When it comes to speaking to your customers regularly, it doesn't get much more direct than a newsletter. But, given how full people's inboxes are, your newsletter needs to add some serious value. And competition is only going to increase, with more than a third of brands increasing their email marketing budget this year. 

What we're talking about

A newsletter is a regular email sent to your customers using an email marketing platform or an email service provider (ESP). Rather than an email marketing campaign, which is based around a specific, more short-term initiative, this is an email sent on a regular cadence with a consistent theme – such as highlighting your latest products and offers, creating educational content or discussing happenings in your sector. This guide is focused on devising an initial strategy for starting an email newsletter from scratch. 

Why it's important

Newsletters keep customers past and present in the loop about what's happening – from new products and promotions to general updates and behind-the-scenes information. They can help you build your brand personality and tone of voice, cement yourself as an authority in your sector and encourage feedback and engagement.

An often-quoted statistic from email marketing company Litmus suggests that for every $1 spent on email, a business sees a $36 return. When you think about the increasing costs of digital and social-media advertising, it's a no-brainer to make a newsletter a core part of your communication and marketing strategy.

But a quick glance at your inbox will tell you that there are a lotof newsletters out there – most people subscribe to at least four emails. You first need to be confident that there's a reason to put one out, then create a considered strategy to make sure that your newsletter is focused, adds real value and is realistic to your resources.

Things to note

• It's not always about sales. A common mistake that businesses make is to use their newsletter purely for making sales. That'll quickly get tiresome for readers. This is more about relationship building. Ask yourself: what's going to provide value to a customer outside of buying something?

• Get creative with your content. The key is to really explore your sector and think about tangential areas where your newsletter could stand out, as well as making sure the content is in line with your brand. For example, if you're a cookery brand, you might create a newsletter around recipes or instructional how-tos. Equally, if you're just starting out, you don't necessarily have to create content yourself. You might curate articles related to your sector or collaborate with similar brands to expand your reach. 

• Choose your platform wisely. There are all kinds of email marketing platforms out there, offering different levels of customization, personalization and analytics. They'll also keep you in line with the relevant laws for your country or region (yep, there are laws around sending emails). You'll need to do your research to find the right one for your needs. Factors to take into account include design features, templates, customer segmentation, the ability to test different subject lines, subscriber limits, the analytics functions and, of course, cost and access to customer support.

• Building your subscriber list is key. Whatever content strategy you go for, it's important that you build your list. Given the frequency that customers hit the unsubscribe button, consider how to make it easy to sign up to your newsletter and create organic growth, rather than relying on bought or rented email lists. Building your email subscriber list is a topic for another day, though. 

• And make it mobile-friendly. More than half of all web traffic is generated from mobile devices, so it's important to optimize your newsletter for mobile users. This will be an important consideration when you're deciding which ESP to go with as well – how easy is it to design mobile-first newsletters on its platform?

How to start a newsletter 

1. Define your audience. Start by thinking about the people you're looking to reach – it might be helpful to dig out your customer personas, if you have them. Think about the type of content that your audience enjoys engaging with. What other newsletters do you think they like? What would make them open your newsletter?

2. Check out some competitors. Draw up a list of five businesses that you consider direct competitors and take a look at their newsletters. What are they doing well – and not so well? Are there specific areas where you can stand out from the crowd? It might also be useful to look at indirect competitors – in other words, brands that are in tangential industries or have a similar target audience to you.

3. Confirm your capacity. At this stage, it's worth evaluating whether there's definitely a need and value for your business to put out a newsletter – and whether you have the resources, time and budget to create one. If there's not, or you don't have the capacity, stop right here.

4. Define the aim. Are you hoping to drive more traffic to your website? Cement yourself as an authority? Highlight promotions? Build your brand? Give business updates? Educate your customers? You might have more than one purpose, but you need to have a consistent, focused theme in your newsletter – a north star that's your reason for filling people's inboxes.

5. Decide how you'll measure success. Based on your core aim, come up with some metrics to track and analyze progress. This helpful guide from our parent company Mailchimp is a useful starting point for working out the right key performance indicators (KPIs) to track.

6. Choose your platform. Decide which email platform suits your business and marketing goals, considering the key factors outlined above. One thing to really think about is the learning curve – especially if you want to get moving right away. Use a comparison site like Gartner or G2 to see which platform best suits your needs. 

7. Design your content. Your content should be based around the aim and audience of the newsletter. Will it be original content just for the newsletter or will you make use of content that exists elsewhere, such as website copy or imagery from your social media? Will you rely on external content? This will likely depend on what's achievable based on your abilities and how much time you have to work on content.

8. Decide on a frequency. How often will your newsletter go out? This needs to be consistent and regular. Opinion varies on best practice – as well as whether your audience is made up of consumers or other businesses – but, generally, once a month is thought to be a bare minimum. For a small business, once a week or every two weeks is a realistic target – but that will again depend on your resources, time and budget.

9. Create a content calendar. Any good newsletter will have a calendar plan looking ahead – three months is a good target. Working on a reactive, ad hoc basis doesn't give you the chance to analyze data properly – it also means that you won't be able to prepare for any big events in the calendar that are relevant to your business.

10. Tell people about it. Decide how you'll tell people about your newsletter and get hold of email addresses. That might mean a subscribe page or button somewhere on your website where you outline what the newsletter does, how often it's sent and how to sign up. You might also do this via your social media channels or after a purchase. Keep sharing and encouraging sign-ups long after launch. 

11. Test – and evolve. As you get moving, make sure that you build in enough time to analyze how your newsletter is performing based on the metrics you've set. This is about discussing performance and making sure that you're intentional about iterating and evolving your newsletter. 

Key takeaways

• Though it's not essential for every type of business, a regular, high-quality newsletter can be a huge value-add for a small business – particularly compared with other channels out there. 

• It's a mistake to see it purely as a way to push sales; customers will soon get pretty tired of that tactic. Instead, strike a balance between creative editorial content and genuinely valuable promotional content. 

• There are plenty of factors to consider, including platform, frequency, design and content. Whatever you choose needs to be realistic for your business, budget and capabilities. 

Level up

Example. Social-media management platform Buffer highlights five excellently executed newsletter strategies that small businesses have opted for – from focused content series to behind-the-scenes footage.

Perspective. If you want to dig a little deeper into small-business newsletters – including some common mistakes – this Marketing Guides for Small Businesses podcast is a good listen.

Tool. There are plenty of excellent platforms out there for small businesses to use – Mailchimp is great for businesses starting out, while ConvertKit is good for individual creators.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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