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Does Your E-Newsletter Have a Content Formula?

  |  April 17, 2002   |  Comments

If your e-newsletter is running out of steam, you need to devise a plan that will keep it going strong.

It’s one thing to say you’ve decided to build a relationship with prospects and customers by creating an email newsletter; it’s another to carry it off with the flair and substance that will fulfill your business objectives -- namely, more leads, increased sales, and heightened credibility for your company. Whether you’re doing it to generate leads or make a profit, you must have a formula for turning out compelling content issue after issue.

You’re in trouble if you don’t. You may find yourself running out of steam after a few months. What to write about next? Or maybe your e-pub fails to develop a distinctive identity. It has a few articles or bits of information in it, but readers are not sure what to expect.

This is the dirty secret of e-newsletter publishing.

So how do you create a content formula? You start with a laundry list (see below). Then you select a set of topics that you can use repeatedly -- topics that make sense when packaged together.

Below are some ideas you can use when brainstorming content for your newsletter. I’ve pulled some of the items from an excellent new guide just published by veteran copywriter Bob Bly -- "The Online Copywriter’s Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Write Electronic Copy That Sells."

  • Customer success stories
  • Case studies
  • Interviews with industry experts
  • Contributions from experts inside your company
  • A "letter" from the CEO
  • Reader feedback
  • Q&A column
  • Industry statistics
  • Industry news or trends
  • Tech tips column on how to use your product or service
  • Longer how-to articles about your products
  • Company news (e.g., personnel, departments, mergers, or acquisitions)
  • Contributed articles by experts (can be from other publications)
  • History of your company
  • Interviews with key staff (e.g., your product development manager)
  • International (your company’s activities overseas)
  • Community news (e.g., a story about a project or event your company has sponsored)
  • Quotation (e.g., Ernest Hemingway: "Never mistake motion for action")
  • Fun facts
  • Quiz or short survey

Now comes the hard part: deciding how to put a handful of these items together, issue after issue, to create a content formula.

Here are some tips. If you have others you want to share -- or if you disagree -- tell me!

No More Than Five Regular Departments

In the offline magazine world, a department is a repeating topic that readers become familiar with. It’s broad enough to encompass different kinds of stories but focused enough that you know what to expect.

No more than five regular departments is a good rule of thumb because it’s tedious, as well as daunting, to read a table of contents with more than five items in it.

Stick to a Regular Approximate Word Count

No single article should be longer than about 500 words, and your newsletter itself shouldn’t exceed 1,000 words. Why? Five hundred words is quite a bit to read online, whether in HTML or text. (And, of course, it looks longer in text if you adhere to a tidy-looking 65-character wrap for each line.)

One thousand words is about the right length, given the average reader’s attention span and the way it lays out on the screen.

Adjust the Formula to Get the Right Mix for Each Issue

Say you’ve decided that eight of the items on the laundry list above appeal to you as content ideas for your e-newsletter. But you know you can’t fit more than five of them into each issue. Stick to two or three topics that you include each time. Then rotate two or three others from your list.

For example, each issue might include a lead article, a secondary article, and a short letter from the editor or CEO. Then, depending on whether you have space, you can add industry news or events, an instant poll, a fun fact, community news, or a snippet of history about your company.

Package Your Topics Creatively

Think broadly when you consider the items in the laundry list. You might combine the tech tips, case studies, and reader feedback in a Q&A format. A client I’m working with to develop a newsletter has come up with precisely this formula.

Each of her issues will include a "question" from a reader outlining a scenario or challenge related to the product her company sells. She will "answer" the question by providing a solution to this type of problem. This allows her to position her company as expert while subtly promoting her product line. The reader whose question is published wins a T-shirt emblazoned with the company logo.

Apply Editorial Standards

Here’s where some journalistic acumen will come in handy. What is the right balance of articles for each issue? Which should be the lead article? You’ll develop a feel for this. Or hire a freelance editor or copywriter to help. Apply the gotta-read principle when drawing up your table of contents and composing the subject line for each issue. Do not title each issue: Vol. 1, Issue 3, Newsletter Name.

Finally, remember that less is more with e-newsletters. Better to publish a short, pithy issue and save a few articles for next time.

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Debbie Weil

Debbie Weil is publisher of WordBiz Report, which focuses on the business of words online. It was awarded The Newsletter on Newsletters' Gold Award for Online Subscription Newsletter. A former newspaper reporter with an MBA and corporate marketing experience, Debbie is an expert on B2B online content and marketing at both the strategic and creative levels. She was Web content marketing manager for Network Solutions (now part of Verisign) before launching WordBiz.com.

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