Email is a Sacred Space: Designing for Newsletters at SNDCLT 2017

In April I had the chance to attend Unite + Rebel, the Society for News Design’s annual conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. Here’s a take-away from one of the workshops I attended.

Newsletters are an increasingly effective way to distribute your content and build a brand – so what should you keep in mind when designing and writing for newsletters? Quartz’s Priya Ganapati offers some best practices to build your audience and make your newsletter effective.

Don’t resort to clickbait

Newsletters are not about the clicks. Your main goal is to build a relationship with your audience ー and that comes before circulating your content. Ganapati stressed that email is a sacred space. People use email for personal reasons, like communicating with family and friends. It’s important to not litter that space with clickbait.

You should also consider where you want your newsletter to be consumed. The Quartz Daily Brief is an effective newsletter because it can be consumed entirely inside the inbox. Readers have the option to visit articles, but they can also receive all the relevant information from just reading the newsletter itself. It’s quick and easy consumption.

Lenny Letter is another example of a newsletter that lives inside the inbox. The format is simple but effective. Readers can read one article entirely within the newsletter.

Establish a template for your readers and stick with it

Newsletters are habit-forming. Structure your newsletter so that your audience will expect to see the same sections in their inbox.

Ann Friedman’s newsletter is a great example of this – it’s the same format every week. You want subscribers to get used to a pattern. In Friedman’s case, she has sections dedicated to her writing, curated links, GIFs and more. She’s even managed to monetize members-only sections in her newsletter that require a paid subscription.

Prioritize mobile and simplicity in your design

Newsletters should not have too many images because there is always the risk of visuals not loading. This is especially important because newsletters tend to be consumed through mobile devices.

Visuals should be chosen carefully to complement the surrounding content, but they shouldn’t act as the content itself. Text should be legible, and the overall layout should be simple enough to work within the constraints of the email format.

According to these principles, Thrillist’s newsletter is arguably a poorly designed newsletter. There’s no content that lives within the email itself, and readers have to click links that take them outside the inbox. Images take up too much real estate, are slow to load, and make the newsletter feel like clickbait.

With a gross open rate of 70 percent, New York Times newsletters are notoriously effective – and this NYT Cooking letter is a great example of how to use images appropriately. The template consists of only two parts: a short essay, which sometimes includes a recipe that lives inside the inbox, and a handful of curated recipes. Images complement the surrounding content but are not necessary to gain value from the newsletter.

What makes a signup page effective?

The first barrier to building a newsletter audience is collecting emails. Below are some best practices for structuring your signup page.

Less is more

Fewer fields lead to higher subscription rates. If you want more demographic information, consider making that an option for the subscriber but not a necessity.

Quartz asks for the subscriber’s demographic information only after the subscriber has provided their email address. Ganapati said there’s a 50 percent drop off from people who sign up for the newsletter to readers who continue to put in their demographic information. While that loss is substantial, it’s still better than losing potential subscribers by overwhelming them with too many form fields. Getting the email address is the first priority.

Offer content previews

Newsletters are about cultivating a specific audience and building a special relationship. You don’t necessarily want everyone to sign up for it. Offering a sample newsletter on a landing page could be a potential way to entice more subscribers and screen out people that wouldn’t be interested in subscribing.

The New York Times provides a sample for almost every newsletter they have, which gives the subscriber a preview of what they’re getting into. You could also provide a link to an archive.

Keep the readers’ needs in mind

The key to writing and designing for newsletters is to prioritize the needs of the reader. Focusing solely on circulating your branded content will only make your newsletter seem like clickbait. The best newsletters use curated content to create a specific user experience that aligns with the brand.

Designing with these principles will ensure that your newsletter breaks through the noise and engages and builds your audience.