Newsletters may not be fashionable as mobile or social, but they remain a communications staple, particularly as we all ramp up to speed on new channels and the tighter targeting opportunities they afford. In fact, I think newsletters are poised for a bit of a renaissance this year, so I continue to think about ways to make them work harder for your organization. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again today – this time focusing expressly on their open rates.

The newsletter remains popular because of its efficient use of resources. Content templates make it easy to write; a regular schedule makes allocating resources to it predictable; and its broad distribution means that the same message may be read by your entire list. Of course, it is probably not read by your whole list, as most email open rates hover well under the 100% mark. If the hallmark of the newsletter is efficiency, then lifting its open rates – enabling it to be read by even more of your audience – increases its efficiency further still.

Here are 4 ways to lift open rates to your newsletter, drawing in a wider audience and letting the newsletter work even harder for you:

1. Telegraph the content that appeals to the marginally engaged.
Calling your newsletter “Newsletter February 2012” will attract your highly engaged subscribers who are looking forward to hearing from you each month, but does not give the marginally engaged a reason to get off the fence and snoop around. Use your subject line to telegraph your content, focusing on a single item within your newsletter, such as “Newsletter February 2012: Our favorite photos from the January Meeting”. No matter what you call out, you’ll still have the people who would have opened it if it was untitled, and selecting the story within the newsletter that some of your audience finds irresistible can only improve your opens. “Irresistible” is the operative word here – it is better to choose a story that some of your audience will absolutely find intriguing, than to focus on something less pointed that may have a vague appeal to more people. For this tactic to work well, you want to arrest at least a part of your audience with the promise of content they can’t refuse.

2. Be more interesting on Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter and Facebook are not informational networks, or educational networks, or promotional networks. They’re social networks. Like other social functions, the most popular people in the room are not the loudest or even the smartest ones, but the most interesting. So find the segment of interesting that fits your brand best, and turn up the volume on Twitter and Facebook. Interesting in social networks is a combination of unique and relevant content, and how that content is delivered. The more interesting a brand is in social spheres, the better it is at engaging its social audience. What does that have to do with email? Interesting transcends. The more interesting people find a person or a brand, the more likely they are to respond to that same person or brand in another channel. This is why celebrities are used in advertising, and Southwest flight attendants write their own material for the safety instructions. Tactics like these make the brand more interesting, which causes people to respond better to it when they come across it in the wild. Much of your social audience also receives your newsletter, so the more interesting you are in social networks – where people go expressly to find what is interesting – the more likely your audience is to open the newsletter and look for more of the same. (So don’t disappoint them – see #3.)

3. Surprise and delight with content.
Look, I know newsletters are popular because they are somewhat formulaic. But that doesn’t mean they have to be boring. Let me give you an example. I subscribe to a lot of newsletters published by local beer and wine stores. Don’t ask me why – let’s just say it’s for industry research. One of them publishes a newsletter each week that is 90% the same. It’s about the free tastings in the store the upcoming weekend, with the same template, intro and footer. Only the bullet points of the brands on offer changes. It is interesting if and only if my schedule allows for a free tasting (which is a pre-requisite for opening it) AND one of the brands listed appeals to me (which is what might drive me to action). The newsletter succeeds in building anticipation, but ultimately fails at further engaging me with each message. Another shop, a new one which opened a couple blocks from our office in the past year, writes a truly remarkable weekly newsletter. A recent subject line was “Capital Beer & Wine Line #36 – Why barrels?” and the newsletter opened by explaining what cooperage is and why some wines use oak barrels for aging while others use stainless steel and concrete tanks. The email then follows with its promotional component, highlighting wines aged in different barrel types and explaining how the cooperage affects flavor. Even if I’m not in the market for wine this week, this brand has built deeper engagement with some highly relevant, sophisticated, and frankly unexpected content designed to make me a better consumer of wine. More importantly for our purposes, this brand’s commitment to strong content has given me – and many other customers and prospects who read this week’s – a reason to open the next email, which will certainly help lift open rates over time.

4. Include a recurring feature.
Some publications you subscribe to in order to devour every word – a favorite magazine or an industry newsletter that is aimed squarely at helping you improve at your job, or maybe a newsletter from a local wine shop that educates you on cooperage. But plenty of people pick up the New York Times expressly for the crossword, or go straight to the sports (or comics) section of their local paper. The challenge with newsletters is the same as their opportunity – they go to everybody. It would be fantastic if we knew everyone read our newsletters top to bottom, every time. Some do, to be sure. But many do not have time for all of it, and each time they see it in their inbox they have to make a split second decision about whether or not to allocate a precious part of their day to your brand. Recurring features help some of your subscribers make that decision. Whether it’s an industry statistic, a featured member or company profile, or a candid picture taken at a conference with someone’s iPhone, recurring features at least tell your subscribers that there is something on the other side of that subject line that they can expect to see. Choose the right recurring feature and you’ve also told them that it’s something they want to see if they only look inside. Create a recurring feature as a trojan horse to the rest of your newsletter – get them inside and then they can fan out from there.