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Second Thoughts About a First Newsletter

In those wonderful Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals, there's always a point when the kids huddle around and artistic inspiration takes hold: Hey, one of them shouts, let's put on a show! Next thing you know, they've persuaded old Farmer Jones to let them take over his falling-down barn, which they instantly make over into a first-rate community theatre, complete with klieg lights, painted sets, and fancy costumes. That was the kind of dreamy scenario I pictured when I decided that publishing a newsletter -- Hey, I'm gonna do a newsletter! -- would be a swell way to build a market for my professional consulting services. It would just be four pages a month, I thought. What could be so tough about that? Wait a minute -- was I nuts? If I'd only known then how much work and energy goes into an innocent-sounding thing like a little newsletter, I'd have given it more thought. No, seriously: considerably more.

Part of the reason for my unrealistic thinking came from the newsletter's main appeal -- it's short and snappy, with a friendly, informative, straightforward style. Anybody can do it, right? Those convivial features can make it perilously easy to underestimate the work involved. There are certain Big Things you really must bear in mind before you flit around buying software programs and choosing type fonts.

1. Know Thy Audience. "The number-one rule is to know your audience. You have to think through what they're interested in hearing about, not only what you want to tell them," says Dr. Robert Alberti, a psychologist who, since 1970, has successfully run Impact Publishers, a small but successful publishing house in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Along the way, he's written or edited a slew of newsletters. "If your readership is turning to you for something specific, you need to address that. The last thing you want people to say is, 'I wish they'd stop sending me these things!'"

So: ask yourself what you'd want to read. Would you hold onto this newsletter, or line your parakeet's cage with it? "Nothing gets you into trouble faster than a lousy newsletter," Alberti says. "There has to be some beef there." But not too much: think petite filet, not Porterhouse. Newsletters should always be the soul of shortness. Given that limitation, what key skills can you showcase that would introduce you to new clients and prospects? Are there ongoing improvements or shifts in your industry that you're privy to and can keep tabs on for your readers? Put together a solid list of topics and articles that would fit with your newsletter's theme and purpose. Oh, and forget about using a newsletter as a platform to run ads or sales. Newsletters are extensions of relationships, and relationships are built on trust. The quickest way to obliterate good will is to give the impression that you're passing off a sales pitch as news.

Send your newsletter to current clients, former clients who've strayed or whose projects have ended, and accounts you'd like to win.

2. Make or buy? For most IPs, this is the key combustible question. Do you write, edit, and produce a newsletter by your lonesome on your little old desktop, or do you hand all or part of the job over to a professional?

Advances in technology have made all kinds of publishing easily doable right from the (relative) comfort of your Office Depot chair. For under $200, you can create brochures, flyers, or spiffy newsletters with PageMaker Plus software from Adobe, an out-of-the-box page-layout program that turns just about any klutz into a designer. (Even your basic word-processing software formats text into columns and lets you add clip-art.) There's a Catch, of course, and that capital C stands for Content. If you've got the goods, software like PageMaker can pull everything together in a most delightful way. But no kidding, you have to know what you want to say and who you want to say it to, because these programs, while powerful, can't write your copy for you. Which is precisely why you might want to leave it to the pros.

For example, you can go all the way and hire somebody like Dickinson Direct, a full-service marketing communications firm in Braintree, Mass., to handle the heavy lifting. Just plug in the barest bones of an outline or the nuance of an idea, and they'll take it from there. Factor into your decision the cost of such wall-to-wall expertise: a full-service firm charges at least $100 an hour, and that's not counting printing and mailing costs, which you can estimate at roughly $1 for each 4-page newsletter you send out. A 4-page newsletter project would run anywhere from $2,500 to $7,500. If you do your own writing and supply the photos (so Dickinson only does the layout, packaging, printing, etc.), that's going to be the least expensive way to use their expertise. The higher fee applies when you come to them and say, "I want to do a 4-page newsletter but I'm not a writer or artist or photographer; I need you to do just about everything for me." Sometimes the cost is even lower than the $2,500 and sometimes it climbs above $7,500 -- it all depends on the individual project.

Or you might try out custom newsletter-packaging services like GARP. You can buy their design services for a one-time fee of $75.00 for a two-page newsletter, even if the design is customized, just for you. They'll also edit, format, and write copy: "We are able to supplement our clients' input with interesting, easy-to-read material to complete their publications," they promise. And they'll go so far as to proof, print, and distribute your newsletter. Since writing, editing, and packaging a newsletter can eat up oodles of your time, "don't even think about doing it yourself," they urge, and after trying out their one-click quote system, I must admit I'm a believer. Supply the basic outlines of what you want to do, and how many pages you want to do it in, and they'll email you a quote within 24 hours. A thousand copies of a single-page, two-sided custom newsletter printed in color on glossy paper runs $1,100; the black-and-white package goes for $600. If you plan to do a couple of newsletter a year, those prices hold up pretty well against your hometown print shop.

One caveat, however. When I made my ill-fated foray into the world of newsletters, I eventually decided to turn the whole enchilada over to an independent newsletter editor, who, unfortunately, made the newsletter sound like everyone else's. Big mistake. (It killed the newsletter after two issues.) The truth is, you're taking a risk when you have someone else watch over your newsletter -- so be very careful.

3. Make it lively and personal. "People who read your newsletter should feel like they're getting to know you," says Ray Gaulke, president of the Public Relations Society of America, a guy who knows a thing or two about promotion. "It should be -- like a personal visit. If you met this same person on the street, you wouldn't just start selling. You'd ask, What have you been doing lately? That's what your newsletter needs to do. Start a conversation," a chat you can pick up every quarter, or every other month.

"Don't take yourself too seriously," he advises. "Tell stories. That's the key. You know how Restoration Hardware writes about a juice glass? All those stories? Well, it starts when somebody shares a memory. A story. If you don't tell stories, people get bored." And boredom is the kiss of death in a newsletter.

So construct a newsletter the way you'd write a holiday letter. "It doesn't have to be about business," Gaulke says. "It can be about projects you're working on. Keep it folksy. Use pictures to liven it up. You could even build some mini-case histories into it: here's this note I got back from my client, and here's what she said about this job." Voice is terrifically important.

4. Let the reader respond. It's not enough to have an attractive, well-written newsletter; you must -- absolutely must -- make it easy-peasy for your readers to reply. Include a separate postcard (promise you'll send more information if your readers will send you a postcard). A business-reply permit costs about $85 a year, and each card that gets sent on its way to you will run you about $0.79. Include an 800-number, fax line, and email address. You'll buff up your mailing list and gain some grassroots customer intelligence at the same time.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Nancy K. Austin if you like. You may also like to see her biography.

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