Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Brown bag lunch on Newsletters

This is a guest post by Virginie Viollier, my colleague and Knowledge and Information Management Specialist in FAO's Office of Knowledge Exchange Research and Extension.

Brown Bag Lunch - newslettersLast Thursday, my colleagues from the One OEK team and I organized a Brown bag lunch on Newsletters. 23 people from various OEK branches participated. About a third of the audience was familiar with the subject, while the rest was relatively new to it. A Brown Bag Lunch is deliberately informal so that participants can intervene at any moment, ask questions, share success (and failed) stories.

For some time I had been working on Newsletters, most recently for the FAO Country Profiles, therefore this session was an excellent opportunity to share my fresh experience producing and managing Newsletters and to learn from others’. The FAO Country Profiles Newsletters are prepared in HTML format, e-mailed to subscribers (the message body is actually the Newsletter) and made available on the FAO Country Profiles web site for download. While explaining these steps, I addressed the following topics:

1. Technology - Newsletters in HTML format versus Newsletters automatically generated by a Content Management Systems (CMS)

Participants had a mixed feeling. On one hand, HTML Newsletters are often prettier and offer a high degree of flexibility and fine-tuning. But one needs to a) know how to write HTML and b) have a bit of patience while creating a template that looks the same across platforms. On the other hand, CMS Newsletters are automatically generated and hence are not time-consuming. But they lack flexibility as the layout is very much standardized.

2. Layout - Use of text and images versus text only

As a matter of comparison a one-page HTML Newsletter with a few graphics can easily be over 100Kb. The same Newsletter with no images can be around 6Kb.
Therefore it is advised not to use too many graphics in a Newsletter and to always provide alternative texts for those users who deactivate the images display. To avoid font issues it is also recommended to include style elements within the HTML header and not in a separate stylesheet.

3. Testing – Operating systems | Browsers | E-mail applications | Handheld devices

Before sending a Newsletter to hundreds of recipients, it is important to thoroughly check that its layout/style is satisfactory and stable across platforms. Tests to perform can include:
  • Displaying the Newsletter on a PC and a Mac.
  • Opening the Newsletter on Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, etc.
  • Sending a draft Newsletter to different personal email accounts (Outlook, Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, etc.).
  • Checking how the Newsletter gets displayed on handheld devices (Blackberry, I-Phone, I-Pad, etc.).
One experienced user mentioned that to avoid an inconsistent layout, the Arabic and Chinese Newsletters were emailed as PDF attachments.

4. Subscription - Management of mailing list

This topic was of particular interest. Everyone agreed that maintaining a list of subscribers in an Excel file can quickly become a nightmare in particular if the list expands rapidly. Listserv, an electronic mailing list software application in use in FAO, seems to still be the best supported tool to automatically manage the subscribers’ list.

5. 13 tips for writing newsletters

To conclude this 1 hour lively session, we quickly went through the following 13 tips for writing newsletters:
  1. Use inline CSS styles
  2. Limit the width of your template (600px)
  3. Avoid using too many images
  4. Offer a link that lets the subscribers unsubscribe
  5. Let your subscribers access the web version of the email
  6. Don’t use flash
  7. Suggest to your readers to add you to their contact list
  8. Don’t use forms in your emails
  9. Add the dimensions to images
  10. Provide an alternate text to all your images
  11. Don’t use PNGs with alpha transparency
  12. Don’t use CSS background images
  13. Have a text-only version of your email
What about you? What has been your experience with Newsletters? More specifically, how do you manage the list of recipients?


Vanessa said...

Hi Gauri and Virginie,

good post - and definitely an important topic!

I have found that the NGO/UN agency world is desperately lagging behind the private sector when it comes to email marketing, and we have a lot to learn!

It is getting increasingly more difficult to ensure that the message that recipients open is going to appear formatted correctly. in fact CSS style sheets cannot be correctly interpreted by programs such as microsoft outlook, and this has been the source of major frustration in my work.

Also one very key point that seems overlooked is monitoring. How do you track usage, clicks, subscribes/unsubscribes, subscriber demographics? What happens to your message after you click send?

There are a number of excellent web-based email marketing packages available out there, which offer not only sustainable formatting, but also great usage stats AND list database management functions. Many of these applications are super user friendly and have integration with various CMS' and google analytics.

I'm not promoting any particular software but i'll just say that learning all this was a major revelation and has positively changed my experiences with newsletters!



Gauri Salokhe said...

Thanks for your comment Vanessa. Have passed it on to Virginie. One fascinating area for me is the monitoring of what happens when a message is sent out. Does it get forwarded, which links do people click on? Once they click through a link in the newsletter, do they stick around and browse rest of the website? One of the participants said that by simply adding a “?” at the end of each URL, you can trace back the click to that specific URL. Any ideas on this would be great.

Vanessa said...

Hi Gauri,

most of the web based email marketing packages offer automatic tracking for exactly the functions that you describe. If you use google analytics in your site then you can also see how long people stayed on a certain page after clicking through from your newsletter. it's fascinating and incredibly useful for making improvements to your email campaigns.

I'm happy to share some examples with you -- i'm in the middle of experimenting with different aproaches just now.