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10 Ways to Wake Up Your E-Newsletter

Is your email newsletter putting your readers to sleep with unwanted information, extraneous clutter, and a general failure to connect? An email newsletter is a great way to keep up with donors, members, participants and others - but only if you do it right.

Here are some tips for getting your newsletter bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to change the world.

1. Write for Your Audience.

This is where most nonprofits miss the mark: they assume all subscribers will be interested in all kinds of news. Realistically, some (volunteers, beneficiaries) may only be interested in events or support groups, while others (donors) want to know how their donations are being spent. Whenever possible, segment your subscriber lists and send newsletters written or edited for each of your core audiences.

2. Connect to People's Values

In many cases, why your organization does what it does is as important as what it does. When the ACLU describes their fight against internet surveillance, they motivate those who care strongly about privacy issues. Think about the values that underlie your own stories; emphasizing those values gives people reason to connect with and care about your programs.

3. Convey Impact.

Donors and other participants want to see the results your organization is achieving in people's lives. Provide a combination of stories and statistics to illustrate the full effect of their support. Before-and-after scenarios are especially useful for this purpose.

4. Keep It Short.

People spend just a few seconds determining whether to read an email, so you need to hook them quickly. Keep each item to a headline, two or three sentences, and a link to the full article on your website - just enough to convey the message and drive them to your website (for the added benefit of increased traffic). Try to keep your newsletter to five stories or fewer, so it can be scanned quickly.

5. Keep It Organized.

Your newsletter is likely to arrive as part of a steady stream of emails. Help alleviate the chaos in your subscribers’ inboxes by grouping similar items in sections like News, Issues, Chapter Info, etc. This makes it easy for readers to skim your newsletter and determine what they want from it.

6. Use Calls to Action.

Decide what you want your readers to do as a result of reading your newsletter and give them the means to do it. For example, when writing about pending legislation, do you want readers to share their feelings, sign a petition, make a donation, stay alert for updates, or take some other action?

7. Make It Visually Interesting.

Don't underestimate the power of design to captivate readers. Make your newsletter interesting with the appropriate focus, images, and typographic treatments. A couple tips:

- Stick to a couple of typefaces: one for headlines and one for text. Too many typefaces in one document looks confusing and unprofessional.

- Leave some “white space” between items and in the margins so that the layout can breathe and readers can focus on separate elements.

8. Use Photos to Tell Your Story.

Many organizations use images without explaining what the image is depicting. Since people are more likely to look at the image first, use captions: even if subscribers don't read the article, they will still get your message. Remember to name images with meaningful titles and Alt tags: those who don’t download images will get more from “Success in Reading Program” than “IMG_54901.jpg.”

9. Relate to Your Brand.

Every communication is a chance to reinforce your brand. Help readers identify your newsletter with your organization by including your official logo, colors, and typefaces. Ask yourself: does your mission come through? Does the tone match your organization's personality? Does your newsletter reflect your values? Newsletters from organizations emphasizing “care” should look different from ones focusing on “innovation.”

10. Experiment and Learn

One great feature of email is that you can see exactly what readers click on. If you schedule time to check your email reports after each issue, you can learn what works best. Experiment with different headlines, photos, and links to see what gets the best response; it doesn't take long or cost anything to vary these elements, and can improve overall newsletter effectiveness.

Bonus Tip: Have Fun!

Email newsletters take time and effort to build, but if you view the process as an opportunity to connect with a friendly audience, to play with communication techniques, and to learn something new, you should have the right motivation and goals to keep things fun. And all audiences, no matter what kind of information they want, will appreciate fun.

Howard Levy is Principal and Creative Director at Red Rooster Group, a strategic marketing design firm for nonprofits, and founder of Nonprofit Brand It! (formerly The Nonprofit Brand Institute), which provides information, resources, and advice to help nonprofits create strong brands. 

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