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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The almighty Newsletter

We've spent a lot of time going over all the different tools available to you in both the public relations and social media realms.  And, let's be honest here, there are a TON of tools you can use, from various platforms, mobile and static, to media databases and up to the minute news and cultural updates.

We've even discussed analytics, which are vital to understanding the effeciveness and direction of your efforts.  **Just a note here, there will be an in-depth understanding of analytics coming up soo, so watch for that.**

But there is one tool that has been overlooked, and not just by this blog, but by many organizations large and small; The Newsletter.  Certainly there are a number of organizations, primarily non-profits that use the power of the newsletter to reach into the homes and offices of current and potential customers, volunteers and donors.

Yet, there are two issues to tackle when discussing the newsletter.  First, too many small businesses don't use newsletters enough.  Second, those that are using newsletters are likely not getting the most out of the tool as they could be.  There's a third issue, but we'll get to that farther down.

Why use a newsletter?

Actually, the better question is, why NOT use a newsletter?  Let's take a look at the advantages of a newsletter as an efective marketing and social media tool:

1.  Reaches a targeted, mass audience quickly and at a low cost.
2.  allows you to tell your story in a creative, entertaining and useful way.
3.  You can put much more content in a newsletter than on most social media platforms
4.  Significantly cheaper than other direct marketing materials/tools

Here are the cons:

1.  Generally a small cost associated with newsletters (However there are some free services available)
2.  Can be time consuming (Again, there are solutions to this problem as well)

You likely have a large email database built up from current customers or event attendees.  What do you do with these email addresses?  Many small businesses use these addresses to send out holiday greetings, notify customers of upcoming deals or sales or to simply stay in contact from time to time. 

However a newsletter is a constant, regular update to the workings of your organization, including changes, sales, staff, events and community activity.  Newsletters are like tiny e-zines allowing you to give useful tips and information.  Which leads us to the next issue with many who use newsletters; correct content.

Make it useful:

If you already use a newsletter, take a look at it, and I mean hard.  Take five minutes to read through.  Does it keep your interest?  Does it give information that can be used in a practical, everyday way?  Does it appeal to potential new customers, donors or volunteers?  Or is the newsletter simply a listing of upcoming events and news of the past month?

While a newsletter should have some information on events or changes taking place within your organization, there are better uses for your newsletter space than updates and news blurbs.  This is the kind of information you can post on your website, your Facebook pages, even your blogs.  Putting links into your newsletter to your other social media platforms is a great way to keep people up to date with the hard news of your organization without using valuable space.

So what SHOULD you put into your newsletter?  Just like all of your other social media efforts, your content needs to be useful and entertaining.  Remember, ultimately, the purpose of your newsletter, just like all of your other social media efforts, is to drive people to your primary website and, ultimately, through your doors.

One of the best ways to drive interest through newsletters is the same device you're using with the rest of social media; interaction.  You want your newsletter to get readers involved.  Contests, top ten lists, debates about topics of the day relating to your product or service and questions that require more than a yes or no answer.

Certainly another valuable use of your newsletter is to let readers know of upcoming events, but simply announcing an event is just like posting it to your Facebook or Twitter.  It simply tells people what the event is, where and when.  But a newsletter allows you to delve deeper and get to the why and how of your event.  Plus, using a newsletter to post an event is a great opportunity to get interactive.  Ask for input, thoughts, ideas from your readers. 

The Electronic Age:

One of the major advantages a newsletter has over other direct marketing materials is that it comes in an electronic format.  This means you can add video and audio to your email, something you can't do with a pamphlet or other regular mail products. 

Use video to tel stories.  A video slot will take up less space in your newsletter and can tell a full story in a visual, entertaining way.  If your service doesn't allow you to post a video, attach a link to the newsletter with an enticing headline that will lead readers to click on it and drive them to your site.

Podcasts are another tool you can use in your newsletter that carries the content beyond most other newsletter formats.  Again, this is a simple link with a short synopsis and an intriguing headline that catches your reader's interest. 

These are the items that will not only make your newsletter stand out, but it will also provide useful information in an attractive and interesting format.  You want your readers to loo forward to each edition of your newsletter.  You want them to forward it to their friends and others.  You want them to take the content you provide and link it to their blogs, their Facebooks, their Twitters. 

Here are some tips small businesses and non-profits can use to make their newsletter content more interesting and useful:

•  Contests - They're a great way to drive folks to your website.  If you're a small business, a free meal or a percentage off or a small giveaway works.  For non-profits, perhaps free paid admission or VIP position to the next event.  Trust me, after years in the media, if I learned one thing it's that people love free things and they love recognition.

•  Information they can't get anywhere else - People like to feel as if they have information others don't.  For small businesses, this means providing information on a product or service that is unique to what you do, or that is new or that is hard to find.  You are the expert in your field, show off your stuff.  The same applies to non-profits.  A note here...facts and figures don't get the job done.  You have to show readers how the information impacts their lives, put it in context for them.  If your non-profit deals with starving children in Africa, you can give facts and figures until the sun goes down, but it won't make people care.  You have to give them something that triggers them emotionally, something that they can relate to, something that impacts their daily lives.  You can use your newsletter to do this.

•  Video and podcasts - We covered this above.  It doesn't take a lot of effort, and it doesn't even need to be something you produce yourself, although that should be your first option.

•  Use you links - Put your day to day update information on your website, say, in a newsroom section. Then place interesting headlines with links in your newsletter.  The same holds true for staff information, profiles, etc.  Sure, it's a great idea to tell the world you just got a huge grant, but, again, if you're going to make this the lead in your newsletter, it has to be something emotional, relative or impactful to your readers, not just a rah rah article.

•  Use humor when appropriate - People like to laugh.  It keeps people interested, it keeps people coming back.  I'm not saying create a comic strip or tell jokes, but keep it light and funny when you can.

Time Constraints:

Now, let's talk time.  Yes, putting a newsletter together and sending it out to your email database, can be a bit time consuming.  But you can manage the time constraints with a little planning.  Using programs like Constant Contact or others, you can create a template that will allow you simply plug-n-play with your content. 

The next step is creating your content, writing your articles.  Why not ask other experts, or others in your organization to take a stab at writing a regular article, or a guest article.  This will lessen the time it takes you to write every single article, add links and post updates.

Plus, look at it this way, a newsletter comes out once a month, maybe twice, weekly if you're really ambitious.  But let's say it comes out once a month.  This gives you a month to put it together.  And since a newsletter shouldn't be confined by breaking news or updates (it's not a daily paper) you can begin work on it way ahead of time it's scheduled to go out.  Blogs, on the other hand should be updated daily, which means an hour a day or so putting in useful content regularly.

Who is Looking:

Finally, you want to know who is really looking at your newsletter.  Here, again, is where analytics come in handy.  Google offers a free newsletter analytic program, as do others.  Most of these are free and the amount of information they give you is invaluable.  The program lets you know who receives the newsletter, if they open it, and what they do with your newsletter once they DO open it.

Are they simply reading it and going away?  Are they clicking on links?  Are they going to your website?  Knowing this info. is crucial to evaluating your newsletter efforts and will help you improve your content so it reaches the largest audience possible, just like with your website analytics.

So, fire up your laptops, take your photos, sign up with services like Constant Contact and get started on creating your newsletter.  It could prove to be one of your most valuable tools in your social media toolbox. 

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