Successful E-Newsletters Are More Than Artful Design

When Chancellor Baptist Church decided to launch an e-newsletter, the staff’s excitement was palpable. Everyone would want this, they reasoned, so it would go a long way toward ending communication problems in the church. If events and information are in the e-newsletter and in the printed newsletter, no one will miss them. After all, everyone reads the printed newsletter—and surely everyone would read the e-newsletter. Right?

The reality was shocking to all involved. Over the first three weeks, only about 50 of the congregation’s 250 regular attendees signed up for the e-newsletter. And over the first month, no more than 15 percent of readers actually clicked a link in the newsletter.

Such is the reality of online newsletters. Whether you are pondering launching your first e-newsletter, or looking to improve an existing one, it’s essential to “keep it real” when setting your expectations for success.

According to MailChimp—an e-newsletter service that sends out billions of newsletter emails each month—the average open rate (emails opened in a window), un-open rate (emails never opened), and click rate (emails in which a user clicks at least one link) for e-newsletters within the realm of religious media are as follows: Open rate, 29.6%; un-open rate, 69.0%; click rate, 3.7%.

Shocked now? Think about this: If you have 100 members in your church and everyone signed up for your e-newsletter, you could expect 30 people to open it. (That means that they click to open your newsletter from their email program, or the email appears in their email program’s preview window.) But remember that final statistic, the click rate. About 30 people may “open” and see your newsletter—but that does not mean 30 people will spend time reading it—and only a few will follow those links that you so thoughtfully placed in your e-newsletter.

Keep in mind that these are national averages. My experience shows that congregations can reasonably expect a somewhat higher click rate. I estimate about 10%. And, if effectively trained newsletter editors are at the helm, those numbers can push higher—upwards of 30%-35%.

As you start, consider the shock value of the real-world numbers I have shared here. This is the time for you to contact friends in your congregation who care about the way you communicate. Talk about how surprisingly little impact you may be having through your long-trusted newsletters.

In a minute I will share some good news about how to begin breaking through this wall of missed communication. But, first, I’ll start the process of honestly talking about this problem.

Church Newsletters: How We Tackled the Challenge

Chancellor Baptist Church is my home congregation in Virgina and we were excited about launching an e-newsletter. Then, we were surprised by the harsh reality of the real-world statistics on e-newsletter readership. But the next insight was an even greater surprise. Many of us had assumed that “everyone” was reading our existing printed newsletter.

The truth is: In congregations nationwide, the majority of men and women are not reading print newsletters—and they probably never have. A simple test of your own reading habits suggests why. If you receive snail-mail newsletters and magazines, how often do you read them cover-to-cover? At all?

Consider a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on how Americans use a typical five hours of leisure time per day. Mainly, Americans watch television (2.7 hours), play games (26 minutes) and socialize online (37 minutes)—far more time than they spend reading (17 minutes). Now think about all the materials that cross a person’s field of vision in the course of a day: Emails, regular mail, magazines, best-selling mysteries, reports from work—the reading list goes on and on long before someone decides to curl up with a church newsletter.

E-newsletter statistics bring that already existing situation into sharp relief. If only 10% of your members actually engage your e-newsletter by clicking something, it’s safe to assume that probably the same percentage are engaging your printed materials.

Why Your Congregation Should Develop E-newsletters

The reality of your readership may be shocking, but e-newsletters give you something that print newsletters never can—hard data about the people in your congregation and what they look at.

At Chancellor Baptist Church, once the initial shock wore off, people began looking closely at what people were paying attention to within our new e-newsletter—and what they were ignoring. Whatever e-newsletter service you choose, you will find that your newsletter staff can receive easy-to-read reports on what people actually are reading in each issue. We discovered right away that many of our long-standing types of newsletter stories were largely ignored.

On the other hand, write ups about members soared. Think about that for a moment and it makes a lot of sense. If you have a precious few minutes to scan your congregation’s e-newsletter, your eye is likely focused on finding something about your family and friends. A short profile about an active member is likely to catch a lot of eyes.

So, our church began to adjust the balance of newsletter items. Over time, our new mix of stories provided an even more valuable lesson: Member profiles get lots of views the first time they run—and people come back to them again and again! To facilitate this, there’s now a convenient way to access an index of all profiles in every e-newsletter issue.

What else did people enjoy? Videos of baptisms also did very well, as did discussions of new educational materials the church is considering. In short, by paying attention to what people actually accessed in the e-newsletters, the staff learned what members want to read. This began to increase the value of the newsletters, rather than leaving this potentially important communications tool mired in the typical rut of feeding people the same old things they’ve been ignoring for years.

More important, because of the newsletter, the staff is gaining a better understanding of people in our community, including their interests and their daily lives—the first goal of any growing congregation.

Getting Past the Newsletter Jolt

It’s up to you: You can use this data and follow the examples of many congregations that are honestly facing up to the failures of most older newsletters. This week, gather friends and staff in your congregation. Share this column with them. When you meet, ask the tough questions: Is it really worth the postage and printing costs to produce a print newsletter when you receive no feedback about how it’s being used? Could the expense and effort of producing print pieces be put to better use? Is it worth buying Yellow Page ads when studies show people turn to the internet first when looking for a church?

Begin to rethink your existing budget for advertising, printing and mailing—and you may discover you can free up money for new projects. Rethink the hours that staff and volunteers spend on existing media—and think about the new excitement they will feel when you can demonstrate that their “item” or photo or home video was popular in the new e-newsletter.

Finally, think about the excitement your community will feel, when a short story about one of your members winds up shared across Facebook pages and personal email networks—and winds up drawing a friend or relative to walk through your doors. After all, you’re showing what a friendly, welcoming place you’ve become.

Don’t let the initial shock deter you from opening a more powerful window into your community.

This article originally appeared in Read The Spiritfor which I write a regular column on faith communities and technology. 

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