Every year, a few marketers come together to talk about which marketing channel is going under. One year it’s SEO, the next it’s email newsletters and so on. But are email newsletters really a thing of the past? Especially when Scott’s Cheap Flights built a six-figure business with email newsletters. Or considering Mailchimp built a $600 million business primarily on email marketing.
So what makes Scott’s Cheap Flights (or any company for that matter) successful at leveraging email newsletters to drive traffic and sales? A huge chunk of their success can be attributed to the fact that they created an engaging email newsletter that readers can’t seem to get enough of.
In this guide, I’ll show you how to craft an engaging email newsletter that delights your customers and drives sales for your business (including tons of email newsletter examples from successful companies to inspire you).
If you’re a startup founder or entrepreneur with an email list and you’re looking for an actionable guide on how to create engaging email newsletters; this is a resource you will find valuable.
So, let’s get started.
The Elements of An Engaging Email Newsletter
The easiest way to understand what makes an engaging email newsletter is by breaking down an email newsletter into its smaller components and then improving each component iteratively.
By first identifying the individual elements that can make or break your newsletter, you’ll be in a better position to manage the risk of launching a brand new newsletter or optimize your existing newsletters with the lessons you learn in this guide.
I’ll do a thorough deep-dive into each of these individual components and also include email newsletter examples throughout the post to give you examples of how they’re being used by companies doing email marketing.
The Art of the Subject Line
A 2017 Templafy study found that the average employee receives ~90 emails per day. And it would be fair to assume that number is probably higher as of today. Standing out in such a crowded inbox is your best bet to connect with your customers or even motivate them to purchase what you have to offer.
And this is where your subject lines come in.
A well-crafted subject line can result in ~47% of your email recipients opening your email, according to CMB. The perfect subject line can be the difference between your recipients opening your emails or trashing them.
There are, of course, plenty of other factors that influence open rates:
- Does the receiver know your company (or you) personally?
- Does your offering interest them in the first place?
- Do they anticipate the email to be too lengthy?
But when Klientboost used the following subject line, “Hey there !” resulting in a ~32% email open rate and ~$7,500 in agency revenue, it’s hard to debate why I dedicated an entire section in this guide to crafting irresistible email subject lines.
Now that I’ve convinced you why your subject lines need to be on point, what are some actionable steps you can take to craft the perfect subject line? Among all the email newsletter examples here, I’m personally a huge fan of how The Hustle does it:
Email subject line: Look what you did, you little jerk…
Hustle is known to be a brand that’s no BS, casual, and doesn’t take themselves too seriously. And their subject line makes perfect sense from a branding perspective.
But what would a reader who just signed up for their newsletter do when they find this email in their inbox? They’d open it out of confusion (or fear) and end up pleasantly surprised or crack open into laughter at the charming copy.
Here’s a few handy tips to keep in mind when crafting your subject lines:
- Keep it at 50 characters or fewer. Longer subject lines get cut out on some email clients. Also, shorter subject lines tend to have higher open rates and click rates.
- Know yourself and your customer. Who is your customer? How do they perceive you as a brand? What tone do they prefer? A funny subject line makes sense for Buzzfeed but not for a government organization like NASA.
- A/B Test! Divide your email list into two, send both lists the same email but with a different subject line. Record the results. Repeat to identify what gets the highest open rates, click rates and even sales.
Email Newsletter Design 101
1. Pick Color Schemes that Fit Your Brand
Every company big and small has color schemes and brand guidelines they have to stick to. Why? If you want to make your brand instantly recognizable, your branding needs to be cohesive for all your messaging be it on email, social media, print advertising, etc.
If email newsletters is one of the main vehicles that will help you connect with your prospects and customers, it only makes sense that your newsletters align with your brand guidelines.
Start by picking a color scheme that includes your brand colors or better yet, reflects your brand’s personality. Here’s an email newsletter example of a brand with personality:
The Outline’s Welcome Email Newsletter
The Outline’s email newsletter consists of bolded colors, large fonts and use of duotones. You can see the same color schemes and visual elements on their website as well as their email newsletters. This is the kind of branding readers will immediately recognize and pay attention to in their overstuffed inbox.
2. Use Icons, Photos & Fonts Creatively
Let’s be honest, we’re all signed up to a lot more email newsletters then we’d like to admit. The result? A clogged inbox full of emails from companies we don’t even remember signing up to.
If you want to decrease your chances of being just another email and boost your chances of designing emails that get opened and read, you’ll need to do much more than just write good content.
This is where utilizing visual elements like icons and illustrations, non-generic stock photos and creative fonts can give you an unfair advantage against the hundreds of emails your audience receives in a day.
Icons, for example, are a great addition to any email newsletter to illustrate or point out important information. They act as directional cues to guide your reader’s gaze into a specific direction.
Check out this email newsletter example from the folks over at J.Crew:
Notice how the ice cream is meant as a directional cue for the user to scroll down and click on the call to action at the bottom of the email. Slick design, right? Add some snappy copy to the mix and you can make the same email even better.
For fonts, feel free to combine your font choices in creative ways to get your message across, but stick to fonts you’re allowed to use to ensure you’re being consistent with your branding.
For example, here’s an email newsletter that incorporates a pixelated font to illustrate the video game theme:
Source: Venngage Newsletter Templates
For using photos in your email newsletter designs, it’s not complicated. Just keep three things in mind:
- Don’t rely heavily on photos. Also include other elements like icons, illustrations, GIFs, etc. into the mix.
- The photos share some resemblance with the content accompanying it.
- Never use overused stock photos. Instead, use authentic stock photos like the ones below.
Real and authentic stock photos is a design trend that’s here to stay.
I know the “non-generic stock photos” statement sounds ironic, but the above photos demonstrate that you don’t need to look too far away to find stock photos that don’t look dated or overused.
On first glance, elements like icons, photos and fonts may seem unimportant but when combined in unique ways, they can kick your email newsletter design up a notch!
3. Keep the Copy Light & Breezy
Sticking to the topic of using icons and illustrations to replace your text, also consider how long or short your email newsletter needs to be to get the job done.
Keeping your copy light and breezy is one of those things you can do to create compelling email newsletters that don’t get trashed. Here’s a great example of how the New York Times keeps it simple:
Source: New York Times
In the example above, the New York Times presents its content in a way that’s easily skimmable, accessible and prevents any information overload for its readers. You can always go in-depth in your news stories or blog posts, but try to keep it simple when it comes to emails.
Keeping email template sizes in mind is also crucial to creating email newsletters that get read and acted upon rather than ignored or end up in spam folders. There’s a certain length and width you’re allowed before your newsletters become unreadable on some devices and email clients.
So keep the copy light, skimmable and easy to act upon. Try to not present too much within the same email newsletter to make it easier for your readers to consume it or take your desired action.
How Long Should Your Email Newsletters Be?
Should your email newsletters be long or short? It’s a tough question but my personal take is this: it depends.
I’ve personally struggled with this. Writing lengthy newsletters that nobody engages with is a feeling I know all too well. A good lesson I’ve learned is to think about what business I’m in, who my customers are and what they care about.
Here’s a few heuristics you can use to decide your email newsletter’s length:
- What business are you in?
- What content do your customers like, want or care about?
- Where are your customers in the marketing funnel?
For example, if you’re a media company, your goal with your newsletter would be to drive as much traffic as you can to various pieces of content you publish.
If you’re a SaaS company like Zapier, your customers would probably want content that’s educating, inspiring and not overly-promotional. And Zapier delivers with a short newsletter that lists their top blog posts of the year:
Whether you’re a long-term Zapier customer or newbie, Zapier can use content to educate and even inspire you by showing case studies of the endless number of things you can do with their tool. In doing so, they’re able to showcase how they’re an antidote to your pain points.
Also, consider what stage of the funnel your readers are in.
A new email subscriber won’t buy from your ecommerce store and would need convincing until they’re ready to buy from you. But a long-time customer is easier to convert with a special discount or a new product offering.
How do you figure out which email newsletter format would work best for the kind of business you’re in and where your customers are in the funnel? A/B test!
A/B testing is a separate beast and out of the scope of this guide. But Jordie Van Rijn’s 150+ A/B email split-testing ideas is the most in-depth email A/B testing guide I’ve found yet and it’s a good place to start.
Here are some examples of long and short newsletters.
1. Influence Repeat Purchase Using Long Email Newsletters
We all know it’s easier to sell to an existing customer than to acquire a new one. So if you’re running an ecommerce business, email newsletters are your secret weapon to driving repeat sales from existing customers.
This is how Cotton Bureau drives repeat purchases using its email newsletter:
Source: Cotton Bureau
From a design standpoint, they went with bold font choices for headers, a call-to-action (CTA) that you can’t really ignore and visually arresting colors that compliment each other.
The “Free Shipping” call-to-action in bold heavy font is a great hack to direct your users attention to an offer so they know they’ll get free shipping before they even read the whole email.
And if you weren’t convinced by free shipping, the slightly lengthy but charming copy will surely sell you their tees. But what worked for them may not necessarily work for you.
Test a longer email newsletter and compare it with a shorter one. Record the results and see which format would work best to influence not only repeat buyers but also first-time purchases. While you’re at it, start testing some variations of abandoned cart emails to nudge customers to come back to your site and complete their purchase.
2. Onboard New Customers Using Short Email Drips
Say you’re a SaaS company that’s trying to onboard new customers to increase product adoption and create a better customer experience for your users. You can do this through a series of educational onboarding emails.
Udacity sends this onboarding email after a new user signs up:
A simple format, light and breezy copy, usage of icons and powerful visual cues that nudge users to take the next step in their learning journey are hallmarks of Udacity’s onboarding email.
So, if you’re onboarding new customers who don’t have the know-how when it comes to using your product, try experimenting with a short onboarding drip campaign with emails sent at frequent intervals.
This will ensure customers slowly learn how to use your product and its accompanying features. This way they’re less likely to drop off (or churn) due to both information overload as well as a lack of support from your end.
Pro Tip: Think about your marketing funnels when designing your newsletters. A new email subscriber might not purchase what you have to offer right away, but a longtime subscriber with the right offer and message definitely will.
To conclude, shorter email newsletters work in certain situations while longer newsletters work in others. With newsletter length being situational in nature, the only way you’ll know what works is again, A/B testing.
Use CTAs to Make Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse
The goal of any marketing communication is to motivate your customers to take action. And If you’re not including a call-to-action (CTA) in your email newsletters, you’re doing it wrong.
CTAs can be considered the most essential elements in a newsletter after your subject line. A great CTA can nudge your readers to take the action you want them to take, whether it’s checking out your blog, buying a product or sharing your newsletter with friends and family.
And isn’t that why we create email newsletters in the first place? To inform, educate and sell.
A lot of email newsletters stick to only a single call-to-action, but that doesn’t mean you need to. By dividing your newsletters into multiple sections, you can incorporate several CTAs within a single newsletter like this:
With three CTAs in one email, Edited can allow its customers to click and browse the product they want to, rather than pushing a single message (and product) to everybody.
Whether you use a single CTA or multiple, just make sure they’re clearly defined so they don’t end up confusing your readers:
Source: Charity Water
CTAs should be subject to the same rigorous A/B testing that your email subject lines go through. Start small by testing two different versions and use the resulting data to figure out which CTAs lead to higher clickthrough rates.
Congratulations! You now know every element that goes into designing an engaging email newsletter. We’ll now look at some companies that are doing all the right things with their email newsletter so you can save time by doing what already works.
Companies at the Top of their Email Newsletter Game
In this article, I’ve covered the essential elements to keep in mind when designing your next email newsletter. But, looking at how other companies in your industry approach newsletters can sometimes spark the right kind of inspiration.
Some of these companies use email newsletters for a variety of purposes such as customer service, driving sales, educating potential customers or enticing a customer to complete their purchase.
Here are three companies from different industries that are at the top of their email newsletter game:
A company I admire for their philanthropic work, TOMS is a popular ecommerce shoe brand, and their email newsletter game is always on fleek:
TOMS knows how to align their product offerings with the changing seasons. With a great choice of color schemes, light copy and a simple CTA to click on, TOMS does everything right in this email newsletter. This newsletter is from Halloween so you know why their glow-in-the-dark offering makes sense.
TOMS added an extra layer of interactivity to their email newsletter by allowing readers to watch their shoes glow by clicking on the button within the email. A little complicated to pull off, but a perfect example of, “show, don’t tell”.
Also, who can forget their iconic “One for one” pledge, where for every TOMS shoe you purchase, they donate a pair for someone in need. Do you need any more reasons to purchase a pair?
One of my favourite SaaS companies and music streaming platforms, Spotify uses data to its advantage to send well-thought out and well-designed email newsletters:
Email personalization at its best.
Personalization isn’t a new marketing strategy. Companies use your personal details like your full name and birthday to send you personalized marketing messages all the time. But Spotify takes things one step further.
With all listening data from the millions of customers Spotify has access to, it’s not hard for them to send a hyper-personalized email like the one above that gives users insights into their music streaming habits, thus giving their subscribers information they care about.
The real kicker? Their “Year in Music” email newsletter sent at the end of the year kicks things up a notch by giving you insights into the number of songs you heard, artists you listened to the most, your most played songs of that year, and much more.
Another great example of a company that does this really well is Grammarly. Check out their hyper-personalized newsletters on ReallyGoodEmails.
If you’re a SaaS company that has access to tons of user data, think about how you can leverage that to showcase interesting statistics and insights about how users are using your product.
3. Austin Kleon
We’ve covered plenty of email newsletter examples from brands so far, but here’s a newsletter example from a real person.
Austin Kleon is best known as an author and artist. He’s written some great books like “Show Your Work!”, blogs regularly and runs a weekly newsletter filled with inspirational and educational content. Here’s one email from his weekly newsletter:
Sometimes you don’t need to go overboard with visually arresting design elements when good content will do the job just fine. And this is what Austin does in his weekly email newsletter.
The content is aimed to educate and inspire, while not being “in your face” with the promotion of his books. And the informal tone he tuses works well when connecting with his audience.
This concept of authenticity applies not only to individuals, but also to companies. Think about how your company can make itself approachable and authentic in the eyes of your readers so you can stand out from the crowd.
Your Turn to Craft an Engaging Email Newsletter
Now you know the absolute essentials that make up an email newsletter. When designed to be engaging and aimed at the right customers, email newsletters can be your secret weapon to wow your customers, boost sales and crush your business goals in the process.
Start by revisiting your existing templates (if any) and compare them to the email newsletter examples mentioned here. How well do they measure up? Do your newsletters miss any key design elements mentioned in this guide?
If you haven’t created your email newsletters yet, pick an email newsletter example you like. Start slow by picking a consistent color scheme, incorporating icons, photos and fonts as well as A/B testing your email subject lines.
Test your design, content, email deliverability and tweak your templates you go. Good luck!