How to build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers

Sales organizations have long lamented the ineffectiveness of email newsletters compared to personalized emails.

However, recent evidence suggests that not only is the email newsletter alive and well, it’s leading to increases in sales.

If you’ve done the hard work of creating email newsletters that people actually read, then you’re ready to turn those readers into paying customers. Today we’re going to review five things you can do to increase sales from your email newsletters.

But First, A Quick Note on Human Psychology

Every Sunday at around 5PM I have the same conversation with my husband: “I am going to meal plan this week. I swear. I’ll start in an hour.” One hour later we’ve ordered takeout and I haven’t moved from the couch.

I’m guessing your Sunday rituals are similar because you’re human and like all humans we are extraordinarily lazy when it comes to things we don’t have to do.

People abandon activities that require effort (if they’re not mandatory). Which is why you want to make it as easy as possible for your customers to buy from you. If it’s hard to find the “Buy” button or if your offer is confusing, your readers will abandon the email and move on to something else, leaving you without a sale.

Your goal is to reduce the amount of friction between your reader and the action you want them to take (usually a click).

The reason ordering takeout is so appealing (vs. cooking) is because it appeals to my inertia. Inertia is your customer’s natural state when they’re skimming through your email. The challenge when it comes to selling through your email newsletter is figuring out how to turn a passive “reading” experience into an “action oriented” one.

Now, back to business: Here are the five specific things you can do to overcome readers’ natural laziness and inertia and turn them into buyers.

1. Have a Clear and Unmissable Call-to-Action (CTA)

CTAs are responsible for telling your reader what action you want them to take. In order for your CTA to be effective, it needs to be both easy to locate and easy to understand.

If there is any ambiguity in what someone needs to do, they will abandon the email and not take any action.

newsletter cta ctas how to build a newsletter

This is from an email newsletter sent by a company called B Capital to its prospects, where they list a giant block of employment opportunities.

Notice that there is inconsistency in terms of the ask(s), and the CTAs require the reader to do a lot of the work. A simple “Click Here To Apply” would have been sufficient at the end of each listing.

In the copywriting world we like to say “Clear trumps clever” and that is particularly relevant here. You want to use clear and obvious phrases in your CTAs like, “BUY TODAY,” “RESERVE YOUR SPOT,” or “GET YOUR TICKETS.”

Bad CTAs are either ambiguous or imply more work on the part of the reader. For example, “LEARN MORE,” “FILL OUT THE FORM TO BE CONTACTED BY A REPRESENTATIVE,” or “HOW CAN WE HELP YOU?,” or “WANT MORE INFORMATION?”

To add insult to injury, there is another section at the end of this email newsletter that asks the reader to do even more work. Take a look at all these conflicting CTAs:

newsletter cta ctas how to build a newsletter

The clearer and more obvious your CTA, the better your conversions will be.

2. Have a Singular Offer

Most companies do what I call “offer stuffing.” They pack way too many purchase options into their newsletters (see example above).

General Assembly does the opposite. It uses what I call a “singular offer.” Their emails showcase one specific offer. Usually, it’s an upcoming course, but it can be a new product, service, or an event.

By spotlighting one offer, you have time to explain who it’s for and why it’s valuable. If your readers are already reading and looking forward to your emails, then you want to respect their attention by continuing to provide valuable content. An offer can be extremely valuable if it’s relevant to the reader and their reasons for signing up in the first place.

For General Assembly, the people who sign up for their email list are interested in honing their software development and digital marketing skills. So, an email with an opportunity in which to do that is extremely relevant and valuable.

What’s more, notice how visually appealing this email is. It’s focused, it’s clean, and it doesn’t visually assault you with large blocks of text or lists.

general assembly newsletter cta ctas how to build a newsletter

It also follows rule #1: There is one unmissable call to action (“RSVP”). And the offer is clear, specific, and focused.

You reduce the power of your ask as you increase purchase options.

When it comes to buyer behavior on email, less is more (if you’d like to geek out more on this topic, I recommend Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper’s paper “When Choice is Demotivating: Can One Desire Too Much of a Good Thing?” and Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice).

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3. Be Precise In Your Offer

Earlier I explained that people are naturally lazy. Ambiguity in your offer requires work since your reader has to decipher what you’re really getting at. And work (again) discourages people from taking action. Our goal here is to reduce the amount of friction between your readers and the action we want them to take.

To keep your readers’ attention and get them to take action, your offer needs to be crystal clear while they’re skimming it (most people are skimming your emails, not reading them).

Here’s what I mean by an “ambiguous offer.” It sounds like, “Our representatives would love to talk to you more about what Bellview Management can do for your company. To learn more, click here.”

First, this makes the reader do all the work which we’ve already determined is a huge deterrent. Second, the reader now has to decipher what “can do for your company” means. Is this accounting services? Operations? Sales support? Are you going to manage my social media? What exactly can you do for my company?!

This is the kind of language that will turn off busy readers. You have 3-7 seconds to appeal to the reader who is scanning your email. You cannot afford to generalize.

Alternately, this is what a clear and specific offer reads like:

“Next week, we are hosting 25 of the world’s top sales professionals at our growth summit. Join CEO Matt Karney from Sigmond’s and three-time Best Saleswoman of The Year, Jennifer Duncan of Treetop Hospitality for a 50-minute presentation on How To Succeed Without a Digital Sales Team at 10AM EST. Click here to buy your tickets. Limited seats available.”

This language is specific and precise, leaving no room for confusion. The reader has two options in how they react to this, “I’d love to go to this!” or “This isn’t for me.” This is your goal. You want to turn some readers off and some readers on by being specific and precise with what you’re offering.

#protip: Put a deadline on your offer. Urgency and scarcity provoke action. If time is running out, let your readers know so they don’t miss out.

Related—When manipulation becomes deception: Where should salespeople draw the line?

4. Focus on a Specific Audience

I’ll never forget the day I received a brief from Georgia Pacific (GP) for a toilet paper promotion they were doing in a major retailer. The “Target Market” section was filled out with the following information:

Women from 18-60.

That’s it. Those were our parameters.

Even if you don’t know much about women or marketing, you can understand how an 18 year old’s shopping behavior is going to be extremely different from a 60-year-old’s.

An 18-year-old is shopping for herself for the first time. As a brand, you have an opportunity to create a first impression and get them hooked on your brand. Alternately, a 60-year-old already knows what she likes. You’d need to focus your efforts on switching them from them current toilet paper brand to yours (or if she’s already buying yours, then the focus is on how you get them to buy more of it).

Those are two very different marketing goals.

As a result, the campaign was a wash. We did the only thing we could: used a discount as our appeal to the customer. This is not a strategy I recommend as it attracts people who are after a discount instead of loyalists, but we didn’t have much of a choice.

In marketing and sales: If you try to appeal to everyone, you’ll appeal to no one.

To sell effectively via email, you need to focus your offer on a specific audience.

You don’t want to sell to everyone: just the right people. If your email list is niche and specific, this won’t be a problem. But the majority of email lists are broad and far-reaching. It helps to remember that the majority of people will not buy your product or service. So spend your time focusing on the people who will. And write exclusively to those people.

#protip: Your colleagues are not your customers. Don’t write in a way that will make them think you’re impressive. Focus on your customers who might not have as much native fluency in your field.

5. Use Your Numbers

I worked with a client who refused to implement any of the recommendations my team suggested. They badgered their list constantly with upcoming events, requests for donations, and new membership options.

Occasionally, they’d send out an email with links to their blog posts, but these were also pushing events and company-centric information.

When I explained this strategy does not work, they didn’t agree. So I dug into their data. Here’s what I found:

  • They had 10 separate email lists (with 33% of people receiving five emails a week from different lists)
  • A .09% click-through rate (CTR), well below the average for their industry
  • An average open rate of 16%
  • And an attrition rate of 30% (meaning, they lost 30% of their list to the “unsubscribe” button over the last 12 months)

It was terrible. Not only was no one reading their emails, the few that were, weren’t engaging with the content.

To add insult to injury, they had no content calendar, no strategy, and no plan, but were resolute that their approach was working and that sending more emails yielded more sales. (I saw no evidence of this in the data).

We worked together to create a content calendar and clean out the list (that means removing people who haven’t opened emails in 3-6 months).

In virtually no time, we were able to more than double open rates and CTRs. (Unfortunately, I do not have the sales data, but the proxy metrics suggested that sales did in fact increase significantly.)

The point is that you need to be tracking how your emails are performing.

Without the data, you’re only guessing about what’s working and what’s not.

Someone on your team needs to be in charge of digging into the numbers and building reports that track performance over time. The only way to know for sure is to track the data and then use that information to amend and adjust your strategy moving forward.

This Isn’t Rocket Science

Most of what we’ve covered here you already know. But when it comes to our own newsletters, there is a huge gap between what we know and what we do.

Oftentimes, we get stuck having to please an apathetic boss or frantic CEO. Or we’re simply five minutes from the deadline and “need to push something out.” (Please, never, ever, “push” something out.)

When you are in a rush to “push” out a newsletter, you begin to focus on the things that are irrelevant. For example, how often have you wondered:

  • What time should we send our emails?
  • How long should my email be?
  • Should I A/B test the headlines?
  • Does it matter what day I send on?
  • Is morning better than evening? How do I know?

You know the answer: It depends.

There isn’t a magical time of day that will make your audience open more and buy from you. And that’s because every audience is different.

My audience is different from yours and your audience is different from your competitors. The only way to know these answers is to test them and figure it out for yourself. Most companies that publish guidelines on these are using aggregate data that is irrelevant to you.

My audience opens emails while they’re at work, so mornings are best. My friend Emily’s audience (Six Degrees Society) opens her newsletters after 8PM (that never worked for me). J.Crew sends their newsletters all day long, every day, and multiple times a day if there’s a sale. Austin Kleon sends his famous newsletters on Fridays, where Vanessa Van Edwards’ Science of People newsletter dominates on Wednesdays (unless she has a launch).

How long your newsletter is, when you send it, and why you send it all depends on your audience. None of this works if you don’t know who you are writing to and what they care about.

The success and failure of your newsletter depends solely on who your audience is and your ability to hone in on what they need.

That’s why in order to effectively sell in your newsletters you need to strategically not sell in most of them.

You want to be building a relationship with your readers, gaining their trust, and adding value to their lives over time. A good way to think about this is in the famous “jab, jab, jab, right hook” metaphor popularized by social media guru Gary Vaynerchuck.

The goal is to provide value (to “jab”) over and over again, with no expectations from your readers. And then, when you have something to sell, you ask for the sale (“right hook”) assertively, clearly, and without ambiguity.

If you continue to pay attention to who is on your list, focus on what they want (not what you want), and provide clear, useful, and unmissable CTAs, you will build a newsletter that turns readers into buyers in no time.

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