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Building a better business-A well-produced newsletter can benefit entrepreneurs

November 26, 2002View for printing

Of all the ways entrepreneurs and small businesses market to clients and prospects, a regularly distributed newsletter can be one of the most efficient and cost effective.

By Jeffrey Steele Special to the Chicago Tribune

But too many small companies crank up the presses, only to eventually realize their publications generate more red ink than readership.

The factors that spell doom are many, say marketing experts. Those launching newsletters start out with the best intentions, then fail to produce editions on a regular basis. They write windy articles that run too long to invite readers' interest. They produce e-mailed newsletters that don't grab attention and get lost in the crowd.

Above all, they fail to realize imagination and creativity are as crucial in this medium as in many other forms of writing. It takes imagination, say experts, for newsletter writers to put themselves in the shoes of their readers, who only have time for information that can help them fatten the bottom line. And creativity is essential in identifying topics that recipients will be more likely to read than consign to the circular file or e-mail trash receptacle.

Companies that suffer the latter fate often are guilty of filling their newsletters with puff pieces.

"The biggest mistake organizations make is they're too self-promoting and self-serving," said Sandra Beckwith, president of Beckwith Communications, a Fairport, N.Y. firm that produces marketing newsletters for corporations and non-profit organizations.

"Too many say, `Here's what we're doing. Aren't we great?' What they need to do is show, not tell. They have to show their expertise and their knowledge through articles that are how-to and service-oriented."

Consider for example a newsletter from an accountant, she said. Would the newsletter be well-read if it included articles about his long client list or new office space? Not likely. Much better would be money-saving tax tips, or articles explaining the benefits of investing in 529 college savings plans.

Ultimately, the only thing readers of marketing newsletters care about is whether the publication offers insight that will earn or save them money, make their lives easier or help them or their employees become more productive, said Jeff Rubin, editor and owner of Put It In Writing Newsletter Publishers in Pinole, Calif.

"It's a what's-in-it-for-me situation," he said. "I have this problem, and how are you going to help make this problem go away?"

According to those who write newsletters for a living, these are a few of the categories of articles that fit this benefit-oriented approach to turning customers and prospects into readers:

- Offer articles on trends and developments in your industry. Read trade journals, attend industry conferences and interview experts in your field to spot trends that can benefit your target audience.

- Take note of the most frequently-asked questions your customers direct to you, and use these as the basis for question-and-answer articles.

- Use case studies to show problems your customers experienced and how they were solved by your company's products or services. Keep the emphasis on your customers' stories, rather than yours, so your readers can identify with the satisfied customer.

- In addition to case studies, profile a valued customer in each issue. "It makes your customer feel appreciated," Rubin said. "And it shows your other customers and prospects that you value the relationships you have with your customers."

- Seek reprintable articles written by experts. Such articles are available for free on the Web in return for providing their authors a byline and including a short resource box with their contact information, said Denise O'Berry, president of The Small Business Edge Corp., a Tampa-based business that, among other marketing services, produces newsletters. The authors of such articles are usually delighted to receive the press.

- Include pieces that lighten the tone of the newsletter. Inspirational articles about success in business or elsewhere, light-hearted anecdotes and even recipes can have a place in marketing newsletters, Rubin noted. "It's important to not always be so serious," he said. "You want your readers to enjoy your publication."

One you've selected your mix of articles, don't forget to leave space for contact information, such as your address, phone, fax, e-mail address and Web site.

When launching your publication, give considerable thought to frequency. For e-mailed newsletters, many experts recommend weekly distribution, and for newsletters sent by traditional mail, bimonthly or quarterly publication. Whatever frequency you choose, stick with it.

When launching newsletters, many err by committing to publishing schedules that are too ambitious, said Tim Manners, editor of and the "Cool News of the Day" newsletter for David X. Manners Co., a Westport, Conn.-based public relations firm.

"The worst thing you could do is start a newsletter and say it's going to be monthly, and then disappear for two months or longer," he said. "That goes right to the credibility of your newsletter."

E-mailed letters

If you're producing an e-mailed newsletter, recognize that you're competing against a blizzard of other e-mailed messages, said O'Berry.

First, make sure the information in the "From" field is clear, so readers instantly recognize the sender. And give thought to how you'll capture attention in the subject line.

It's also a good idea to ask permission to send customers your newsletter. "If you automatically sign me up, and I'm overwhelmed with e-mail, you're not going to make a friend of me, you're going to make an enemy," O'Berry said.

Whether laying out the newsletter in-house or having a designer do it for you, make sure you carefully consider the look of the piece. The newsletter's appearance should reflect the image you've created for your company, Beckwith reported. For instance, a linear, corporate-looking newsletter would be inappropriate for a folksy organic food store, she noted.

While many entrepreneurs and small businesses are able to produce newsletters on their own, good reasons exist to outsource the writing, design and printing to an expert.

Jack Burke, president of Sound Marketing, a Thousand Oaks, Calif., company that produces newsletters for clients, said only a small fraction of the companies that decide newsletters can be a do-it-yourself project are able to pull it off.

"It's not just the writing skills, but the time commitment," he noted. "I've seen many well-intentioned newsletter campaigns that have never matured beyond the age of three months."

Beckwith believes the most cost-effective way to outsource newsletters is to contract with a business writer for the articles, then use a printer for the design and printing. She charges one dollar a word for researching and writing articles, a rate that includes one revision.

Some newsletter experts do the entire job themselves. Rubin, for instance, handles everything from the writing and design to the mailing or distribution of the newsletter for his clients. He charges a flat rate of $600 per newsletter page, with the cost of the printing added to the total.

If your business is very small and cash-strapped, consider tapping the resources of a local college, Burke said.

"Talk to the professors and you may find some very good talent among the [students of] business communications or writing classes that you can bring on board for relatively little cost," he suggested.

Whatever form your publication takes, remember a regular marketing newsletter can be a great way to forge long-lasting associations with clients.

"It's important small businesspeople take a long-term view of their businesses," Rubin said. "So I encourage them to spend less time chasing money and more time establishing relationships, the kind of relationships a consistently published newsletter can build."

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