Last 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.).
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:
- Use inline CSS styles
- Limit the width of your template (600px)
- Avoid using too many images
- Offer a link that lets the subscribers unsubscribe
- Let your subscribers access the web version of the email
- Don’t use flash
- Suggest to your readers to add you to their contact list
- Don’t use forms in your emails
- Add the dimensions to images
- Provide an alternate text to all your images
- Don’t use PNGs with alpha transparency
- Don’t use CSS background images
- Have a text-only version of your email