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How to Launch and Maintain an Effective E-Newsletter

For the past six years, I have been e-mailing my constituents and colleagues a newsletter to keep them informed about issues of importance at the neighborhood and city hall levels. I use this e-newsletter to send news and information from my perspective, without the filter of the news media.
 

Over the years, the people I work with and serve have often thanked me for my e-newsletter and expressed their appreciation for being kept in the loop about what’s happening in our city.

From time to time, I’m asked how to produce an e-newsletter. My column this month offers a few ideas on how to publish an effective e-newsletter. Many of us receive regular e-mails or e-newsletters from places we’ve done business with in the past, organizations we belong to or individuals who want to keep us informed. E-newsletters can be an excellent tool for businesses that want to reach current and potential customers, and e-newsletters are also a smart way for elected officials to keep their constituents informed.

One advantage of an e-newsletter is that it can be used to create a long-standing relationship, especially with constituents and supporters. For example, the League’s Priority Focus e-newsletter keeps its mem bers up to date with the latest legislative and policy news affecting California cities.

Compared to the traditional mailed newsletter, e-newsletters are cost effective and offer measurable results. A good e-newsletter service provides numerous built-in features to help you evaluate how well the newsletter is working. These include surveys, polling and a tracking mechanism that generates reports on who receives your e-newsletter, who opens it, who forwards it and which portions of the e-newsletter are most widely read.

The Basics

The fundamental elements of an effective e-newsletter program include:

- Compiling a good e-mail distribution list;

- Developing quality content that’s geared to what people want to know;

- Providing links to websites for more information;

- Avoiding self-promotion;

- Incorporating eye-catching graphics and photos that complement the content;

- Deciding how often to send the e-newsletter; and

- Using a service designed specifically for sending e-mail and managing e-mail distribution lists.

Compiling Your E-Mail Distribution List

A solid list of e-mail addresses is essential for developing your distribution list. How ever, make sure they are e-mail addresses you have collected --- preferably from a constituent sign-up --- either on a reply card or from your website. I have typically collected e-mail addresses from residents at street fairs, meeting attendance rosters and business cards. On every form we hand out or distribute from my office, we always include a space for the individual’s e-mail address. You can also request e-mail addresses from callers who phone your office asking to be kept informed about local issues.

Entering these names and addresses into a database is important because you may want to send a special e-mail to a smaller, targeted group of people who are inter ested in a specific topic or issue. It’s a good idea to include the individual’s ZIP code and any special areas of interest, such as parks and recreation, libraries, public safety or other categories.

Don’t buy a list or get e-mail addresses from someone else. It’s more effective to send to a smaller group of people who want to read what you have to say than to a large list of folks who will either be annoyed by your unsolicited e-mail or simply delete it. The most important thing to remember is constituents will give you their e-mail address because they want to hear from you --- and only you. Once you have created a list, be sure to protect it. You should offer a privacy statement that assures subscribers you will not share, sell or rent your list to anyone else.

Even if you aren’t ready to launch an e-newsletter right now, begin a practice of collecting e-mail addresses so you’ll have a list when you decide to send out that first e-mail. If you have a website, create a sign-up form for visitors who are interested in receiving more information. You can view my sign-up form by visiting www.JimMadaffer.com/email.

Offer Quality Content and Helpful Links

The hallmark of a successful e-newsletter is that people look forward to receiving it because the content is something they want to read. If your content appeals to your reader’s self-interest and includes valuable information that helps improve their neighborhood and quality of life, they are likely to read it instead of deleting it or unsubscribing from your list.

The importance of quality content can’t be overstated. You should always provide a benefit to the reader and make it personal to your audience. In my e-newsletter, I write straight from the heart, using a "this is what I think" perspective that’s wrapped around useful information. I also include links to other websites for more information or to download a flyer or form. For example, if I mention that the local Kiwanis Club is hosting a street fair, I include a link to their website so readers can download the promotional flyer. If there is an article in the local paper that I want to share with my readers, I’ll post a link to it. I’m often surprised by which links people click on most often, and I try to improve my content based on what I learned from readers’ responses to my previous edition.

The subject line is also an important consideration. Spam filters will often block e-mail whose subject line contains gimmicky-sounding or promotional words or is in all capital letters. After I’ve written the e-newsletter, I compose the subject line to reflect the content. I usually include a date and a phrase such as "news you can use." For example, "From Lindbergh Field to Conserving Water --- News You Can Use --- e-newsletter for February 6, 2008" or "Upcoming Events, Mini-Dorm Forum, Parades & More --- e-newsletter for May 4, 2008."

To see some examples of my e-newsletters, visit www.JimMadaffer.com/enews.

Avoid Self-Promotion

I don’t recommend self-promotion as part of your content. It turns readers off, it’s gratuitous and it detracts from the value of the e-newsletter. Whether they agree with you or not, people want to read about your opinion and perspective --- not your accolades. I strive to deliver just that. An interesting and unexpected bonus is that members of the media who subscribe to my e-newsletter frequently use it to cite my opinion on a given topic in newspaper articles.

Incorporate Graphics and Photos That Complement the Content

Relevant, quality graphics and photos are crucial elements of an effective e-newsletter. Most web-based services that offer e-mail distribution have the ability to include graphics and photos. While a picture is truly worth a thousand words, you must be mindful not to simply rely on photos to tell the story. The images should underscore your point and complement or enhance the content. Keep in mind that photos and graphics need to be files that are small in size so that they load quickly and don’t keep the reader waiting to see what’s being sent.

In addition, many people have set their computers to prevent downloading im ages, or they read only the text version of your e-newsletter as opposed to an HTML or "picture" version. Remember, not everyone is connected to the Internet when reading e-mail and e-newsletters. Graphics won’t appear if your e-newsletter is being read offline because the images don’t usually come with the e-mail but are instead pulled off a web server, functioning much like a web page. Because of this, it’s a good idea to include a link in your e-mail newsletter to an online version so people have the option of reading it there as well.

Determine How Often to Send

For me, the issue of frequency is usually a function of my available time --- e-newsletters can take time to produce. Bear in mind that people won’t be too pleased if you send them something once a week that doesn’t really say anything significant, and you are likely to lose readers. My rule of thumb has been to send an e-newsletter about once a month --- sometimes as frequently as every three weeks, but usually no longer than six to eight weeks between issues. Your distribution schedule should be driven by how often you have solid content to send.

Using an E-Mail Service

For smaller lists of less than 100 e-mail addresses, you can send your e-newsletter yourself, using your computer’s e-mail program. However, your ability to embed graphics and photos may be somewhat constrained by the program’s capabilities and your technical expertise. You should include a line at the bottom asking recipients to reply with an "unsubscribe" subject line if they wish to be removed from your list, but remember, this maintenance is something you will have to do manually. And perhaps most important, protect the privacy of the recipients’ addresses, either by creating an e-mail list that doesn’t show recipient addresses or by sending it as a blind copy (bcc).

For larger lists, I recommend using a web-based e-mail broadcasting service. These services maintain your lists, which is particularly helpful for opt-in and opt-out management, and they specialize in mass distribution ranging from less than 100 addresses into the millions. To locate these companies, search the Internet for "e-mail marketing." If you already receive e-mail newsletters from other people who are using such services, you’ll typically find the company includes its logo at the end of an e-mail to promote themselves; this is another good way to learn about potential vendors and costs. Many of these companies will charge based on the size of your list, offering unlimited sends per month, or they charge based on how many e-mails you transmit each month, regardless of your list size. Other considerations in pricing include additional charges to store images and optional features such as polling, surveys and tracking, mentioned earlier.

Good Practices and Other Considerations

Including an option for reader feedback is an effective way to hear from your constituents and learn what’s on their minds. At the end of each e-newsletter, I always include my e-mail address and invite people to reply or write to me about their concerns.

If your city or agency is paying to send out the e-newsletter, you may be more restricted in what you can say than if you pay for it yourself. Other options include using campaign funds to underwrite sending your e-newsletter or simply paying for it out of your own pocket.

While the tips in this column are based on what has worked for me over the years, your primary consideration should be what works for you and your constituents. The goal is to communicate effectively and engage your readers with substan tive, relevant content. To get started, you need to collect e-mail addresses, write some good copy and start testing the water by sending out your e-newsletter. As with many endeavors, you improve with practice and by seeking the advice of others who are involved in similar efforts. I encourage you to make an e-newsletter part of your community outreach and your service to your constituents --- it’s a great way to stay connected.