VerticalResponse Blog


2015 Update: One of our most popular posts on newsletters, this article now includes some updated examples to fuel your inspiration. This article was originally published in 2013.

Are you familiar with the old school Milton Bradley game, Operation? It tests your ability to remove ailments (like a broken heart) from a patient using a pair of tweezers connected to a wire. If you aren’t precise enough in removing the ailment, BUZZ! the alarm sounds, the patient’s bright red nose lights up, and you’ve lost your turn.

Anatomy, deriving from the Greek translation, “I cut up, cut open,” and the ability to piece together or dissect things carefully is also a test to your email marketing skills. Concoct an engaging email newsletter with all of the right parts and you win; otherwise, you risk losing a turn, or worse, readers. So what makes up the anatomy of a bloody good email newsletter? Let’s operate:

1. Intriguing Subject Line & Pre-header – Just like the smell of sweet apple pie, your subject line needs to lure readers in with its potency. Avoid generic subject lines like: “This Month’s Newsletter, Newsletter #3, Upcoming Events” etc. because these subject lines don’t entice, incentivize an open, or give readers any clue about what’s actually in your newsletter. Get creative, have fun, try new things and test out a bunch of different subject lines. Treat your pre-header as a secondary subject line and include even more info about what goodies are awaiting readers inside. Remove carefully: Your company name from the subject line – This is what the “from label” is for; otherwise it’s taking up valuable open-inducing space.

Here are a few recent retail subject line examples:

Email Newsletter Inbox

2. Masthead/logo (linked) – Have a specific logo for your newsletter, give it a fun name like, “The Irresistible Insider,” include a masthead and/or your company logo and always remember to link it! You’re giving customers tons of valuable content, so give them a path back to your site, especially if they want to sign up and/or spend. Remove carefully: Unnecessary space – You want to include a masthead and logo, but if it’s too large, you’re pushing juicy content below the fold. Here’s an example of an effective email newsletter masthead from the California Academy of Sciences.

CA Academy of Sciences

3. Table of Contents – You only have 51 seconds (the average amount of time someone spends on an email newsletter) to grab your reader’s attention. If they do not know immediately what’s in store for them, he/she won’t be bothered to scroll past the top fold. We’ve tested this in our very own VR Buzz only to discover that when a table of contents is included, readers chose to read which content interests them the most versus what we place at the top, resulting in more clicks, especially on content found near the bottom.

4. Compelling Content (in brief, scannable paragraphs, content blocks, bullet points and/or numbered lists) – Like blood in a beating heart, your email newsletter needs rich, healthy content pumping through it to keep it revived and alive. Need content ideas? Peruse the bullet points below:

  • Blog Posts
  • Tips, tactics, how-tos, tutorials
  • Industry news/third party news
  • Events, dates to remember, holidays
  • Interesting facts
  • Reviews
  • Photos
  • Contests/contest winners
  • Resources
  • Company news – updates, improvements, new products, awards, volunteer projects, etc.
  • Infographics
  • Webinars and/or videos
  • Testimonials
  • Recipes
  • Fan photos

Remove carefully: Sales hype! The focus and point of your email newsletter is to educate and build rapport with your fan base of readers. Want to promote? Send sales-specific emails separately, or do so in moderation in your email newsletter from time to time.

Here’s an example from a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts’s email newsletter:


5. “Pinnable” Imagery – Like a healthy body, you want your email newsletter to look “oh so fine.” We’re living in image-heavy times where Instagram and Pinterest compete for our attention spans. When selecting imagery for your newsletter, think “Would someone ‘pin’ this on Pinterest?” If so, you’ve won this round. Remove carefully: A single image as the entire content of your email. Yes, pics are important, but if you’ve photoshopped one large image as the content of your email and for some reason (‘cus it definitely happens!) a reader can’t download that image  –  BUZZ! your email newsletter will not be seen.

6. Concise Headlines and/or Subheadings – Email newsletters contain a lot of content, which is why breaking it up into blocks is wise, as is including images. However, people scan email newsletters like they do a newspaper – By reading the headlines first. If readers find the headline enticing, they’ll read on. No headlines? BUZZ! A reader may pass up valuable content. Give your content blocks enticing headlines or subheadings and link them back to the original source (blog, website, social network).

7. Clear Call-to-Action – You wouldn’t want a confused doctor to remove the wrong organ right? Same goes for your readers – Give them a defined path via a specific action you’d like them to take by including clear call-to-action links and/or buttons: “Watch the Video,” “Learn More,” “Get More Info.” This is an example from Macy’ They’ve included compelling imagery, a concise headline and a clear call-to-action to promote their sale.


8. Links – The purpose of your email newsletter is to provide valuable content and get a click. Always provide readers a link with more information, whether it be to your website, blog or social site. Remove carefully: URLs typed out. Example: For more information, visit Instead: For more information, visit VerticalResponse. By now, most readers understand what a hyperlink looks like (underlined and typically blue text). URLs take up valuable space.

Birchbox Social Icons

9. Social Sharing Buttons & Social Networks – Like a toned bod, you’ve worked hard on your email newsletter, so flaunt it! Include social sharing buttons on your email newsletter so others can share it on their own social networks. Additionally, include social network icons so others can find you on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

10. Easy-to-Find Unsubscribe Link – We know what you’re thinking, “Why on earth would I want to make it easy for someone to unsubscribe?” Well, people do what they please, including unsubscribe from newsletters, but you can’t take it personally. Would you rather someone unsubscribe (with the option to opt back in later if they so desire) or brand you with the spam stamp? Give them a clear, easy out – This will also improve your open and click through rates by only keeping your most engaged readers around. Remove Carefully: Unsubscribe links in a light grey or off white so as to “hide” the link.

Now that you’ve pieced together and carefully removed various elements/ailments, you should have the makeup of a bloody good email newsletter. Have any additions? Let’s play!

Image of Operation courtesy of Milton Bradley

© 2013 – 2015, Contributing Author. All rights reserved.

  • Colleen Corkery

    Thanks for reading Rishi!

  • Colleen Corkery

    Thanks Tess! Yes, “Pinnable” imagery is important, especially since a new study released (read about it here: states that content on Pinterest has a longer lifespan than any other social media site. This is because people search on Pinterest, where as on Twitter and FB, they’re simply scrolling.

  • Colleen Corkery

    Thanks Valerie! Yes, we’ve tested the table of contents multiple times and it always results in better click-through rates. It also may entice readers on a topic you may not have mentioned in the subject line or pre-header.

  • Colleen Corkery

    Hi Steve, thanks for reading!

    Compare your email newsletter to the length of a homepage on website, say How far do you scroll down? Maybe just one or two swipes of the good ole mouse – Anything further and all that content gets lost. If you do have a lot of great content but find yourself trying to cram it all in, resulting in an endlessly long email, consider sending your newsletter more often (like twice a month instead of once). Or, simply save it for your next newsletter, unless it’s time-sensitive. This is why using a table of contents (and anchor linking the topics) is also important. Hope that helps!

    Thanks again.

  • Colleen Corkery

    Thanks for reading! Yes, properly naming images and/or using appropriate alt-text is a must!

  • Colleen Corkery

    Thanks Rebecca! Yes having a link to view the email in a browser (or on a mobile) is also important! Plus, if you have a hosted newsletter URL, you can use it to archive your newsletters online. Thanks for the addition!

  • Rebecca R.

    Great post! Agree with all points. Something for the list: Include a small link to the full newsletter online. “Having trouble viewing this email? Click here to view in a browser.” Not only does it save you if your newsletter isn’t displaying properly in certain email formats, but also allows readers to view your newsletter in full when it’s convenient for them.

  • leadmastersusaJan

    Great article , my biggest peeve is companies that include a big header image and name it 267image.jpg” so THAT become the first thing anyone sees in their inbox! Name your header people!
    I love the remove carefully, I always keep company name or initials so people know who they are getting the email from. but not if it overwhelms the subject line

  • Tess Veloso

    Yes – the “Pinnable” imagery is a revelation. It makes me think of things differently. Thank you very much.

  • Steve Lettau

    Colleen … wonderful article. What are your thoughts on overall length of an e-newsletter?

  • Valerie Thompson

    This is a wonderful article. I’ve always wanted to know how to catch potential readers with an enticing subject line, only to find myself stumped. This helps a lot. I also think it’s a great idea to have a table of contents. Now that i think about it, I do recall that the newsletters that have this do make it easier to determine if i want to read more. Thanks for posting!

  • Rishi Shah

    Great post Colleen. I really liked #6 “Pinnable” Imagery – never thought about making images easily pinnable. Awesome idea!

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