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A great-looking email template is important for establishing credibility and brand recognition with readers; but, as the old saying goes, never judge a book by its cover.

The same mentality should always be applied to email campaigns. A nice-looking template means nothing if subscribers aren't engaged and interested in what you have to say. The content of your email or newsletter is vital to the success of your campaign.

Whether creating awareness, generating sales, or building customer loyalty, it's important to remember what keeps customers coming back for more.

Why is content so important?

The first thing readers will do when opening an email is ask themselves, What's in it for me? You have about seven seconds to answer that question.

Layout and template play a big role here. At first glance, your brand should be clearly visible and the content easily accessible, but that alone won't capture your readers' attention for long. No matter how good your email looks, the real magic for lasting beyond that seven-second mark lies in the content of your email.

Content should always be relevant and engaging. If either element is lacking, your reader will close out, hit delete, and move on. If that happens once too often, your subscriber may go one step further and block future emails from you or, worse, report you as a spammer.

The relevancy of your email answers the "What's in it for me?" question, ensuring that your subscribers stay interested and keep reading to find out more. The engaging aspect promotes activity within your email, such as drawing readers to your Web site for a call to action, ensuring click-throughs to additional content, or encouraging readers to forward your newsletter or promotion to friends and colleagues who might also find value in what you have to offer.

What can I do to improve my content?

1. Know your audience

One of the most important steps to take toward providing more-relevant content is knowing whom you're writing to. Are you writing to a 70-year-old retiree who enjoys golf or a stay-at-home mother of three? You could have a wide array of customers, and it's important to target and segment your content based on their interests.

To determine those interests, use email marketing tools that offer reporting functions that allow you to learn more about your subscriber base, such as their open and click-through rates. You can also analyze past campaign reports to get a better understanding of what gets their attention and what prompts them to act.

2. Create a personal voice

Brand perceptions are established through the tone and personality of your communications. Instead of sending generic emails, personalize them to reflect who you are—to start, that might mean simply signing your name.

Establishing a personal voice in your communications not only helps the customer feel a connection but also fosters a relationship with your readers. Such a voice is crucial to gaining their trust in you and your email content. They will be more apt to open an email from you and more likely to be interested in what you have to offer.

3. KISS (Keep it short and sweet)

With only seven seconds to capture your readers' attention, you can't waste time on wordy sentences or fluffy content. Get to the point. Make sure your content is strategically planned to convey your messages in a clear and concise manner. Make it easier for your customers to sort through what they don't care about and find what really sparks their interests. A helpful rule of thumb: The more frequently you send your emails, the shorter the email should be.

If you're having a hard time coming up with ideas, try using a campaign-ready template. Such templates provide not only a format and a layout but also pre-populated content—the perfect solution for those who are struggling with what to say.

4. Add links and use themes

Adding links to your email campaign or newsletter helps to engage your audience and drive traffic to your site. Don't limit yourself to buttons and banners. You can add strategically placed hyperlinks throughout the email. Have these links connect to more in-depth content and a call to action throughout your e-newsletters, and you'll notice higher click-throughs, response rates, and increased sales.

Also, try using themes—whether holidays or seasonal changes—within your emails to get your creativity flowing. Planning content around a theme helps keep the audience engaged and makes it easier for you to figure out what to say. Be prepared and plan ahead, mapping out when you'll send your emails based on events throughout the year.

5. Ensure the layout and design complement the content

Now that you have relevant and engaging content, make sure the look and style work in its favor. Keep your emails looking clean with white space between your paragraphs, graphics, and table borders. Be consistent with the look and feel throughout your email or newsletter. Maintaining a high contrast between font colors and background colors keeps your content readable, and columns or sections help readers with quick on-screen reading.

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Remember, the content you provide is the main reason your customers subscribed to your email or newsletter in the first place. Make your content valuable! It is the key to executing successful campaigns, growing your subscriber following, and getting them to keep coming back for more.

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Steve Adams is the vice-president of marketing for Protus (www.protus.com), a provider of communications tools, including the MyFax (www.myfax.com) Internet fax service; my1voice (www.my1voice.com), a virtual phone service; and Campaigner (www.campaigner.com), an email-marketing solution. He can be reached at sadams@protus.com.