How to write a newsletter

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in PR

Newspaper Wallpaper: Melissa by SelfMadeCelo

Photo: SelfMadeCelo

Most companies will tell you that 80% of their business comes from 20% of their customers.

This is the 80-20 rule, also known as Pareto’s Law,  named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who observed in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population, and that 20% of the pea pods in his garden contained 80% of the peas (Wikipedia).

That being the case, how companies communicate to their existing customers is crucial to their financial success. (How they communicate to people who are not yet customers is an entirely different subject that we will cover later.) Most companies publish newsletters or magazines for distribution to their existing customers, showcasing their product changes, upgrades, staff re-shuffles and the like.

Some time ago I grabbed a dozen or so company newsletters to see what kind of messages were being put out. Pretty disappointing overall. There were photos of staff at a social function with beers in hand, grinning like drunks at the camera. I’m sorry, that’s a put-off. There’s nothing wrong with showing staff at a social gathering, but get the wine glasses out of the way. Would you buy a car, a house, or a microwave from a team of drunks?

Then there were more high-brow stories of staff engaging in community work (Outsurance, for example, is great at this). This is much better. We all prefer dealing with companies that have a social conscience.

In the body of the newsletters were stories about product upgrades, new releases, staff appointments and the like.

That’s fair enough, but still not enough to excite anyone. With a few notable exceptions, these newsletters seemed like a waste of money. Like hand-drawn billboards on a Lagos street corner. Tomorrow they will be used to kindle a fire in some filthy back alley.

Here’s my suggestion for newsletter content and design.

  • Firstly, the design should be professional. Stories should be short and punchy, and rich in good pictures. Remember to caption the pictures. Don’t leave them laying about like orphans unrelated to anything described in the text.
  • Secondly, position your key staff as thought leaders in their respective fields. In other words, have them write their own copy or, if they are too busy, ghost write it for them. This is how you differentiate yourself from the crowd. Have them talk about trends in the industry, what to expect in the near future. This should be the lead story in your newsletter.
  • Never sell the company or its products in this section of the newsletter. The sales pitch here is very subtle and indirect. Hell, even talk up your opposition. You are telling your readers, your customers, that you are the opinion leaders in your field and you welcome and admire competition. You are offering them something of great value: association with visionary minds, a chance to participate in the next great thing, membership of an exclusive club.
  • Treat the reader (your customer) as an intelligent, sentient being. Give them information they do not already know. Give them something valuable. An insight, a view of the world, an opinion. That means perhaps going out on a limb and expressing a view that may be controversial or critical of government.

This may be a touchy point for many company executives,  especially those with government clients. Still,  there are clever ways of tearing a strip off someone without really offending them (more on this in another post).

My experience is that CEOs generally squat on a mountain of great material. To keep that buried is almost criminal. Tease it out of them, put it in print. Dress it up with nice pictures. Pretty girls, tastefully represented, always help sell the company (it’s called substitute marketing: you really want the girl in the bikini draped across bonnet of the Ferrari, but you can’t have her so you buy the car).

Add some professional journalism. Put some effort into it, and implement a system for tracking the responses. Then see what happens. You’ll be surprised.

Why was Chanel No. 5 the top selling perfume in the world for so long? Because it’s scent was better than others? Doubtful. The legendary Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel imbued it with the promise of romance. That’s why women bought it. It promised membership of an exclusive club.

Stop trying to sell

A year ago I was helping a friend in property development draft a newsletter. This is a difficult pitch because there are so many properties from which to choose, especially in the midst of an economic downturn.

Fortunately, he was always full of great material. The property market had turned the corner, he boldly proclaimed. This was completely contrary to everything we read in the papers. We put this in the newsletter. We sent it out to the press and got decent coverage. He was saying something new, something controversial. At no point was he trying to flog his properties. We merely positioned him as a thought leader in his field. In the body of the newsletter we covered the benefits of the property development, its uniqueness, its security, and so on.

The truth is that he was right. The property market had turned, though it would take another nine months for the official stats to validate this claim. A few months after this newsletter came out he had a home exhibition and sold 64 properties in three weeks.

Here’s another point about newsletters: don’t make claims that are not truthful or can easily be shot down. PR can just as easily bite you on the arse if you deal in untruths.

We’ll cover more aspects of newsletter design and content in a later post.

 

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Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.

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