Checking newsletters is something we do all the time here at Mill House Media – and you may well have wondered what we do and why we do it.
It’s certainly something you should wonder about. Even a small mistake can make the difference between a newsletter that delivers on its intended purpose and one that falls at the first hurdle.
So when you’re checking newsletters, what exactly should you be checking for?
In the beginning was the word…
…because that’s where every newsletter starts – with the copy. And any decent copywriter will tell you they sometimes make mistakes. They could be mistakes of fact (and just occasionally they are), but they’re more likely to be mistakes in spelling or grammar. And yes, that’s important.
Well, partly because people of my generation still make buying decisions in the businesses you are trying to reach. People who tend to notice spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. And who see them as evidence of carelessness (at best) or incompetence (at worst).
And no one – given the choice – would opt to buy a product or a service from someone they saw as careless or incompetent.
True, those two paragraphs are ‘ungrammatical’ in the strict sense. For example, some might object to starting a sentence with ‘and’. But there are good reasons for doing so in copywriting – enough, in fact, to be the subject of another post! If you’d like to give me something to moan about you might, for example, write that ‘I shouldn’t of started a sentence with a preposition’.
And if you’re not sure what was wrong with that phrase, we’d be delighted to check your next newsletter for you…!
…and then came the pictures…
Checking newsletters also involves checking the pictures? Because you need to be sure that they’re a) undistorted, b) at the right resolution and c) free of any copyright restrictions.
Taking those in order…
Don’t change the aspect ratio:
If there’s one thing I hate it’s sitting in front of a TV with an image that’s been arbitrarily ‘stretched’ to fit a modern wide screen – making everyone on screen look as though they’ve been living on a burger diet for the last 20 years. (On my bad days I’m not exactly slim, which makes this particular picture even worse…)
Agreed, it’s tempting to mess with the formatting of an image to make it fit an awkward space – but please don’t. The results are truly horrible. Crop it (intelligently) by all means, but don’t stretch it to fit unless you are deliberately aiming to distort it.
Don’t ‘blow up’ a low-resolution image.
Fine, you’d like a bigger image than the one you’ve got. It’s very easy to make it bigger to fit, but if you do you’ll discover the ‘space probe effect’. That’s when you reach the limit of the available data in the original picture – and your software desperately tries to create detail that was never there in the first place.
It’s not a pretty sight…
Mind the copyright
Yes, the internet is crammed with good images (and many more that are indifferent, bad, or supremely awful). Yes, you have an ‘image search’ facility on Google. And yes, it will probably find you the exact image that you want. But someone else will almost certainly own the copyright. And if you use it for your newsletter and happily send it out to all your loyal followers, you will be in breach of copyright and at risk of eye-watering fines.
The answer? Just pay for the images you use. They don’t have to be expensive – we use a number of image banks including 123rf.com, Dreamstime, Shutterstock and iStock (though in my view iStock has now become unacceptably expensive for regular use). But do be prepared to make imaginative choices – and, where necessary, to be creative with the way you use your choices. (Quite a few of the images we use at Mill House Media form the basis for a treatment – or a montage – in Photoshop. It’s sometimes the only way to get the results we want.)
…followed by the code…
Perhaps the trickiest part of checking newsletters is checking the coding – which, unfortunately, is something of a black art. It really shouldn’t be that difficult, but it is. And that’s mostly because the (many different) people who build email browser programs don’t seem willing or able to conform to international standards. It’s no surprise that Microsoft are among the worst culprits. As a result, getting an email newsletter to render correctly in all the various versions of Outlook is always challenging, and occasionally not possible.
Ironically, emails need to be coded in a way that’s familiar to people like me (who started coding back in the digital equivalent of the Stone Age) but completely unfamiliar to the up-and-coming generation of web designers. They expect something more sophisticated (and so they should!)
And just to make things really interesting, each new or ‘improved’ version of an email or web browser delivers a whole new set of bugs. And all seem cunningly designed to wreck the workarounds we painstakingly discovered last time.
Well, at least it fosters a degree of community spirit (and occasionally just a touch of community paranoia…)
Keeping track of all these changes – over dozens of different browsers – is well-nigh impossible. That’s why we find the service from Litmus so very useful. It allows us to see exactly what any given email will look like in all the most common browsers. You can see for yourself – here – what one of our test runs looks like.
…which just leaves the data
So you’ve finished checking newsletters and you’re ready to send them.
Excellent. But have you checked your distribution list, too?
Over the last few years I’ve received literally hundreds of distribution lists from clients. For the most part they were carefully prepared, with few errors. But computer systems are unforgiving, and sometimes even those few errors were enough to cause a problem. So if you’re about to upload a distribution list, what should you be looking for?
Duplicate entries will cause irritation for the people who get two (or more) emails instead of one – sometimes enough irritation to make them click on the ‘unsubscribe’ button. Some systems will automatically delete duplicate entries, but it pays to be careful.
Spelling mistakes will irritate recipients because they imply you don’t really know who they are. Spelling mistakes in email addresses won’t cause that problem, of course – they just won’t get delivered at all.
Formatting errors in your file structure may not always be obvious – or at least, not until you try to upload the list to your distribution system. Even if it’s accepted, there’s the possibility that the data won’t be stored in the way you intended. This kind of error is tricky to spot, but can sometimes explain why a particular list doesn’t have the names in it that you expected, or simply doesn’t work.
Wrongly structured data looks, superficially, fine. The problem may be that you’ve got, for example, people’s surnames in the first name field, which will obviously not give the results you want in a personalised email.
Special characters won’t always appear in the way you intended – it rather depends how clever your distribution software is. If possible avoid accented characters (and, if you can, even apostrophes!)
I hope our experience has given you some useful tips for checking your own newsletters – whatever distribution system you’re using. And if it all seems like too much of a hassle, do call us on 01449 740118 or drop us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.