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This article is an online article published as part of the January 2003 issue (Vol 9, No. 3)


About the Authors

Amy Lawless works as the Internet Content Developer for a national health association in the United States, which launched a successful e-newsletter campaign for its members. Amy holds an MA in technical communication from Penn State University. She is a member of the Washington DC Chapter and the Usability SIG. Amy can be contacted at

STC Usability SIG Newsletter

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Usability Interface

Creating a Usable Electronic Newsletter In House

By Amy Lawless

Many organizations are opting to convert existing print publications into electronic newsletters (e-newsletters)—and for good reason. E-newsletters can be developed for a fraction of the cost of their print counterparts and delivered to a global audience instantly. While marketers are discovering the ease of reaching a target audience with e-mail, many e-mail users are frustrated by the barrage of e-newsletters that muddle their inboxes monthly, weekly, or even daily. An onslaught of unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam) has made readers wary of marketing attempts. To reach these wary readers, companies need to create e-newsletters that respond to their audience’s specific needs—namely usability and trust. By following a few guidelines, you can launch a usable and successful e-newsletter.

1. Centralize e-newsletter development in your organization.

By centralizing e-newsletter development, you can maintain quality control, prevent redundancy and spam, and foster consistency of message. In a decentralized organization, an individual department may decide to develop an e-newsletter without checking with another department to see if a similar effort is already underway. This could result in a redundant, or worse—inconsistent—message sent to your customers, members, or clients. To avoid (accidentally) spamming individuals, make sure that all e-newsletters filter through one designated department in your organization such as Publications, Marketing, or Web.

If you determine that more than one e-newsletter is appropriate, offer unique and useful content in each e-newsletter and stagger the publication dates. Consider offering a central location on your web site where individuals can sign up for each e-newsletter that interests them. A list management tool will make users feel empowered and open to your message.

2.  Define your objectives and audience.

Before launching an e-newsletter, target a specific audience, decide on a clear purpose, and set an achievable goal.

What segment of your audience do you want to reach? In order to craft a meaningful message, you should have a very focused target audience.

Why do you feel that an e-newsletter is the best vehicle for your message? If your e-newsletter is driven by timely information, an e-newsletter presents an attractive option because it allows you to send up-to-the-minute information to a global audience.

You may decide to create an e-newsletter because your audience prefers this format to a print publication. Audiences that have fast access to the Internet and e-mail at work might appreciate e-newsletters. For example, an academic researcher who spends hours on the computer each day may prefer an e-newsletter, whereas a speech therapist in an elementary school, who spends less time on a computer, may prefer a print publication.

If you are considering converting a print newsletter into an e-newsletter, you might consider surveying your audience for feedback. Surveys are particularly important if your company chooses an e-newsletter to cut production costs. Make sure that an e-newsletter responds to the needs of the audience, not just the needs of your organization.

Do you want a reader to act after reading the e-newsletter? Do you want to raise awareness? Do you want to start a discussion? By reaching consensus about your company’s goal, you can ensure that your message remains focused and achieves a desired effect.

3. Choose the appropriate format for your audience—or let them decide.

One of the most difficult decisions when launching an e-newsletter is whether to use HTML or plain text format. Again, assess your audience: Are your readers likely to have an e-mail program that supports HTML e-mails (for example, students and faculty, technical audiences)? Though HTML e-newsletters may look more impressive and offer interactivity, they also come with slow downloads, which may deter your audience from reading your message. To reach the largest audience possible, choose plain text—the format accessible to all.

You may also want to let your audience decide their preferred format. Though some users may use e-mail programs that support HTML, they may prefer plain text. By letting the audience decide, you foster a sense of empowerment and trust. The drawback to this option is resources: do you have the time, staff, and money to develop two formats?

4. Include useful content.

Because e-mail users are usually in a hurry and are wary of electronic marketing attempts, you must provide them with valuable content. One way to achieve this goal is to create a topic-driven e-newsletter. For example, a health association may choose to develop an e-newsletter for researchers and designate a different health topic for each issue. Each e-newsletter would serve as prepackaged up-to-date research on a specific topic of interest. To create a topic-driven e-newsletter, develop an editorial calendar of topics to ensure that you will have the resources to complete the issue by the deadline. If you have adequately narrowed your target audience, developing a list of topics should not be difficult.

If you sell advertising space in your e-newsletter, include only relevant ads and place them appropriately. Do not fill your e-newsletter with random advertisements because this detracts from your message and creates a sense of distrust in the reader. Advertisements should be appropriate for your audience and unobtrusive. For example, a topic-driven e-newsletter should contain advertisements related to the issue’s topic. Avoid placing advertisements before the content: the focus should remain on the content, not the advertising.

5. Create a sense of trust in the reader.

Due to the attempts of aggressive marketers, users have become suspicious of unsolicited marketing e-mail. You should acknowledge and allay users’ fears by giving them control and establishing credibility in your organization. Some ways to achieve these goals include allowing users to opt-in to your e-newsletter, linking to your privacy policy online, stating the publication frequency up-front, and using a straightforward, honest tone.

By allowing users to opt-in to your e-newsletter, you build credibility and inspire trust. When users have the choice to subscribe to your e-newsletter, they feel in control and will be more open to your message. Just as you should allow users to opt-in, you should allow them to opt-out. Include unsubscribe instructions in the header or footer of every e-mail. You might also choose to include subscription instructions and invite readers to forward the e-newsletter to a friend or colleague.

Privacy Policy
With the influx of unwanted e-mail, users often wonder how marketers acquire their e-mail address. Dispel users’ fears that you will distribute their address by including a link to your privacy policy online. Make it clear that their address will remain private. By including a link to your policy in the header or footer of the e-newsletter, you demonstrate that you understand their concerns and care about their privacy.

Let readers know up-front how often the e-newsletter mails. This will allow users to make an informed decision about whether to subscribe. By providing details about what users can expect, you give your audience more control over their experience.

When determining the frequency of your e-newsletter, consider the amount of resources you will need. Do you have dedicated staff to meet deadlines? Refer to your editorial calendar or list of proposed topics to determine a realistic and desirable (from the readers’ perspective) publication frequency.

Use a straightforward, honest tone to reach your audience. Avoid marketing language and jargon for two reasons: 1) Boastful or exaggerated language inspires mistrust, and 2) electronic media require concise content (marketing language and jargon add needless fluff to word count). Make users feel that your message is coming from an individual rather than a corporation or organization.

6. Create a usable plain text format.

Whether you choose to create a plain text or HTML e-newsletter, you should follow established web writing guidelines, which aim to make content scannable and concise. Though much has been written on web writing, applying these principles to plain text media can be difficult since you cannot make use of color, images, bullets, and other tools we have come to rely upon. Use the following suggestions for creating a usable e-newsletter plain text format to develop your own in-house guidelines:

Table of contents
Include a numbered table of contents for easy referencing. Prominently number each section accordingly to allow users to skip to the desired section.


      Table of Contents example

Use MS Word to format the margins at 60-65 characters wide with a hard linefeed. Save your document as "plain text" with line breaks.

Create scannable copy by utilizing white space and creating short paragraphs with links to more in-depth content online (if needed). Use headings and subheadings to divide your content into manageable chunks.


Scannable copy example

Make headings stand out without the use of bold font and font sizes by specifying headings in all caps with a line of dashes above and below the heading. Use all caps for subheadings, but without the dashes.


Headings example

Use asterisks for first level bullets. Use two dashes for second level bullets. Separate items with white space.


Bullets example

Headers and footers

Include a consistent header or footer in every e-newsletter, with unsubscribe instructions and contact information for a specific individual, which will add a personal feel to your message. You may also opt to include subscribe instructions and a link to your privacy policy.


Header and footer example

7. Develop and distribute a style guide.

After you have developed an e-newsletter strategy, cement your policies and guidelines with a style guide. Distribute the style guide to all involved individuals, even if you are the only hands-on e-newsletter developer. By sharing the guide, you may invite questions or suggestions for improvement, which can improve the editorial process and quality of your e-newsletter. But most importantly, a style guide will ensure that your organization communicates a consistent message in a user-friendly format to an empowered audience.

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