Nine Steps to Employee Newsletter Success

Recommendations for curating compelling and engaging newsletters

Once upon a time in 4th grade, I started a class newsletter. Our purpose was mostly to share student stories and the essential school news. The editorial team met after school and took our deadlines seriously. With a parent chaperone and a teacher championing our mission, this newspaper served as a source of class pride. Each edition was unique. In one publication, Marriott wrote about recess; Emily reported on cafeteria comments; and Natali featured her favorite recipe.

I stumbled down newsletter memory lane while going through some old boxes, a benefit of extra time at home during the pandemic. As I look back at this moment from my childhood, I realized my interest in internal communications began at age nine. Of course, I’m half-serious, but when I compared this past experience to my current career, I found a few parallels. 

While a class newsletter has a student audience and a company newsletter has an employee audience, there are similarities with engagement goals, content strategy and editorial priorities. Fast forward many years later to the newsletters that I edit today, the themes translate over time. These publications feature stories with similar objectives to inspire, connect and inform the readers.

This article shares my newsletter lessons learned over time. It also features best practices from several internal communications leaders. The goal is to share a step by step guide of newsletter recommendations. It’s a resource to support curators, ranging from the beginners who are just starting newsletters to experienced editors who are searching for new ideas.

1. Listen to Your Employees

The Forbes Communications Council encourages newsletter editors to “ask what information employees want and need” as the first priority in crafting an effective newsletter strategy. Here are a few research methods to find out the best strategy recommendations for your organization.

  • Poll: Post a Polly poll in Slack to ask anonymous questions about newsletter topics of interest. This tool is easy for employees to participate in real time with a few clicks).

  • Survey: Send a short survey via email with in-depth questions inviting employees to give anonymous feedback on several newsletter topics (format, topics, suggestions and more specific questions). 

  • Focus Group: Host a focus group of employees (self-nominated and manager recommendations) to hear their perspectives. 

As you approach newsletter strategy, this wisdom on listening from Diane Tate will set you up for success:

“You probably have an agenda with your newsletter so you should get ready to lose that in favor of serving your audience's needs first. Your newsletter is not an information transmission tool, it's a trust-building tool. And trust comes from first listening, and delivering on something your audience cares about. 

So, deliver something valuable to your readers by meeting them where they are at, and the trust and engagement you're seeking will follow. While not specifically focused on employee newsletters, Do Open by David Hieatt is a must-read (and, it's short!).” - Diane Tate

2. Look Externally to Innovate Internally

Building on Diane’s book recommendation, I was drawn to its subtitle: “How a simple email newsletter can transform your business (and it can).” That reiterates why I appreciate learning from other newsletters with different goals and audiences.

Over the past few years, the newsletter subscription industry has grown significantly. What’s driving their success and how can you incorporate those lessons learned into your newsletter strategy? Here are a few resources that I’ve enjoyed learning from:

3. Define Your OKRs

What do you hope to achieve with your newsletter? This will define your objective and what ultimately is included in the newsletter. Here are two potential objectives:

  • Sample Objective A: To inform, inspire and connect departments and employees across the company.

  • Sample Objective B: To highlight company news, emphasize values and share employee stories

Next, consider your key results — how will you know if your newsletter is a success? Of course, employee feedback is one way to measure the impact, but take the time to analyze both the qualitative and quantitative results. Set three to five metrics to evaluate over time with a data dashboard with specifics. Consider the following, but customize for your newsletter:

  • Improve employee understanding of company strategy in Quarterly Pulse Survey by 10%

  • Improve click rate by 10% 

  • Increase employee confidence score in Quarterly Pulse Survey by 15% 

  • Inspire 20% of employees to attend events featured in newsletter and connect with each other 

4. Design for Influence 

While you can’t judge a book by its cover, when it comes to newsletters, presentation matters. The look of your newsletter will likely impact its readership. Here are a few guiding principles to consider the design of your publication:

Format

Partner with Design to develop a template that embodies your brand. 

“Establish the look and feel of the publication so your employees recognise the branding. Be consistent with the format so they can navigate it with ease.” -Arlene Amitirigala

Photos, columns and buttons — these features matter with newsletters. Find a tool that gives you the ability to customize your newsletter beyond text. It could be an external tool such as Mailchimp or an internal resource such as your Intranet that offers the ability to collate news clippings to send out to employees. Simpplr has this built-in functionality that I really appreciate. 

Images

Visuals enhance retention of knowledge, according to internal communications agency and product creator Bananatag. Consider creating a submission form for employees to submit photos. Feature a photo of the month based on employee contributions and recognize employees in the newsletter.

Order 

Rank your content to prioritize what gets read. Then, add a table of contents with anchor links to the top of the newsletter to navigate quickly to different sections and track interest in specific thematic areas. Want a jolt of inspiration for how to redesign your newsletter in 30 minutes or less? I was inspired by this Banantag blog post

“I also try hard to organize newsletters from “need to know” at the top to “nice to know” at the bottom and always apply the lens of what’s in it for them. Leadership announcements or business updates? Need to know. Tools to help you do your job faster, easier, smarter? Need to know. Wellness challenges? Nice to know. People stories? Nice to know (sorry).” - Lise Harwin

5. Write with Personality

When you are drafting a newsletter, think about your brand. This ranges from the voice to the  tag-lines. Here are questions to consider:

  • Is it coming from leadership?

  • Should it be sent by a colleague, department or an internal mascot?

  • What would make you open the newsletter?

Here are a few suggestions from internal communicators:

Voice

“I like to approach the voice of The Piedmont Dose as a running conversation with my co-worker at the desk across from me. While it’s essential to deliver the news and messages that our 23,000-plus employees need to know, I think it’s important to speak to them, not at them. Put yourself in the shoes of a co-worker at the water cooler and consider how that audience will best digest the message.” -John Brieske

Employee Perspective

“I want a ‘one stop shop’ for everything I need to know. and I want it provided in a super relevant, easily digestible manner. If that’s what I want as an employee, I’d like to think that’s what my team would find helpful as well.” -Lise Harwin 

Personal Approach

“Focusing on the ‘letter’ in ‘newsletter,’ I believe it’s important to greet employee readers with an intro text that offers a summary of what they will find in that edition – an editor’s note of sorts that helps quickly set the stage.

To increase open rates, take the time to create a compelling title or subject line that captures the overarching tone of those particular updates. No one is going to be excited to open and read ‘May 2021 Employee Newsletter’ but they might be compelled to open ‘May 2021: CEO Jane Smith’s Radical Plan for Returning to the Office.’” -Becky Graebe

6. Define Content Strategy

What you feature in the newsletter should be strategic. With so many options of potential content, here are the steps to think through in order to create compelling content.

  • Brainstorm topics of interest – business success stories, thought leadership from executives, employee features are a few ideas to start

  • Group these topics by theme – company news, employee engagement, culture are a few categories to consider

  • Map these to your objectives – what you hope to achieve with this content

Here are recommendations on how to craft your content strategy:

Relevance

“Employee newsletters need to be relevant. There is always a lot of information to share and stories to tell, which make newsletters an efficient communication channel. But you need to ask yourself, ‘What does my audience care about?’

Be clear about what you are communicating via the newsletter and how it helps employees stay informed, get involved, helpful administrative updates, build pride, and much more.” -Tracey Pavlishin

Succinct

“My main goal is to give employees what they need at a glance. When it comes to newsletters, this often means I care more about open rates than click rates. While I’d love for employees to read every single word and click in for even more in-depth information, I ultimately want them to be able to skim and still get everything they need without having to dive deeper.” -Lise Harwin 

Strategic

This is a chart I created to organize content strategy:

7. Set a Schedule

Establishing a routine, especially during unpredictable times, is usually welcome and appreciated by employees. When talking with Internal Communications professionals, this was amongst one of the most shared wisdom.

Here are a few perspectives on consistency from leaders:

“There are several ingredients to creating a successful publication. They include the ‘4 C’s’ - creative, compelling, concise and conversational. There’s also a fifth C which can be easily overlooked and that is—consistent. Consistency goes a long way in building a strong, successful employee newsletter. How to get this right? Here are a few tips:

Make an appointment with your reader. Decide when you will publish and stick to that timeline. Do you publish on a Tuesday at 1pm or a Friday at 10am? Your readers will know when to contact you to pitch a story and when to look out for the latest news. 

Being consistent with your content doesn’t mean you aren’t creative. It simply means that your employees will know what they’ll find in each edition. Some might go straight to the recognition stories, or the people news whilst others click on the performance update first. They just need to know it will be there week after week ” -Arlene Amitirigala

“Employee newsletters also need to be consistent. Establish a regular cadence that employees come to depend on for receiving news they care about. This ensures the employee newsletter becomes a “one-stop” email for what they care about and what they need to know. Employee newsletters should be complimented by email updates from leaders where they share personal reflections to contextualize priorities, impact, culture, and current events.” - Tracey Pavlishin

“You want to be realistic about the cadence of the newsletter. Consider other communications and balance the content accordingly. Drafting content, getting images, videos and other assets, managing reviews and approvals takes time. A monthly newsletter comes around quicker than you may think!”  -Elizabeth Rasberry

8. Estimate the Read Time

This is one of my favorite, yet challenging strategies. It can compel an employee to read or turn them off entirely. Mostly, it helps employees know that you have their time top of mind and strive to be as succinct as possible. 

“An engaging newsletter is a balance of product and people updates, but above all is concise and precise. Everyone contends with information overload so a successful newsletter provides actionable, relevant information in as few words as possible. My favorite company newsletter - we have many - provides the estimated read time at the top; and it’s usually less than two minutes. It delivers what it promises: news I can use. And I’m also a fan of employee submitted photos!” - Lisa Nicole Chen

“Keep the length of the newsletter in mind. If it takes more than five or six minutes to read everything, you may be ready to switch to a more frequent cadence so employees don’t feel overwhelmed and only need to focus on a few important updates at a time.” - Becky Graebe

9. Analyze the Data 

In our ongoing work world, it can be hard to pause and reflect on what’s going well and what you can change. Thankfully there are tools that make it easy for us to evaluate by measuring the data for us and can make our work more efficient by knowing when to pivot.  

“Honestly, whatever the data is telling you. If you don't have ample data from employees telling you what they want to hear from you, how often and what's driving them to pay attention (or ignore your communications), that's step 1! Having solid data makes it easier to make decisions that aren't rooted in assumptions. 

For instance, our employees are telling us they simply want to know the most important action items of the week — deadlines, events, important announcements that directly affect their jobs — so our newsletter focuses on those areas. Having a tool that can then offer robust metrics is key to help you continue evolving the newsletter (we use Poppulo). - Ashlea Miller 

So, on the topic of start, stop or continue, I invite you to share your best practices for employee newsletters in the comments or message me with what’s gone well for a future feature. 

Thank you to the internal communications leaders who contributed quotes and recommendations to this piece.