How to turn subscribers into readers: Best practices for newsletters in 2021

If you feel like your inbox has been overtaken by newsletters, you’re not imagining things. For the past 25 years, marketers have been deploying a steady stream of email marketing, regarding it as one of the best ways to bring their audience exactly what they want, when they want it. And it works—for every dollar companies spend on email marketing, they can expect an average ROI of $42.

At the same time, marketers must work hard to ensure newsletters capture attention in a crowded inbox and retain and grow subscribers. And marketers don’t want to bombard subscribers, who already receive 120 emails per day, on average.

Here are 10 best practices to keep in mind before clicking send:

1. Identify your audiences

A benefit of producing newsletters today is that there is more flexibility in when and to whom they can be sent. But while marketers no longer have to factor in capturing attention during short morning or evening commutes, and they have a variety of tools that can help them understand the best times to send newsletters, there’s no guarantee that subscribers will actively engage. Thus, newsletter strategy should revolve around who your active audiences are. To increase engagement, it is important to keep in mind where your readers are, what demographics they belong to, and what industries they work in. For example, if your newsletters mostly go to work email addresses, you should consider avoiding weekends, when your subscribers are less likely to check their emails.

2. Nail your first impression—the subject line

How often do we scan our inboxes and linger on an item we tell ourselves we will read later but then never do? More than other channels, newsletters often fall into the category of “out of sight, out of mind,” making first impressions key. Short, punchy subject lines with attention-grabbing words or phrases increase open rates. Subject lines should also offer a taste of what will be inside and be somewhat direct. The best subject lines have the following characteristics:

• are no more than 60 characters to ensure little-to-no cutoff when viewing on desktop

• use buzzwords or popular phrases within the industry or topic area your newsletter covers

• get the conversation going before they’re opened—for example, by asking open-ended questions that pique readers’ interests, such as “Which 2021 marketing best practices have you been following?”

3. Keep content focused and relevant

There’s no bigger turnoff than clicking on an enticing newsletter subject line to find a content bait-and-switch. If you advertised weekly marketing tips, don’t start tossing in unrelated stock market updates. And consider employing consistent themes and recurring features. For instance, maybe your newsletter always starts by analyzing the most pressing trend of the moment or shares highlights from the month or week. To guide this focus, consider what the newsletter is best known for—and lean on analytics, such as heat maps, which can help you determine what your readers are interacting with most.

4. Plan ahead

By creating a content calendar, marketers can think ahead about major upcoming events and ensure newsletters cover relevant industry conversations and themes. For example, over the past year, a health consultancy might have focused on COVID-19 implications one month and mental health in another to lend their voice to trending topics. Highlight recent insights or provide year-in-reviews, but avoid sharing content that’s more than a month old. If you find yourself with an abundance of content and engaged subscribers, consider increasing your newsletter cadence. On that note, however…

5. Set an effective cadence

While you don’t want to fall off your readers’ radar, there is such a thing as too many emails. Subscribers may be less inclined to continue reading newsletters if they feel they receive them too often and they therefore offer little new content. In 2019, Gmail began tracking the emails users interact with the least and prompting them to unsubscribe. So, even when recipients simply ignore your emails, it could pose challenges down the road.

6. Make layout, design, and accessibility shine

The content is only half the battle—don’t forget to flaunt it. The best newsletters have templates, color schemes, and fonts that are consistent for each newsletter. Being strategic about small details, like thumbnails and headers, can help keep your brand identity clear in readers’ minds. There are many things to consider when approaching newsletter design:

Templates. There may not be a one-size-fits-all template. Consider creating a variety of (consistent-looking) short-form and long-form options that you can choose from depending on the content.

Compatibility views. Consider whether your recipients are mainly viewing on desktops, phones, or tablets. While emails can be adapted to mobile versions, understanding the primary way the newsletter is viewed can help you determine, for example, how many images to use and where to place them.

High interaction. It’s good to entice readers with clickable areas, but you want to be mindful of oversaturating with “click here” buttons, which may come across as overly promotional. Think through what’s most important for people at actually click on.

Accessibility. 2.2 billion people worldwide have a disability. To make your content accessible, consider including keyboard navigation or a plain text version for individuals who rely on screen readers.

7. Offer something surprising

While you want content that reinforces your brand and offers reliable information, you also want to give subscribers an incentive to open your newsletter by switching up your offerings. Maybe you include free access to an event, occasional discounts on a product, or access to gated content only through your newsletter. Whatever the incentive, make sure it is relevant to your audience and gives them something to look forward to.

8. Know your voice

Many newsletters use language that is overly promotional. Steer clear of phrases associated with offers such as “free” and “start today” that could trigger spam flags. Similarly, avoid telling readers to do something in the subject, which often stifles curiosity and doesn’t provide the opportunity for readers to explore more. Aim to start a conversation with your audience. For example, “Sign up for this week’s marketing webinar” could become, “Our upcoming webinar tackles this year’s biggest marketing hurdles.”

It’s also a good idea to consider using merge tags to mention the recipient in the subject line or at the beginning of your newsletter. When an email is personalized, it has a higher open rate.

9. Segment your subscribers

Email platforms such as Gmail automatically categorize promotional emails under a separate tab than users’ primary inbox, and other platforms, such as Outlook, have made it easier for users to create rules that funnel certain emails into separate tabs. For Gmail, about 85 percent of messages land in the promotions tab, out of which only about 19 percent are actually read. These modifications make it trickier for email marketers to reach people who may ignore their promotions tab.

To work around this, try segmenting your lists to make sure subscribers receive the content most relevant to them. When readers subscribe, have them fill in information such as industry and job title to help segment your lists. For example, consumers and sales reps could get slightly different versions of an e-commerce newsletter.

10. Track performance

Use each newsletter as an opportunity to learn. Mailchimp compiled data from newsletters sent across various industries and came up with averages that others within that industry may be able to benchmark against. To gain insights that will help shape your newsletter strategy and to improve engagement, consider tracking the following metrics:

• open rates

• clickthrough rates

• bounce rates (emails that come back due to faulty addresses, server issues, full inboxes, or other reasons)

• unsubscribe rates and new subscribers

• unique clicks (how many subscribers click at least once in your newsletter)

• website traffic from newsletters

Marketers can also do A/B or multivariate testing—changing certain variables of the newsletter to measure which ones perform the best. And they should consider using free tools to check their spam score—the percentage of similar links that have been banned or penalized.


Newsletters offer a great way to put content directly in front of the people you want to reach, but every aspect must be done thoughtfully in order to retain your audience’s interest. By using these best practices, you can help make your newsletters more relevant and timely—and, ultimately, gain more readers.

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