Of the many marketing communications vehicles available, few have been embraced more than the newsletter. For decades, recipients could bank on receiving a quarterly printed information piece in the mail—very often in two-color and understated, to make it look as if the organization or company hadn't invested too heavily in production. Many small businesses or nonprofits didn't want to look rich, and even some larger companies downplayed the look of newsletters to appear "down-to-earth" or frugal.

Today, many companies and nonprofits have jumped on the e-newsletter bandwagon with much enthusiasm, adopting it as their communication vehicle of choice. It's true that e-newsletters are more cost-effective to produce. For small businesses and nonprofits, there are no printing costs, stamps, or envelopes to stuff, and for larger companies, no mail houses to involve. Plus, it can be delivered instantly, making email a timely communication channel.

However, those who choose to use one channel exclusively over the other may not be making the best marketing decision. Let's first look at the printed newsletter from its inception, and examine objectives and content before its production and distribution.

Strategy First

Even though your organization may have been producing a newsletter forever, "because you've always done it that way" is not an excuse to avoid strategizing; it's worth taking the time to sit down and talk strategy. What is the purpose of your newsletter? Who is your audience? What do you hope to gain as your return on investment (ROI) from this communication piece?

In an ideal world, your organization or company should have a bona fide marketing plan and subsequent communications plan. For those with substantial budgets or marketing and communications staff, this is an important part of annual, pre-budget planning. Yet, in smaller organizations and businesses with limited or no marketing staff, developing a marketing or communications plan may seem impractical. Often, just keeping up with daily activities is enough to keep staff busy year-round.

So how to deal with your newsletter needs? Ask for professional help. It's wise not to make the attempt on your own, unless you have the internal marketing or communications staff to manage it. Many small-to-midsize businesses and nonprofits that assign this task to a clerical staff person typically wind up with unprofessional results that diminish the credibility of their brands.

Small-to-midsize businesses: If you don't currently outsource your marketing requirements, ask colleagues for referrals of local consultants or agencies. It will be beneficial to hand your newsletter production over to someone with the experience to provide it all—copywriting, design, layout, and project management—taking the burden off you and your staff and allowing you to continue doing your work.

Nonprofits: If you don't outsource your marketing requirements, ask your marketing and communications committee, if you have one, for assistance. Otherwise, ask your volunteers or board members to recommend professionals or agencies in your community who may consider volunteering their time. Local community colleges or university communications students often need to develop projects or take on internships for credit. It's also important for them to have an impressive portfolio in order to get entry-level jobs after graduation.

Do some market research. Whether your staff or an outsourced consultant tackles this, create a written survey or call a random group from your database to find out how people prefer their communication, what they want to know about your organization, and what they like and don't like about your current publications. There's nothing more valuable than asking your constituencies.

Next, identify your various audiences. Who are your market segments? Customers, clients, donors, volunteers, members, etc.? If you can develop a solid segmentation strategy, you can tailor your messaging and content to accommodate needs, wants, and interests. From there, you can break it down even further if you have the resources. For example, businesses that communicate with customers can sub-segment into smaller groups by product line or service. Nonprofits that communicate with donors can sub-segment into major donors, monthly donors, planned giving prospects, and funders—government, corporate or foundation, for example.

I've heard of cases of medium-sized or larger organizations, with several market segments and adequate budgets, moving from a variety of segmented newsletters to an "all-in-one" communication piece. In my opinion, that is a grave error. The basic principle of marketing is to target the message to your audience. It would be difficult to create one piece of communication that can engage them all. If you have the budget to segment, you'll see better results. If not, try to develop a feature in each issue that targets each of your segments.

Determining your overall strategic objectives will help you develop the criteria for evaluation. Here are a few examples:

  • Show accountability to stakeholders/shareholders.

  • Market existing or new products, services, programs, events, fundraising, or membership activities.

  • Raise your profile/build your brand.

  • Convey your strengths to assess needs or serve as a solutions partner.

  • Businesses should promote what differentiates them in the marketplace.; nonprofits should promote their case for support and need for more revenue.

  • Stay top-of-mind with your market segments.

  • Play a role in your marketing mix, complementing other marketing communications vehicles.

What's in a Name?

If you don't yet have a title for your newsletter, developing something original isn't always easy. There are a finite number of synonyms in the English language for "news." Coming up with something catchy will be determined by the name of your organization and who your audience is.

I gravitate toward alliterations, like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's "LeukemiaLinks," or plays on words like "Herizons," a popular Canadian feminist magazine. Brainstorming with a diverse group of people can help you come up with an effective newsletter title. One word of caution—a title of two words with the second word being "News," is unimaginative. Even though the title won't make or break your readership, being creative never hurts.

Table of Contents—Tease 'em on the Cover

Placing a table of contents on the cover page of a printed newsletter can help increase your readership. The same concept applies to an electronic newsletter; however, the graphic treatment would likely be different. Similar to a newspaper's placement of its key story headlines on the front page, a newsletter table of contents can tease your readers to check out the contents on topics of interest. This also increases the need for good article titles and compelling content.

Content—What's Inside?

Developing a content outline will help you stay on track in each issue and not lose sight of your strategy. It's often easy to get caught up in the flavor of the month and lose your way. Staying focused will help build consistency in your messaging and positioning.

Each regularly scheduled issue should have familiar features that accomplish your marketing goals. These will be different for each organization. Some ideas may include the following:

  • Tell a human-interest story that highlights a positive customer experience or shows where the money goes for nonprofits. Include a good quality photo and cutline. A captivating image will create interest more than any words can. Use direct quotes to add flourish.

  • Report on an upcoming product or service launch, event, fundraising, or membership activity that can drive sales, registration, or participation.

  • Depending on the nature of your business/organization, report on your ethical business practices. Stakeholders often want to know about your standards. One word of caution—don't bore your audience here. Keep it short and in user-friendly language, without too much jargon.

  • Include a regular message from your president/chair or top executive. Give your readers an inside view of your vision or goals. Allow them to feel part of your "family."

  • Pay tribute to or highlight specific partners. This is where you can steward these relationships and give them the exposure they deserve.

  • Make announcements: awards, accomplishments, a new campaign, etc.

  • Include a well-written thank you or testimonial letter from a customer—or for nonprofits, someone you've helped.

  • Describe your products or services.

Some things NOT to do:

  • Many people think they are good writers. Most often, they're not. Just because someone in your organization has a degree in English doesn't mean s/he is a good newsletter writer. Marketing copywriting for a variety of audiences takes skill and talent. Either hire a consultant, freelance writer, or marketing agency, or use an internal professional who has been hired to manage your copywriting needs. There's no point in investing time and expense if your audience isn't engaged enough to read your newsletters.

  • Try to avoid articles that look like dissertations. Your audience will most likely scan snippets and short articles that catch their attention. If you do have a longer feature, break it up with graphics, white space, pull quotes, and short paragraphs for ease of reading.

  • Don't send out newsletters irregularly. Even though other responsibilities may take precedence, and you can't always plan for the unexpected, developing a regular schedule is your best route. A quarterly printed newsletter and monthly e-newsletter are the norms. If you can't manage the print costs four times annually, try three issues. The goal here is to stay top-of-mind and be as consistent as possible.

  • Try to avoid articles on stale news. Things that have occurred in the past are of less interest to most readers. If you need to include something on a past event, use a photo and a good cutline.

In Part II, we'll look at creative design, printing, and distribution, and which medium is best—electronic or print.

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image of Elaine Fogel

Elaine Fogel is president and CMO of Solutions Marketing & Consulting LLC, and a marketing and branding thought leader, speaker, writer, and MarketingProfs contributor. She is the author of the Beyond Your Logo: 7 Brand Ideas That Matter Most for Small Business Success.

LinkedIn: Elaine Fogel

Twitter: @Elaine_Fogel