The Zero-Click Email Strategy That Gets Us 40%+ Open Rates

Ugh, I don’t want to give away my email strategy. Because it’s mine and it’s working really well for us. But since Rand recently wrote about how email is the most consistent, reliable marketing channel — and, well, he’s right — I’d be remiss in not helping you out.

Our twice-monthly audience research newsletter goes out to about 60,000 people and it has a 40-44% open rate. A bad day for us (in which Casey and I haven’t cleaned the list in a few months) sees an open rate that dips below that.

SparkToro’s email newsletter open rates over the past few months.

Sometimes people ask me about the strategy and I put it pretty simply: I want it to be the best marketing newsletter that anybody reads.

The trouble is, I can’t measure that. The “best” is entirely subjective. And when we have a broad audience base that includes agency owners, consultants, founders, in-house marketers, nonprofit organizations and even creators, writing the “best” newsletter is extraordinarily hard to do.

So how do I make it make sense? I give myself three rules:

I follow a template. Rand proposed the 3-3-3 rule which gives me enough structure while also being repeatable. Our newsletter offers 3 audience research tips, 3 articles or resources worth consuming, and 3 social media posts worth thinking over.

I go for well-roundedness of sources. I can’t link to an essay by Wes Kao or Lulu Cheng Meservey every single time (although I wish I could). And I can’t always highlight LinkedIn posts by Brendan Hufford or Sarah Stockdale. If I’m curating the best across the marketing and tech worlds, there’s got to be diversity in who and what I’m highlighting. (It can’t be that it’s the same one or two brands putting out the best content every week.) I like linking to extremely comprehensive resources (like Patrick Campbell’s competitive research playbook) or, if it’s been a lighter news week, I might link to funny take on a trend, like SNL’s Big Dumb Cups sketch, with their silly commentary on those popular Stanley cups. I try to make sure I highlight a new face whenever I can, especially in the social media section.

Finally, I offer zero-click value. I write this newsletter in such a way that it’s completely digestible in its native, in-inbox format. The reader never has to click on any of the links… but it’s better if they do. This means each audience research tip is essentially an 80-word blog post. Or that each link in the “articles or resources” section has accompanying text that distills a key insight. Clicking on any of the links is not required; it’s additive to the reader’s overall understanding.

I know. It’s counterintuitive to write a curation newsletter that’s optimized for in-inbox reading. But that’s the wild thing about zero-click content. When you focus on creating content in a way that’s fully convenient to the consumer/reader, the longer they’ll stick around. The more likely they’ll open that next email. And you just might find impossible-to-measure success by way of praise like this:

A redacted email from a friend’s CMO.

Now… how might you design a similar email strategy for yourself? I gave you my secret sauce. Here’s how you make it.

1. Flesh out your premise.

For any type of new content program, I often find myself referring back to Jay Acunzo’s XY premise pitch because it offers a fill-in-the-blank template: This is a project about X. Unlike other projects about X, only we Y.

This isn’t about choosing a topic. Or deciding on a format. A premise needs to be fleshed out. It needs to have a point of view and it needs to be defensible. I might say that our newsletter is about marketing. Unlike other newsletters about marketing, only we offer original advice and information on audience research.

Your premise pitch should provide initial guidance for anybody on your team stepping into your shoes to create content. But it also needs to be flexible enough that gives you room to grow. In our case, we also curate resources and social posts, and there’s an endless amount of those!

2. Ensure your email strategy serves a defined business goal.

Yeah, yeah, of course your email strategy is designed to drive conversions or increase revenue. But those are always business goals. You’d be wise to pick something better defined than that. When you have a well-defined business goal, you’ll also be able to set a bar for quality — a standard that’s more specific than just, “high-quality content.”

One of the business goals for our newsletter? To ensure that users can get the most out of SparkToro.

This is why you’ll see lots of advice for how you can do manual audience research (without ever buying a SparkToro plan). But you’ll also see advice for specific SparkToro tricks (finding high-ROI sponsorship opportunities in the Hidden Gems, anyone?) This helps us a set a standard for what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” for our newsletter.

3. Dare to zero-click your own marketing.

The thing about zero-click content is that it’s entirely in service to the reader/consumer’s convenience at the cost of your inconvenience, or inability to know for certain your message was received. It’s a selfless way to create because you’re giving away your most valuable insights without forcing someone to click. It’s becoming necessary because in this content-saturated world, your competition isn’t your direct brand competitor, it’s the dozens of newsletters in your niche, a handful of social networks featuring thousands of other creators, the For You Pages that are tailored to your audience’s individual tastes. When your audience can pay attention to literally anything else, there’s a brief moment that they consider you. That brief moment is when you reel them in with your zero-click content.

Am I going to say never link to your own website? Of course not. I’m saying that consumption of your emails shouldn’t be entirely reliant on links. Maybe you can summarize your blog post for your reader and drop the link to make further reading optional. Or take that “20 tips to do X” ebook and offer up one detailed tip in your email. Heck, take that ebook and chop it up into a course, dripped out over a 10-email sequence. You’ll zero-click your own marketing efforts — as in, people won’t have an immediate reason to click to your website — but you can bet once the reader has mastered that course, they’ll readily think of you when they’re ready to make a purchase decision.

You’ll need to be open-minded about tracking success along the way. Aside from tracking open rates, you can look at performance of the links you do include in your emails. You can also pose an open-ended question and ask readers to reply. You can even add your email/newsletter as an answer option if you survey your customers to ask how they heard of you. (Or if you enjoy a little chaos, you can do what I do and wait for friends to tell you that your work got a shoutout in a company’s Slack. You can’t even track this in Google Analytics anyway, so getting the heads up now and then is, weirdly, the only way you’d know.)

Email is the most valuable channel you’ve got. When you prioritize the reader’s experience with a zero-click approach, you create the opportunity to make a lasting connection with your audience. Don’t blow it by emailing them a bunch of teasers and link-filled promises.

Feel free to see for yourself whether we’re hitting the mark and subscribe to our 2x monthly audience research newsletter here. Or just steal the strategy and tips; no judgement. 😉 (Well, there will be some judgment if you don’t tell your friends who taught you.)