A newsletter (or e-blast) is a structured form of correspondence sent to a bulk of email addresses. It can be a useful tool for you to communicate with your existing audience base. That base might be a mailing list you’ve accumulated from ticket buyers to past shows, or a core group of family/friends who support your work.
Why a Newsletter?
Yes, it sounds obvious, but the best newsletters are the ones you send when you actually have something to say. Your average person receives a lot of newsletters to their inbox and doesn’t open most of them - so you want to give them a reason to spend time on yours.
That said, newsletters can also be a tool to stay in touch with your audience when you’re not currently active. Maybe you have a company that produces a show every 1-2 years, but you make a point of sending a quarterly newsletter just to stay on people’s radar and share some general updates.
Planning your campaign
Include newsletters in your marketing and communications plan for a project. Identify key points in the process when it makes sense to send an email communication, and then make sure you leave yourself enough time to create it. If you’re producing a show, a sample schedule might look like this (where T = Opening Night):
T-3 months: Show announcement
T-2 months: Tickets on sale
T-1 month: Interview with the Director
T-2 weeks: Interview with the Playwright
T-1 week: The show opens in 1 week
T-1 day: Production photos
T+5 days: Reviews from critics and audiences / Last chance to see it
T+3 weeks: Thanks for coming
People have different opinions about what constitutes “too many” newsletters, but a good rule of thumb is no more than once a week , even when you’re in production mode.
Make it easy to sign up
Most platforms will have easy ways for you to integrate a newsletter sign up on your Facebook page and website. Bottom line: make it easy for people to find. You may also consider incentivizing people to sign up if you're trying to build your newsletter's reach (for example, by running a contest on social media).
When you are sending a newsletter in Canada, you are obligated to adhere to the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation, or ‘CASL’ (castle!) for short. You can find basic information about CASL on the government’s website here and more detailed information about how these guidelines affect you as a sender here. You’ll note there are exceptions (you can email family, employees, and people with “an established personal relationship” as much as you want), but in general you need to make sure you have either implied consent or explicit consent for anyone you’re emailing a newsletter to.
Implied consent means that you are allowed to email anyone who has interacted with your organization in a transactional way for the 24 months following that encounter. Translation: if someone bought a ticket to your show, you’re allowed to email them for two years. (But of course, if they unsubscribe or ask to be removed from your mailing list, you must honour that.)
Explicit consent means that someone has specifically elected to receive communications from you. This may take the form of a ‘Sign up to our newsletter’ sheet at an event, a ‘yes’ answer to the question ‘Do you want to receive newsletters from us?’ on your ticket selling platform, or signing up using an embedded form via your website or social media platforms.
Newsletter platforms often have built-in tools to help you make sure you have the right consent. If you go to manually add a contact in Mailchimp, Mailchimp will ask you to check a box to confirm that “this person has given me permission to email them.” They also have a double opt-in option, which means that if someone signs up via e.g. your website, they would receive a confirmation email they need to click to double-confirm their desire to be on your list.
Make sure you keep track of and/or separate emails you have implicit consent for (that will expire), and those you have explicit consent for. When your implied consent emails are set to expire, you might consider trying to ‘convert’ them into explicit consent, by sending them a final email asking them to take action to confirm their consent to receive communications from you.
Segmenting your audience
Most platforms will have built-in tools to help you segment your audience (e.g. the ‘tags’ function in Mailchimp), but you can always manage your lists using an external tool such as Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel. You may want to segment your audience if you want to communicate information to different people at different times, or communicate/highlight different information altogether.
For instance, if you’re doing an end-of-year donation plea, you might want to make sure that doesn’t go to people who have donated to your company recently. You might even want to have a separate newsletter list for donors in order to send them specific communications. You might also consider create a media newsletter list if you’re sending out your own press releases. Or you might design a specific newsletter welcoming all those whose emails you collected from buying tickets to your most recent show, but might not otherwise be well-acquainted with you or your work.
Include option to “unsubscribe”
If you’re sending an email, always make sure there is an option to unsubscribe (ideally in the footer - you don’t want to make it so easy that you’re always losing people, you just want to give them the option if they go looking for it).
Back up your mailing list
Export your mailing list from your newsletter platform regularly so that you have a back-up of all those emails - accidents happen, and email addresses are hard to get back.
Building your Newsletter
Remember that for most people, this newsletter is going right to their “promotions” folder, so give the subject line some thought. Be informative (what will people find inside?) and enticing so they’ll actually want to open it. Don't forget to remain consistent with your brand/voice. Mailchimp recommends you be short and sweet (stick to nine words or less for the best open rate) and limit yourself to one emoji (max). Also, consider holding back on caps lock (this can set off spam alarm bells) and limiting yourself to one exclamation point.
Customize the look
Tailor your newsletter so that the aesthetic is consistent with your branding. Add your logo at the top, and use hex codes (a way of specifying colour - the format looks like #AFD645) to match your brand's colours to the ones you use in the newsletter. There aren't always a ton of font options depending on your newsletter platform, but choose something that still feels like you. If you're having issues with the way something looks, most platforms have a code editor that shows you what's going on in the back end of what you're creating.
Beware of information overload
Is anyone going to read the eighth paragraph in your newsletter? Maybe, but... maybe not. Check out some newsletters in your own inbox to give yourself a sense of what the right amount of content might be. In general, it’s helpful to think of there being “lead content” (the reason you’re sending the newsletter in the first place), and a couple of other sub-sections. If you have a lot of content, consider adding a Table of Contents or an "Inside This Newsletter" section at the top — Mailchimp makes it easy to do this in a couple different ways you can read about here.
Alt Text & Plain Text
You can make your newsletters more accessible to folks with low vision and those using screen readers by providing 'alt text' and image descriptions of any photo or graphic content. Learn more about accessible design on ArtistProducerResource.com here.
Some people have settings on their email that prevent them from seeing it in all your beautiful, HTML-designed glory. Spend a few minutes cleaning up the plain text version of your email so that it's still legible for plain text users. Beware extraneous asterisks, line breaks, links in the middle of sentences, etc.
Test it out
Send yourself a test email, and open it on your desktop and phone to make sure that everything looks okay in both formats. Make sure all your links are working too! When you hit send to your mailing list, you're publishing something that can't be changed after the fact so spend that extra couple minutes on a copy edit.
Consider the time of day. Is anyone really checking their email at 8pm on a Friday? 8am on a Sunday? You can start to learn about the times of day and days of the week that resonate with your audience by testing things out and comparing open rates. Mailchimp also has an option to ‘optimize send time’ if you want to let their algorithm take the wheel.
Be aware of when other organizations are likely to send their newsletters (or similar newsletters). You may want to send a “Last Chance to Donate This Year” on December 31, but maybe sending it on December 27 means getting ahead of twenty similar emails. The same thing applies to Giving Tuesday and anything else related to major dates (including World Theatre Day).
Know your open rate: don't just hit send and never log back in to check if anyone ever opened your email. Depending on the size of your mailing list, you'll probably be looking for an open rate of about 25-60%. Your platform of choice will have metrics such as the open rate, number of opens, and link clicks to help you track the email's reach.
Include a link to 'view this newsletter in your browser' (in case people have issues opening it in their email, and to make it more easily shareable) as well as your social media and website links.
Customize the URL of the newsletter to the extent that your platform allows you to - that way, when you share the link on social media, it will look more like 'mail.chimp/radtheatreco/cool-show' than 'mail.chimp/Ehgjdh64968kfdjag.'
Consider how you want to use your mailing list. Do you want your subscribers to be the very first to hear about any important company news? Maybe you want to make sure your newsletter goes out before you break that news on social media (even if it's just a half-hour's difference). If you're making an announcement that other people have a stake in (maybe you're announcing a co-production, or a news outlet is breaking your cast announcement), make sure to time things carefully. Once you send a newsletter to your mailing list, people can (and hopefully will) share it and link to it!
Use your time wisely. Newsletters don't make themselves. If you only have fifteen subscribers, consider whether it's worth your time.
Mailchimp (if you're looking for a recommendation, this is it - Mailchimp is super easy-to-use, with lots of drag-and-drop tools, useful templates, customizable features, a free plan for up to 2,000 contacts, and pay-as-you-go options for infrequent senders above the free plan maximum)