Newsletters are simple informal publications, usually issued on a regular basis for a specific audience, say business, community, charity or workplace news. Today newsletters are mostly delivered via email and are commonly known as electronic newsletters, email newsletters or e-newsletters. However have you ever wondered about the first newsletters, how long newsletters have been around, why a business needs a newsletter today and how to go about creating and sending one.
Etymology Online records the word ‘news’ was first used in the late 14th century to mean ‘new things’ and was derived from the French word ‘nouvelles’. In the early 15th century, the word news meant ‘tidings, intelligence of something that has lately taken place’ and its meaning as a ‘radio or television programme presenting current events’ is from 1923. Bad news, as in ‘unpleasant person or situation’ is from 1926, the expression ‘no news, good news’ can be traced to the 1640s, while the expression ‘news to me’ meaning ‘something I did not know’ is from 1889. The word news is not an abbreviation of north east south west, as in ‘information from all quarters of the compass’ and the dictionary refers to this as ‘absurd folk-etymology.’
The earliest physical newsletters were known as Acta Diurna. In Latin, the word Acta means ‘things that have been done’. Acta Diurna are believed to date from before 59 BCE and are sometimes attributed in origin to Julius Caesar. They were first chiselled in stone or metal and later were handwritten and distributed in public forums or read from scrolls by town criers. The typical Acta Diurna might contain news of gladiatorial contests, astrological omens, notable marriages, births and deaths, public appointments, trials and executions.
Printed newsletters began in mid fifteenth century Venice with subscribers receiving handwritten letters twice a week rounding up interesting events, while sixteenth century merchants used newsletters to keep track of exchange rates, taxes and other business news. Clerks would make hundreds of handwritten copies of each letter and often the handwriting changed in the middle of a letter, evidencing the mass production at work. Some newsletters were formatted like personal letters with a greeting but most of the time they began with ‘Sir’ or only the date, while others were laid out on folded paper like printed newspapers.
The first known English newsletter was published in 1549 and titled ‘Requests of the Devonshyre and Cornyshe Rebelles’, while the first titled newspaper was the Corante, published in London in 1621. The Boston News-Letter which is also credited as the first American newspaper appeared in 1704 and in 1734, Benjamin Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack to promote his printing business. The Almanack printed weather predictions, recipes, trivia and other advice people might consider valuable.
In 1882, the Edison Electric Lighting Company Bulletin helped spread the word about the benefits of electric lighting. An excerpt from the April 1883 edition reads ‘We are lighting the stall for Fish Commissioner Blackford, Fulton Market, from the central Station in the First District. At the exhibition of live trout given by Mr Blackford on the 2d of April, the tanks containing the fish were lighted by means of Edison lamps submerged in water.’
Newsletters and newspapers co-existed for decades and although many newsletters later become newspapers, history shows there was often a place for newsletters too. In the 1930s for example, as today, there was a shift to newsletters amidst a crisis of confidence in the newspaper industry. This was enabled by the spread of new technology in the form of the mimeograph, a duplicating machine which produced copies from a stencil, allowing ordinary people to become their own publishers. Poets such as Allen Ginsburg used mimeographs to sell chapbooks, while genre aficionados used them to print fanzines. Mimeographs also fueled the growth of marginalized communities such as the publication of 1950s lesbian newsletter ‘The Ladder’, which was printed on the machine.
In the 1940s, journalists fled traditional news outlets to write directly for subscribers. Claud Cockburn for example resigned from his post as foreign correspondent for The Times of London, having grown sick of the newspaper’s conservative streak and began publishing ‘The Week’ from his one room London office, attacking extremists such as Mussolini. His subscriber list started at just seven, but soon grew to include Charlie Chaplin and King Edward VII. George Seldes also quit his job from the Chicago Tribune to start up a publication he called ‘In Fact’, labelling it ‘an Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press.’ Interestingly newsletters were more expensive than newspapers, but that didn’t mean their readers were only the elite. In some cases, friends and neighbours shared subscriptions and they could also be found in London coffeehouses.
By the mid 1980’s desktop publishing and the use of desktop computers to produce print materials became common and it became possible to create professional looking printed newsletters easily. However, within a few years, newsletters were mostly distributed by email and today people mostly subscribe to these as part of a marketing campaign which may also include website marketing, social media and print advertising.
Why does a business need an email newsletter
Email newsletters are an inexpensive way to communicate. While traditional newsletters or advertisements have printing, posting and design costs, email newsletter costs are minimal in comparison.
Publishing a weekly, monthly or quarterly newsletter keeps your company’s name in front of customers and prospective customers and can be used to update them say about new products; sales, discounts and promotional offers; your company’s participation in exhibitions, conferences and events; financial results and staff appointments.
Connect with potential customers
An email newsletter helps you gather a group of people who are interested in what you have to say or sell, driving traffic to your website, so helping you reach more customers. Good newsletters allow customers to get to know what you do and the more familiar people are with what you do, the more likely they are to enter into a business relationship with you.
Newsletters allow you to demonstrate your expertise, so publishing articles about news from your area of work demonstrates your company has a good understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing your customers. Articles that show technical expertise can position you as an expert and also show customers how your company can help them improve their own performance. You could also consider publishing brief case studies showing how you solved problems for your customers, while encouraging customers to contribute their own articles can build a sense of community.
Every email newsletter sent generates statistics showing how the newsletter has performed, for example open rates and click rates, that show you how many people are viewing your newsletters.
Tips for writing good newsletters
Every day customers receive many emails asking then to purchase a product or service, together with messages from internet and social media, television, radio and print advertisements, meaning customers can feel quite overwhelmed. However, a newsletter is an investment in your relationship with your customers and although it may take time to plan content and design an issue, it is worthwhile effort. So what are the steps needed to create a good newsletter and ensure your message does not get overlooked?
Set newsletter goals
Before you write a newsletter, ask yourself why you are sending it. Don’t send a newsletter simply because everyone else is doing it, send it with a goal in mind, otherwise you may find your emails are deleted and marked as spam.
Being ‘on-brand’ means consistent fonts, colours, logos and voice so that your company has a recognisable identity. Companies such as the BBC, Marks and Spencer, Coca Cola and Virgin, all have recognisable brands and this should be the same for all organisations.
The subject line is the first thing on a newsletter that someone reads and your customers use it to decide if they want to open your email or not. Sprout Social reported in 2021 that 69% of people will report you for spam based only on the subject line, so choose your words carefully.
Creating consistently engaging and informative content will encourage your customers to open your newsletters more often. Adding value to these by providing useful and engaging content keeps customers interested and helps build loyalty to your company. Use bullet points, include tips, instructions, photos, videos and helpful links to make your newsletter readable and entertaining.
Think, feel, know
People process information differently, as such it is important to consider three types of informational processing when creating a newsletter – a brief summary for the knowers who never read the whole thing; photos and graphs for the feelers who grasp information in metaphors and stories; and finally, text and detail for the thinkers who want the full story.
Buttons and links
Use call to action buttons or links to make it easy for customers to engage with you. A call to action could be ‘buy now’, ‘subscribe’, ‘try for free’, ‘learn more’ or ‘join in.’ Another important link to include in your email newsletter is the unsubscribe link. While you don’t want people to unsubscribe, you also don’t want them to mark your emails as spam if there is no way to unsubscribe. Build trust with your audience by including a unsubscribe link and they may return to you at a later date.
Sign up forms
Including a sign up form on your website or social media pages will enable you to start collecting email addresses to build your list.
Does your email look good across a range of devices. It is important to user test what you are sending before sending it and testing should be a continual process too. Do your customers like short subject lines? Does using their name increase the open rate? Do videos get more click throughs than buttons or links? User testing is beneficial to both you and your customers.
Segment your audience
Consider segmenting your audience by sending targeted content only to those who want it, rather than everyone on your mailing list.
Experiment with send days and times as these are thought to change by industry, company and even world events.
Keep it simple
Writing a newsletter is about conveying information in a simple and concise manner but you don’t need to start from scratch and create new material for it, instead repurpose existing content say from a blog to maximise its distribution.
Ready to send your first newsletter?
If you are ready to send your first newsletter, take a look at the websites below for further information.
- Britannica: Acta
- Britannica: The first newspapers
- Britannica: Newsletter
- Britannica: Newspaper publishing
- Chron: The advantages of e-newsletter advertising
- Cybrarian Outpost: A history of newsletters
- Etymology Online: News
- Forbes: Launching A Newsletter? Keep These 15 Important Tips In Mind
- Forbes: Why Your Startup Needs An Email Newsletter
- JSTOR daily: The newspaper boom 300 years before Substack
- News Media Association: History of British Newspapers
- Nudge: The origin of the newsletter
- Rutgers: The Thomas Edison Papers
- Sprout: How to effectively use email newsletters for marketing
- Sprout: Repurposing your best content for social media
- WIRED: Peak newsletter? That was 80 years ago
- Digital News Report: The resurgence and importance of email newsletters
- Forbes: Four things to keep in mind if you’re starting a newsletter
- Reedsy: What is a chapbook? (and should you publish one?)
- Sage Journals: Claud Cockburn, The Week and The Cliveden Set
- SaleCycle: 18 essential email marketing statistics
- Sprout: 10 Call to action phrase examples that increase clicks and conversions
- Sprout: The best times to post on social media in 2021
- WordStream: Perfect Timing – The Very Best Time to Send Email Newsletters
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