How to launch a newsletter

By: Jon Kane
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Let me be clear: this isn’t one of those cliched blog posts where I list “5 things you can learn from this non-marketing thing”. It might look like it at first, but bear with me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Penn and Teller recently. For those of you who aren’t familiar with who they are, Penn and Teller are magicians that have performed together since the 80s, nearly 40 years of continued excellence. They’ve got a residency in Vegas, and have performed all over the world. 

They’ve done all sorts of illusions over the span of their career, but my favorite is Cups and Balls. Click the link and watch it. It’s worth a couple of minutes of your time, and contains an important lesson. 

I’ll wait.

Great, isn’t it? They run through it twice and then show you how it’s done using see-through cups. And it’s magical, even the third time. It still works without the veil of mystery draped over it. What matters is the execution, not the strategy. It’s dazzling and entertaining because they have clearly done this thousands of times. 

Here’s the lesson I promised: Penn and Teller giving away the secret of how they did it doesn’t make the illusion any less powerful. In fact, it makes it even more impactful. Not only do they amaze people, they inspire them. And this doesn’t just apply to magic, it’s true everywhere

Now I don’t mention this because I want to start doing magic. I say this to explain both why Brainrider is launching an email newsletter, and how we’re doing it. 

As a B2B agency, we’ve helped many, many, many clients over the years develop email newsletters. We understand the strategy of email marketing, we know content marketing inside out, and we know marketing automation. But we have yet to launch our own newsletter! What’s the cliche about the cobbler’s kids having no shoes

At the start of the year I subscribed to an email newsletter published by Steve Bryant, the Creative Director at an agency called Article Group (you should subscribe to it). I read one email, fell in love, and immediately went to our Demand Generation Manager and said “We have to do our version of this”. 

The question is: where to start?

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Getting ducks in a row

My first step was figuring out the answers to some key questions. I got in a room with some key stakeholders (for us it was key team leaders – Content, Creative and Demand Generation – your stakeholders may be different). We needed to work out:

– What is our objective?
– What does success look like?
– Who do we want to talk to?
– What mutual interests do we share with that audience?
– How often do we want to communicate?

Any email newsletter needs to be clear on the answers to these strategic questions before work begins, because these will be the guiding lights to show you the way. If you want to do a similar exercise yourself, you can download this strategic template to help collate the output of that meeting. Organizing all of your key strategic decisions on a single sheet like this will also make it easier for you to sell the newsletter strategy to senior stakeholders.

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Knowing where the goalposts are

For us, our objective is the same as when we work with our clients: become a trusted advisor, and be thought of as a useful source of insight and guidance. 

Being a trusted resource is obviously a tricky thing to measure, so we’re defining it by looking to see if we have an engaged and opted-in audience, one that finds value in what we’re sharing. We’ll know that, because they’ll hopefully tell us. 

So we’re able to define our KPIs:

– Audience growth month over month
– Number of recipients clicking on more than one link
– Number of social shares
– Number of direct feedback messages per month

You’ll notice that there’s two things that we didn’t include: open and click through rate. This is because campaign-level metrics aren’t going to determine success for us with this newsletter. We’ll report on them, certainly, but they won’t be directing our production or guiding our creative decisions.

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You talkin’ to me?

Once we’ve established our objectives and KPIs, we need to determine who this newsletter is for. This one was easy for us to answer, because it looks a lot like our ideal client:

“CMOs + Marketing Directors who want to leverage technology and creativity to solve their pipeline marketing problems.”

Your mileage may vary, but the clearer your definition of who you are writing for, the better the final product is going to be. For our newsletter, I have three specific clients (all very different people, all facing the same challenges) that I have in mind whenever I’m thinking about what to share. I suggest you do the same.

When it comes to identifying your audience within your marketing automation platform, you have two choices: start with a single-digit audience and build a completely opted-in audience (this is how most independent newsletters grow), or look in your existing database for folks who fit your ideal profile to see if you can seed the audience.

Brainrider has been talking to smart B2B marketers for a decade and was an early adopter of Pardot, so we’re going with option two: starting with a small, focused list of Brainrider clients rather than just folks that fit our ideal reader profile. 

It’s worth noting: even with a project as simple as an email newsletter, the value in having a multi-faceted view is clear. It’s not enough to just think through the content marketing strategy, you need to be able to tie in your web, martech and design thinking, too. One plus one plus one equals a good email.

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Relevant to your interests

Once we had a defined audience, we needed to figure out how our interests intersected. 

This is important on both sides. The newsletter can’t just be what we care about, as that will quickly devolve into navel-gazing. But it also can’t just be what the audience cares about, because then we’re not adding any value. The intersection is where the sweet spot is. 

how to start newsletter

Thankfully, we’re B2B marketers talking to an audience of B2B marketers, so there’s a greater likelihood of an overlap of interests. Here’s what we care about, and what we think will resonate:

– Creativity
– Digital Marketing
– Growth
     – Leadership
     – Management
– Technology

This may be a difficult exercise for you and your team, as it’ll mean you’ll have to avoid some areas of interest that you’ll be excited and motivated to write about. The key is focusing on the shared areas of interest and maintaining excitement around that. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of only writing about your own interests, or what you really want the audience to be interested in, rather than focusing on what you have in common. Keeping a clear focus on the audience is absolutely critical.

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How much is too much?

Next comes cadence. This decision is driven by two factors. First: how often is too often? The last thing we want to do is exhaust our audience by emailing incessantly. We want to be respectful of their time. Second: what can our team handle? A daily or weekly newsletter might sound great, but do we have the resources, systems and processes to realistically deliver a high-quality newsletter at that cadence?

For us, it was a choice between weekly or once every two weeks. We settled on once every two weeks, to keep quality high and deliver often enough to keep us top of mind with the audience.

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Beauty is in the eye of the email opener

Don’t tell my Creative Director I told you this, but the biggest mistake I see clients make is over-emphasizing the importance of design. Don’t get me wrong, bad design will absolutely hurt your campaign, but I’ve seen projects ground to an absolute standstill as we go round and round trying to pin down the ‘perfect’ design that both fits with the brand, while being cool. Much better to prioritize some key elements, and keep the rest simple. Focus on elements that will hurt you if you get it wrong, rather than going after design that will give you extra credit.

Here’s what you should focus on:

Mobile optimization

– Your mileage may vary, but the majority of folks in most industries now read email on their mobile device. If your design doesn’t look great on a cell phone, there’s work to be done.

Accessibility

– This one is non-negotiable. The internet standards around accessibility are well established by now, and the minimum level of compliance will be an easy bar for your design to clear. We’re prioritizing elements that, if done poorly, will actively hurt engagement, rather than things that will get you credit for doing well. Not sexy, but important.

Browser optimization

– Your design should look great in all browsers. But, we’re sorry to say, it won’t. We’re in B2B. Inevitably Internet Explorer will come along to crush your dreams. That said, by keeping things simple and consistent, you can get it as close to perfect as possible. Just be aware of what you have to sacrifice to have a consistent user experience. (We recommend Email on Acid for your QA.)

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The three levers of email campaign development

Now you have the strategic thinking done, it’s time to shift into the tactical decisions required to actually get this thing in motion. Fortunately, there are only three levers you can pull, and they have different levels of impact.

  1. Audience.
  2. Message. 
  3. Call to action.

Audience

– We already covered our audience definition, so this first step is easy. It’s worth noting, however, that of the three levers, this one has the most impact. The biggest influencer of success (no matter what your definition is) is refining your audience. 

Since we use Pardot, we’ve built out two lists: one dynamic list that contains our clients, and one static list that contains folks who have subscribed to receive this email. Given that one of our KPIs is audience growth, it’ll be the size of the static list that we’ll be monitoring on a monthly basis.

Message

– So what is actually going to be in the newsletter? Given that we have our defined areas of interest, this is as simple as having a single tracking spreadsheet to organize the links that we’re curating into individual buckets, with extra contextual information present to allow for the emergence of themes. These themes can be broad in focus (“links about starting projects”) or narrow (“the future of email marketing”), but will help provide a cohesive newsletter that has a singular focus or point of view. Here’s a simple template to help you get started.

We’ve also created a Slack channel where our team can drop links that they think will be of interest to the audience. This will be a useful source of input when we spread around the executional responsibilities on a week-to-week basis.

Call-to-action

– Brainrider promotes the use of multiple, contextual calls to action – we call it “choose your own adventure”. That usually means different calls to action that appeal to different stages of the sales and marketing funnel. In this context it also means that the calls to action should be aligned with your objective – usually by prioritizing your CTAs so that you are most likely to get the results you are hoping for.

For our newsletter, we’re going to go with two calls to action. One will be to share the newsletter, and one to provide us with feedback. Both aligned with our KPIs, neither of them focused on driving more pipeline.

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Putting it all together

That’s it. That’s our planning process, both from a long term strategic view, and a short term executional standpoint. You now know where all the cups and balls are, and how we’re moving them around.

All we need to do now is launch.

So that’s what we’re doing. Now. Today. You can sign up for it here. 

I’m very excited, but I’m nervous, too. 

The great (and terrible!) thing about B2B marketing is that you never really know what’s going to work and what isn’t. You won’t know what is going to resonate until you put something out there. 

I hope you like it. I hope you find it interesting, and that it helps make your week a little easier or, at the very least, sparks some new ideas that get you excited to get to work.

Let’s go. 

Jon Kane

Jon Kane

Director of Client Service

Jon has spent his career proving how a deep understanding of customer needs can be combined with creativity and technology to help drive real business results. At Brainrider, a B2B digital marketing agency, he leads a team of B2B marketers dedicated to creating strong client relationships while helping to build their marketing and sales pipeline. Jon’s experience of B2B marketing, web, content and technology allows him to provide key strategic input and guidance to clients of all sizes and in all industries.