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Eagle River Partners
Online Communications News February 11, 2004  

Email Newsletters

Seems like when it comes to email newsletters, HTML is the belle of the ball. But you're probably asking yourself: "Self, why even put together an email newsletter, much less an HTML email newsletter?" Fair enough.

Our first article today, Doing the HTML Email Dance, will help you create a sharp HTML email newsletter.

You probably already have a website and you most certainly have plenty of other work to do every day (not to mention laundry, walking the dogs and making waffles for breakfast - ooh, can I have some?).

If you have to make a choice, you might want to spend your time on an email newsletter instead of a web page. Web pages are slackers. They sit there and don't do anything. They don't go anywhere and are usually outdated the moment they are born.

Email is industrious. It travels where you want it to go. Quickly. It can be sent along from one person to another through the magic of forwarding. The recipient 'owns' an email. You gave it to them. It is theirs to read at their convenience and they know you took some time to send them something. Of course, nobody feels this way about spam but if you send email to a supporter or interested somebody that has opted into your list, they know who you are and look forward to hearing from you.

Thus, websites make great information repositories. Add some forum and chat features and they become places to interact.

Email, however, is the worker bee of online communications. Email goes forth and finds people to pollinate with your messages. And these people can pass email along, furthering the process well beyond your original list.

Now that I've convinced you to have an email newsletter and talked about good production techniques, it might be good to have some readers. The second article below talks about the basics of recruiting email newsletter subscribers.

I hope you find this useful and, of course, encourage you to use the send this to a friend button above to share this newsletter. You can always find out more at Eagle River Partners own website.

Contents
Email Newsletters

Doing the HTML Email Dance

Email Newsletter Recruiting Basics

Cool Stuff
Links and Stories and Generally Good News

Presidential Campaign Sites: Analysis of the User Experience
This is a very readable look at how well presidential candidate campaign websites meet the needs of users. The folks at Adaptive Path offer some lessons that we can transfer to any website.

Michigan Land Use Institute
Few organizations have been as savvy as Michigan Land Use Institute at using the web as a publishing medium. Using their site and email newsletters, this organization doesn't respond to events, it makes its own news.

Democracies Online Newsletter
DoWire focuses on the convergence of democracy and the Internet around the world. It's an interesting topic, to be sure. We include the link here, though, because DoWire is a great example of an email newsletter that, through a combination of good content and time, has developed a devoted and well-informed readership.



Doing the HTML Email Dance

One of the first decisions you face when putting out an email newsletter is HTML or text. Ack. What are you talking about?

Used well, HTML email has significant benefits. HTML can be used to produce polished, readable newsletters that reinforce your brand. Tracking who opens your message and what they click on can be a great help to your communications strategy. But it helps to have a good understanding of how HTML email works and how to put together a good looking message.

Design ideas will apply to most anyone putting together HTML email. Advice on coding the HTML behind an HTML email will apply to those that have to 'build your own' email.

Some HTML email hosting services - like that used by Eagle River Partners to deliver this message - handle the coding for you. This frees you up to worry about content.

Plain Text, Rich Text, HTML, Whatever

HTML email uses HTML code (used to generate web pages) to control its layout, colors, images and fonts. Text email is plain black text on a white background. Email you receive that has any colors or sized fonts is at least HTML in a sense. Microsoft Outlook and some other programs have enabled what is called 'Rich Text email,' though the programs may call it HTML email.

Rich Text is a proprietary format created by Microsoft. As the author lose all control over how the message will appear in the recipients in-box. This is risky if you're interested in ensuring a consistent experience for all readers.

Avoid sending Rich Text email to a newsletter list. Your newsletter communications are too important to show up in an unknown color and format at the user's end.

Multi-Part Email

When working with HTML email you will frequently see mention of multi-part email. Multi-part email is a message that has two versions of your message. The first is the HTML version and the second a text version. Both versions will be sent to the recipient in one message. The HTML version will be displayed if the recipient has an email program that renders HTML. Otherwise, the recipient will see the text version of your message.

Of course, this means that you need to create two versions of your message. Text versions are not 'automatically' created when you send an HTML email as a multi-part message. Thus, multi-part email increases your complexity while improving the recipient's experience.

Some HTML email hosting services will create a text version of your HTML message 'on the fly.' The service we use for this list will do that and it can save alot of headaches.

Don't Abuse Your Power

Email readers, like web users of your website, are probably in a hurry. Make your message easy to read. Make it clear what the topics are. If the reader needs to hunt for a point, you're toast.

Once you have a layout, think about using fonts and colors to improve readability. Stick with one font - maybe a second for a headline. Stick with just a couple color groups and please let them complement one another.

An email that is hard to read is an email that isn't read. Your email will benefit from clean, simple design.

Content: How You Say What You Have to Say

How much time do you spend reading every part of every email you receive? Not much, huh? The challenge in email newsletters is not to get each part of your message read but to get the key parts read. Use plain language. Make headlines meaningful. When longwinded or detailed explanations are needed, link to a web page.

Coding: It's 1997 All Over Again

Warning: the following section is a bit technical. If words like 'Font Tags' and 'CSS' make you woozy, you are advised to not do HTML email yourself. Stick to writing good content and work with a list hosting service and/or contractor to provide technical support.

If you're familiar with using tables to create a web page then you'll be comfortable with building an HTML email layout. Tables are the only reliable method for laying out an HTML email.

In addition to using tables, here are some other things to keep in mind if you're writing your own HTML for email:

Headers
Most email programs will delete anything above a body tag. Heck, you may not even need or want a body tag but rather start and end with open and close table tags.

CSS/Style
Never link to or import a style sheet. It won't work. More recent email programs will read embedded styles. Inline styles are going to be your friend. Get used to using span tags around text and placing inline style attributes in your spans.

Font tags
Dude? Font tags? Yep. While it's been essentially illegal to use Font tags in web pages for a few years now you should feel free to use it here. In fact, it is encouraged, even if you use embedded or inline styles.

Test, Test and Proofread. Then Test Again

Test your HTML email (and your text email, for that matter). This is particularly important the first time you use a template. A good email/list hosting service should allow you to send your email to a test list.

Be sure to include a variety of mail programs in your list of test email addresses. You may be surprised at how different your newsletter might look in different email programs and in a web email reader like Yahoo.

Don't be afraid to test frequently. And, of course, proofread your text. Have a second set of eyes proof your text, also.



Email Newsletter Recruiting Basics

Do NOT add people to your email list without their explicit permission. Many people, particularly in non-profit organizations, will assume an awful lot of latitude with email addresses because, well, they are doing important work. That's true but you still want permission to add a subscriber to your list. Plus, simply going through the subscribe process will reinforce the subscriber's awareness of an commitment to your email publication.

Subscribe Forms

The easiest and most obvious subscribe method is to place a simple form on your website's home page. A one field form asking for email address will do nicely. If possible, put the form on every page of your site. Use a formmail script to send the email address to you or directly to your email list management software. These scripts are easy to set up and handle the dirty work for you. Most will even let you designate a page to send the user to after subscribing. Here, you can acknowledge the subscriber's request and let them know you're taking action.

If worst comes to worst, you may be stuck handling all the email list administration manually and have no access to a subscribe form. In this case, which should be rare, use a mailto link on your webpage and have the subscriber send you an email. This method is likely to reduce subscription rates, though, as it sends the user to their email program. This takes extra time, disrupts the workflow and appears unprofessional.

In any case, put the subscribe form in a prominent spot.

Encouragement and Incentives

Your best recruiters are your existing subscribers. They are more likely than you to know others that might be interested in your newsletter. Make it easy for them to forward the newsletter to others by putting reminders about forwarding in the email. Put links in your email to a form on your website that allow a subscriber to enter the address of friends, colleagues and other potential subscribers.

A little incentive never hurt, either. If you are an advocacy-oriented organization or campaign, the importance of your message may be incentive enough to get subscribers forwarding the message. Consider contests for recruiting the most new subscribers. Get folks posting about your newsletter (and organization) on blogs, in online forums and at related meet-ups.

Partnerships

You may not have a large subscriber list or even much traffic at your site. That's cool. Maybe you can partner with folks that do have busy sites. Think about your ideal subscriber and where he or she may be spending time online. There may be an online journal or blog that gets traffic from folks that should know about your site. Or perhaps there is a company that shares your values - be it a passion for protecting the outdoors, improving education or something else. Get in touch with these folks if you don't already have a relationship and see what they might be able to do to spread the word.

Offline Solicitation

It is a good idea to ask folks to subscribe at every event, meeting or other offline activity with which you are involved. Make it clear to folks that they will be added to the list, however, and send a confirmation email as soon as possible. Don't give them time to forget that they have been added to your list.