Thriving Digital Connections: Sending Great Newsletters

Today we are excited to launch a brand new series, Thriving Digital Connections. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the latest tech tips and tools that help us build, grow, and enrich the many connections that make the tapestry of our digital life. First up, the thriving world of newsletters! 

The Rise of the Newsletter 

Whether for marketing purposes, general outreach or creative sharing, in the last couple of years newsletters have gone through a veritable revival––so much so that a recent New York Times article referred to newsletters as the ‘New Social Network That Isn’t New at All’. That’s because, beyond sales, newsletters offer an opportunity to form a connection with community members, building trust and nurturing relationships by bringing relevant and interesting content into their personal space. 

While the ever-changing landscape of social media marketing has created an over-abundance of promotional messages, newsletters offer a more intimate and curated way for audiences to stay in touch, bringing tailored content directly into their inboxes. Regular communication of this kind establishes a reputation for relevance and trust, which in turn can boost traffic to your nonprofit's website and grow your social media presence. 

In the next section, we introduce some of today’s most popular tools for sharing great content through a newsletter format––whether you’re looking to share promotional updates or more creative ones. 

Popular Newsletter Platforms

If you are looking to start a newsletter for your nonprofit, your goals may be to share organizational announcements such as the launch of an event, a fundraising campaign or a new initiative. Or may be interested in promoting your original content, boosting your social media presence, or asking for member feedback. There are many reasons and many ways to send a newsletter, and there is a platform for every goal, budget, and need! Below we discuss some of the most popular options:

Mailchimp: Mailchimp is an all-in-one marketing platform with an emphasis on sleek designs and powerful analytics. Its platform is a web-based application, meaning you don't need to download or install any software on your computer in order to use it. Their free plan lets you reach up to 2,000 contacts at a time, with paid options that increase in reach and functionality depending on your needs (their price calculator is a great way to find the best plan for you.) Mailchimp’s Getting Started page offers easy-to-use instructions for signing up and starting your first campaign, while their Resources portal allows you to grow your digital skills with access to anything from digital guides and video tutorials, to case studies, marketing tips and more. Here is an example of a video that walks you through the process of setting up an email campaign, part of Mailchimp’s vast library of video tutorials

Pro tip: If you are looking to send out a newsletter whose focus is more on creative content rather than marketing, you may also consider TinyLetter, a free Mailchimp platform that focuses on offering “a clean and straightforward writing experience for people who aren’t looking for advanced reporting or features for businesses.”

Constant Contact: this platform provides a reliable email newsletter solution for organizations looking to send branded emails, sell products, build a website, and grow their audience. Their platform offers a streamlined onboarding experience that is complemented by easy-to-use features such as Social Marketing, which integrates with Facebook and Instagram ads to bring new leads to your website. For small businesses and organizations looking to create professional emails and build relationships, Constant Contact starts at $26/month with a reach of up to 10k contacts. For anyone curious to learn the ins and outs of online marketing, their free guide The Download draws on decades of experience to bring the best tips, practical examples and inspiration to new users.

Zoho: Zoho’s Campaigns tools allow you to create responsive designs as well as customized messages, offering powerful automated workflows and integrations with other services and platforms like Eventbrite and GoToWebinar. With the rise in demand for online learning, Zoho also offers email marketing tools for distance learning, a feature that may be of interest especially to educators and subject matter experts looking to stay connected during the pandemic. For more information on Zoho, visit their Pricing page and check out the video below outlining Campaigns’ many features:  




Tips for Getting Started 

Once you have identified the platform and plan that works best for your needs, the next step is to create your first newsletter! Here are some tried and true tips to help you get started: 


1) Think about design:

Because a newsletter is an extension of your nonprofit’s image and reputation, it's a good idea to customize the template so that its graphics, themes, and colour scheme closely match your organization’s overall online presence. Keep features and graphic design consistent not only from issue to issue, but also in relation to your brand identity. Most newsletter platforms offer templates that are easily customizable, with drag and drop features that make it easy to add or remove content blocks based on your needs.


2) Be consistent:

Consistency is another way to build trust and convey a strong presence, so build that into the format and design of your newsletter from the very beginning. For example, some sections will remain the same each time your newsletter goes out, and these could be things like: your contact information, your social media buttons, a designed header and footer, etc. You could also consider content blocks, or ‘columns’, for recurring features such as event information, member spotlights, blog highlights, and more. Make sure to also include a short, one-sentence summary of the newsletter's contents–your template will position it up-top to help guide the subscriber's experience. Make that accurate, enticing, and easy to follow.

3) Pay attention to formatting:

Because newsletters can be accessed on both desktop and mobile, it’s important to keep a user’s experience in mind.  Make sure to pay extra attention to formatting, which includes:      

  • Testing all URLs that will be hyperlinked to make sure they're live and that they redirect to the correct page(s);              

  • Scanning for typos and content errors;    

  • Selecting photos that don't take too long to load and are mobile-friendly (picking a standard size for all photos, especially compatible with your newsletter template, is a great first step);   

  • Consider adding a sender name in addition to your organization’s name (e.g., Person’s Name at Your Organization). This kind of sender information tends to perform better than simply organizational profiles because research shows that “no reply” email addresses are poorly received by subscribers;

  • Add 'alt-text'–this step isn't just for images on your website! Adding all-text is a way to bypass email client blocks and offers back-up should the HTML not render properly (rather than seeing blank space, alt-text will help readers follow along and know where to click to learn more.)  This makes your newsletter more accessible as well.


4) Scheduling Is Key:

Equally important is deciding how frequently to send out newsletters – and then sticking to that plan. Most organizations choose to send newsletters monthly (either at the first or last of the month), but some have reason to send it twice a month or more, depending on needs. Your newsletter calendar should be closely integrated with your overall outreach strategy and other internal schedules, so you're sending out emails at the best possible time. Keep track of your open and click rates and your unsubscribe stats – they're all telltale signs of whether you're sending too many newsletters or just the right number per month.         


5) Build your subscriber base:

This step will require ongoing monitoring and maintenance. Make sure the newsletter is easy to find: sign-up forms should appear on the homepage, for example, and possibly be embedded on other webpages as well. You may also choose to offer sneak peeks of current issues on your site, or to make the latest issue available online for anyone to read without first signing up. Calls to action (CTA) should be made frequently across all channels to invite people to subscribe (make sure to devote a few social media posts a month just to promoting your newsletter!) Consider including a pre-checked checkbox besides any other form where people enter their email address (such as a member registration or checkout page) to encourage subscriptions. 


6) Boost Engagement & Calls to Action (CTA):

Subject lines are the first thing a reader will see. Treat them like headlines that draw subscribers in so that they will actually open your newsletter.  Most platforms will help you test subject lines before sending issues out, and you're encouraged to test them with a small subset of your subscribers, too.                     

  • Typical elements that have a strong record of 'open rates' include: featuring the recipient’s name; headlines no more than 30-40 characters; action verbs; a strong incentive like a time-bound offer or celebration. Avoid sending messages in all-caps, overusing emojis, and using/overusing words that are associated with spam (e.g., win; exclusive; urgent; one-time offer, etc.) 

  • Make sure your newsletters are not overwhelming to your readers. Limit CTAs to just one or two per issue, and place them above the fold.                               

  • Test the CTA before sending out the newsletter. Have a colleague or follower read it and ask them to explain the CTA to you in 1 sentence. If it's easy to grasp, it's a good CTA. (Also: the less steps it entails to complete the action, the better.) 

  • Other 'standard' calls to action that can be fixed (and don't necessarily need a graphic treatment) include: asking recipients to forward the newsletter to friends and family (you can create a standard form that's pre-populated just for that); invitations to follow your nonprofit on social media (include hyperlinked social media buttons!), and inviting readers to post your main CTA on their social media (you can create pre-written text blurbs for that which they can click on.)


7) Get familiar with CASL:

CASL stands for Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation, and it was developed to help Canadian individuals, businesses and organizations deal with spam and other electronic threats. CASL limits online commercial messages and prohibits unwanted downloads of programs. All Canadian organizations must comply with the Act, including nonprofits, charities and libraries. To learn more about CASL, visit the Government of Canada’s anti-spam legislation page or read our 2014 blog post, The Top 9 Things Nonprofits Need to Know About the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation.


8) How to Measure Newsletter Success:

Services like Mailchimp offer analytics tools that provide great insights into your newsletter's performance. Once you've tested your ideal send frequency, look, and headlines, consider keeping an eye on the following metrics to spot areas for improvement or subscriber needs: open rates; click rates; most popular content; industry standards. You may also want to consider the occasional survey to give followers a chance to share their feedback (one survey across all social media platforms is more than enough). Followers like to be rewarded for their loyalty, and surveys are a great way to find out how to do so in a way that is meaningful to them. For more on industry performance, see Mailchimp’s article on email marketing benchmarks.


Further Reading

  • Marketing Automation: A Quick Guide for Nonprofits (TechSoup Canada)

  • Email Analytics: The 8 Email Marketing Metrics and KPIs You Should Be Tracking (HubSpot)

  • 13 Marketing Newsletters You Should Subscribe to Now (Medium)

  • Your Guide to Email Design: How to Create Beautiful Newsletters (Canva

  • The Best Email Marketing Software for 2021 (PC Mag)


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