Keeping it Real When Launching an E-Newsletter

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When Chancellor Baptist Church in Virginia 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. 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. Such is the reality of online newsletters.

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.

Whether you are looking to launch your first e-newsletter or to improve an existing one, it’s essential to “keep it real” when setting your expectations for success. Within the realm of religious media, the average open rate for emails is 29.6 percent and only 3.7 percent of readers click one or more links, according to MailChimp, a service that disseminates billions of email newsletters monthly.

These are national averages. My experience shows that congregations can reasonably expect a somewhat higher click rate of perhaps 10 percent. And, with effectively trained newsletter editors at the helm, those numbers can reach 30 to 35 percent. But the numbers suggest that your long-trusted newsletter may be having surprisingly little impact.

Surprised by the harsh reality of the real-world statistics on e-newsletters, we at Chancellor Baptist Church were even more surprised to learn that our assumption that “everyone” was reading our existing printed newsletter was equally flawed. The truth is, in congregations nationwide, most people are not reading print newsletters and probably never have. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans typically have five hours of leisure time per day in which they watch television (2.7 hours), play games (26 minutes), and socialize online (37 minutes). Typically, they spend only 17 minutes reading.  Considering all the emails, regular mail, magazines, best-sellers, and work reports that cross a person’s field of vision each day, a church newsletter may never reach the top of someone’s reading list. So, if only 10 percent of your members click on something in your e-newsletter, that’s probably about the same percentage who engage your printed materials.

A More Effective Approach to E-Newsletters

But e-newsletters give you something that print newsletters never can — hard data about what the people in your congregation look at. 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.

At Chancellor Baptist Church, we began looking closely at what people paid attention to within our new e-newsletter and what they ignored. We immediately discovered that many long-standing types of newsletter stories were largely ignored. But write ups about members soared. 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, we learned 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, we created 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 possible new educational materials.

Rather than staying in the typical rut of feeding people the same old things they’ve been ignoring for years, the staff increased the value of the newsletter by paying attention to what members actually engaged.  More importantly, this helped them gain a better understanding of people in our community, including their interests and their daily lives — the first goal of any growing congregation.

Think about the new excitement generated when a feature story, photo, or home video proves popular in your e-newsletter. And think about the excitement your community will feel when a short story about one of your members is shared across Facebook pages and personal email networks and winds up drawing a friend or relative through your doors. After all, you’re showing what a friendly, welcoming place you’ve become.

E-newsletters can provide data that will help a congregation answer tough questions: Is it really worth the postage and printing costs to produce a print newsletter? Could the expense and effort be put to better use? Could rethinking the budget for advertising, printing and mailing free up money for new projects? E-newsletters can open a powerful window into your community if you are undeterred by the initial shock of readership statistics and willing to learn from the data they provide.


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About Author

Martin Davis is currently a senior editor at US News and World Report. Previously, he was managing Director of the International Association of Religion Journalists and director of the Alban Institute's Congregational Resource Guide.


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