Creating a Usable Electronic Newsletter In House
By Amy Lawless
Many organizations are opting to convert existing print publications into electronic newsletters (e-newsletters)—and for good reason. E-newsletters can be developed for a fraction of the cost of their print counterparts and delivered to a global audience instantly. While marketers are discovering the ease of reaching a target audience with e-mail, many e-mail users are frustrated by the barrage of e-newsletters that muddle their inboxes monthly, weekly, or even daily. An onslaught of unsolicited commercial e-mail (spam) has made readers wary of marketing attempts. To reach these wary readers, companies need to create e-newsletters that respond to their audience’s specific needs—namely usability and trust. By following a few guidelines, you can launch a usable and successful e-newsletter.
1. Centralize e-newsletter development in your organization.
By centralizing e-newsletter development, you can maintain quality control, prevent redundancy and spam, and foster consistency of message. In a decentralized organization, an individual department may decide to develop an e-newsletter without checking with another department to see if a similar effort is already underway. This could result in a redundant, or worse—inconsistent—message sent to your customers, members, or clients. To avoid (accidentally) spamming individuals, make sure that all e-newsletters filter through one designated department in your organization such as Publications, Marketing, or Web.
If you determine that more than one e-newsletter is appropriate, offer
unique and useful content in each e-newsletter and stagger the publication
dates. Consider offering a central location on your web site where
individuals can sign up for each e-newsletter that interests them. A list
management tool will make users feel empowered and open to your message.
2. Define your objectives and audience.
Before launching an e-newsletter, target a specific audience, decide on a clear purpose, and set an achievable goal.
You may decide to create an e-newsletter because your audience prefers this format to a print publication. Audiences that have fast access to the Internet and e-mail at work might appreciate e-newsletters. For example, an academic researcher who spends hours on the computer each day may prefer an e-newsletter, whereas a speech therapist in an elementary school, who spends less time on a computer, may prefer a print publication.
If you are considering converting a print newsletter into an e-newsletter, you might consider surveying your audience for feedback. Surveys are particularly important if your company chooses an e-newsletter to cut production costs. Make sure that an e-newsletter responds to the needs of the audience, not just the needs of your organization.
3. Choose the appropriate format for your audience—or let them decide.
One of the most difficult decisions when launching an e-newsletter is whether to use HTML or plain text format. Again, assess your audience: Are your readers likely to have an e-mail program that supports HTML e-mails (for example, students and faculty, technical audiences)? Though HTML e-newsletters may look more impressive and offer interactivity, they also come with slow downloads, which may deter your audience from reading your message. To reach the largest audience possible, choose plain text—the format accessible to all.
You may also want to let your audience decide their preferred format. Though some users may use e-mail programs that support HTML, they may prefer plain text. By letting the audience decide, you foster a sense of empowerment and trust. The drawback to this option is resources: do you have the time, staff, and money to develop two formats?
4. Include useful content.
Because e-mail users are usually in a hurry and are wary of electronic marketing attempts, you must provide them with valuable content. One way to achieve this goal is to create a topic-driven e-newsletter. For example, a health association may choose to develop an e-newsletter for researchers and designate a different health topic for each issue. Each e-newsletter would serve as prepackaged up-to-date research on a specific topic of interest. To create a topic-driven e-newsletter, develop an editorial calendar of topics to ensure that you will have the resources to complete the issue by the deadline. If you have adequately narrowed your target audience, developing a list of topics should not be difficult.
If you sell advertising space in your e-newsletter, include only relevant ads and place them appropriately. Do not fill your e-newsletter with random advertisements because this detracts from your message and creates a sense of distrust in the reader. Advertisements should be appropriate for your audience and unobtrusive. For example, a topic-driven e-newsletter should contain advertisements related to the issue’s topic. Avoid placing advertisements before the content: the focus should remain on the content, not the advertising.
5. Create a sense of trust in the reader.
When determining the frequency of your e-newsletter, consider the amount of resources you will need. Do you have dedicated staff to meet deadlines? Refer to your editorial calendar or list of proposed topics to determine a realistic and desirable (from the readers’ perspective) publication frequency.
6. Create a usable plain text format.
Whether you choose to create a plain text or HTML e-newsletter, you should follow established web writing guidelines, which aim to make content scannable and concise. Though much has been written on web writing, applying these principles to plain text media can be difficult since you cannot make use of color, images, bullets, and other tools we have come to rely upon. Use the following suggestions for creating a usable e-newsletter plain text format to develop your own in-house guidelines:
Table of contents
Headers and footers
7. Develop and distribute a style guide.
After you have developed an e-newsletter strategy, cement your policies and guidelines with a style guide. Distribute the style guide to all involved individuals, even if you are the only hands-on e-newsletter developer. By sharing the guide, you may invite questions or suggestions for improvement, which can improve the editorial process and quality of your e-newsletter. But most importantly, a style guide will ensure that your organization communicates a consistent message in a user-friendly format to an empowered audience.