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In part 1, we addressed the strategy behind a solid newsletter, its title, and its content. In part 2, we'll examine the importance of creative design, printing and distribution, and which medium is best—electronic or print.

Of the many marketing communications vehicles, few have been embraced more than the newsletter.

What makes a good newsletter engaging is its design and layout. More than anything else, design is what draws in the reader. Do some research and collect as many newsletters as you can. Lay them out on a conference table and separate them into piles of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Get a mixed group of people together to examine what you like and don't like about the designs.

Make a list of the colors that appeal to you, the types of graphic treatment that work well, and the font styles you find easy to read. Keep your demographic audience in mind as you do this evaluation. If your readers include people with visual impairments or aging eyes, for example, your font size and color selection will need to accommodate that audience.

If your organization has existing brand colors, using these throughout your piece will reinforce your look. Placing your logo or name on your front cover and again on the back cover will ensure that your readers always know who sent the newsletter.

Decide whether your print edition should be in two or four colors. With today's print technology, the cost to print in full color is about the same as two colors once you reach a certain quantity. Ask your print supplier for a quote based on your quantities to see where your threshold lies. Nonprofits that worry about perceptions can include a mice-type disclaimer statement that explains the rationale for full color; it should dispel the myth that anything more than one or two colors is frivolous.

Decide on the length of your newsletter. Keep in mind that a percentage of your audience will toss it immediately, while others will scan it or read it in its entirety. To help increase your newsletter's readability, try to keep it as professional looking as possible.

Design Don'ts

  • Don't skimp on design. Using a relative who has desktop publishing software is typically not your best option. The layout is best when consistent from one issue to another, with some minor modifications. This helps build your brand look.

  • Don't hire a marketing professional or graphic designer until you've had an opportunity to review his/her portfolio to see whether the style is a good match. Checking references will inform you whether they meet deadlines and can understand and meet your needs.

  • Don't expect the marketing professional/designer to understand what you're trying to accomplish without a complete briefing. In fact, preparing a creative brief first allows you to think through your own thoughts, too. This also helps reduce your exposure to rising costs when you later ask for revisions beyond your allocated budget.

  • If you outsource directly to a designer, don't expect him/her to serve as your proofreader. If s/he finds errors and brings them to your attention, that's a bonus. It's best to have someone proofread your copy before you send it to the design stage, and again after the copy is laid out. Ideally, it's best to ask a different proofreader to review each revised version until the newsletter is ready for sign-off. After one or two rounds, it's challenging for any proofreader to be objective. If you hire a marketing consultant who handles all aspects of newsletter production, it will be his/her responsibility to ensure that your newsletter is proofread professionally.

  • Try to keep your use of clip art to a minimum. It can work effectively for organizations and companies related to children and animals, but it may diminish your brand if you require a more serious, professional look. Definitely avoid using clip art that's easily available in common software programs; instead, opt for good-quality photos—either stock photos or your own.

  • Don't use white reverse font on a colored background for long copy. It's hard to read for anything longer than a standout text box.

  • Avoid photo collages. They're not only passé, they confuse the eye. If you want to use a small grouping, use three. Ask your designer for ideas.

  • Don't work with anyone who claims to "own" the creative. Once you pay the bill, the creative belongs to you. If you ever need to find another designer, you'll have the artwork if you ask for the disks in the original software. Having a written agreement is a good safeguard.

Some Do's

  • Ask the consultant/designer for a quote based on two or three conceptual design concepts. Once you have your template, it's important to keep it consistent for every issue. If you can't afford professional design for each issue, consider assigning a talented staff person who can work within the designer's template. You may first want to evaluate what his/her time is worth away from other responsibilities. If it takes time away from generating revenue to layout the newsletter, it may not be the best use of time.

  • Find a professional who's willing to commit to a year's worth of issues. Sending out consistent, professional communication affects your credibility and brand. Ensure that you have an agreement on deadlines and commitments. For organizations on limited budgets that may use students as designers, try to allow a long lead time to account for any delays. Work with a practical critical path.

  • Ensure that you have white space and the newsletter isn't crammed with so many images or copy that the reader's eyes don't know where to look first.

  • In print newsletters, use sans serif fonts (e.g., Arial) for headlines, and serif fonts (e.g., Times New Roman) for body copy. Serif fonts are easier to read in body copy. For electronic newsletters, fonts are sans serif for reading on screen. Body copy is best at 10-point and up to 12-point, depending on the age and visual impairments of your audience. The size of each font style will appear different, so experiment.

  • Try to use your own photos rather than stock photography whenever possible. Your work in action will speak louder and may receive more attention than your copy. Adding a cutline beneath photos gives "scanners" something to read, giving them a sense of who you are and what you do, even if they don't read a word of the content.

  • Use a variety of photo treatment. Close-cropping is a nice alternative to a rectangular photo frame.

  • If you have the funds, purchase a mid-priced digital camera to capture your events and features. Even the most amateur photographer can produce a professional-looking photo using a digital camera. For special events or major news, hire a professional photographer if you can. You'll notice a distinct difference in the quality and composition of your photos.

  • In print editions, decide whether you want your design to bleed off the page. The print costs will be higher because the printer will purchase larger paper and trim it down. Each has a different look, and the decision is a subjective one.

Designers—Inside or Outside?

For organizations and companies with internal marketing staff, there's a debate over whether to hire staff graphic designers or whether it's more beneficial to use outsourced suppliers. I've done it both ways when I worked in marketing management, and have found it more cost-effective and advantageous to use freelance designers or outsourced agencies. I always kept a roster of good, reliable designers on hand, each with a different style or specialty.

If you don't have a staff person to project-manage the development of your newsletter, consider hiring a marketing professional or agency to look after all aspects of production. Professionals have the expertise to guide you and keep you on track. They'll have reliable associates or staff that specialize in copywriting, designing, and printing and can work directly with them, taking that responsibility off your plate. They can also make viable recommendations that can save you money, both in the short term and long term.

Printing and Distribution

In most urban centers, there are several print suppliers that can easily print your newsletter. If you live in a rural area or smaller city, large suppliers in major centers can ship your printed newsletters to you directly if there are few local options. The artwork can be uploaded to a printer's FTP site or mailed on a disk by your designer. Depending on the newsletter size, it's also possible to email it as a PDF file.

There are different options available in the printing business, depending on quantity and size. For smaller quantities, a high-end digital color copier can produce excellent results for a few hundred newsletters. Check out your local business store for color-copy specials or look for a print specialist in digital color output. Specialists can also offer you variable data printing—the ability to customize printed materials with information from your database file. This allows you to print recipients' names and any other personal information directly into each document you print.

Once your quantity reaches the thousands, it pays to use offset printing. The more you print, the lower the unit cost, and the more reasonable it is to print in full color. Ask your printer about gang-run printing—a process where your job is added to another customer's print job at the printing plant. Although the final product may vary slightly in color output, the savings may be substantial.

A professional print supplier can score and fold your newsletters so they're ready for envelope stuffing or labels. If you have the funds, consider using a mail house to fulfill your newsletter mailing needs. They can receive the printed newsletters directly from your printer, stuff envelopes or print and attach shipping labels from your database list, and mail your newsletters for you. If you're taking valuable staff time to perform this function, factor in the cost; chances are that your staff has little time to devote to the new task.

Nonprofit organizations in North America are entitled to special postage rates. There are certain requirements, so check with a USPS or Canada Post representative. For other countries, ask the relevant postal agency. Businesses may also be entitled to bulk rates under certain conditions.

Try to avoid stuffing your print newsletter with inserts before mailing it. It's a common practice to insert flyers into envelopes or tucked inside folded newsletters, especially for events or news that didn't make the newsletter's content. As pragmatic as this practice may appear—after all, it can save the cost of a separate mailing—it can also cheapen your publication.

The only pieces that are acceptable for inclusion are market research surveys—and, for nonprofits, donation cards. Again, check on postal restrictions for such additional pieces in mailings.

Return on Investment—How to Measure Results

Measuring the effect and impact of your printed newsletter is not an easy task. Unless you conduct market research, there's no real way to know how many recipients read it in its entirety or in part, or whether it ended up in the trash unread. Adding a written survey with a stamped return envelope can help you learn what's working and what's not. Add a small blurb in the newsletter encouraging your readers to participate. Response rates may vary, depending on how committed to your organization your recipients are.

Conducting a telephone survey is another inexpensive and easy way to measure results. If you can't hire market research professionals, ask friends or staff to help or hire students, but ensure that you develop a consistent list of open and close-ended questions first and coach or train the researchers on methodology so as not to skew results.

When you market products, services, or events, or if you include any calls-to-action in your newsletters, try to measure your results by asking responders to indicate where they heard about the offer or event. Train your staff to ask this question and record results, and include a special field in your online forms.

Measuring results for e-newsletters is much easier. Email open rates, click-through rates to Web pages, and response rates to calls-to-action such as online purchases, event registrations, donations, etc. can be measured using email marketing software. Using an outsourced email marketing supplier can give you all the tools you need to conduct your campaigns and evaluate results. There are numerous vendors to choose from with the ability to assist you as little or as much as you require.

So, now the big question...

Print or Electronic Newsletters?

I've heard of many organizations/companies that have abandoned their print publications in favor of e-newsletters. It's a cost-effective decision, but it's not good marketing. Print and electronic publications should complement each other in any marketing communications plan. Both are effective in reaching your database.

For those organizations or companies with a higher percentage of seniors in their databases, the old-fashioned hardcopy newsletter may still be the publication of choice. It's easier to read; you can pick it up, read it in various locations, and in separate timeframes.

According to Pew Internet & American Life Project research, 22% of Americans 65 and older use the Internet. Even though the percentage of seniors who go online has jumped 47% between 2000 and 2004, "most seniors live lives far removed from the Internet, know few people who use email or surf the Web, and cannot imagine why they would spend money and time learning how to use a computer. Seniors are also more likely than any other age group to be living with some kind of disability, which could hinder their capacity to get to a computer training center or read the small type on many Web sites."

For younger readers and business people who spend many hours in front of a computer screen, e-newsletters may provide an excellent communication channel. The copywriting and design costs can be similar in print and electronic publications, but the e-newsletter is much less expensive to produce and distribute.

An electronic newsletter can come in a variety of formats: HTML, PDF attachment, text email, or a combination between an email and a Web page. Only through research of your recipients can you know which format is the most valued.

Some of the challenges with e-newsletters:

  • Getting through the clutter of many emails that arrive in recipients' inboxes each day

  • Getting through software or network spam filters

  • Requiring higher-speed internet service to enable quick uploads of images and content

The main benefit of electronic newsletters is the ability to communicate with recipients easily and frequently at a low cost. It's important to stay top-of-mind with your market segments, and a quarterly printed newsletter just can't achieve that. With the addition of a monthly e-newsletter, you can keep in touch with regular updates and news.

Both the printed and electronic newsletter are best when used together in your communications plan. They complement each other. If you find yourself without the budget or resources to do both, try to commit to one or the other as a second choice. Alternatively, you can print quarterly and email in alternate months. Or print a generic newsletter and complement it with more segmented electronic ones. Again, your market research will tell you what your audiences prefer, and your budget will dictate your options.

The most important take-away is this: Create effective newsletters regularly. There is too much competition in the marketplace to abandon this communication vehicle altogether.

Communicating with your market segments can keep you top-of-mind and current, and above all it can help you generate sales and revenue. For businesses, it's an excellent tactic to steward your existing clients and customers to gain repeat business. For nonprofits, your supporters want and need to see accountability for their involvement. What better way to market your organization/company than to include a recent print newsletter in a media kit, customer/donor package, new member's kit, or major presentation?

Newsletters are a crucial part of your marketing communications mix. Be strategic and creative, and the rest will follow.

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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