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Whether distributed via email or printed and snail-mailed, newsletters are a cost-effective way for businesses or other organizations to keep in touch with employees, customers, prospects or members.

The trick, however, is to come up with a strategy to keep readers engaged and the publication's production and editorial adjustments in line with current budgets.

Here are five tactics that you can use to make your newsletter more engaging for your intended recipients. And while these strategies also work well for printed newsletters, we're going to focus on electronic newsletters because they offer the most opportunity for generating fast feedback from readers.

1. Boost interactivity through surveys

Raising interactivity is a winning bet if your goal is to engage your readers and generate a reason for them to anticipate the next issue. This step is also the most obvious answer to "How do I know what my readers want to read about?"

It's one of the great fallacies of the publishing business that editors or publishers know more about what their readers need to know... than the readers themselves. In truth, anything that's created in a vacuum by a roomful of editors and reporters is probably going to (ahem) suck in terms of achieving the goal of delivering engaging stories.

Newsletter editors have a responsibility to get out there and see what feature in the last issue got readers talking, what kinds of topics readers look forward to seeing in the publication and how they feel about being able to communicate those desires.

2. Poll your readers to uncover the best delivery method for their needs

Similarly, efforts to make sure that your newsletter gets read are often subverted because the readers do not receive the newsletter in a format they feel is appropriate. In terms of e-newsletters, for example, one recipient's email client (Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, Entourage or Mail) may be set to not receive HTML files, while another's may be set to send all HTML-based email to the junk-mail folder.

The point is, you need to know the methods by which you will have the best chance of getting your e-newsletter before the most number of recipient eyes. If that means sending out a text version as well as an HTML version, so be it. But you won't know the answer to that question until you ask the question.

3. Have the newsletter available in a variety of formats (and always in archive form on the Web).

On the slim chance that one of your subscribers was left off the distribution list for the last issue, it's imperative to have the information available through your Web site. Beyond driving traffic, these archives serve as a reference point for current customers or members and also can be used as a selling tool aimed at prospects.

Additionally, you should consider downloadable PDFs of the newsletter; a dedicated page for visitors to view the current e-newsletter; and, to take full advantage of viral marketing opportunities, a way for readers to forward their issue to a friend.

4. Plan your editorial budget to include a combination of fresh, breaking information as well as a stockpile of evergreens

The people who put together newsletters of any type are often under the gun when it comes to developing material for the next issue. This can lead to mediocre, under-reported, bland stories being published since the time and attention they required could not be given.

One way to alleviate that pressure—and reduce production headaches—is to plan editorial budgets well in advance and include ready-to-drop stories that can be appropriate for at few issues down the road. This type of planning will give writers and editors more time to concentrate on developing the must-read pieces your readers expect.

And, of course, those will be the stories that your readers told you they wanted to see from your surveys. Right?

5. Reassess the newsletter's role within your organization, and set a mandate to boost that role

If your company sees a newsletter only as a way to promote upcoming events or provide pictures of new products before the new catalog ships, you might want to consider discussing other roles the publication could play in the overall strategy of the organization.

A consulting or law firm could use an e-newsletter to provide perspectives on new consumer trends or recently passed legislation or court rulings. A retailer might consider an e-newsletter as a loyalty-building tool, providing sneak peeks at upcoming goods or services along with special coupons distributed only for newsletter recipients. And a manufacturing company could pass along ideas that boosted efficiencies in a plant in Dubuque to employees in its plant in Tampa through an internal e-newsletter. This raises the value of the publication in the executive ranks as well as among readers, which could become valuable at budget-setting time.

The flexibility that newsletters in general—and e-newsletters in particular—offer is undeniable in terms of distributing your company's or association's messages to the proper audience. The trick is to (1) carefully manage how well the material in the newsletter matches with the needs of the readers, (2) improve the level of interactivity with the reader, and (3) make sure the newsletter is available to the widest appropriate audience and has an important strategic role within the company or association.

If these goals can be met, you can be assured that your readers will eagerly anticipate the next issue, even more so than the last.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Scott is vice-president of Chicago-based Hodge Communications, Inc. (www.hodgecommunications.com) and head of its custom publishing division, Hodge Media Group. He can be reached at cscott@hodgecommunications.com.