Why Newsletters are Still a Powerful Marketing Tool

To a marketer’s ears, the word newsletter sounds almost old-fashioned, like a town-crier or a teletype machine. While some technology and approaches do get dated, newsletters are definitely worth a second look.

One reason newsletters are so hot is that no one is doing them. Some marketers may think they’re hopelessly old school. Others may have tried to do them and failed (they’re harder than they look). And still others are so buried under the avalanche of everyday emergencies that doing something as benign and friendly as a newsletter sounds almost unproductive.

Newsletters are powerful. Think about what they are for a minute: it is a way for you to communicate directly with your customers at regular intervals. Most other marketing communications efforts are hit-or-miss. You place an ad that is seen by people who might be interested in your product but also by many others that will never want your product. A brochure can be put into the hands of many people, including a lot of highly disinterested parties.

But a newsletter goes right to the heart of your business: your real customers. The mailing list of your customers is pure gold. These are people who know your company, know what you sell, and have at least given you the impression that they like what you do. This isn’t just preaching to the choir, it’s fish in a barrel.

Think of a newsletter as permission to have a standing meeting or get-together with your customers at regular intervals.

Newsletter writing is not the same as writing copy to persuade. With non-customers, you have to convince them to try your product or service. With customers, that persuasion is no longer necessary. You can talk in detail about your products, services, vision, and plans.

Most marketing studies of customers have shown that it is far more lucrative to a business or medical practice to keep a current customer than it is to attract a new one. Newsletters zero in on these highly valuable individuals. These are your most valuable contacts, and you show respect by giving them the best.

The form of a newsletter can be a bit of a puzzle. There are two ways to do the increasingly popular email newsletter. You can either make the newsletter the body of the email or you can make your newsletter an attachment you add to a regular email. The electronic newsletter has a few advantages: it’s relatively cheap to produce (no printing) and distribution is inexpensive (no postage).

When producing an electronic newsletter there are a few considerations. First, if you’re working with HTML (the stuff that builds website images and text) or an attachment, do not skimp on color. Color costs extra at the printers, but not in the electronic world. You can send images, colored charts and graphs, as well as text as cheaply as you can send a block of text. On the other hand, don’t make your files too complex. A big fat email can jam an inbox (marketing rule number 1: it is generally not good business to irritate your customers) or be slow to download. Some people routinely block pop-ups or employ firewalls or filters for their mail; an image-packed e-mail can wind up in the junk file or the recipient may not be able to open it. Be aware, too, that some hand-held devices work great with all text emails but not so well with the fancier kind.

The traditional print newsletter requires layout, printing, and distribution, so it’s generally a more costly proposition. However, there is something incredibly powerful about a printed piece, especially one that is very sharply targeted. Think of a good newsletter like an actual letter. With digital printing technology and a bulk rate mail permit, a print newsletter can be relatively economical. The beauty of a printed piece is that it is more like to get into the home of your customer, to linger on a coffee table or desk. It might get picked up and read a couple of times. Occasionally, it might get passed around. That’s much less likely for electronic documents.

There are some new takes on how to produce a newsletter. I subscribe to a monthly newsletter that is a hodge-podge of media. Opening each issue is like getting a bunch of presents. It generally includes a photocopied report, sometimes a printed newsletter-looking document, and it often has a couple of audio CDs in it, besides. If your organization can regularly crank out that kind of content, this grab-bag newsletter can be a real winner.

But you can also try some other new methods. You could do an audio newsletter by recording an audio file and making it available on a CD. CDs are relatively inexpensive to reproduce. For a customer who spends a lot of time on the road, an audio CD is a great fit that turns those hours in traffic into more pleasurable learning time.

I once received a monthly DVD newsletter, that is, I got a regular DVD in the mail with news and other reports. I found that to be a dud, because playing a DVD required a pretty substantial time commitment. If the DVD started to get dull or there was a story I did not want to hear, I turned off the newsletter. It was also a lot harder to pick up and “glance” at. I soon found myself not bothering with the DVDs and, pretty soon, the newsletter stopped being produced.

While there are lots of options for newsletters, the traditional print version is still the most practical. It works for most people, it has a lot of recycling possibilities (more than one reader per newsletter), and nobody is doing them!

So how do you do a newsletter? Get graphic design help to design a layout. The layout should be flexible but you should also make some basic decisions to help keep the issues looking similar (so folks know what they’re reading) and to keep you from re-inventing the wheel with each issue.

Map out an editorial calendar which is basically a list of what you’ll be publishing in the coming year. List any stories or themes you might want to cover. Don’t worry if there are a lot of gaps in your calendar; you just want to be sure to cover certain stories. (For instance, make sure you take into account holidays and special days during the year so that you are able to run appropriate stories ranging from “school’s out” to New Year’s resolutions.)

How can you get all of this material written? You need a writer. Don’t make the mistake of letting your newsletter be a grass-roots endeavor. Your customers deserve the very best you can put together and you really need a professional writer or two to make this happen.

The last but definitely not least consideration for your newsletter is the sheer relentlessness of the project. A good newsletter, even a quarterly one, requires constant work. The newsletter team has to constantly work at updating the editorial calendar, producing stories, designing and producing the actual newsletters, and taking them to the post office. No sooner are you done with one task than the next one appears on the horizon.

Do not make newsletter an “extra” add-on to somebody’s already busy day. You need to set it up as a real project that requires a fair amount of consistent work time. Make it a priority and your team will, too.

Can you measure the success of a newsletter? That is a tricky question but there are some ways to assess how well it is received. First, look at your overall sales. You should be doing better with a newsletter in place. Of course, so many factors influence sales that it is not always the fairest measure. You can try to gauge readership by offering something to those who return an enclosed card or those who call a specific number. For instance, you could do a short three-question survey and offer to send anyone who completes the form a free T-shirt. Mail out the newsletter and see who replies. Do not be stressed if you get a 30% return. A good marketer would jump for joy over that-that is a huge number. You are more likely to get less than 10%. But if you get nothing or very little, then maybe your newsletter is not working.

Another test of a newsletter-be late or miss an issue. If no one complains, you have trouble. But if you get requests asking about the newsletter, then it is a winner.