The bad news: You're competing with every other e-mail your prospects are reading. (This is very different from competing with what your competitors are sending.) You're fighting for attention with the joke-of-the-day lists, newspapers, trade magazines, sports headlines and all their other current favorites.
The good news: It's easier to write great e-mail than you think.
1. They don't advertise footballs in Sports Illustrated. They advertise cars. Stories about sports and pictures of pretty girls get the attention of readers. Advertisers use that attention to get prospective customers to look at their ads. The lesson: Write a newsletter that gets the attention of your readers, even if it's not directly related to what you sell. As long as people are reading the e-mail, you can find plenty of ways to advertise your products.
2. Be fast. The "Daily News Alert" e-mail is a proven winner-if you've got real, fresh, new information to share. If you send out old headlines, you'll be a daily annoyance. But if you spend a few minutes each night looking at the free newswires (or have access to genuine news), it's not hard to become the newsletter that prospects wake up to each day. Thousands of bloggers find fresh news each day; you can, too.
3. Summarize. Some of the best newsletters are just headlines and summaries of stories on other Web sites. Done well, these can be a substantive source of information with relatively little work. Keep it relevant and current to become the first stop in the in-box.
4. Send surveys and stats. Everyone loves new research. Use a cheap online survey tool, such as Surveymonkey.com, to do a biweekly survey. Publish the results. Keep the questions interesting, publish regularly and everyone will tune in to see the next fascinating installment.
5. Make it feel exclusive. Everyone wants to be on the inside. Create an aura of exclusivity and people will pay attention. We used to publish a weekly newsletter called "Deals of the Week" highlighting dot-com opportunities. We also created a "VIP Edition" that was exactly the same but was sent out a few days earlier. The open rate on the VIP edition was significantly higher. Of course, anyone could get on the VIP list.
6. Send regular reminders. Tell your customers that you're thinking about them. Keep them out of trouble. Reminder e-mails work great for products that are used infrequently or on regular anniversaries. MyCorporation.com, which handles incorporation and other government filings, sends out useful don't-forget e-mails, such as Year-End Filing Reminders and Pre-Tax-Day Checklist.
7. Use confirmation messages. You're already sending quite a few must-read e-mails-receipts, shipping notices and other essential reminders. Take the opportunity to expand the relationship and include additional editorial and promotional content. New research from DoubleClick shows that 52% of recipients would be interested.
8. Be different. Never, ever send out the same e-mails that everyone else does. No one will look at them. Take the extra effort to find a unique spin that demands attention. We wanted to create a newsletter that would reach HR professionals, but there were bucket-loads of HR newsletters. So we took resumes, turned them into fun personals ads, and made it into a weekly newsletter: "Lonely CFO seeks company with money to manage ..." It stood out, it got read and we advertised ourselves in every issue.
9. Turn promotion into content. Ads, offers and discounts are boring. But your product probably has an interesting story behind it. Turn the details into stories and sell the product by implication. The Practising Law Institute produces legal seminars-rich content, but it's hard to make them sound interesting. So they created a newsletter called "All-Star Briefing," which is a Q&A with upcoming speakers, or "thought-provoking pearls from leading practitioners, academics or jurists" as they spin it. It's interesting, well-read and tastefully tied into product promotion.
10. Be funny. Joke-of-the-day e-mails are consistently the most-read e-mail content. It's a sure thing. More important, nothing gets forwarded as often as jokes. Go out there and gather the best jokes about your field. Keep it tasteful. Share the humor with your customers. Don't let corporate conservatism stop you.
Andy Sernovitz is CEO of GasPedal (www.gaspedal.net), an e-mail consultancy.