Posted Thursday, January 27, 2005
The theory of writing for newsletters is very similar to that of writing for press releases and other media work, but with newsletters there is one crucial difference. Whereas with an external publication you're quality-controlled by someone outside your organization (the publication's editor) who is therefore independent and autonomous, the equivalent person connected with an internally produced newsletter is either you, or someone else who gets paid by your organization.
Consequently newsletters have a sad habit of falling prey to the same self-indulgent and boring content as the misguided, subjective, self-congratulatory press releases so many organizations issue. Only this time, it's worse.
It's not just a few paragraphs of self-indulgent drivel, it's two, four or even eight pages of stuff that's of tremendous interest to the writers and instigators, but usually of no interest to the readers. This problem is often swept under the rug with a comment like "ah well, they're staff so they're getting paid to read it/they're our suppliers so they have to read it because we're their best customer" etc.
Of course, if the newsletter is directed only to staff or another purely internal group, the fact that there is a certain degree of family indulgence, will help. Staff certainly don't expect anything other than heavily cushioned bad news in articles written by the CEO or the Financial Director/VP, even if the company's not doing quite so well this quarter. And although they might not like to admit it, internal people actually do like to see silly pictures of the Christmas staff party, the summer Family Day, and the annual Spring Ball. So compilers of internal newsletters can approach the exercise with a bit of poetic licence if they want to.
Where you do have to pull yourselves up by the bootlaces is with newsletters that go outside the organization - particularly customer newsletters. Here there is no external editor to run his/her "blue pencil" through all the self-congratulatory BS. So you need to place yourself firmly in the shoes of the audience and ensure that your content is of interest to them.
In exactly the same way as online e-zines and e-newsletters, printed external newsletters are of much greater value to the reader if they contain information that is of genuine, generic use to them - information that helps them do their jobs better, or in some other way improves their daily life.
If the newsletters are generically useful then people will take them more seriously, will keep them handy rather than throw them away, and so will pay far more attention to your messages that accompany the generic information. Very few people these days are stupid enough to be fooled by the thinly disguised advertising blurb masquerading as "useful" editorial. Yet all too often I see companies spending quite large sums of money on customer newsletters that really do put the "junk" into junk mail.
All it takes to turn a boring, totally subjective newsletter into a useful, interesting one is a little imagination, not big bucks.
A car dealership can send out a quarterly newsletter than not only announces the latest new model launches and new staff appointments, but also includes a seasonal maintenance checklist for readers ... how to drive safely in winter conditions ... ideas on how to keep the kids entertained on long car trips in the summer ... security and anti-theft tips ... dates of future roadworks/construction that may cause congestion (available from local government sources) ... etc.
An accountancy firm can send out information on how new legislation affects local or regional businesses, how new tax laws should be interpreted, tips and advice on how to fill out personal tax returns, tips for small businesses and self-employed people on how to record their expenses more efficiently, etc.
An investment company can send out information to business customers that updates them on the latest corporate issues and how those apply to individual companies, and also include advice on personal investments, pension plans, even advice for readers' families, e.g. saving for college/university loans and the best savings plans to set up for children, trust funds, etc.
All of the information I've described above would not cost much to procure - probably just a matter of a few phone calls, a couple of hours surfing the net, and a day or two of someone's time putting it all together. Obviously you need to be careful not to use other organizations' copyright material without permission, but in my experience organizations aren't all that possessive about their stuff and will cheerfully grant you permission provided that you credit them appropriately. After all, their material isn't much use if no-one's allowed to see it.
What a difference this type of content makes to an organization's external newsletter! You instantly gain the respect or your readers, because you're giving them something tangible without asking them for anything in return. And this can only reflect in one way on your business relationship with them.
I'm not quite sure what the difference is between e-zines and online newsletters. I think it could be one of those instances whereby everyone has a slightly different idea of what this particular type of communication should do and be called. If you ask that question of three different online comms experts you'll get three very plausible and totally different answers.
As usual I try to find the common denominator and in this case, it's this; in much the same way as its paper-based ancestor, the onlinezine (how about that for a new word) is a regular piece of one-way communication that supplies its audience with news and updates about you, your organization and your activities.
The online version will be taken much more seriously by its readers if in addition to the necessary reminders about your products and services, you also include some genuinely useful and interesting information. However the online version, in keeping with most other online descendants of offline media, must be much shorter and far more condensed.
One of the primary uses of onlinezines is to "drive traffic to the website." Now in itself this is relatively harmless and provided that everything is done right, it usually works. And then once you've got visitors hooked into all your superb content on the website you have a captive audience to whom you can sell your own stuff if it's a company-only site or your advertisers' stuff if it's a more open-ended one. Or at least that's the theory.
However as you would expect some organizations get this hideously wrong, and in my view the most vivid example of it is the online newsletter that comprises little more than a list of URLs with filepaths the length of a several soccer pitches. Nothing, but nothing is more irritating to someone like me than an enticing e-newsletter with grabby headlines plus a few words leading into the topic and then ... nothing. Just a fancy URL which even if you do click on it usually doesn't connect with the page you want on the website anyway.
If you're in a position to choose how an online newsletter is put together and you want to get the best possible results from it, please, please remember to put enough into it so there's something "in it for them." Of course if you have a website you'll want to drive traffic to it. But create a realistic balance - don't be so naïve as to think you can force people to click on to your website by dangling a carrot just out of their reach. If they're anything like me they'll feel resentful and antagonized by it and will resolve never to visit your site even if dragged there by wild horses.
My own personal preference is the standalone variety of online newsletter that makes clicking through to the website merely an optional extra. But I know that in a business context this is not as commercially attractive. So probably the next best thing is online newsletters that supply the audience with a summary or shortened version of the content so they get the key points, and refer them to the website for further details.
That's an acceptable balance that will encourage people to click through to the site if they have a genuine interest plus the time to spare, and if they haven't time at least they'll remember you and your summaries fondly and be more inclined to click through to the site next time.
About the Author
Suzan St Maur is a leading business and marketing writer based in the United Kingdom. You can subscribe to her bi-weekly business writing tips eZine, "TIPZ from SUZE" on her website - go (http://www.suzanstmaur.com) - and you can check out her latest book, "POWERWRITING: the hidden skills you need to transform your business writing" on any of the Amazons.
© Suzan St Maur 2003-2004