Thinking of Starting a Newsletter? Don't.

Jeffrey Dobkin
©2000 All Rights Reserved

That's right: Don't. Don't start a newsletter. You've got to be crazy to start a newsletter. Here's why, and what you can do instead.

Don't get me wrong, when created correctly newsletters are excellent marketing vehicles. They can be used for sales, to build brand loyalty, make new friends, some even make money. That's right, some newsletters are sold on a subscription basis for hundreds of dollars.

But... it's very, very tough to do it right - with just the correct amount of sell, and just the right slant to the editorial. Too much sell and it's a sales brochure. Too much editorial and it's not an effective sales generator. Wrong slant and it won't build brand loyalty. Poorly done it builds a bad image. Uninspired copy won't get read. A few typo's here and there (ouch) and it'll be a very poor impression of your firm. There's got to be a better way. And there is.

Taking a deeper look, the first real problem with newsletters is... ugh, they're a lot of work. I mean a real lot of work. I've created newsletters for clients and on the low end my charges for conception, writing and graphic design start at about five grand for 8 pages. Why is it so expensive? Long conceptual process of design and direction. Long copy - double ugh. Writing time, lots of it. Creative meetings. Rough drafts, more meetings. Graphic design and layout time. Rough comps. Copy-fitting. More design time. Very intensive work. It can take well over 50 hours. It's expensive -- even if I bill at my special small business rate of $125/hour -- a rate I reserve for entrepreneurs and firms with three or less employees.

In fairness, a large percentage of the work comes with creating the first issue. The initial style and format take a long time to develop correctly and require a lot of thoughtful care. This same issue sets the stage for the look, the feel, the rhythm, the cadence, copy, style, and the newsletter editorial slant. Areas that need to be addressed: masthead, cover and page design, and the graphic look and feel. Is the editorial newsy? Stately? Authoritative? Funny? Both the copy content and the graphic style must reinforce each other, and support the newsletter mission. These elements all need to be figured out before the first issue goes to press.

The first page of each issue is faced with an immediate challenge: must make the reader open it. Each interior page needs to be fresh and exciting to keep the reader tickled and enticed to read further. Each story needs a captivating headline to drive the reader into it. Newsletters need to be very punchy with quick articles and lots of bulleted points and well broken-up text. It's got to look easy to read, even if it isn't.

After the first issue, the hurdles keep coming: you've got to send newsletters on a very regular basis. A newsletter sent once a year won't work. Twice a year... you're only fooling yourself. Four times a year: if you think this is building continuity, forget it. While it took you a month to create and you're sick of looking at it, tired of fighting it out with the writers over article lengths and story angles, weary of fussing with the graphic designers over white space and page counts, and getting worried about the budget, think about this: Your client gave it a good half hour read on the john then went on to finish the Popular Mechanics article he started yesterday. The very minimum I recommend sending newsletters: bimonthly. Readers don't remember what happened last week, how are they going to remember your newsletter from three months ago?

With a bimonthly publication you're starting to build continuity and credibility. But if you thought it was a lot of work to create the first one, how are you going to create one every two months? For maximum effectiveness you really need to publish a newsletter monthly. Talk about a lot of work! Way too much for a small shop. And canned newsletters you can buy from printers or industry pro shops just don't seem to work. What's a fellow to do? See the last two paragraphs of this article for the answer. Meanwhile...

Let me start at the beginning...

Since you're still reading here (instead of heading to the last two paragraphs), which means I don't seem to be talking you out of publishing your own newsletter just yet, let me discuss how to create a WINNING newsletter.

When creating a newsletter, you've got to first figure out what your objective is. What exactly do you want to accomplish with it? What real goal do you have? Be honest. Do you want to increase brand loyalty? Improve market awareness? Want to build brand impressions? Or is it a selling tool? Perhaps it's to offer overstocked merchandise, or - in other words - to "reward better customers with a private sale of lower prices on selected merchandise." Using a newsletter as a selling tool is fine - just say so up front.

A good marketing technique that seems to work across the board is to make every recipient a "preferred customer!" even if your newsletter is sent to everyone and their grandma. Preferred customer marketing is an excellent way to sell goods and build loyalty into a friendly customer base at the same time, and a newsletter is a great tool for doing exactly that.

Now you can reward preferred customers with a special "GIFT CERTIFICATE" found on page 10. This is one of my favorite techniques - preferred customers always feel special, and gift certificates have a terrific high perceived value - even if it's just to sell off your own selection of overstocked merchandise. The mention of "Gift Certificate Enclosed!" is one of the greatest teaser lines on the outside of any newsletter package. When printed on the address side it definitely does get everyone's attention - and drives readers to open the newsletter and start thumbing through. Did I mention that gift certificates are also inherently very easy to track?

It's also possible to give preferred customers an advance look at new merchandise. You can run ads in your newsletter offering your "private sale for newsletter subscribers only" or "private-sale specials of the month." This keeps customers looking over your publication each month for their favorites to go on sale. You can even invite your vendors to buy an ad.

Speaking of ads, it's fine to have ads in your newsletter. You can even run house ads! I'd stay under 30% ads to editorial, though. More ads than that and your vehicle gets downgraded to a sales flyer.

As for length...

It ain't a newsletter if it's one page. Smallest I'd go is four pages. If you don't have that much material, take one page of 8-1/2" x 11" and fold it in half to make four, 5-1/2" x 8-1/2" pages. Still - I'd add another sheet to give it another four pages to keep it more in the tradition of "newsletter."

In reality, newsletters, whatever the page count, should be printed on 11" x 17" paper, and folded in half. Big corporations and hospitals can get away with a larger tabloid format because they use lots of big photos, but I prefer a more comfortable, manageable size. One sheet = 4 pages, two sheets = 8 pages, three sheets = 12, four sheets... well, you get the idea. A single 8-1/2" x 11" sheet of paper can be added in the center for an additional two pages. Surprisingly, this sheet will stay in even when sent through the occasional rough handling of the mail system. The ideal page count: 8 or 12, just keep it interesting all the way through. Some printers offer saddle stitching (aka stapling) in-line to keep pages together.

Paper stock is dependent on four factors: 1) The market. Better stock is necessary for upscale markets; 2) Your print run. In shorter print runs where you use less paper, the expense of a quality paper stock becomes subordinate to the expense of postage, creative copy, and graphics. In long runs, premium paper can get verrrry costly. While I always like to specify the highest quality paper my clients can afford, in truth if you have excellent, balanced graphics and a great selection and balance of type, you can overcome a poorer quality paper with the design. No laughing matter, though - this is a tough trick to do correctly. 3) The third element of paper selection is based on the image you wish to convey. Want that "bargain basement look"? An "Upscale" feel? The paper can help you get that across. Finally, and probably most critical to paper selection, 4) your budget.

In paper selection bright white is a perpetual favorite, but my first choice is a slightly cream-colored buff or ivory. And go with a textured paper that has some tooth. Colored paper is OK if you must, but don't go too deep, stay with the lighter tints. Yellow creates a feel of urgency; blue, calm. Pink, well... just don't use pink unless the market calls for it. Above all, you need to create consistency - time after time you want readers to get a seamless product with the same coherent look and feel. Printing in one or two colors of ink is sufficient, again, governed by the same four factors above.

On the front cover, every newsletter should have a distinctive masthead that takes up about 25% of the page. The masthead must be well thought-out, planned and polished, as it will appear in every issue and build loyalty, recognition, and excitement to regular readers. In this instance the masthead is like a logo - a mark easily recognizable at a glance.

The selection of a typeface and graphic mark is crucial to your masthead: too heavy and it's distracting; too light and it doesn't leave a significant impression. While there are several "just right's!" there are a far larger number of "not-quite right's", a multitude of "this didn't work", and plenty more "wow, these are just awful" followed by many, many "ugly, ugly, souwiiieeee that's ugly!" So, just insert time and effort - or money - to get the masthead right the first time and you'll have it forever more.

Keep in mind when you create your masthead that if it is to reproduce well at a small size, you can't have really thick lines and really thin lines when it spans the page. The thick lines will reduce well, but the thin lines will disappear. Remember - at 8" across the page a 5-point line may look good, but when you reduce the image to an inch, there won't be much left of it after the 8-times reduction.

Table of Contents
Along with an attractive masthead on the cover, I always favor a "What's In This Issue!" table of contents in an "index" box to tease readers to go further into the publication. My personal favorite is the article title lead; then if you have room, follow it by two or three lines of descriptive text. Make the article headline absolutely sound like must reading. Example: "Flat Tire and No Spare? An Easy Immediate Fix - Page 6" (article title lead). Then if you need more: "If you've ever been stranded at 3 a.m. on a dark and snowy country road, here's what to do to get back safely if a tire blows out." (Descriptive text following article head or lead.) Makes you want to read the article, doesn't it?

Another option to an abbreviated table of contents on the cover: to write the most intriguing question about the article you can possibly think of, then a selling line followed by the page number. Example: "Ever wonder what to do if you get a flat tire and have no spare? Here's a quick fix that even works at 3 a.m. on a dark country road - page 2." Always include a page number, even if your newsletter is just two pages. It increases credibility, and encourages readers to look for the answer on a specific page.

Front Cover
What else for the front page? A volume number instead of a date. That way Volume 6, Issue 4 won't be as old as June 95, and yet will still let readers know your publication has been around awhile. Start with Volume 4, Issue 1 if it hasn't. I also favor a price, in small type, in an upper corner. It gives better perceived value to the publication, even if it's sent for free to everyone.

Don't forget your company name and phone number. And at least one jump story that is continued inside, and perhaps two. I also like a partial column of a few one-paragraph briefs on the front cover, with a note at the bottom stating that these briefs are continued inside on page 2. A photo helps liven the graphics up quite a bit, and don't forget readership is exceptionally high for the photo caption - make it a good one and refer to the story that is continued on page so and so.

Article Titles
Story titles should be some of the most well-thought-out copy in the entire newsletter. I was once called in as a consultant by a newsletter publisher who needed to increase sales. While his newsletter property had some of the best writers in his field, the headlines wouldn't draw flies on a hot summer day. I came back to him with a working plan: I wrote 50 of the most intriguing headlines I could think of, then we assigned his writers to back into the articles from the headline. It worked.

Another great headline trick: Don't forget the Jeff Dobkin 100-to-1 rule for creating great headlines: write 100 headlines, go back and pick the best one. So... so the rule stinks and it's hard to do. Hey, I didn't say it would be fun, I just said it would be effective. Heck, that's what I do. And my clients wonder why it costs so much to write just a few lines - they never see all the stuff I throw away.

Article Length
You can have articles of any length -- as long as you keep them short. The shorter, the better. Articles of four or five paragraphs are fine. Articles of one or two paragraphs are fine, too. One or two longer (major) articles are OK if you must. Just remember, one boring article and your readership removes you from the "must" reading list to the "Oh, I'll look at it later" list, where it sits in an ever-growing pile of magazines and stuff to be read "sometimes between later and never," until it finally gets the briefest of looks right before it's thrown out.

Page Design
For the graphically besmirched techies reading this, layout on a grid is a big plus, and helpful to achieve a uniform page look and composition across your entire publishing platform. For the non-technical reader, two or three columns of type across a page will work. Don't forget to create short "interruption blocks" with short stories or photos, so the pages don't all look like walls of type.

Typestyles are your choice, and depend on your readership. If your readers are older folks, large type (12 points over a 13- or 14-point leading) works, especially with larger book-style type faces like Bookman or New Century Schoolbook.

If your market is artsy-types, Garamond is a good choice. It has a very condensed face, which is beneficial if you're short on space or want to make stories seem shorter, giving the newsletter a more open feeling. If your stories are very long, Times Roman is a very, very condensed face. Whatever you do, set the body copy in a serif-style typeface to make it look easy and breezy to read, even if it isn't. Heads and subheads are your selection, just be consistent.

I always recommend sectioning off a short article or two in each issue with a box, and dropping a 20% tint behind the type. Articles can be a third, quarter, or sixth of a page, and span one or two columns. The type for this article should be sans serif like Helvetica or Avant Guard so it's easier to read over the tint.

If you still think you should create a newsletter, a good resource is "Publishing Newsletters" - an excellent how-to tool of over 240 fully illustrated pages, authored by the man who has forgotten more about newsletters than I could ever possibly learn in the rest of my entire life, Howard Penn Hudson. The cost is $39 + $4 s/h from The Newsletter Clearing House, P.O. Box 311, Rhinebeck, NY 12572. Fax 914-876-2561; Phone 800-572-3451. They also publish Hudson's Subscription Newsletter Directory, $189; it contains the names, addresses, and phone numbers of over 5,000 subscription newsletters.

The Oxbridge Communications Directory of Newsletters, weighing in at slightly over five pounds with over 1,700 8-1/2" x 11" pages, is the clear winner in referencing over 28,000 newsletter properties. This tool makes it easy to find markets or individual titles with specialty indexes by titles online, publishers by state, multi-publisher index, and name change index. Each newsletter's listing shows title; target audience; name, address, phone and fax of publisher; names of key staff; editorial content; general information; and production data, such as trim size and page count, subscription price, circulation, list rental information, and printing company. Oxbridge Communications, Inc., 150 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10011. Telephone 800-955-0231.

My recommendation:
What's better than a newsletter campaign? Simple: a letter campaign. Why not make your recipient think he's the only one getting this great personal series of letters - sent just because you value his business so much? A letter is one tenth the work of a newsletter, and can be focused so much tighter on getting a sale or creating customer loyalty. Bring out product benefits. Show how great a company or person you are to work with. Let them know what kind of diligent follow up you have by sending them a letter every few weeks.

With some letter campaigns it's also possible to have a much more intense, shorter campaign - by sending a letter every few days, each week, or biweekly. Tough to do with a newsletter, which is designed to be more impersonal yet effective over a longer period of time.

Remember, the information that makes for one too-long and exceptionally boring letter, fits just perfectly into two or three shorter letters. No problem keeping the contents focused on the benefits they'll receive and how you'd love to do business with them - something that would appear too garish or too much like BS in a newsletter, but works just fine right here. If you were to ask me to write and design ten to 15 pages of material that will keep your customers' interest, convince them to buy from you, build loyalty, and make a sale, I assure you that a newsletter would be my second choice, and a letter series my first.

Jeffrey Dobkin, author of the incredible 400-page marketing manual How To Market a Product for Under $500 ($29.95 +$4), now has a second book, Uncommon Marketing Techniques ($17.95 +$3) - 35 of his latest columns on small business marketing, exactly like the one you just read. Both books are available directly from the publisher - CALL TOLL FREE 800-234-IDEA - phone orders welcome - Visa, M/C, AMEX.

Print page