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Six Classic Mistakes...Email Newsletters Make

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Email newsletters help build customer and partner relationships, contribute to branding efforts, increase awareness, improve customer service and add value to purchases and registrations.

And those are just the indirect benefits.

But in the rush to the virtual printing presses, marketers are making a lot of mistakes. Eliminate those mistakes and the true potential of newsletters unfolds. Here are six of the best.

1. Confusing newsletters with promotions

Many marketers don't make the distinction between an email newsletter and email promotions. The latter are action-oriented; designed to provoke some kind of (immediate) response through a click, a sign-up, a purchase, whatever. They're what most people think of under the term opt-in email marketing.

Email newsletters may contain action-related elements, but their real potential lies in building, over time, a lasting, long-term relationship with the reader. Which means they may not try and induce any kind of immediate action at all. Instead, they create a climate, an environment, a relationship which predisposes the reader to taking such an action at some other time.

You can think of promotions as transaction-oriented, and newsletters as relationship-oriented. An email promotion says, "Buy the new Brownlow Desk Chair 2002", the email newsletter carries an article about avoiding back strain in the office.

If you don't get the difference clear in your head, then you're likely to commit mistakes 2 and 3 as well.

2. Being too publisher-centric

Subscriber loyalty depends on a lot of things, but content is at the top of most people's list. Not just content, but valuable content. Content that is useful, timely and relevant. A successful newsletter delivers useful information, at the right time, and to the right people.

With competition for in-box space growing, even that isn't always enough though.

You need to be unique, too. Unique in terms of what you say (your content) or how you present it (which is where newsletter personality and style come into the equation).

Many companies produce newsletters filled with announcements about their new premises, staff, products, services, programs, charity work, etc. All fine in the right place, but all assume the reader is as interested in the company as the owners and employees are.

The reader is actually interested in information that addresses a problem or need (for help, humor, marketing intelligence, industry insight etc.). If you can work your products and services into addressing those needs and problems, and avoid sounding like a promotion, fine. But you'll generally need to be more innovative than that.

3. Using the wrong success metrics

The metrics used to judge email promotions don't always apply to newsletters. Clickthrough rates are, for example, an unfair measure of emails which may not be designed to stimulate immediate clickthroughs. Using short-term metrics to judge long-term initiatives leads to wrong decisions.

Calculating newsletter ROI is a tough nut to crack, since newsletter costs are immediate and relatively easy to measure, while the benefits are long-term and difficult to measure.

Peter Meyer suggests one approach. Another approach is to measure the revenue produced by subscribers before and after they subscribed, and compare this with a control group of non-subscribers.

4. Ignoring the value of the headers

You hear a lot about subject lines in email marketing. But not a lot about the other email headers, particularly the "to" and "from" headers. Consider a newsletter which arrives thus:

To: list member
Subject: Brownlow Chairs

Now compare it with this one:

To: A.Customer
Subject: [Brownlow Chairs] A desktop health and safety tip...

Use a combination of the three headers to:

  • maintain the impression that it's a one-to-one communication
  • to identify a recognizable sender (the relevant brand, person, website or company)
  • identify the publication
  • give recipients something they can use for filtering their mail (into a "chair newsletters" folder, for example) o encourage the recipients to open and read the mail

5. Making it difficult for people to unsubscribe

Some marketers still believe a disgruntled subscriber is better than no subscriber at all. So they make people jump through hoops to get off an address list, or they wait a few more newsletter issues until the unsubscribe request is properly honored.

At best, the would-be ex-subscriber manages to get unsubscribed and leaves with a bad impression. At worst, they remain trapped in your distribution list. So you pay for mails to go unread, and suffer as the recipient complains to all and sundry about your poor administration. Not to mention the spam accusations.

Trapped subscribers also lower response rates to any advertisements and other offers in your newsletter, skewing the statistics and disappointing any third-party advertisers.

So make your unsubscribe process quick and painless.

6. Not making the most of website traffic or customers for sign-ups

Think of the effort invested in persuading website visitors to become customers. Then compare this with the typical effort expended to persuade them to become newsletter subscribers.

How many times have you seen a subscription box tagged on the bottom of a web page, with no indication of the newsletter's contents, frequency, privacy policies etc.?

Give people the opportunity to sign-up for a newsletter everywhere: web pages, confirmation messages, thank you pages, receipts, etc. At the least, let people know what will happen when they submit their address - what can they expect in their in-boxes and how often? And what will you do with their email address? (Which means posting a prominent privacy policy).

Avoid these mistakes and potential can start becoming reality.

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Mark Brownlow, Ph.D., is a writer, traveler, and footbal (soccer) fan (

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