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Frank Remarks: Is Your Newsletter More "Come-On" Than News?

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Many businesses use their "email newsletters" to pull a sort of bait-and-switch on the recipients. If subscribers are looking for news, they may not be pleased by receiving promotional material or advertising - and that can consign your email directly to the electronic trash.
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"I didn't join this Army! I joined the Army with the condos and yachts!"

So goes Goldie Hawn's sorrowful lament in the movie Private Benjamin, as she marches around the parade field in the mud and rain. An unscrupulous recruiter told her that today's military no longer lives in tents and barracks, but comfortable condos! He even showed her a picture of a tropical island, complete with sailboats and yachts, as an example of where U.S. solders are stationed. Poor Benjamin buys the recruiter's story hook, line, and sinker, and signs up...only to receive an instant reality check during basic training.

Your newsletter subscribers may be feeling like Private Benjamin. Here's what I mean.

Email has become one of the most popular forms of marketing on the Net. Companies are using email to promote products and services, acquire leads, and build relationships with customers and prospects. The problem is that many of these companies don't know the difference between a promotional email and an informative one.

Do you?

Promotional Email Versus Informative Email

Ask yourself this question. Do you use email marketing to drive actions or to add value and build relationships? You probably do both. And that's correct—but the promotional email and the email newsletter are two distinct communication vehicles and should be treated that way. By using the newsletters that users have signed up for as a cheap form of promotion, you aren't giving subscribers what they requested—and you're missing an important way to build a long-lasting relationship with your clients.

The danger here is that your newsletter subscribers, who wanted to be informed about your market niche or subject matter, will quickly learn to view your newsletter filled with promotions as just another piece of junk email, quickly deleting it from the inbox.

A newsletter should contain just that—news that a user can use, and not special offers to buy.

If you plan to do both promotional and relationship-building emails, make it clear on your web site which type of email your subscribers are signing up for. On your home page, state clearly that users can either sign up for special promotional emails or for your informative newsletter. Be direct with your copy. If you want users to sign up for your promotional emails—say it. For example, your web page copy should read something like this:

Join our Preferred Shoppers Club and save money. Enter your email address and receive exclusive deals on our famous footwear.

Then send out a promotional email that reads like this:

This week only. 20% off our fine line of Italian leather dress shoes. Act now. This offer is only good until Friday at midnight!

In other words, deliver exactly what you promised. If you want users to sign up for your newsletter, on the other hand, your copy should read something like this:

Want to be kept up-to-date on the latest wireless technology news? What shows to attend? What technologies are on the horizon? What the experts are saying? Then sign up for our informative newsletter and stay on top of our rapidly changing industry.

Then send out an email newsletter that tells—not sells. Keep the three elements of an email newsletter program in mind:

  • Organization

  • Content

  • Distribution and feedback

Organization

Organization comes first. Here you're going to have to make a number of decisions. What format will you use—text only, HTML, rich media? Given the choice, more and more subscribers are asking for HTML newsletters. This is good news to email marketers, since the presentation and organization of the newsletter content can be presented in a very professional manner. But the HTML format has pitfalls to avoid.

For many companies, an HTML newsletter is nothing but a gateway page to their web site. In these cases, the HTML newsletter just contains a short line or two, followed by a link to the web site or the full navigational header of the web site. That's not what a subscriber is looking for. The newsletter should stand on its own, with enough informative "meat" in it to give the reader what he or she needs to know. The only links "outside" the HTML newsletter should be those linking to an unsubscribe page, your company's home page, and/or a "Send This to a Friend" page.

In addition, make sure that you have a navigable Table of Contents up front—before or to the side of your newsletter text. Keep the graphics, images, and pictures to a minimum. Just because the newsletter looks like a web page doesn't mean it should contain every possible web page element.

Content

The second consideration is the content itself. Provide readers enough information to feel they've received something of value—without having to click off to other places on the web. Does this mean that you shouldn't provide a link to your web site or some other site(s) for further information? Of course not. Just make sure that the material you present is self-contained and useful within the "container" of your newsletter.

Write your copy outside the HTML code. Use a text editor to write your newsletter just the way you want. Write it in the tone you want and the rhythm you want. Don't let yourself be hamstrung by the HTML code. Write your copy first; then add it to your code.

Informative articles are not the only content you can put in your HTML newsletter. Since you're using HTML, you can add surveys and polls inside the newsletter itself and give instant tallies within the body of your newsletter, making it more interactive.

Distribution and Feedback

Your third consideration is distribution and feedback. You need to decide how you'll distribute your newsletter and how to handle subscribing and unsubscribing for users. As I mentioned in a previous Frank Remarks column, it's important to make it easy for users to subscribe and, even more importantly, unsubscribe from your newsletter and email promotions. Create a special page on your web site so that recipients can unsubscribe by just clicking a URL in your email. As soon as they click the link, your server recognizes it as an unsubscribe action and presents a web page saying that the user has successfully unsubscribed from your list. This special page also gives you another chance to interact with the user—for example, by asking whether he or she would like to subscribe to another list, join your new Preferred Shoppers Club, etc.

You can send your email from your corporate server, but there are risks. ISPs have become very gun shy about spam, and will quickly crack down on any customer that seems to be using the ISP's email server for spamming. Sending out a few hundred emails at a time may be acceptable to your ISP—sending thousands may not. The risk here is to your domain. If your company is perceived as a spammer, all—not just some—of your email may be relegated to a black hole or spammer's list, and none of your corporate email will be processed.

So what to do?

Check out some of the better email providers, such as MessageMedia and Commtouch, that provide outsourced integrated web-based email and messaging solutions to businesses.

If all of this puts too much of a strain on your creative and IT department, one solution is to use a comprehensive outside service such as IMakeNews, which offers an easy-to-use and cost-effective service that gives nontechnical people like marketing folks the ability to create and deliver sophisticated HTML newsletters. They address all the elements of a newsletter program, including organization and layout, content management, list management and distribution, feedback—even detailed reporting.

So don't pull a "Private Benjamin." Deliver what you promise with your email newsletter, and build a long-term relationship with your subscribers.

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