Should firms produce their own electronic newsletters or hire someone to do it?


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NexLAN, an AccountMate reseller, has been publishing an e-newsletter for its clients for roughly the past seven years, but less than two years ago the firm took its e-newsletter to the next level with a more polished, professional look and a greater commitment to its distribution with the help of a dedicated point person who is skilled in writing and graphics. The results are paying off.

"It is a money maker," explains Kevin Stroud, president of NexLAN. "It puts information in front of our clients that they need."

Stroud, like many others in the industry, is learning the benefits such a medium-when done correctly-can bring firms. E-newsletters provide companies with an instantaneous and systematic means for communicating with clients, generate sales leads, and can be a fraction of the cost of their print counterparts. Furthermore, they position the firm as an industry thought leader and can make small firms appear larger, more robust, and on the forefront of technology, even for a smaller 10-person software technology consulting firm nestled in the cornfields 120 miles south of Chicago-like NexLAN.

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"We are able to look big by having it echo our color scheme, [marketing materials, etc.]," says Stroud of the monthly HTML e-newsletter, which is distributed free to about 80 client companies. "A prepackaged e-newsletter would not have the impact."

Another firm that has found success with its e-newsletters, which are also developed in-house, is Berdon, a New York-based accounting and advisory firm ranked among the top 25 CPA firms in the nation.

Steps to Producing a Successful E-Newsletter

Whether a firm is developing an e-newsletter in-house or shopping for a prepackaged solution, there are several key factors to be aware of that could make all the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful e-newsletter.

First, it is important for a firm to define its target audience and the objective of the e-newsletter. In many cases, an e-newsletter is a combination of a lead-generating tool and a branding vehicle, so it is important to evaluate which is most important. Then establish written goals and objectives that the firm wants to achieve via the publication.

If a company is looking to convert a print newsletter into an e-newsletter, sources suggest first surveying subscribers to get their feedback.

A second critical step in developing a successful e-newsletter is to assign a point person. This is vital for firms developing an in-house publication, and will also prove beneficial for firms considering a prepackaged solution, where much of the work is handled outside of the firm.

"When we polished [our e-newsletter] and got someone dedicated who makes the time to do it, the returns came back quickly," says Kevin Stroud, president of AccountMate reseller NexLAN, of his firm's in-house e-newsletter.

Those interviewed agree that if a company does not assign a point person, it is too easy for the e-newsletter to get lost in the shuffle and slide lower and lower down on the priority totem pole.

Having an accurate and up-to-date database is essential. A firm may have the most attractive and professional-looking e-newsletter, but if it lands in the wrong inbox it is a lost effort.

If a company is looking to launch an in-house e-newsletter, generating compelling content can be tricky, as not everyone can write in a clear and concise fashion. If there is an executive within the firm, such as a president or chief executive officer, who can write well, this can help add a personal touch to the publication and give it a unique "voice." However, if there is no one within the firm who has a flair for the written word, a company could hire a full-time writer or outsource it to a freelancer. In today's competitive marketplace, where professionals must sift through scores of emails daily, it is essential that the e-newsletter has compelling and useful content that will rival the competition.

When determining the frequency of the publication-whether it is monthly or quarterly-one should consider the resources required (for example, a dedicated staff or list of content ideas) and choose a realistic publication frequency. Many e-newsletters are distributed on a monthly basis, versus quarterly, so as to remain top of mind with their clients. Let readers know up front how often they will be receiving the firm's e-newsletter.

"Much more than [monthly] and it gets to be noise," says Tom Hume, Sage vice president of channel marketing.

It also is important to create a schedule or calendar and set deadlines. In today's workplace, where associates are juggling multiple tasks, it is easy to let weeks slide by before realizing that the next issue must be distributed the upcoming week. Sources suggest that firms begin planning their next issue immediately after distributing the current one. Set deadlines for such key steps as gathering story ideas and obtaining reprint permission, if necessary; submitting rough drafts; dropping copy into the HTML template; drafting a subject line; sending test versions internally; double-checking each link; printing out a hard copy for one last edit; and fine-tuning the subject line one final time. The subject line, should be simple yet informative, but be careful with the words used in the subject line as some (like "free") may trigger anti-spam software to block delivery.

It is helpful to keep a "story idea file," where potential content can be stored on an ongoing basis. Having a bank of story topics will alleviate the pressure of generating content at the last minute.

It also may help to create a "content formula" to have a diverse mix of content, suggests BizActions, which specializes in the creation, content development, day-to-day management, and tracking of e-newsletters. For example, in each issue try to include a mix of original articles on a variety of topics, article reprints from third parties, custom analysis of industry reports, and company announcements.

Such publications should not be too long. Sage's Hume suggests a maximum of three to four pages. It also is important to think about what content the subscribers will see above the "fold" when they receive the publication. In other words, what content will they see at the top of the screen without having to scroll down? Will it grab the reader's attention?

People like choices, so be sure that the e-newsletter has an opt-out feature or the ability to unsubscribe, as well as an opt-in feature in the event that a subscriber forwards it to a friend or colleague.

Some technology factors to investigate and consider include being able to handle "bouncing emails" if, for example, some subscribers are on vacation, or having the ability to track the e-newsletters. Having a powerful tracking tool can help firms measure the effectiveness of the e-newsletter by revealing which articles are being read and by whom.

Perhaps the biggest trick to establishing a successful e-newsletter is commitment.

"What doesn't work is if a partner does it as a one-time deal or if they aren't consistent," says Hume. "They should view it as an annual program."

According to Thalia Zetlin, a principal and chief marketing officer for the firm, Berdon electronically sends out eight different publications that focus on such areas as attorneys and law firms, business and personal finance, health-care, real estate, and high-net-worth individuals. The frequency of the newsletters, which are free of charge to subscribers, typically ranges from quarterly to every other month. The firm communicates current and breaking news, as needed, through an e-newsletter called "Berdon Evisor."

Zetlin believes that such publications developed in-house "showcase the expertise of our people" and enable firms to gear the content to the particular needs of their client base. Zetlin adds that pre-packaged e-newsletters are often "too vanilla," do not demonstrate the specific expertise of firm professionals, and lack marketing flexibility.

"It is part of the added value we offer our clients," says Zetlin of Berdon's e-newsletters, which have from 300 to 12,000 subscribers. Generally, the e-newsletters are HTML, but sometimes are distributed in PDF or text format.

In 1999, Berdon developed its first electronic newsletter as a print version sent out via fax to those seeking information related to the healthcare industry. In 2004, the firm moved away from the fax machine and into cyberspace.

Today, the firm has two associates in charge of writing the content for its eight different publications, in addition to their other functions within the firm. Zetlin estimates that the e-newsletters have generated about 150 responses/leads just since January.

Both Stroud and Zetlin characterize the cost not in terms of dollars but in terms of the hours spent gathering and writing the content.

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