March 2016




Check Your Email

Ray Tomlinson, the engineer who developed the first networked email program, passed away in March. Though many young upstarts have threatened to make his invention obsolete over the years, it remains a critical communications and publishing channel. In fact, at the ripe old age of 44, email is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, as an antidote to the social media channels that were supposed to replace it.

In this month’s Feature, we reflect on the unique value email brings to publishing programs today. In our new Digital Guide, we share 11 best practices for effective email newsletters, and in our new Question, we discuss the best time to publish. Finally, we’ve put together a handy reference on email metrics, and what to do with them. And throughout, we’ve included a sampling of our favorite daily email newsletters.


Cover and welcome photos: Vintage stamps, by dschmieding


Favorite Emails: NiemanLab Daily Digest

Many of the most useful email newsletters are curation-based, which is good because even an RSS junkie can’t read everything. Nieman Lab’s Daily Digest is a great example of having an editorial mission that includes promoting its own content, but also bringing in the best of what else is out there.


The Mysterious Power of Email

In a world that sees social media platforms rise and fall in the span of a few years, the mother of them all — the humble email — is hardly showing its age. In 2014, a Quartz study of 940 executives from around the world found that email newsletters were their favorite source of news. Email newsletter service MailChimp sent 203 billion emails in 2015 alone. Why is it that, even as new communications platforms tout themselves as “email killers,” email itself continues to thrive?

  • Email is inherently generous. An email newsletter in your inbox doesn’t ask you to leave a comment or share a retweet. The best email newsletters have only one immediate goal: to be read and appreciated. In that sense, an email newsletter feels less self-serving than other forms of marketing, and it can inspire a warmer reception from readers.
  • Email is ephemeral. Most newsletters aren’t collected in an archive, meaning that if you miss an email, it’s gone. This is the same impulse that helps popularize Snapchat: You don’t want to miss out on something that’s only going to be available once. This also means that email is a commitment. You’re either in the relationship (as a subscriber) or you’re not. Once you’re in, you’re more likely to feel a sense of loyalty to an email newsletter than, say, to a Facebook page you occasionally see updates from.
  • Email is intimate. The inbox is a personal space, not a communal area. An email newsletter is a one-to-one communication, with no one else directly involved in the conversation. This makes email feel more special. Even when a recipient forwards an email newsletter, this is (usually) still one-to-one: They’re sharing with someone in particular, not broadcasting to a nebulous social network, and that makes the recommendation more valuable.
  • Email is passive. Once a subscriber signs up for a newsletter, they don’t have to seek out the content; it is delivered directly to them. The subscriber is trusting the newsletter creator to provide worthwhile content.
  • Email is (relatively) universal. Some people simply abhor social networks, and refuse to use any — but just about everyone has an email address.

An email newsletter feels less self-serving than other forms of marketing, and it can inspire a warmer reception from readers.

Be the difference between a junk mail flyer and a handwritten letter.

So how can brands react to the enduring power of email?

  • Don’t ignore the opportunity. When done right, email can reach a broader audience than any other digital marketing effort, and connect with them on a more personal level.
  • Provide value. Your subscribers are letting you into a personal space in their digital lives. Don’t betray that trust with boring sales copy.
  • Be human. Separate yourself from the spam. Be the difference between a junk mail flyer and a handwritten letter. Let your subscribers see the personality behind your products.

Marketers who successfully take advantage of the potential of email can reap amplified rewards in terms of brand loyalty and personal connection. So how do you get started? Read on: The rest of this month’s Digital Essentials is packed with tactical tips and best practices.



Favorite Emails: Chicago Inno The Beat

Aside from the obvious pride the team has in the Chicago tech and general business scene, we like the overall conversational approach to this newsletter. The back-and-forth between the writers is a nice change from the “link/text, link/text” format that so many use, and it allows for a bit more personality to come through along with useful insights.


Digital Guide

Email Newsletter Best Practices

Your email faces many possible fates when you send it out into the world. Your subscribers might open it, read it from top to bottom, and forward it along to friends and family. Or, it might be the annoying message that sends them straight to the unsubscribe link. In between, there are many shades of interest and indifference. So how do you set yourself up for success? Here are 10 best practices that will put you in the best position to reach and activate your subscribers:

1. Invite Readers to Subscribe.

It may seem obvious, but all too many publishers skip this crucial step. On your blog and other relevant site pages and publishing channels, include a prominent call-to-action to subscribe to email updates.

2. Focus.

If you have a diverse audience, resist the urge to publish a newsletter that’s all things to all people. When you send out a mishmash of company news, links to blog posts, product tips, and special offers, reading your emails can start to feel like a chore. People tune out.

If you have a lot of areas to cover, consider creating separate email newsletters tailored to individual audience segments.

For example, you might offer:

  • A separate newsletter for each product, with tips and updates.
  • Separate newsletters for educational content on key topic areas of interest to your audience segments.
  • A newsletter just for special offers.
  • A newsletter for company news, geared to employees.

It helps users to provide a single sign-up page with the name, description, and check box for each newsletter option. Make it simple for subscribers to return to this page to update their subscriptions.

3. Make your opt-in clear.

Buying email lists or running bait-and-switch promotions may ramp up your distribution list initially, but most everyone will ignore you. It’s much more effective to grow a truly engaged audience of people who happily signed on to hear what you have to say.

As part of the opt-in for each newsletter, describe what content you’ll be sending, and how frequently you’ll be sending it. Avoid default opt-ins, such as a pre-checked box on a contact form, and consider sending a confirmation email to make sure new subscribers intended to opt in.

Then honor that promise. Remember what readers signed up for in the first place, and deliver the goods. And make it easy to unsubscribe, so people can freely disengage if they lose interest.

4. Don’t oversell.

There are exceptions, of course. Some people explicitly sign up for special promotions. But for most brands, the key to really great email content — and great blog content, and great social content — is to meet audience’s needs. If subscribers feel like they’re getting a sales pitch every week, they’re likely to tune out. Keep the focus on education or entertainment, with promotions as a periodic, subtle addition.

5. Be human.

Like the in-real-life mailbox, the email inbox is a shared space for personal notes from dear friends, important information, and total garbage. Keep your distance from the garbage; make it clear your emails come from a real person with good intentions. Be approachable. Depending on your brand, consider making the “from name” a real person, rather than a company name. Open with a greeting, and close with a signature.

6. Stand out in the inbox.

Most people deal with a river of email, so it’s important to put your best foot forward. To entice people to open your message, write subject lines that pique their curiosity. Be funny, pose a question readers will want to see answered, or share a fact that demands more attention.

Some email platforms will also show a preview snippet — the inbox shows the first 40-100 characters of the email. To take advantage of this space, open your email with welcoming text that will help drive an open. Whatever you do, don’t put administration messages, like “Having trouble viewing this email?” at the top of your messages.

7. Keep it clean.

To avoid overwhelming your subscribers, keep your text brief and organized into scannable sections. Use a simple design and optimize for mobile devices, with a responsive design and large buttons.

8. Offer More.

A lot of email fans like the medium because it’s self-contained. For example, you can spend a minute catching up on the news without clicking anywhere. But you don’t want to overstuff your emails, making them indigestible. Find a balance, where the email provides value by itself, but give readers the option to learn more if they want to.

9. Empower sharing.

Remember, your subscribers will forward your newsletter to friends, family, and colleagues (ideally). Include a subscribe button in your email template so they have a way to sign up for more.

10. Measure and experiment.

Finally, keep tabs on your key metrics to gauge how different content, calls to action, subject lines, and timing accomplish your goals. When you use email marketing software, it’s easy to run A/B tests. For example, use one subject line for half your distribution list and another for the other half, and see which works better. Keep testing and tweaking, and you’ll keep learning and improving.


Favorite Emails: Episodes

Instead of wrapping up the news of the day, Todd VanDerWerff’s daily email is just an essay — the kind of thing you’d find in a blog post but delivered via email. This isn’t going to be relevant to everyone, but he’s an astute pop culture observer and a flat-out good writer. Each edition is a treat in your Inbox.



When is the best time to send a newsletter?

This is one of the first questions brand publishers ask before launching an email program. And as with most common content questions, the answer is a resounding “it depends.” The best bets vary depending on your audience.

In a 2014 study, email platform provider MailChimp analyzed data from their Email Genome Project to answer this question. Breaking down reach and engagement by day and time of day, they drew some broad conclusions:

  • No single time dominates.
  • Weekdays are a better bet than weekends overall, with Thursday leading the pack, but there’s very little difference from Monday through Friday.
  • Email about arts, e-commerce, or hobbies did better on the weekends than “serious” email, covering business, government, and the like, but even fun email tends to do better on weekdays.
  • Late morning — 10:00 a.m., specifically — is the best time overall.

So, in the broadest possible terms, the “best” time to send email is 10:00 a.m. on Thursday.

But digging deeper, MailChimp saw that results varied significantly based on certain demographic factors, like country, age, and occupation. Their key conclusion is that audience characteristics that affect daily routine can make a big difference. That stands to reason: The best time for you to open an email depends on how you go through your day.

If you’re publishing to a well-defined audience, and you have a good sense of their typical routine, make an educated guess of an optimal time and try it out. And if you’re publishing across multiple time zones, consider using a platform that lets you time your emails based on region.

Whatever time you pick initially, the most important thing is to track your metrics, pay attention to feedback, and experiment to find the best fit.


Charts from MailChimp’s analysis of email timing success



Favorite Emails: NextDraft

In his daily curation of “top of the news” and “bottom of the news” stories, Dave Pell demonstrates the power of the personal touch. His distinctive commentary and snark make the afternoon email a must-open treat. Bonus points for easy social sharing features on each individual story.


Email Metrics

Bounce Rate: The percentage of emails that can’t be delivered, both due to “hard bounce” permanent issues, like invalid email addresses, and “soft bounce” temporary issues, like full inboxes. ISPs may peg senders with high hard bounce numbers as spammers, so be sure to remove any hard bounce addresses from your distribution list.

Delivery Rate: The percentage of sent emails that reach a recipient — that don’t bounce, in other words. A low delivery rate, especially anything below 90%, is a good nudge to clean up your distribution list.

Click-through rate: The percentage of recipients who click one of the links in the email. The standard for a “good” click-through rate depends on what content you’re sending and how you’re packaging it, but you can gauge the relative success of individual emails by comparing the click-through rate of each to your average. This is often the best indicator of your content’s value.

Conversion rate: The percentage of sent emails that led the recipient to take a desired action, such as completing a registration form or making a purchase.

Revenue / ROI: The revenue attributed to an individual email or email campaign, sometimes expressed as return on investment. This is generally the most difficult metric to capture, as it depends on using solid analytics methodology to track what subscribers do after they receive the email and follow a link to your site.

Open rate: The percentage of recipients who opened the email. Open rate is typically tracked using a small, transparent image. When the email program requests the image, the image host server registers an open. The problem is many people have images disabled in their email programs, creating lots of false negatives.

List growth rate: The rate your total subscriber count has grown each month, expressed as a percentage of the previous count. For example, if you had 100 subscribers last month, you added 10 new subscribers this month, and you lost 5 subscribers to unsubscribes and hard bounces, you’d have a 5% list growth rate.

A flat or negative growth rate indicates you need to step up your email subscription promotion and give subscribers more reason to share.

Forward rate: The percentage of emails that get forwarded on to others. An especially high forward rate on a particular email indicates that content really resonated with your subscribers.

Share rate: The rate recipients shared email content on social networks (when you have social sharing enabled). Like forward rate, this is a good indication of how content is resonating.

Unsubscribe rate: The percentage of recipients who unsubscribed when they received a particular email. Unsubscribes don’t capture everyone who stopped paying attention — people may ignore or delete you using filters instead. But an especially high unsubscribe rate on a specific newsletter is a good indication the content annoyed people in some way.

Complaint rate: The percentage of recipients who flagged an email as “spam” or “junk,” as reported by the email provider. In theory, a complaint indicates the recipient feels they shouldn’t be receiving the email, as opposed to an unsubscribe, which means they’ve just changed their mind. If your complaint rate creeps up to 1% or higher, take a look at your opt-in process to make sure expectations are clear, and reassess how often you send out email.


PNConnect is the global digital services offering from Porter Novelli. Our global team spans 60 countries and brings the combined digital resources of our social media marketing, creative production, paid promotions, and web development capabilities together for one purpose — to help our clients share their story with the world.

For more information about our team and approach, or to learn how we can help your organization with digital strategy, development and measurement, please visit the PNConnect site.


Thank You


Many thanks to our March contributors.

Mary Gaulke in Sarasota wrote this month’s Feature about the power of email, Chris Thilk in Chicago wrote the Question on optimal email timing, and Tom Harris in Raleigh wrote the Digital Guide on email best practices and the Glossary of key email metrics.

dschmieding uploaded the cover and welcome photos to Flickr, David Boté Estrada uploaded the Digital Guide background, and Dafne Cholet uploaded the Question background.

Drop Us a Line

We’re eager to hear your thoughts on this edition and your suggestions for future issues.