ALERT: INMA Global Media Awards recipients unveiled

The right language can catapult a newsletter’s success

By Sarah Ebner

The Financial Times

London, United Kingdom


Language is obviously key when it comes to a good editorial newsletter. The best ones not only take account of the “letter” part of their product — building on the fact that they are communicating directly with their readers — but ensure they do it with personality and vim, creating a relationship that will endure.

I think the best newsletters give a real flavour of the author. Newsletters aren’t traditional newspaper articles, and they aren’t simple lists of curated links (though those types of short, easy-to-assemble newsletters can obviously work well). Instead, they are something different, with a unique feel and tone.

A good newsletter is something you signed up for, look forward to receiving in your inbox regularly, and keep on reading not just because it arrives at the same time each week or day, but because you thoroughly enjoy both the content and voice.

A good newsletter arrives with regularity, has excellent content, and has a distinct voice.
A good newsletter arrives with regularity, has excellent content, and has a distinct voice.

I don’t think any of the above will come as a surprise to those who work in the newsletter world. We all know that the quality of writing is important. You can’t just dash off a newsletter, and, to make it work, you need to put in the time.

Good writers can change the way they write depending on what they’re being asked for. A comment piece is different from an interview, and a news story is not written in the same way as a light-hearted feature. The same is true for a newsletter. Sometimes, when a writer moves from years of “normal” journalism to newsletters, you may have to ask them to put in a bit more of themselves — to use more direct language and consider relationship-building. But it shouldn’t be too complicated.

However, newsletter language isn’t only about tone. I often think simple changes can have huge effects if you only take some time to think about the aim of what you’re writing.

In a marketing e-mail, the call to action (CTA) is always hugely important. Care is taken not to clutter up an e-mail with too many of these CTAs because the ambition is to get the customer to click through.

Editorial newsletters are obviously different, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from marketing. Click-through rates can be an important metric for us and obviously can feed into time spent on site too. If there’s something we really want readers to click on, then I’m a proponent of making this as easy as possible.

I’ve seen newsletters that have a good story you’d like to read more of, but which hyperlink oddly, making you less likely to click. I also regularly spot single words hyperlinked, sometimes seemingly at random! This may not seem important, but if you want to send people back to your Web site (and research shows this can help to retain readers), you can make a huge difference by hyperlinking the best choice of words. These are the words that will make someone want to click. You’re trying to make your reader think that reading more is worth their time, so it’s worth spending some time thinking of how.

At my previous job, we had a particular newsletter that was set up to maximise click-through rates — partly so people would go on to read our range of journalism and partly for the paywall to kick in and lead to subscriptions. One week we included a story recommending the most beautiful places to travel in the United Kingdom. When we put it in the newsletter, we didn’t say where this place was, but teed it up with a description and then “find out where.” It wasn’t rocket science, but the click-through rate was huge.

I’m not a huge fan of “read more” but do like “read the full/entire story.” I also like, “do you agree?” which is so very clickable! All these small tweaks in language can be effective.

But it’s not only the actual words used; it can also be how many words are used. When I arrived at the Financial Times just a few months ago, I was surprised to see that the breaking news alerts consisted of a few paragraphs with a “read more” CTA at the end. Putting so much detail in these e-mails meant that there was no huge impetus to click through. We had given too much of the story away already.

We made some simple changes, changing these alerts to only one paragraph, and altering “read more” to “read the full story.” The click-through rate went up by 41% in a month.

I’ve been a journalist for many years and have always loved writing and editing. With newsletters, content and distribution are both crucial, but tiny linguistic changes shouldn’t be overlooked. Their influence can be enormous.

About Sarah Ebner

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.