Thirty years ago, I graduated from college as an excited 22 year-old, ready to make my mark on the world. While reminiscing about those days recently, I Googled “1985 trivia” to see what was hot in pop culture 30 years ago:

#1 TV show: The Cosby Show

#1 movie: Back to the Future

#1 song: We Are the World by USA for Africa

Super Bowl champion: San Francisco 49ers

World Series champion: Kansas City Royals

This was the year that New Coke was introduced, and Old Coke subsequently brought back just three months later; the Titanic was found off the coast of Newfoundland; and the very first version of Microsoft Windows was released. Gas cost $1.09 a gallon and a new car about $9,000, and the Dow closed at 1,546.

Life Before Dot-Com

During my little stroll down memory lane, I also reflected on how much my industry has changed over the past three decades. The biggest changes in writing, marketing and communications have been the result of the Internet — which didn’t hit the scene until about a decade after I graduated.

If you’re 30 years old or younger, you have no concept of a world without the Internet. Even for baby boomers like me, it can sometimes be hard to remember what life before dot-com was like.

As much as the Internet has changed everyday life, it has also radically altered the world of marketing and communications. I worked for the nation’s largest custom newsletter publishing company from 1985 until 1997, so I saw first-hand how the Internet turned custom publishing completely on it head.

I remember a meeting with the marketing folks at one of the biggest banks in the country in 1994 in which we talked about the Internet. “Have you been on the Internet yet?” the bank marketer asked us. No, we hadn’t. She had tried to go online, but with little success. Within a few months, though, we were having strategic meetings about how our company was going to adapt to what we clearly saw was going to turn our industry upside down.

By 1996 or so, Internet and email usage had started to become more common. Electronic newsletters soon followed, and my company was leading the way with what we called a @Netletter (a name I still think was pretty clever). Fast-forward another decade or so and e-newsletters had become ubiquitous, as they are today.

Challenge Remains the Same

Thirty years ago, the biggest challenge facing newsletter publishers was getting their newsletters to stand out from everything else in a pile of mail being sorted through by customers and prospects. The challenge with an e-newsletter today is even greater: Getting your email to stand out from the dozens (or hundreds) of other emails sitting in your customers’ and prospects’ in boxes so they open and read it.

The average unique open rate for e-newsletters in the United States is 18.9 percent, according to the most recent Email Marketing Metrics Study conducted by Silverpop. So if your e-newsletter is opened by about one in every five people you send it to, you’re doing pretty good.

I’ve been publishing The Writer’s Block for about three and a half years, during which time my open rate has slowly but steadily risen from around 20 percent to about 30 percent now. This is kind of like batting averages in baseball: A .300 average is considered to be the benchmark for a really good hitter.

I’m somewhat satisfied that my e-newsletter is performing better than average, but then again, it should: This is what I do for a living! So I’m constantly looking for new ways to get more recipients to open and read my e-newsletter.

My Top 3 E-newsletter Rules

E-marketers offer lots tips and tricks for boosting your e-newsletter open rates. Personally, I try to stay focused on three main e-newsletter marketing rules:

1. Provide valuable content. This is the most important rule, and also the most neglected one. Too many marketers think their newsletter should be all about them: their great products, their superior customer service, their 100 years in business, their blah, blah, blah.

The fact is, most of your readers really don’t care about you. They want to know how you’re going to help them. So follow the 80/20 rule when it comes to your newsletter’s content: 80 percent should be value-added and non-promotional, and 20 percent (at the most) should be about your company.

2. Publish consistently. If you’re not going to publish on a consistent basis, then don’t bother publishing an e-newsletter at all. Publishing inconsistently might actually do more harm than good: It will demonstrate a lack of follow-through and consistency on your part to clients and prospects.

So how often is “consistently”? This varies, but the most important thing is to choose a publishing schedule and then stick to it. For e-newsletters, I recommend once or twice a month. Any more frequently might be overkill, and any less means your readers probably won’t notice it.

3. Make sure the writing is top-quality. Your newsletter is a reflection of your business. If you send out a poorly written e-newsletter full of typos and grammar and punctuation errors, what does this tell customers and prospects about your company’s quality control and attention to detail?

If you’re not a good writer or you don’t have time to write your newsletter and send it on time, hire a professional writer to do this for you. This is not an area where you want to take shortcuts.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Tia Nielsen

    Congratulations in batting .300, Don!

    Your topic is timely for me. Ironically, I help a few NFP groups. They often want e-newsletters created (as if that were a simple thing to do!) and figure everyone will want to read “their” news. It is tough to convince them that they need to identify what they have to offer people who are busy and see that NFP with hurried eyes. And are they wanting to target the supporters, desired supporters or to info participants of timely news?

    So thanks for helping me pass on key insights from you, the expert.

    1. don

      Thanks, Tia! Yes, it can be frustrating when clients don’t accept the fact that most people don’t really care about them — they care about themselves! People always want to know WIIFM — What’s In It For Me?

  2. Aarron Pina

    Based on the recommendations herein, I just quickly created a newsletter worksheet divided into 5 blocks: 4 titled “useful stuff” and one “about us”… Personally, I already tag useful stuff “#newsletter” in Evernote, so when it comes time to sit down and craft our newsletter, I’ve already got some “dry powder” in storage. Saves me a ton of “crap… what am I gonna write about?” time.

    The columns in the worksheet may not ultimately represent 5 full articles per newsletter (I try to keep it a bit more pithy, if I can), but stand as reminders of the 80/20 rule. The “me monster” can be tough to tame, especially when you’re in charge of reporting the news for a non-profit org or other similar group. (Hey, can I tell you about ME?!)

    Any further guidelines that may be helpful for someone(s) in this particular industry or is this pretty sound across the board?

    Thanks, for the word. 80/20 rule, consistency, keep it well wrote…

    1. don

      Good stuff, Aarron! You want to write my next blog on newsletters? (; I don’t have any special guidelines for NFP newsletters — I think my “rules” are pretty sound across the board.

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