a toilet paper promotion they were doing in a major retailer. The “Target Market” section was filled out with the following information:

Women from 18-60.

That’s it. Those were our parameters.

Even if you don’t know much about women or marketing, you can understand how an 18-year old’s shopping behavior is going to be extremely different from a 60-year-old’s.

An 18-year-old is shopping for herself for the first time.

As a brand, you have an opportunity to create a first impression and get them hooked on your brand.

Alternately, a 60-year-old already knows what she likes.

You’d need to focus your efforts on switching them from them current toilet paper brand to yours (or if she’s already buying yours, then the focus is on how you get them to buy more of it).

Those are two very different marketing goals.

As a result, the campaign was a wash.

We did the only thing we could: used a discount as our appeal to the customer.

This is not a strategy I recommend as it attracts people who are after a discount instead of loyalists, but we didn’t have much of a choice.

In marketing and sales its well known that: If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll appeal to no one.

To sell effectively via email, you need to focus your offer on a specific audience.

You don’t want to sell to everyone: just the right people.

If your email list is niche and specific, this won’t be a problem.

But the majority of email lists are broad and far-reaching. It helps to remember that the majority of people will not buy your product or service.

So spend your time focusing on the people who will. And write exclusively to those people.

#protip: Your colleagues are not your customers. Don’t write in a way that will make them think you’re impressive. Focus on your customers who might not have as much native fluency in your field.

6. Use Your Numbers

I worked with a client who refused to implement any of the recommendations my team suggested.

They badgered their list constantly with upcoming events, requests for donations, and new membership options.

Occasionally, they’d send out an email with links to their blog posts, but these were also pushing events and company-centric information.

When I explained this strategy does not work, they didn’t agree. So I dug into their data.

Here’s what I found:

  • They had 10 separate email lists (with 33% of people receiving five emails a week from different lists)
  • A .09% click-through rate (CTR), well below the average for their industry
  • An average open rate of 16%
  • And an attrition rate of 30% (meaning, they lost 30% of their list to the “unsubscribe” button over the last 12 months)

It was terrible.

Not only was no one reading their emails, the few that were weren’t engaging with the content.

To add insult to injury, they had no content calendar, no strategy, and no plan, but were resolute that their approach was working and that sending more emails yielded more sales. (I saw no evidence of this in the data).

We worked together to create a content calendar and clean out the list (that means removing people who haven’t opened emails in 3-6 months).

In virtually no time, we were able to more than double open rates and CTRs. (Unfortunately, I do not have the sales data, but the proxy metrics suggested that sales did increase significantly.)

The point is that you need to be tracking how your emails are performing.

Without the data, you’re only guessing about what’s working and what’s not.

Someone on your team needs to be in charge of digging into the numbers and building reports that track performance over time.

The only way to know for sure is to track the data and then use that information to amend and adjust your strategy moving forward.

7. Put the most important article or photo at the top…

…because people are busy. Assume that many will only read the lead piece, so make sure that it is a connection-builder.

8. Contain just enough information for people to read in 5 minutes.

Frankly, you’re lucky if you get that much time.

For this reason, don’t confuse a newsletter with your website.

Don’t put every possible subject in your weekly email.

Resources, random links and too many articles or photos just increase the noise level.

Less is more.

9. Highlight one piece of information and include one clear call to action per newsletter.

After writing the newsletter, ask yourself, what is the call to action?

Is it easy to understand?

Does it require too many clicks?

10. Use a subject line that talks to the customer.

Ask yourself if the subject line would compel you to open this email. Does it speak to solving problems?

11. Proofread

Read what you’ve written out loud, more than once. Have others read it with care and ask for honest feedback.

You don’t want the call to action to be hidden because of spelling errors, typos or sentences that don’t make sense.

12.  Follow the 90/10 Rule

A newsletter should focus on educating your reader and bringing value to help solve their problem and pain points.

It’s okay to offer a coupon, or promotion within the newsletter. However, this should be kept to 10% of the total content.

The goal of the newsletter is to

How to build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers

This Isn’t Rocket Science

Most of what we’ve covered here you already know. But when it comes to our newsletters, there is a huge gap between what we know and what we do.

Often, we get stuck having to please an apathetic boss or frantic CEO.

Or we’re simply five minutes from the deadline and “need to push something out.” (Please, never, ever, “push” something out.)

When you are in a rush to “push” out a newsletter, you begin to focus on the things that are irrelevant. For example, how often have you wondered:

  • What time should we send our emails?
  • How long should my email be?
  • Should I A/B test the headlines?
  • Does it matter what day I send on?
  • Is morning better than evening? How do I know?

You know the answer: It depends.

There isn’t a magical time of day that will make your audience open more and buy from you. And that’s because every audience is different.

My audience is different from yours, and your audience is different from your competitors. The only way to know these answers is to test them and figure it out for yourself. Most companies that publish guidelines on these are using aggregate data that is irrelevant to you.

My audience opens emails while they’re at work, so mornings are best. J.Crew sends their newsletters all day long, every day, and multiple times a day if there’s a sale.

Austin Kleon sends his famous newsletters on Fridays, where Vanessa Van Edwards’ Science of People newsletter dominates on Wednesdays (unless she has a launch).

How long your newsletter is, when you send it, and why you send it all depends on your audience.

None of this works if you don’t know who you are writing to and what they care about.

The success and failure of your newsletter depends solely on who your audience is and your ability to hone in on what they need.

That’s why to effectively sell in your newsletters you need to strategically not sell in most of them.

You want to be building a relationship with your readers, gaining their trust, and adding value to their lives over time.

A good way to think about this is in the famous “jab, jab, jab, right hook” metaphor popularized by social media guru Gary Vaynerchuck.

The goal is to provide value (to “jab”) over and over again, with no expectations from your readers. And then, when you have something to sell, you ask for the sale (“right hook”) assertively, clearly, and without ambiguity.

If you continue to pay attention to who is on your list, focus on what they want (not what you want), and provide clear, useful, and unmissable CTAs, you will build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers in no time.

If you follow the steps outlined above, in no time you will build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers.

If you want assistance with conversion rate optimization, content marketing, inbound marketing or social media, please contact us, we are happy to help.