How to Develop an E-mail Newsletter

A year ago push technology was all the rage. Today it’s a faded memory except in certain corporate pockets. But e-mail newsletters, the poor-man’s push technology, are thriving.

Building your business

If you’re serious about web marketing, you ought to look long and hard at beginning a newsletter for your own business. Let me outline some of the reasons:

1. Conserving contacts. How many people have visited your site since it first opened for business? 500? 1,500? 10,000? 100,000?1,000,000? How many of those could you get in touch with today if you wanted to? If you don’t have some way to communicate with visitors, you’ve let them slip through your fingers. What a waste!

2. Out of site, out of mind. Once someone has left your site – even if they bookmark your site they’re likely to forget about you. That’s where a newsletter comes in. It regularly brings your business to the front of their mind. Every time they hear from you, the chances increase that they’ll remember to come back to your site.

3. Building trust. My grandfather had the knack of striking up a conversation with nearly everyone he met, and over the years those same people would come back to him for their insurance and real estate needs. Your voice and manner in a newsletter becomes familiar to your customers. Your ongoing conversations built trust, and trust is at the heart of doing business on the web.  When your e-mail newsletter offers readers something of value time after time, you and your business become like a trusted friend.

4. Establishing a reputation or a brand. Closely related to trust is a reputation for excellence. When you’re trying to choose between a brand name and the “identical” store brand, which do you trust more? The brand name. Their advertising has been building a reputation in your mind for years. Is the product any better than the store brand? Perhaps not, but it has a reputation for quality in your mind. Is the businessperson who publishes a newsletter more competent than a less vocal expert? Perhaps not, but she’s built a reputation for specialized knowledge in the minds of her readers by providing that knowledge. That’s what sets her publication apart from junk mail.

5. Promoting product and services. A newsletter also helps you to tell subscribers about your products and services. So long as you’re offering them information of value in your newsletter, they’ll take a look at what you have to sell. When you have a special sale or promotion, the newsletter gives you a ready vehicle to let your very best prospects know about it.

6. Selling advertising. Eventually, your newsletter may do well enough that others will want to advertise in it. When you get above 5,000 or 10,000 subscribers, advertisers begin to take interest, and could contribute a modest sum to offset costs of your newsletter (though don’t plan on this as a major revenue stream for the first couple of years).

What’s involved in beginning a newsletter for your business? First and foremost is a commitment to publish it with regularity and excellence. If you can’t make that commitment, don’t begin. The next step is harvesting e-mail addresses.

Collecting e-mail addresses

Now don’t misunderstand the harvest metaphor. I’m not talking about sucking up millions of e-mail addresses with some giant spam-blaster machine. I’m talking about patiently collecting the e-mail addresses of those who come to your site.

The simplest way to collect the e-mail address is to invite people to subscribe to your newsletter by typing their e-mail address into a simple form and pressing the submit button. And simplest may be best. Should you ask for their name, address, phone, fax, mother’s maiden name, and favorite ice cream flavor? No. Of course, it’s tempting. But if you require them to, you’ll get many fewer subscriptions. The purpose here is not to build a database of prospects, it is to build a long-term relationship with prospects so that you become their preferred vendor. Don’t confuse the two.

I suggest making your privacy policy clear. State what you will and will not do with the information you collect. Protect their privacy, but make every effort to get them to sign up for your newsletter; we place a subscription form on nearly every page of our site.

You’ll want to store the e-mail addresses in a handy form. The best way, of course, is to make the form automatically subscribe the e-mail address to a newsletter using list software such as Majordomo. At the very least, ask your website developer to help you collect the e-mail addresses in a simple online database. Cutting and pasting addresses from one e- mail after another is not my idea of fun.

You’ll also want to give people a chance to unsubscribe easily if a “friend” subscribed them without their knowledge. When a person subscribes to our newsletter, we immediately send a message telling him how to unsubscribe if he wants to, assuring him that we do not want to send any unsolicited mail. Many lists have a two-step verification process to subscribe. We haven’t found that necessary, and it can be pretty daunting. You’re sure to lose some subscribers who give up trying subscribe.

Keeping your e-mail list accurate isn’t easy. You’d be surprised how many Internet newbies don’t know their e-mail address. We’ve set up our form so it looks for the appropriate e-mail address format -- initial letters, an @ sign, letters after a period at the end, and the absence of certain symbols such as \ or / which are more appropriate to URLs than e-mail addresses. If the visitor enters an obviously incorrect e-mail address, the program gently informs him of his error and asks him to correct it. This saves a lot of trouble unsubscribing incorrect addresses later.

Writing the newsletter

Pompous doesn’t work very well on the web. I’ve had to unlearn a lot of what my English teachers taught me about formal sentences. If you can learn to write like you talk, you’ll find that people actually enjoy reading it. Make your newsletter chatty and informal. But chatty doesn’t mean airy. You need to say something worth saying. You job is to add value to your readers’ lives, not frustrate them until they ask, “Where’s the beef?”

What kind of content should you offer? A lot of this depends upon your industry. What do your readers want to know? If you have a computer games store, you’ll want to offer cheat codes. You’ll talk about graphics, and describe new products. What major trends are affecting the industry? Examine those. You could offer links to sites that provide more information.

Many newsletters include briefs on the latest news in the field. Be careful, however, not to just snip out someone else’s story and place it in your newsletter without permission. That’s immoral and illegal, not to mention tacky. Always ask so you don’t make enemies or expose your business to a copyright infringement suit.

How-to articles are always popular. I spent several years engaged in biochemical research at the Cal Tech in Pasadena, California. While I was a lowly research assistant, I would work alongside tireless grad students and post-doctoral fellows who our professor would refer to as “the local world’s authority on...” and name their specialty. If you think about it, you’re probably the local world’s authority on something, at least your readers will think so if you explain the fine points to them in an article.

Don’t feel you have to write all the articles yourself. Ask others in your field to write an occasional article, or ask for permission to reprint something they have written. Perhaps one of your employees is an especially gifted writer. Use her talents.

By this time you’re probably getting an idea of just how much work a newsletter can be. I find it usually takes me a couple of days working hard to get a newsletter out. Though the out-of-pocket costs are low, the time investment is substantial. I look at this as a marketing cost, and discipline myself to do it faithfully. I never have “time to do it,” so I make time. It helps to look at the rewards. As you publish your newsletter regularly, you’ll be establishing stronger ties with your customers, which will in turn build your online business substantially over a period of time.

How often should you publish a newsletter? Quarterly is a good goal at first. Get out a calendar and mark the days you plan to send out your newsletter, and then block out a couple of days prior to the deadline to prepare each newsletter. As you learn how to produce a newsletter, increase the frequency. I used to be amused that Mecklermedia’s Web Week (now Internet World) came out every three weeks at first. Then it was every other week. Then every week. They started as their resources allowed and worked gradually to their goal.

Sending it out

While your e-mail program may be able to send HTML-enhanced messages, I wouldn’t be too quick to adopt high tech just yet. Many e-mail programs (including mine) can’t read HTML.

Instead use plain ASCII text. I recommend setting your word processor for 65-character lines (e.g., 5-1/2 inches for 10 point Courier New font). When you’ve gone over the text with a finetooth comb, then “save as” “text only with line breaks” (that’s Microsoft Word’s terminology). This will protect your newsletter from that notorious ragged look when your subscribers read it on their e-mail program.

I'm always careful to use the “search and replace” function to delete the space before every line break so that Majordomo doesn’t interpret it as =20. I turn off “smart quotes” on my word processor, since they often produce unintended (and unreadable) results when sent out by e-mail or translated into HTML.

Before you publish, make sure you’ve updated your website to include any features you’ve highlighted in your newsletter, because soon you’ll have numbers of repeat visitors hitting your site.

Now send out your newsletter to your subscribers using whatever e-mail list program you’ve chosen. It’s normal to get a lot of “delivery failure” messages after a mailing. We find that every month about 5% of our subscribers are no longer found at their old e-mail address. Part of publishing a newsletter is the tedium of removing obsolete e-mail addresses.

Should you display a copy of your newsletter on your website? By all means, especially if it includes content of enduring value. Your visitors will be able to learn more when they browse. And the more web pages on your site, the higher the chance that someone will find you through a Google search. Create a separate subdirectory on your site for each year or volume of issues when you begin, or your current directory will soon be bursting with

Out here in California we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold. A prospector would wash the gravel, panning it carefully, until he refined it down to black sand and, hopefully, some gold flakes at the bottom of the pan. These he would carefully pick out the gold with tweezers and place in a leather pouch. Setting up an e-mail newsletter is a way of making a pouch to conserve website visitors so they’ll return another day. And then the analogy of gold may not be far off target.