The art of getting people to read what you write in your email newsletter
Every day, thousands of linguistic messages reach us via the Internet, television, radio, advertising, newspapers, etc. Competition for people’s attention is growing all the time, and today’s society demands clear and unequivocal language, with messages that can be quickly understood.
We consciously and unconsciously discard uninteresting information, and the more stuffed with information society becomes the more choosy we become. Long, complex wording is rejected in favour of short, meaningful text.
This applies online in particular. Research shows that our reading behaviour on the Internet has changed dramatically over the past ten years. We quickly search through a website or newsletter, and if we don’t find anything immediately of interest it is easy to click onwards. People who write on the Internet need to be aware of this.
There is still the belief that text on paper does not need to differ from text on the Internet. This is a dangerous approach if you wish to keep your readers. You may be an outstanding writer who words things perfectly, but unless you adapt your text to the format in which you are writing then you must be prepared to lose your readers.
Many of the tips we present here are things that student journalists learn at an early stage of their training. Journalists, too, are required to attract readers to their articles and to keep them reading for as long as possible.
Getting started writing
Designing a message using few words can require a good deal of thought, but if you succeed then your reward will be even greater. In general, the biggest and most successful companies are those with the most succinct communication.
In fact, it is not as complicated as it seems; it is more of a craft than an art and can be learned quickly.
All the time, you need to keep in mind that writing for the Internet is an uphill struggle. Readership resistance is greater online than in the traditional media. You don’t have many seconds to capture your readers’ attention before they delete your newsletter from their inbox.
The headline is very important in this respect, but you should always have the text finished before you decide on your headline.
Write as concisely and succinctly as you can. This does not mean that you should only use short, staccato sentences; on the other hand, you must word your message so that your readers don’t need to strain more than is necessary. Getting to know your target group is therefore paramount.
Who are you writing for?
This is the most important question to ask yourself, and you should have the answer before you start writing. Whom do you wish to reach? The general public? Your future customer? A colleague? Your voluntary association?
Think about a person from that group all the time and always have that reader at the back of your mind. Will they understand this? Will they wish to know this? One tip may be to think about someone you know – a specific customer or your grandmother, for example – and think to yourself: would they be able to understand this? But you should also be careful to ensure that as many people as possible will understand.
Then be consistent in how you address readers throughout the entire text. It is also important for you to maintain, as far as possible, a consistent address throughout all the text that you publish in your newsletter. Otherwise, this may lead to a split impression that may destroy your credibility.
Once you are ready, read your text aloud – ideally getting someone to listen. It is guaranteed that you will discover things that could be made clearer. You will also discover whether or not the text is tailored to the recipient and whether or not your wording is unnecessarily cumbersome.
Start with what is most important
Let your readers understand immediately that they are in the right place. Remember that your newsletter arrives in an inbox where the reader has the power to click off you if you are of no interest to them. Do not be tempted by any artistic ambitions unless you are a critic, blogger or columnist. There, the framework is somewhat freer, though that is a completely different training course.
The actual core of your message needs to appear in the text as soon as possible. Then sort things in order, with the least interesting at the end. Why? There are several explanations for this, the most important being our impatient behaviour when we are looking for something interesting online. As mentioned earlier, readership resistance on the screen is greater than it is on paper.
But there is a historical explanation, too. Previously, newspaper editorial offices encouraged writers always to begin with the most important points so that editors could cut the text at the end if there was insufficient space. In other words, we have learned a certain way of assessing the content of a piece of text.
Write like a journalist
The journalist’s approach to working on a piece of text lends itself very well to digital newsletters. For journalists, it is often an uphill struggle to get their text read and they have therefore taught themselves strategies to succeed in getting readers’ attention and keeping them reading the text.
When writing an article, journalists strive to get answers to five questions: What? Who? When? How? Why? In fact, these questions can be used for most types of text.
- What? (is happening? has happened? will happen?)
- Who? (has done what? has been affected? is affected?)
- When? (did it happen? will it happen? will it be fixed?)
- How? (did it happen? could it happen? will it be fixed? can we do anything about it now?)
- Why? (did it happen? did it not happen? are you not doing/did you not do anything?)
If you can answer all these you have hit the jackpot. It is fairly difficult, but try to make a good effort all the same.
Journalists also strive to ensure that the text gives a credible impression. A journalist’s own views should never be obvious; instead, journalists support their own text through the opinions of an interviewee. The quotations are then used to provide support to the story itself and to carry the tale forward. However, this approach should be used with caution. Journalists are often accused of using their interviewees as hostages to promote their own message.
Another trick that journalists use to give a credible impression is to refer to studies, statistics, research, reports, etc., that can support the story.
Adapt your tone to the situation
There are, however, many cases where factual journalistic text cannot be used. The tone varies, depending on whether you are writing to customers, producing an advertisement or providing information on your Intranet.
Generally, journalistic text works fine when writing a newsletter for your customers. On the other hand, if you are informing your customers about your new product you can adopt a more direct address that stresses the benefits more clearly. Appeals do not work in journalistic text, but are sometimes suitable in advertisements. If you provide information on the Intranet you should use a more personal tone, and so on. But be consistent within the various sub-areas.
Be ruthless with yourself
Once your text is ready, read it aloud – ideally getting someone to listen. It is guaranteed that you will discover things that could be made clearer.
After the read-through, perhaps both you and your listener may think that it feels fine and you may be happy with your wording. Now the painful work begins. Journalists have an expression for it: ‘Kill your darlings’. It means deleting everything that really does not add anything to your text.
Many people believe that writing a short text does not give a serious impression. Perhaps you may be afraid of people thinking that you have not done enough work on it, so you elaborate on your text to make it look more substantial. This often occurs in reports and essays but can also be found among serious journalists.
In fact, there is research that shows that most writers do not write for their actual target group but rather to impress their colleagues. Avoid this. Delete any wording that does not add any new knowledge, however elegant it may be. It is difficult, but be unselfish. You will gain readers if you succeed.
Some tips for improving the flow
Vary the length of your sentences. Many people maintain that short sentences always promote readability. Short sentences are preferable to long ones, but having too many short sentences in succession can give a staccato impression. This occurs all too often in the evening press. Ideally, alternate between short and long sentences to improve the flow. (This piece is a good example.)
Avoid complex sentence structures. You are not writing to impress people with your fabulous phraseology; you are writing simply to be read. So make it as simple as possible for your readers to find their way through the text.
Commas. Be careful with your use of commas. Parenthetical clauses with multiple commas should be avoided. Commas should be used in a considered way.
Jargon and unfamiliar terms. Do not make demands on your readers. Do not assume that they are familiar with difficult terms or specialist jargon. Nor should you use any unusual foreign terms without explaining them. If you need to use a complex word, explain what it means.
Paragraph grouping. Clear paragraph grouping is even more important online than it is on paper. Avoid exclamation marks. The use of exclamation marks has increased. Perhaps it is a sign (!) of the times. In an increasingly loud society, people want to shout out their message. This is often counterproductive and has a trivialising effect.
If you have something important to say, it should be enough to say it in a controlled way. Compare ‘Our new rolls are the best!!!’ with ‘Come and try our freshly baked rolls’.
Editing your page
Your text is ready. You have been meticulous in cleaning the text. You have read it aloud to yourself. Now the important craftsmanship begins as you make the text accessible from a purely visual point of view. In the larger editorial offices, this work is handed over to the editors, who have an eye for headlines, picture captions, paragraph grouping and leads. However, companies and organisations usually do not have these resources available. Yet it is not as complicated as it sounds.
Get to know people’s reading behaviour
Have you read the newspaper today? If the answer to this is ‘yes’, then it is probably true but with some modification. ‘No, but I have read some things in the newspaper’ should be your reply. Studies show that the average newspaper reader spends around ten minutes a day on their daily newspaper. Even if you read for half an hour, you have probably still only managed to read a fifth of all the text in the newspaper.
Whether we are online or reading a printed newspaper, we scan the page for news that we find interesting. We have learned to start at the top left and then continue diagonally downwards. As we scan, it is the pictures, picture captions and headlines that we notice first. Then we check the leads. If the writer is lucky, the reader will find something interesting that causes them to continue reading. In a small number of cases, you continue reading the text right to the end.
On the Internet, readers take even less time to assess a page. Here, the choice is wide and it is easy to carry on surfing.
Often, too, the surfer is looking for something specific and immediately discards anything that is not of interest. Even so, writers online have the opportunity to lead the readers’ attention to their text and get them thinking along new lines. Therefore it is even more important to learn how to use headlines, pictures, picture captions and leads correctly.
Get the right headlines
Distinguish between headlines and headings. For example, in a set of minutes or a memo from the municipality you may write: ‘Meeting of the School Board about the North School’. An editor would instead have the headline: ‘Municipality to close North School’.
The headline needs to get right to the core of what the text is about. It must be a complete sentence and be written with an active verb (not ‘Municipality’s closure’). And ideally it should summarise the entire message of the text.
However, there are several different ways to set headlines. Sometimes, you may wish to entice the audience to read further but without revealing too much: ‘Row breaks out at School Board meeting’ gives an emotionally charged impression. Editors often resort to emotionally charged words to attract readers. ‘Row’, ‘attack’, ‘shock’, ‘disappointment’ are common words in media headlines. Just think what the evening press billboards tend to look like.
You can also lift something particularly sensational from the text. Editors often use quotations to achieve this:
Headline: I can’t just watch our children suffer
Sub-headline: Councillor’s rage against municipal school policy.
Always be careful to ensure that you cover the headline in the body text; it needs to fulfil its promises.
The lead – not just a declaration of content
The brief text below the headline is called the lead and is often in bold text. It should provide a pointer to the content, but does not necessarily have to be a strict summary of the text. It should simply provide the reader with a picture of what the text is about.
In other words, not like this:
‘This text is about the meeting of the School Board, which broke down following discussions about the closure of the North School.’
This is more like it should be:
‘At the School Board meeting yesterday evening, the wide extent of disagreement about municipal school policy was exposed. The Chairman left the room in protest following a presentation of which schools will be closed down. Now the municipality has called for a crisis meeting to discuss the problems.’
Clear paragraph grouping makes reading the text easier.
Reading text on-screen makes great demands on clear paragraph grouping and descriptive intermediate headlines. A large block of text makes it difficult to find your way around the text and seems like hard work to take in.
Paragraphs should be divided by blank lines on the screen (not indents, which is common in printed text). Paragraph grouping is important in helping readers to sort out their thoughts. Quite simply, one paragraph should be one thought. This thought can then be connected to the next paragraph. Too many thoughts stacked on top of each other in the same paragraph lead to confusion.
Picture captions are more important than many people think. Picture captions and headlines are the most widely read texts in all media. However, this tends to be forgotten – or simply ignored – in many newsletters and on the Internet generally. Do not miss this excellent chance to entice your readers into your text.
Careful thought should be given to writing picture captions, and you should not simply take some loose phrase from the body text; nor should you repeat what is already in the headline or lead. Avoid, too, stating the obvious to the readers by describing the content of the pictures. The readers can see that for themselves.
Having said that, the picture captions must be clearly linked to both the pictures and the rest of the text. Find something that entices people to read the text, while at the same time saying something about what the picture and the text are about.
Always state the name of the photographer below your picture. Many people look for pictures online, and sometimes you are asked whether you would lend or sell a picture. Picture theft can also often be avoided by clearly showing who took the photographs.
Some tips to increase readability.
Bold text is a useful way to mark certain key words in the text. When people skim-read, the eye is unconsciously drawn to these key words. Help the reader to find them. However, you should exercise caution when writing text for printing, as bold text can give a shouty impression. A rule of thumb is to use italics on paper and bold on the Internet.
Bullet point lists help the reader to sort through the information when it is in the form of listings or the presentation of sub-areas. The text also appears more fun to take on board than when you are presented with a large block of text.
Try to shorten things as much as possible. Each point should ideally not contain more than one sentence. Nor should you have too many points in your bullet point list; three to six points tends to look pretty good.
The fonts used online should also differ from those of the printed page. Online, we ideally use so-called ‘sans-serif’ or ‘lineale’ fonts. These letters have a straight form, without any projecting features. This is why they work well on the screen, which is divided into pixels. On the other hand, serif fonts have small projecting features at the top and bottom of each letter, which can be difficult to distinguish on screen. On paper, however, this is easier to read. Common sans-serif fonts suitable for screens are Arial, Calibri, Geneva and Verdana. Common serif fonts are Times New Roman and Garamond.
Make your text easy to find
Search engine optimisation is a chapter in its own right, and in this ‘writer’s course’ we will touch only superficially on this large subject.
As a writer, you should primarily be mindful of your text and its readability, rather than fixating on generating as many hits as possible on your website. Yet it does not hurt to be aware that your text can influence which people, or how many, will find your website.
All companies want to come out near the top on Google. By using the key words or phrases in your text that you believe people are searching on, you will increase the chances of your page being found.
Use the key words or phrases with care; readability is impaired if you use the key words to excess, and it can give a flippant expression. It is natural to use your key words and phrases in headlines and the title of the page. This is also considered more important when the search engines are choosing the texts.
You can then use synonyms of the key words you have in the headline or page titles. This also covers you against your presumed readers searching using a different key word.
The final proof – a few important minutes
Your text is ready. It has been enshrined in your newsletter, the layout has been decided and everything is set to go. All that remains is to click on ‘Publish’. Wait a moment! Now you need to take some time to perform a final proofing. It is better to set aside a little time to ensure that everything is spelt correctly and that all the facts are right than for one of your future readers to point out errors and inaccuracies later.
It costs you a few minutes, but you gain in terms of credibility. Take a screen dump (an image of what you see on your computer screen) and get someone else to read the text. Often, you have spent a lot of time on your text, and there is then a risk of becoming blind to your own errors.
Check the headlines and picture texts in a little more detail, and not just because they are the most widely read texts. In fact, these are precisely where we tend to miss our own errors because we tend to take them as read.
If you have interviewed a customer or colleague, it can also be useful to get them to read their quotations and comments so that they do not feel tricked or misquoted. At the same time, though, be careful to maintain your integrity as a writer and do not allow yourself to be guided too much by your interviewee. Just give them a chance to change their quotations.
Now, finally, you can publish your newsletter. This can be an anxious moment, as just a few seconds later your entire readership circle will be able to open your newsletter. But it is an exciting moment, too. Once this has been done, you will be able to find out which articles have been the most read and which people are interested in what you write.