Sadly, most newsletters I see are terrible. They are so inexpensive to send that many organizations don't invest much resources in designing good newsletters. Newsletter senders, please get inspired by these few principles below, or run the risk to be an annoyance to your reader. Please STOP WASTING MY TIME.
Purpose: Beyond the click-through rate
The way newsletters are made has not evolved much in the last years. However the way people interact with online information has, emails included. The amount of information we read online, in particular, has increased drastically (14% of all information hours Americans receive come from the Internet (p. 18)). Users are learning to be more selective with the information they grant their attention to. With the amount of emails we receive everyday, consider your newsletter as a potential annoyance for the recipient, and a sign of trust on their part when they open it. This trust is precious, hard to earn and easy to lose. Sending a newsletter just to send a newsletter is the easiest way to lose it. For many people, your email is the visible face of your organization. If you think it's only one more email, you're missing out the context. Your email is a statement about who you are and how you view your relationship with the reader.
You can't design your email with in mind the click-through rate as ultimate goal and measurement of success. It's a valuable metrics, but more important is that your reader keeps trusting you enough to open your next newsletter. If he or she doesn't, you lost them. How to do then? Focus on pleasing your reader - just like you would if you sent an informative email to a friend. Don't try to trick them with deceiving offers, don't try to get their attention if your content is not worth it. Respect their time!
Good little content
I'm sure you want to tell me all about your business, but don't try to force feed it to me in an email: it is not the right medium! That's what websites are for. It may seem radical, but in newsletters good content is little content. Give me one or two content items, no more. If you have no way to prioritize between four news items, it's likely that none of them are worth sending a newsletter about. Maybe you should consider blogging instead - readers can consult your blog whenever they like, they can even subscribe to a RSS feed. Send an email only if you have something important to share, and in that case, share only that, all the rest is noise. Nothing stops you from linking to your blog, why not even with the titles of the last three posts published.
Just consider how you read your emails; do you often spend more than 7 seconds reading an email not personally sent to you? Me neither. So if you take my time with an email, make sure you have top A content for me, not B not C. It's okay to share B quality content on a blog, it is not okay to waste my time with it in my inbox.
Empty space is soothing
The good thing with little content is that there is more space for nothing. AAAH what a waste? No, empty space is a rare commodity on the web, everyone trying to fill each pixel with value-creating content. There is great value to nothing. First, in the noisy web, it is resting, and users appreciate this comfort (look at the success of Google's homepage when competitors were filling their pages with news, ads and fluff). Second, space contrasts with content, so it emphasizes it without having to use noisy tricks like bold, italic, colors... And third, empty space loads pretty damn fast with every connection :-) In short, empty space is not nothing! Designer Mark Boulton has written a good article on the use of whitespace.
When I open an email I expect to read an email, not a full webpage. When you're in email-reading-mode, your mind expects a certain layout of the information. A normal flow is to read from top to bottom, with unobtrusive colors and images, so that you find the important information right away. Don't annoy your readers by asking them to adapt to a cool new layout. Forget about columns, anything you add in them is secondary stuff that I can find on your website if I'm interested - and if I'm not, then it's noise to me. Put your secondary links (e.g., "Like us on Facebook", "Follow us on Twitter") in the footer, where I'll see them at the end if I read through. If I didn't read through, why do you think I would follow you on Twitter anyway?
Remember that your email will be read within a visual context. Most email clients already divide the page in columns. If you add columns to your emails, you're offering at the minimum a 3-columns layout experience.
Your website is your space, I'm much more open to fancy designs there than in my emails - my inbox is my space. My mind expects dark text on light background, left-aligned, you know, straight forward. Anything that gets away from that means an effort on my part to read - why would I make it? I can also just click Delete - or worse, Mark as spam. It's okay to make your email look nice, but keep it simple, light, and make sure that the whole is well integrated.
Images are especially noisy. First, they don't load automatically, I need an extra step to see them. I often browse the email without the images first. They might be the number one reason why I close an email - too many noisy images. Photographs especially, because they have wider variations in colors, which take some brain effort to take in. And photographs rarely have a color palette that goes well with other images and the colors of your design. The result is a visually intense email, and unless the images themselves are the content (e.g. art portfolio), it's a no no 90% of the time.
Oh, and if pictures there are, they'd better be meaningful and beautiful. Or black & white / monochrom, to be less noisy.
Some examples from my inbox
There is nothing better than to actually see what we talk about. Below are some newsletters that I received, they range from terrible to great.
What do you think?
The typical newsletter that I never read. Sadly it falls into every possible pitfall. So many content items that you're overwhelmed, yet most of them concern only a minority of recipients (alumni, law students, ...). All that content would fit on a blog. Or with a calendar-style presentation.
The design is heavy and noisy due to little empty space, 5 different colors of text and heavy, inconsistent styling (bold, underline, line spacing, ...). You can see the designer's attempt to create clarity by using different background colors to separate blocks; not necessarily a bad idea in itself, but here they add to the noise, and are simply not very aesthetic. The dark blue background adds to the feeling of lack of space. The 2-column layout further adds weight to the design and makes the reading flow requiring mental effort. Notice that although it was designed as a 2-column layout, when you add the blue background and my gmail interface, my screen is divided into 6 columns.
Next Step Integral
This email fails to make good use of empty space (padding missing around text),
has too many content items, misses some visual prioritizing of content, and has one picture visually too striking (the last one).
However, they use only one column, it's rare enough to note, and it makes the reading experience much easier.
This design is beautiful for a webpage, but too fancy for an email to my taste. I would quickly identify it as 'ads' and rush to the unsubscribe link.
The red rectangles are a nice design touch, but attract too much attention in an email. However it is well counter-balanced by an otherwise unobtrusive design. Notice how the pictures don't add noise to the design; they blend perfectly.
Hub Bay Area
This one is interesting. Nice simple design - the black line drawing adds some fantasy without much visual noise.Few colors, which again generates little noise.
The 3 draw backs are 1) the left column - it breaks the reading flow, uses more than one third of the entire space, yet less than half of its area has content, and the content is typical secondary content that would fit in the footer. Boo on this column. 2) Many content items make it a taxing read. And a table of content for an email, ouch. Sorry, it's only 1 email among others, I don't want to have to think about how you organized it. 3) The images are simple, yet they are noisy. They're too close from the headings so they overshadow them (the left-align doesn't help). They are of different sizes, and with different background colors. Too bad because it's a really cool newsletter.
Not much effort on aesthetics, but this email has the merit to have only one main content item. Logistic details related to the content item (here an event) are a rare occasion where a side column is relevant. Overall, the email could use more aesthetic effort, more empty space and way less text for the author bio.
Beautifully designed email from Reos. I read it because it is so spacious - great use of empty space. Also a good use of font styles to convey structure. The two negative points is that they try to feed way too much content into it, and the presence of different layouts is disconcerting - especially this first line of pictures horizontally arranged, then the back and forth between 1-column and 2-columns.
My second favorite. A minimalist design with an extremely clear message. One content item, only, so they can develop it. And I read it, because it flows - it's longer, but it's only one story to follow, that's easy on my neurons. Only 2 colors are used besides black and white, yet it's light and not boring. It's so simple that it almost looks like a personal email from a friend.
My favorite. They do a great job at being concise - thank you!
Only 3 content items, well separated by empty space, each item with a clear title and little text. No need to scroll down.
The left column has practical and useful content, so I make an exception here: I like it.
It's only true because it generates very little noise in an already low-noise email: no image, no background color, left column text greyed out. Too bad the banner image is kind of plain and lacks originality. But it doesn't add much noise, so I'm fine.