School newsletters are all the rage. Does yours stand out?
Here's how to make your school newsletter worth opening week after week.
Whatever your hobby or interest, you can probably find a newsletter about it these days. There’s even a newsletter just for cheese lovers (The Cheese Plate, if you’re curious). But the popularity of newsletters over the past few years isn’t just because people enjoy writing them; they also enjoy reading them. A recent study reported that 90% of Americans subscribe to at least one newsletter. And while you might think that newsletters appeal mostly to older folks who are more tied to their inboxes, this isn’t necessarily the case. According to data from Similarweb, almost 20% of the users of Substack, a popular newsletter platform, are under the age of 24.
Newsletters owe at least some of their popularity to their unique readability. While long-form content can flounder on social media, many newsletters with cult followings include full-length blog posts. On the other hand, some newsletters are more like quick curations of important news, and those do well, too. Unlike other forms of online media, newsletters are usually opt-in and have no algorithm determining whether your content reaches your audience. When someone follows you on Twitter, your posts may or may not always show up in their feed; but if someone subscribes to your newsletter, your content always goes straight to their inbox.
Done well, school newsletters can help districts increase community connections in a way that is intimate and—compared to daily social media posts—fairly low-effort. Because of the long-form nature of most newsletters, they also allow room to dive into nuances that don’t always translate to social media, be it the story of a beloved school employee or the reason for a major district policy change. Newsletters are also uniquely personal; many public figures, including superintendents, use them to connect directly with their communities in an unscripted, authentic way.
You also have a unique advantage when it comes to contact lists for your newsletters. Marketers spend tons of time (and money) trying to get email addresses for people who may be interested in their content—but as a school leader, you already have contact info for every one of your families. There’s a ready-made audience waiting for you, and a school newsletter is the perfect way to take advantage of that.
But even given these good reasons for starting a newsletter, there’s also no denying that plenty of them go unread. Like any other email, a newsletter can quickly fade into your audience’s inboxes, especially if they’re particularly busy.
So the question isn’t just whether or not you should start a newsletter. It’s also how to make it one your audience opens week after week.
Aside from your content, there are a lot of technical choices to make when deciding to launch a school newsletter. We want to take a moment to cover these before we dive into general best practices.
How do I choose a tool to organize my school newsletter?
Different districts send newsletters in a variety of ways, sometimes using paid tools designed to make every aspect of the process as seamless as possible. As you choose a tool, consider (1) what will make the most sense for the team (or individual) working on the newsletter and (2) what tools allow you to collect meaningful data about how your newsletter is performing. Experimentation is key to writing a successful newsletter, and without meaningful data, you’ll never know what sticks with your audience.
How often should I send my newsletter?
This depends on two factors: What is your capacity to send newsletters consistently, and how frequently can you send them while still maintaining fresh content? For many districts, this is once or twice a month. You want your send schedule to make sense to your audience, so don’t bite off more than you can chew on the front end. Be careful not to underestimate how much time it can take to produce a newsletter week after week.
Should I have separate newsletters for my external and internal audiences?
This answer depends on your content. Is it equally relevant to both audiences? If so, one newsletter will probably do. However, if you have specific information or content to share with one audience or another, it can be helpful to have two distinct newsletters. If you do decide to have multiple newsletters, though, remember to factor in the time they’ll take to produce when you’re setting goals for how frequently to send them.
What is the ideal structure for a school newsletter?
This is totally up to you—in fact, it’s a great opportunity to experiment so you can learn what your audience likes best. While the school newsletter has definitely become its own form (check out NSPRA’s award-winning newsletter category to see what we mean), there is no one perfect structure.
Look at the structures used by some of the best-performing private sector newsletters. The Her Hoops Stats Newsletter, for example, follows a blog-like format, providing long-form commentary on the WNBA. Bestselling author James Clear’s 3-2-1 Thursday Newsletter, on the other hand, is broken into short blocks, following a standard structure each week: three ideas from him, two quotes from others, and one question for the audience. Experiment, find what your community prefers, and stick with it.
Every other week, we send out our SchoolCEO Newsletter. In it you’ll find three ideas to get you thinking, one school that inspires us, and an article from our latest issue—plus a little something extra every time. Sound fun? Sign up at schoolceo.com/subscribe-now.
How do I know if my newsletter is accomplishing its goals?
In the world of communications, newsletters present a unique advantage: You can know whether your content’s actually being read. While you probably won’t receive detailed replies from your subscribers, the analytics you can pull from your newsletter tool will show you what’s working and what’s not. Open rates are important, but also take note of which emails take the longest for your audience to read. Chances are, these are the ones that they’re paying the most attention to.
Know your audience.
When you think of your newsletter, who do you most want to read it? Staff? Families? The broader community? Students, even? Some combination of all of the above? This question requires careful consideration, as it will impact everything about your newsletter, from the format to the content to the send schedule.
When his incoming superintendent wanted to establish a regular touch point with staff, school board, and families, Dr. Ben Boothe knew a newsletter was the answer. As the director of community relations for Kansas’ Gardner Edgerton USD 231, Boothe knew the district had to meet folks where they were—and he knew they were already checking their emails.
“Newsletters offer a lot that other forms of communication like social media can’t. They’re a great place to consolidate information and can be somewhere in between the formality of a press release and the casual nature of a social media post,” Boothe explains. “While there is plenty of other information in the newsletter, our superintendent is also able to give his perspective on what is happening in the district—and that gives everyone a chance to get to know him better.”
Boothe may have known email would be a good tool for connecting with families—but that same assumption isn’t necessarily true for all communities. Your first step in assessing whether you should launch (or continue) your newsletter is to evaluate whether email is a strong form of communication for your audience. According to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, almost everyone uses and accesses email. But while most Americans do have an email address, not every group is equally invested in their inboxes. What matters is whether or not they use email as a primary or at least secondary form of communication.
One way to figure this out is to ask the group who communicates most with families—your teachers. Do they find sending emails or newsletters home productive? Since many teachers have newsletters themselves, they may even know families’ preferences and feedback already, saving you lots of trial and error.
If your primary audience is your staff or school board, they’re probably already relying on email to get updates from you. Having a regular newsletter just allows you to consolidate that information, reducing the risk of something getting lost in the mix.
You should also ensure that your newsletter is accessible to any families in your district who speak languages other than English. While it may be tempting to run your newsletter through Google Translate or a similar tool, the general best practice is to have your content translated by a skilled translator. While this may limit how many newsletters you are able to schedule out at once, it will ensure that your newsletter is more productive—and inclusive—in the long run.
Integrate your school newsletter into your brand.
Similar to your homepage, your newsletter is a direct extension of your brand. And for folks who are less likely to visit your other online or physical spaces, it’s an opportunity to showcase your brand’s goals.
A districtwide newsletter can build consistency in your brand by consolidating other newsletters that may be circulating in your schools. If some of your campuses have newsletters but others don’t, that can muddle your brand and potentially confuse parents—especially since many families have children in multiple schools across a district. Having one district newsletter ensures that everyone is getting the same information, with the same branding.
Having a school newsletter as part of your brand-building strategy will also provide you with another avenue for expressing your values and bolstering your school culture. Gardner Edgerton offers a monthly celebratory newsletter that includes all of the previous month’s students of the week, staff of the week, and other accomplishments by both students and staff. “Because our district has multiple campuses, we have staff members who only get to see each other a few times a year. Our newsletter gives them a chance to stay up-to-date and connected, which benefits our culture,” Boothe explains.
It’s also crucial to make sure your newsletter’s visual components reflect your brand. Initially, you could work with a designer or other brand expert to make sure that your newsletter checks all the right boxes as a branded document. The colors, fonts, logos, and any other design elements should all make it clear, even at a quick glance, that your newsletter is cohesive with the rest of your brand.
As on other platforms, though, be wary of cramming too much into one message. Prioritization is key. Although newsletters are useful for pulling lots of information into one place, consider organizing them so that the most important info is up top, followed by less pressing content. This is especially important since most people read emails on their mobile devices and may not want to scroll all the way down to find the content they’re looking for.
There’s an important truth when it comes to your newsletter: If you wouldn’t want to read it, your audience probably won’t want to, either. Current NSPRA President Cathy Kedidjian, APR, is the executive director of communications and strategic planning at Glenview School District 34 in Illinois. She says fun is the magic ingredient for a successful newsletter. “Have fun with it,” she explains. “If you aren’t having fun making your newsletter, your readers won’t have fun reading it.”
While this sounds simple in theory, it can be difficult to sustain positive energy throughout a potentially never-ending project. But consistent experimentation can help keep your work feeling fresh. Because every district newsletter is a little bit different depending on the community, you will need to experiment to see what really resonates with your audience. Even then, your audience’s needs will shift over time. Trial and error are a part of the process—and also part of what makes it fun.
Spreading the effort among a team will also keep the project interesting. This can help ease the burden of constant content creation, although it is important for the team to have a unified vision. While a newsletter structure should be something you experiment with, different people can take ownership over different aspects of the newsletter. For example, if your newsletter has four distinct sections, why not distribute those sections among four different team members? If you’re working on the newsletter solo, consider bringing in an occasional guest writer to lighten the load.
Boothe warns that if your school newsletter serves only as an information dump, your readers will likely only engage with it if they’re looking for something specific. He recommends playing with your audience by hiding Easter eggs, inviting them to interact with the content, or encouraging them to submit stories they think are newsletter-worthy.
Establishing this kind of buy-in and engagement with your reader base will also make your audience more likely to share the newsletter with their own networks. Sharing a newsletter is as easy as pushing a forward button—and a great way to build your audience even further. “One way that I know a newsletter has been successful is that our audience shares it,” Boothe says, “which helps build our brand and our culture together, all in a single email."
Originally published as "The Art of the Newsletter" in the Spring 2023 edition of SchoolCEO.
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