FEATURE: SEO Newsletter Turns 100! The Evolution of a Company Newsletter, Eight Years in the Making
The year was 2004, and newsletters in the SEO industry were a growing trend. But, there was something missing -- not all of them provided the type of knowledge transfer to the community that Bruce Clay, Inc. (BCI) knew was a necessity at that time. People needed to learn more about SEO strategies that provided long-term value, what worked, what didn’t work and how to do it.
The Bruce Clay website was a popular place for visitors to receive the information they needed on search engine optimization, but BCI wanted to diversify the medium of delivery. Long before social media and the other channels that are available to us today existed, email marketing in the form of newsletters were among the first forms of content marketing. With the desire to educate the community, the SEO Newsletter was born.
The newsletter came from humble beginnings, and took a lot of nurturing and growth to become the publication it is today. But, the work paid off; what was once a little-known newsletter with a small subscription base has grown to more than 16,000 readers worldwide, and boasts results for the metrics it's tracking month-to-month.
The story of how a newsletter comes to be and the challenges and successes it faces over the years is an interesting one. Our SEO Newsletter, more than eight years in the making, certainly has some stories to tell and some lessons to be learned.
In this piece, we catch up with Susan Esparza, former managing editor of Bruce Clay, Inc. and the long-time curator of the SEO Newsletter, to find out more about what it took to launch a newsletter from the ground up, and how it evolved to stay relevant over the years.
Later in the article, we’ll dive into understanding and tracking newsletter metrics, what they mean to measuring success of the publication, and ways to assess the return on investment by looking at other elements like resources spent versus conversions.
The Making of the SEO Newsletter: A Conversation with One of Its Founders
If you’re a long-time reader of the SEO Newsletter, you may remember Susan Esparza. As the former managing editor of Bruce Clay, Inc. and co-author of “Search Engine Optimization All-In-One for Dummies,” she’s certainly left her mark on the company. In 2011, after more than six years with the company, Susan moved on from BCI (in the search marketing industry, tenure like that is rare to come by). Nowadays, she spends time working on her novel, with some freelance SEO copywriting and social media consulting on the side.
We caught up with her to talk about what it took to launch and build a successful company newsletter.
SEO Newsletter: Tell us about the creation of the SEO Newsletter – how did it come to fruition back in 2004, and why was it time for Bruce Clay, Inc. to do it?
Susan Esparza: Bruce [Clay] wanted another outlet for knowledge sharing beyond the website. When I took over the newsletter, it was the second-ever issue back in 2004, and email newsletters were a much more common form of reaching out to people.
There were a whole bunch of SEO newsletters and mailing lists that you could subscribe to back then. Most of those have fallen by the wayside these days, though some like “High Rankings” are still out there in some form or another.
We were able to differentiate ourselves by being about knowledge transfer on a level that spoke not just to beginners, but also to intermediates and experts. We didn’t hold back on any “secret sauce” or pretend that SEO required any kind of magic.
SEO was—like all the best SEOs know—simply about building the best websites and promoting them in credible ways. This is the kind of information we wanted to share in our SEO Newsletter.
Originally, it was just you putting the newsletter together -- how did you overcome the challenges of a one-woman show?
I did put the newsletter together entirely by myself at first, from writing the articles to finding and writing all the news sections. I the beginning, I spent almost an entire week of every single month researching, writing and coding the HTML for the newsletter. I began to bring in the SEO analysts around the company as soon as possible for ideas and to help write the articles.
In some ways, it was writing the newsletter that taught me the most about what SEO actually is. Every article had to be researched from the ground up, and usually I spent more time learning about the subject than I did boiling it down to a short article.
Even with the help from the SEO analysts, it wasn’t until we hired another writer that we had enough power to start making the newsletter into a really great resource. With two writers, each could take an article and split the news section. I still did most of the HTML work myself.
The articles and news sections tended to grow longer in those days, which added more time to the creation process of the newsletter, but I believe made it much stronger as a result because it was what the audience was looking for at that time.
How did you discover the sweet spot in terms of delivery methods for the SEO Newsletter?
We were originally only going to publish quarterly, but we discovered very quickly that if you wait that long, you’re out of sight, out of mind long before your subscribers get their second issue.
For a long time, we experimented with two newsletters a month, which felt like too much. Especially now as people deal with email overload, being contacted every two weeks with an email that requires at least fifteen minutes to read just felt like an intrusion. Sending out newsletters once a month was a far better delivery schedule.
The once-a-month schedule made it a much stronger publication that enabled us to tackle hot-button issues in addition to our core mission of creating informative content. It gave us enough time to cover trends without feeling like we were scrambling to find news or topics to fill space. We got roughly the same amount of traffic from the single issue as the two issues, and only had to spend half the time on it.
How did you garner readership initially, and what contributed to increased subscriptions over the years, growing it from zero to tens of thousands?
Hilariously, when we first started to build the newsletter list, you had to sign up by emailing the editor, i.e., me. I’d get an email, add the person to the list and email them back to let them know I’d done it and they’d get their first newsletter on “X” date. It was a very slow process, but since we did very little promotion of it, not a process that took up a lot of my time.
Later, we started including a subscription to the newsletter on the quote request form and then we had the SEOToolSet® subscriptions. That, plus adding a call-out on the sidebar of the website, really gave the newsletter a much higher profile.
It also helped that we’d developed a reputation for being informative, reliable and relevant. People often told me that we were the only newsletter they read anymore, and it’s because we delivered on the promise of our premise.
As the newsletter grew, we added more articles from the international offices, more news and the SEM Synergy sound bytes. The Hot Topics section developed into almost an on-page article, instead of a collection of links.
Every single writer who has been with the company has left her mark on the newsletter and helped build it into what it is now. Where the publication had once been fairly light, each issue is now a really solid look at SEO in the past month. Not comprehensive—and I think it’s important that the newsletter doesn’t try to be that—but all the news that really matters.
Are there any particular articles that stand out in your mind as your favorite?
The first SEO Newsletter issue I completed was obviously a personal achievement. It was my first big assignment at Bruce Clay, Inc. and it gave me a real sense of contribution to my brand-new home.
Overall, I would have to say that my favorite articles were actually the ones that included a continuing series. Link building, siloing and theming, content creation —they’re all things that can’t be covered adequately in a single article, and I like that we let those topics take up the space they needed.
I may have also liked those because they were usually the baby of some author or another, and so they were packed with really good information that I didn’t have to research all on my own.
Do you have any tips for those who are thinking about creating newsletters or are looking to kick their newsletters up a notch?
Newsletters are content creation. They work best when you have a plan and the ability to be consistent. If you can’t commit to a release schedule, if you aren’t comfortable doing the work, there are easier ways to get eyes to your site. But, if you are willing to put the work in, newsletters give you the chance to connect the brand to readers and therefore, customers—in a way that other mediums can’t touch.
Decide who your newsletter is talking to and how right away. Your voice needs to complement your brand but it can be more playful, more tutorial, more risk-taking, more whatever.
You’re speaking to people who are already invested enough to sign up, so make sure that you reward them by giving them something that sounds like your brand and represents what they value about it. Make your newsletter useful to your readers. If you can’t be of use every single time the subscriber opens an issue of your newsletter, you’re just spam to them.
The SEO Newsletter: Never Stop Learning
As with many processes that have been in place for years within an organization, a newsletter needs evaluation over time. In late-2011, the SEO Newsletter became the focus of the editorial team as a project with an end goal to never stop improving the ROI, never stop improving the content, never stop improving the user experience and never stop improving the way we market the publication.
Continuous tweaks are made each month to make it a better experience for everyone. This includes the design and layout, the promotion of subscriptions, the sharing of the content through social mediums, the focus of the actual topics, ways to make it easier to share content and the list goes on.
In fact, subscribers of the SEO Newsletter received an invitation in this month’s edition (within the SEO Newsletter email) to give their opinion about the overall publication, what they like, don’t like and what they want to see more of. This is an important step in making the content of the newsletter ever-relevant to the audience.
So, if you’d like to weigh in on the SEO Newsletter, please take this eight-question, anonymous survey.
Making a Newsletter Work for Your Business: Focus on ROI
As cliché as the following piece of advice may sound, it’s true: A newsletter is a journey, not a destination. As time goes on, understanding what your audience wants becomes more and more clear. And with the platforms available today such as Constant Contact, sophisticated data and delivery allows businesses to custom-make professional publications with great tracking systems.
In a post on the Bruce Clay, Inc. blog, we dove into understanding the ROI of a newsletter, the meanings behind the metrics in popular email marketing platforms, and how to use other forms of research to understand if a company’s newsletter is providing a return on investment.
Some important metrics to become acquainted with are listed below. Tracking the success of a newsletter through this data is essential to making sure a business is not wasting resources on a newsletter publication, and also allows for testing different variables to see what's improving:
Another way to assess ROI (as highlighted in that blog post) is to look at the resources spent, and ask:
Don’t miss your chance to weigh in on the SEO Newsletter and its content; take this eight-question, anonymous survey right now!