Are newsletters a waste of time?

You probably think this is a strange question to ask, given that I am doing so in my weekly newsletter…! However, two things have happened in the past week that has meant the whole notion of newsletters is being questioned.

The first thing that made people question email newsletters is the message sent out by the pub chain Wetherspoons to everyone on its email marketing list. The company told its 650,000 plus subscribers that their details were being deleted. Wetherspoons said that email newsletters are now considered intrusive, and so the £1.6bn firm was ceasing email marketing immediately. 

Now, if such a large and popular business has decided that email newsletters have “had their day”, it is worthy of consideration, surely.  Other large companies have also re-evaluated what they are doing with email marketing. The £1.9bn online fashion store, Net-A-Porter was sending out ten email newsletters each week, now it only sends two a week. The online restaurant booking service, TopTable has halved its email newsletter output in the past year as well. The backlash against email newsletters is alive and well in many online businesses.

Of course, this is nothing new. A quick search on Google, without going into any depth found plenty of articles entitled “email newsletters are dead”. I found one such article which was written in 2009. If I could have been bothered to search again, I’m sure I’d find articles back in 1995 saying that email newsletters were “old hat”. 

However, there is a problem. Email newsletter open rates are falling. The average open rate is now around 23%, which is about 5% down from averages five years ago. Worse still, the click-through rate has plummeted to around 4% these days, compared with about 14% five years ago. 

Something is clearly going on in the email newsletter world. And that’s where the second event of the week comes in. 

A friend of mine forwarded an email newsletter to me and said he was going to unsubscribe and what did I think. It took me all of five seconds to see why he wanted to unsubscribe. The newsletter was from a business consultancy firm which has a good reputation for helping companies grow and achieve greater success. But the email newsletter they were sending out was all “look at us, aren’t we marvellous”. It was full of self-congratulatory twaddle. What’s worse, when the newsletter wasn’t saying how fantastic this company was, it was trying to sell you something such as a training course or some downloadable item. There was nothing of any value in the newsletter. 

This goes to the heart of the issue. Most email newsletters you have signed up for are, frankly, garbage. They are either all “me, me, me” about the company itself, or they are just a glorified sales promotion. Either way, that’s not what you signed up for, is it? 

We’ve given up opening email newsletters because we reckon that if we do, we’ll be faced with another self-centred monograph or a sales pitch. We have seen so many of them, and we now think that’s what email newsletters are like. Hopefully, you have realised that not all newsletters are like that…!

Other newsletter publishers could cause problems for you
The prevailing view about email newsletters is a problem if your business uses them. You will be suffering even if your newsletter is good, not selfish and nor is it a sales leaflet. Because so many people expect newsletters to be like that, they’ll assume yours is the same. 

So, how can you overcome this issue? The first thing is to ignore all those “email marketing is dead” articles. Every study on email marketing, every year for the past 20, has shown that it is more valuable to businesses than any other kind of digital marketing. It continues to be the “number one” method of gaining business online. Even with the appalling examples of bad email marketing, even with those trashy sales letters you get, email newsletters and email marketing continue to work well. Just imagine how much better businesses would be if they did email marketing properly…! It is largely done badly, has dreadfully low engagement rates and still manages to be the number one way of gaining business online. You can’t make it up…!

Having ignored the naysayers, you can now concentrate on making sure that your email newsletter works for you. The key to that – unlike my friend’s unwelcome newsletter – is to provide value. That means giving your readers something they can think about or use in their business or personal life to help them. One of the best newsletters I receive is a summary of blog posts from CoSchedule. It is full of in-depth, practical and thought-provoking material which has helped me improve my online work considerably. Most of the time there is nothing about the service from CoSchedule (a blog and social networking scheduling system), but occasionally there will be a gentle mention of what the business offers. It is all low-key; the email from CoSchedule is something I always open because it is so valuable. 

If I were to ask the folks over at CoSchedul “are newsletters a waste of time?”, their answer would almost certainly be “no way”. Provide value, and you will have higher than average open rates and higher than typical click-through rates. 

Newsletters are only a waste of time if you make them all about yourself or your business and try to sell, sell, sell. People want value, some material they can use, or think about and apply in their world. ASOS provides fashion advice more than it tries to sell clothing, for instance. And they’re not doing too badly selling £1.5bn of fashion a year as a result of 2,000 items of digital content each day…! That’s a lot of email marketing – but it is centred on the ASOS desire to be a “fashion destination” and not just an online shop. In other words, those email newsletters it sends out are focused on fashion first, sales last. And it works.

The same is true in many other situations, but sadly not in most, as my friend’s example shows this week. Most of what gets sent out as email newsletters is junk. Don’t let your email newsletter be a victim of the majority of bad email marketing. Make yours stand out and shine by providing value to readers.

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