5 Lessons From 2 Years of Using Email Newsletters in our Content Strategy

As a platform that helps people, businesses or organizations with their content strategy, it’s always been natural for us to use content ourselves in our communication. For a lot of companies – including Scoop.it – communicating through content means having several distribution channels – including email – and today we’d like to share a few things we’ve learned using email newsletters as a content marketing distribution mechanism.

Getting started: moving from product news to content emails

Like many startups (and also a surprising amount of larger companies), we initially only used email to communicate product updates and company news. While this is certainly useful, it’s also the safe route, and we felt that companies sticking to that route miss out on several things:
- showing the bigger picture: features can certainly be exciting but they don’t necessarily tell the whole story (why use them? who can benefit from the product? what results will users see?). Plus, there are lots of opportunities to share, educate or learn with these other types of content;
- avoiding appearing self-centered or spammy: it’s not about us, it’s about our users (and the questions or interests they have);
- scaling up: how many interesting product updates or company news can you have per month? A good content strategy involves becoming a genuinely interesting and freshly updated media with at least weekly updates.

With that in mind, Ally sent our first content newsletter on September 28, 2012. It featured a success story of a Scoopiteer (Ileane Smith), a post by Ally inspired by a Richard Branson interview at Dreamforce and a curated post from another Scoopiteer (Marylene Delbourg-Delphis). Results were encouraging with a 17.1% open rate but perhaps more importantly a boost of traffic to our blog and a significant increase of readers sharing our content on social networks.

Ever since that day, we’ve been trying to optimize our content newsletters with a couple of clear rules:
- First, we don’t play with content quality: yes, quality is subjective, but with an understanding of our brand and our audience, it’s pretty intuitive for us to define it. If we don’t have anything that will add value to our audience, we don’t fill the gap with low-quality content. Scoop.it is about sharing ideas that matter, so we make it a point to always send meaningful content stick to this practice, even if it means skipping a week of our content newsletter.
- Second, and on somewhat of an opposite note, as much as we love the impact that these campaigns can have on site and blog traffic, we have a policy to send no more than one email content newsletter per week – the last thing we want to do is spam our audience with email newsletters every day, however good the content might be.

This left us many parameters to experiment with and, even though we won’t profess that these results will occur for everyone, we felt this was worth sharing as we’ve now been fine-tuning our strategy for over two years and successfully reaching and engaging with millions of professionals and businesses – a target segment that many marketers are also interested in.

Without further ado, here’s what we learned:

1. Content performs much better than promotion

This might be expected but while promoting our premium products through discount or special offers certainly helped our revenue grow (and as exciting as we think these offers were! Come on, our premium plans rock!), they weren’t as engaging to our audience as inspiring content created or curated by Ally, Clair or the rest of the Scoop.it team.

On average, content beat promotion by a 2.2x on open rate and a 6.0x on click rate.

2. Timing of campaigns is not entirely critical

As on social media where we stopped counting the number of “best times to tweet” infographics long ago, there are a lot of studies online about the best time to send an email campaign. While we saw some slightly higher performance of campaigns sent on Monday afternoons, the differences don’t seem to be very statistically significant. Note that because we have a user base which is quite international (65%+ of our users are now outside of the US), this might explain the lack of impact of this criteria.

3. Having numbers in the Subject lines helps the open rate

Is our user base super rational and number-driven? Not sure, but what we are sure of is that 9 out of our top 10 best performing email newsletters had numbers in their subject lines, the winner being “5 tips for hacking social media, optimizing for Twitter, and promoting at the right time” (and no, this latter was not one of these “best time to tweet” studies…) with an astounding 45% open rate.

4. Piggybacking on famous brand names doesn’t really work

Since 3 of our top 10 campaigns happened to include famous brand in the subject line (e.g.: “Content we love: 5 tips for lean thought leadership, Facebook “Home,” and Operation: Integrate all the things!”), we looked at whether it helped – the rationale being that quoting Facebook or Twitter or other 800-pound gorillas that everyone in our space wants to watch closely might yield higher engagement. Frankly, we didn’t find strong evidence of an impact, as we found the number of subject lines with famous brand names to those without them to be essentially the same.

5. Not having enough relevant content to send is by far the #1 hurdle

Overall, while there certainly is an art – and possibly even a science – of crafting impactful email newsletters, when taking a step back, we found that the #1 criteria for impact was by far the frequency of our campaigns.

It is worth noting that our #1 campaign outperformed the average by a huge amount; it is a clear outlier. And, don’t get me wrong: our top 10 performing email campaigns – even excluding this one – clearly outperformed the average by a factor of 1.7x. This is a lot, but in reality it’s very little, compared to the impact we could have lost by not sending any newsletters at all.

One thing to confess here: while this is our trade – helping people find great content to easily publish to all their channels to develop and engage their audience – I have to admit that we’ve been historically much more focused on social media and SEO than on email. For that reason, we were slow to adopt to email what we’ve been preaching to blogs, social media and search: content curation. Yes, I know, it seems a little funny. But, the lesson was learned and we worked on it not only by integrating much more content curation in our own email campaigns but also by making it a feature on the Scoop.it platform.

And, when we compare our recent results vs the historical ones, we found the biggest take-away of all: as we started including curated content more systematically into our mix, we were able to send content newsletters on a weekly basis without degrading the quality: our open rate went up a bit but much more importantly, our increased frequency drove the number of recipients we reached through the roof by a factor of 2.5x (when normalized to offset the fact our opt-in user base grew rapidly in the meantime).

In other words, our best months were not the ones where we had just 1 or 2 exceptional campaigns but were months where we were able to send newsletters every week.

We’re not done experimenting with email newsletters and we certainly still have much to learn. But we can already say it’s definitely been something worth optimizing for us: not just to get better results on email newsletters but also because these are great data points to optimize our entire content strategy. It adds insights to the ones we collect from social media and search analytics to inform and adjust our content and better understand our audience.

And as always, we’d love to hear from you about this topic: what are your own findings of what works and what doesn’t when sending email newsletters?

About Guillaume Decugis

Co-Founder & CEO of Scoopit. Entrepreneur (Musiwave, Goojet). Skier. Gamer. Blogging without blogging here: http://scoop.it/u/gdecugis
  • Guillaume Dumortier

    Excellent article Guillaume. Thanks for sharing it. My only remark comes from “It is worth noting that our #1 campaign outperformed the average by a huge amount; it is a clear outlier.” It’s what is called a “False Positive”. A 1st campaign is always dealing with the shortest userbase.
    Maybe there’s a rule that the 1st non-onboarding email received by a user is a make or brake for further engagement. I’d be curious to intertwine the results of email content newsletter+ usage lifecycle messaging.

    • http://scoop.it Guillaume Decugis

      Thanks @guillaumedumortier:disqus! Glad you liked it. Actually what I meant by #1 is not the first campaign we ever did but the top campaign from an Open Rate point of view. It was actually one we sent in May 2013 with a pretty big user base compared to when we started.
      Your second point is very valid as we do have usage/notification emails as well and we haven’t yet studied how or whether they interfere. Worth looking at as well.

  • Ralph Schneider

    Hi Guillaume, great share of insights with good details trying to understand how to create a well performing newsletter. I found several useful hints. Thanks. Have a nice day!

  • http://www.destinyseatings.com/ vimal chauhan

    great post !

  • Pingback: Rock your next newsletter subject lines with these 100 examples (Slides) | Social Media Slant

  • Harry Brooks

    GREAT post. We’re going to be discussing it in today’s team meeting…

  • http://www.thebusinessofathomebusiness.com/ Jane Gardner

    I ‘d like to thank you for this opportune post as I am just launching my business and looking at my marketing campaign. Email newsletter has been thought of as an old-fashioned technique lately by those in social media who think Twitter and Google are the best. So, I am glad to see the statistics here that Email newsletters are still important and I am putting email newsletter once a week (emphasis on) back into my marketing and communication plans. I’m creating my newsletter template this week and it will be sooo easy to communicate with a newsletter that provides value to my subscribers!

  • David Anders

    What service do you use for your email campaigns? I do not see it in the email.
    http://www.scoop.it/t/filemaker-info/

    • http://scoop.it Guillaume Decugis

      Good point, should have mentioned it. It’s our partners at MailChimp.

  • http://www.twitter.com/dekoning Brian DeKoning

    Thanks for your insight, Guillaume. I would also be interested to know how the performance of Scoopiteers’ case/success stories compared to curated content. Re: timing, because you have an international market, would it be worth using MailChimp’s local timing tool to get a better sense of when people are actually opening? Maybe you’ve done this already.

    I think this is a great example of how to analyze your own efforts with some common sense and organized tracking. Thanks!

    • http://scoop.it Guillaume Decugis

      Good points @DeKoning:disqus: will note these points for a potential follow-up!

  • Tony

    Hey Guillaume, thanks for sharing this data. Another study of email campaigns found something similar about the subject line including numbers.

    Do you think Video would increase the open rate, for instance, “5 of the Best Superbowl Ads: Video included”

    Or, one that I would love to see, “5 Reasons this Dog Fighting video needs to be seen now!” (if I can plug my own project)

    • http://scoop.it Guillaume Decugis

      Not sure how the type of content would impact the open rate @disqus_NxvbY0vdGq:disqus – but we haven’t tested that anyway.

  • Sex Drugs

    Now that is a good article – but it would be, you guys rock at content! It would be interesting to increase your newsletters to 8 per month (sending one midweek, and one on a Sunday) and noted the outcome. I suspect the open rate will climb, but the opt out rate may also lift.