The ABCs Of E-Newsletters

"Good, fast, cheap — pick two because you can't have all three." That old saw holds true in the world of retail advertising and promotion, with one notable exception: e-newsletters. Why? First, they're good ways to spark more sales. Second, they work fast. And third, they're cheap. It's tough to think of another promotional tool that gives so much bang for so little buck.

"E-newsletters are great for establishing new lines of communication with your customers," says Ralph F. Wilson, an Internet marketing consultant based in Rocklin, Calif. (www.wilsonweb.com). "When you have specials, new products or new services, you can promote them at little or no cost.

"Whether you want to broadcast information about last-minute promotions or help beef up attendance at a special event, electronic newsletters get the word out much faster than other vehicles." In fact, mere seconds after you hit "send," you'll often see subscriber activity: People will be opening your e-mail, then clicking on your links to go to your Web site.

Of course, electronic newsletters are no substitute for traditional advertising, which raises your profile and attracts new customers. But they are invaluable tools for increasing the spending habits of your current customer base.

Getting Started

If you haven't already launched an e–newsletter, now's the time to do it. Already have one? Look for ways to make it pull more sales. Here are some profitable tips from Internet marketing experts:

1. Make It UsefulWhen planning content keep asking yourself, "How can we serve our customers, build relationships and keep that relationship at the top of their minds?" Include information on new services, new lines of merchandise, private sales, smart consumer buying tips, and new and innovative ways shoppers can use the merchandise you sell.

In today's world, a "useful" newsletter often means a short one. "People are in a hurry and don't want to read long newsletters," says Wilson. "An effective newsletter can be as short as one or two paragraphs of brief tidbits." Then, if you have more information than will fit comfortably in a short newsletter, include a link to a page on your Web site where people can get more information, Wilson suggests.

Bonus tip: Invite recipients to print out the newsletter and bring it to your store for a free gift or discount.

2. Make It AttractiveYou can send out your e-mail in two formats: plain text or HTML. A lot of people prefer the latter because it allows them to include fancy text, tables and pictures.

Designing an attractive HTML newsletter takes talent and time, but you can get help in the form of templates or wizards, which allow you to just plug in your information and press the "send" button. "Using templates helps you get a lot of information in a precise area," says Chuck Hester, communications director at iContact.com, one e-mail marketing outfit that offers the service.

There's one more problem with HTML: Because not every recipient of your e-newsletter uses the same e-mail program, your newsletter will not look the same for each person. To get around that problem, follow the advice of Byron Lunz, owner of DataBack Systems, an e-newsletter service provider in Beaverton, Ore. "If you decide to go with HTML formatting, keep it as simple as you can," he says. "Avoid tables, columns and flashy graphics. The more complex the things you do in your e-mail, the greater the chance some of your recipients will not be able to read it."

Bonus tip: Ask recipients for their format preference, then prepare plain text and HTML mailing lists.

3. Build Your List"Every single point of contact with your customers is an opportunity to build your list," says Hester. "Set out some cards at your POS terminal for people to fill in their e-mail addresses. Print subscription invitations on your receipts. Include an invitation at the bottom of your regular e-mails, and on every page of your Web site."

Ask for their first names so you can personalize the subject lines, adds Wilson, and have each person sign a brief statement that says, "I give you permission to send your e-newsletter." Keep those cards on file.

Your employees can also be great salespeople for your e-newsletter by promoting benefits such as advance notice of sales and new lines of merchandise, or tips for using your merchandise.

4. Use a Good E-newsletter ServiceAt first, if your mailing list is small, you may want to send your newsletter using your own computer and Internet connection. For small lists, it's not too much hassle to tackle administrative tasks such as processing bounces and entering changed e-mail addresses.

Once your list rises to more than 100 people or so, such tasks can become onerous. Then you may want to consider handing the job over to an e-newsletter service provider. Popular examples of such companies are Constant Contact (www.constantcontact.com), iContact (www.icontact.com) and DataBack Systems (www.cctomany.com).

5. Make It MatterDon't send your newsletter too often. "As a general rule, don't send your newsletter more than twice a month," says Hester. "You don't want people to think they are getting too much information." The exception: You might want to send several short announcements in a series to promote a special sale or event.

If you send your newsletter on the same day of the same week of the month each time, your recipients will get in the habit of looking for the information.

You should also consider adding a "forward to a friend" invitation in each newsletter. This is a great way to build your list because many of those friends will become subscribers. Encourage forwarding by including a special offer for all recipients.

Perhaps each person who signs up for your newsletter will receive a gift certificate worth $10 or invitations to private seminars.

6. Follow E-newsletter TrendsYou will create more-profitable e-newsletters if you stay current with what is happening in the field. For relevant news visit the E-Commerce Times (www.ecommercetimes.com), published by the ECT News Network, tEncino, Calif. Other good sources are E-Commerce News (www.ecommercenews.org) and ECommerce-Guide (www.ecommerce-guide.com). Finally, for more ideas about good newsletters, click on "e-mail Marketing" at www.wilsonweb.com.

Launch Time

The tips in this article should get you started on the path to a profitable e-newsletter that makes your cash registers ring. You can take the plunge now without a big investment in time and money. "Don't wait to start your e-mail newsletter," says Wilson. "There is no time like the present. You will start with a small list but in time it will grow."

Don't Be A Burden

A big buzz phrase today is "permission-based marketing." In the case of your e-newsletter, you want to make sure that you receive some form of formal permission before adding someone to your list. "Don't send a newsletter to people unless they have requested you do so," says Byron Lunz, owner of DataBack Systems, an e-newsletter service provider in Beaverton, Ore. You don't want to be accused of being a spammer.

Many service providers use what is called a "double opt-in" procedure. Here's how it works: A shopper wanting to subscribe to your e-newsletter fills out a request form on your Web site. That's the first opt-in. The recipient then gets an e-mail automatically generated by your service provider, asking if that person wants to subscribe. This is to avoid the risk of the request having come from someone else. When the recipient responds to the e-mail with a positive response, that is the second opt-in. At this point, the person's e-mail address is added to your mailing list on the service provider's computer. "The bottom line is that the subscriber has indicated they want to be on your list," says Lunz.

While the benefits of this procedure are clear, it brings up a question: What can you do with all of those e-mail addresses you have already gathered from shoppers? You might be tempted to just add those people to your list assuming they will be interested because they have visited your store. That's not necessarily true, cautions Lunz. "Sending those people unsolicited newsletters would be considered rude. But one thing you might do is send each a personalized invitation to subscribe."

Here are some other tips to avoid being labeled a spammer:

  • Always include an opt-out link in every e-newsletter you send, and put it in a prominent position.
  • Never send "extra" e-mails to your list unless you have the recipients' permission to do so.
  • From the very start of your e-newsletter campaign, include a pre-checked box on your registration form that says something like: "You have my permission to send me occasional product updates and special promotions." The e-newsletter alone is valuable, but having the ability to send occasional announcements and promotions based on your subscribers' preferences increases its potential exponentially.

—P.P.

Selecting an E-Newsletter Service

You need a good e-newsletter service provider to take care of the hassle of list maintenance. So how do you find one? "My recommendation is to ask other retailers for referrals," says Byron Lunz, owner of DataBack Systems, an e-newsletter service provider in Beaverton, Ore. "Find a newsletter you like and ask the retailer how happy they are with the service provider."

Then, ask a few questions:

  • Is the service provider dependable? Do newsletters show up on schedule?
  • Are its staff members friendly, knowledgeable and easily reached?
  • Is its Web site easy to navigate?
  • Does it handle bounces efficiently?
  • Are there any unpleasant billing surprises?

—P.P.

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