September 22, 2006
Case Study

How an Email Newsletter to Ultra-Busy Execs Gets up to 73% Clickthroughs (Hint: No Articles)

SUMMARY: According to MarketingSherpa data, only a piddly 16% of B-to-B marketers get clickthrough rates of 21% or more for their email newsletters sent to house lists.

And that number appears to be drifting ever so slightly downward every year. (Oct. 2004-Oct. 2005 it slipped by one percentage point.)

So, when we met a marketer who routinely gets *unique* click rates as high as 73%, we immediately asked, "How?!" Turns out the secret is the content … and, yes, it's a tactic you can copy for lots of other marketplaces.


It was a massive case of the cobbler's children going barefoot.

Last fall, execs from Ariad Custom Communications were sitting in the most important meeting of the year -- a focus group meeting with some of their longest-term marketing clients in the financial services industry.

One of Ariad's biggest product lines is custom email newsletters. Senior VP Mark Michaud says, "Our clients posed the question, 'If you think newsletters are such a hot way to stay in touch, why don't you practice what you preach?'" Embarrassed silence for a moment.

Then the team agreed -- yes, of course, they would launch an email newsletter of their own on marketing for financial advisors.

One small problem -- if your business relies on creating highly effective newsletters for others, that means your own newsletter has to get unbearably great results itself. However, Ariad's prospective readers were busy execs who weren't exactly yearning for more email.

Just like small business owners, professional consultants, and sales reps everywhere, financial advisors don't have the time or inclination to sit around reading articles about marketing all day.


The team started their brainstorming by reviewing the competition -- not just email newsletters, but every information source financial advisers might read, including magazines, news sites, trade-show presentations and even corporate training.

(Note: In the battle for reader eyeballs, every emailer should realize they're competing against every possible information source in every media, not merely newsletters. Competition isn't about your format or business model; it's about their time and attention.)

As Michaud explains, Ariad decided to exploit the competition's key weakness: "They've been told for years what to do by their head offices, articles in the trade press and in seminars. We see 1,000-1,200-word articles in the financial advisory trade press. I can't believe they ever read it! They are time-pressed and they are cynical about people telling them how to run their business."

In response, the team decided, "Our mantra is no long and boring articles. They don't need theory. They need tools." Instead of articles, the team created four content "buckets" to appear in each issue (link to samples below):

#1. Tools

These might be pre-written sales letters (in word) for specific situations, or a pre-created survey to use with clients. Readers could click, view a 200-word instructive description and then download their copy for use.

#2. Research

Ariad knew advisers didn't want to read white papers, but they might be willing to glance at a pie chart highlighting a single useful factoid of immediate impact on their business.

#3. Real-life examples

While financial advisors are tired of outside experts giving them marketing advice, they are fascinated to hearabout what works in marketing from their own peers. So, Ariad's team solicited real-life quotes about what works from their readers.

They also asked readers to submit their marketing materials for a "makeover," which, in turn, might serve as the before-and-after backbone of a concise 400-word-or-less case study.

#4. Action items

Rather than writing lengthy trend pieces, the Ariad team spotted a current problem or "issue" for their readers' businesses and did a brief item suggesting specific solutions to deal with it. When the solution called for a tool, such as a letter to clients, Ariad included a copy of a tool as well.

Next, having decided on content, the team worked on design and layout. They decided that each of the four buckets would only have one featured item per issue. To make the items seem as compelling and easy-to-skim as possible:

o Average headline length was six words

o Average summaries were two short sentences

o Instead of boring "read more" or "click here" click buttons used action wording, such as "show me," "here's how" and "get it"

o Typeface, especially for headlines, was oversized and far easier to read than most comparable newsletters

The team picked a bimonthly frequency -- once every two months -- to respect their readerships' time and interest level in the topic. They also started a microsite with the same name as the newsletter where they planned to post back issues. At first, the microsite would be fairly slender -- but something is better than nothing, especially where search engine spiders are concerned.


"Jaws dropped in our meeting this morning when I presented the data," says Michaud. "Depending on the issue, our unique opens range between 50%-70%. Over the last four issues, unique clicks have bounced around depending on topic, from 25%-73%."

(Note: Unique means per email recipient -- if a recipient opened the newsletter twice or clicked on two items or forwarded their issue to others that would not inflate the "unique" count rate.)

Tens of thousands of financial services consultants and advisors receive the newsletter. Many, Ariad has discovered, forward their issues to their assistants who often function as a de facto marketing arm for the consultancy, writing client letters and sales pitch materials.

As you might imagine, the sample client letters and other tools are by far the most popular buckets clicked on. The lesson is, don't tell people what to do; instead, give them hands on help to do it.

Michaud notes, "One of the things driving the high click rate is the fact that we put an editorial stake in the ground. If this does not maintain high perceived value for the audience, if it's not different enough, if it's not digestible, we don't publish it."

"Receiving our newsletter shouldn't imply you need to spend some time with us. It's not Martha Stewart or JCrew where you'll spend an hour and we'll entertain you. Just get what you need to be more effective in your business and then get back to your business. There's a direct pay-off. Just take it and go."

Useful links related to this article:

Creative samples from Ariad's newsletters:

Responsys - the email broadcast provider Ariad relies on:

Microsite for Ariad's newsletter

Ariad Custom Communications

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