If your marketing efforts include a newsletter, you know the value of providing clients, prospects and referral sources with information that they need to be successful. A focused newsletter is a tool that many CPA firms use to market their services and maintain communication throughout the year.

But how do you know if your clients are actually reading it? That's a tough question when talking about a print newsletter, which may get thrown away unopened. But with an e-newsletter, technology exists that allows you to track read-rates, as well as other important metrics, and provide readers with the most recent information available. With that information, you can generate new business leads and increase revenues from existing clients.

Here are some of the key questions that can now be answered with a few clicks:

* How many newsletters were opened? It's not enough to know how many were sent out. The real value is in knowing how many copies actually reached your intended audience and exactly who read them. Unopened copies increase the per-newsletter cost and may indicate that the content is missing the mark.

* Do readers demonstrate certain patterns? By tracking the type of articles that are opened by specific clients, you can identify readers who may be interested in special services.

* Which articles drew the most attention? Knowing the precise topics that your clients chose allows you to target your content and increase readership.

* Which members of your firm are responsible for making sure that their clients receive the newsletter? Electronic tracking allows you to see the point of contact for each reader, which provides accountability.

* After reading a particular article, are readers impressed enough to implement the idea put forth? For example, an article that outlines a tax-saving estate plan may prompt an interested party to adopt such a strategy. There's a good chance the reader will need the help of a CPA to do so. One e-newsletter, BizActions, has a novel feature that gives readers the opportunity to report that they wish to implement the idea. This feature can provide your firm with good sources for referrals and potential new business.

* Which readers unsubscribed? Having this information gives you the opportunity to contact them and find out why they cancelled. Negative feedback can be as important to your success as positive feedback.

* Were some newsletters not delivered? Why? An incorrectly typed or changed e-mail address can be tracked down and fixed. With misdirected print newsletters, you may never know they weren't received.

* How many visits to your firm's Web site resulted from your newsletter? By placing links in an electronic newsletter, you can drive traffic to your firm's Web site and track the number of visitors.

* What is the actual cost per reader of sending out a newsletter? With a print newsletter, you no doubt know the total cost of production and distribution. But unless you have the data necessary to determine how many copies were actually opened and read, there is no way to calculate the true cost per reader. For example, $100 spent to send out 100 newsletters sounds like $1 per copy. But if only 50 are read, the cost jumps to $2 per copy, making your marketing efforts far less cost-effective than you might believe.

Besides allowing for cost measurement, an e-newsletter with online tracking capability can enhance your marketing results in a number of ways:

1. Branding. An excellent way to gain brand recognition is to regularly keep your firm's name in front of clients, prospects and referral sources. An e-newsletter with timely, bottom-line-oriented articles can provide that level of contact. Typically, print newsletters are published quarterly. Look for the opportunity with an e-newsletter to go out as frequently as every week.

2. Short lead-time. Print newsletters can require several weeks to put together, print and mail. By the time they reach their destination, there's not much news in them. By comparison, an e-newsletter can be prepared, formatted and updated right up to the moment it is sent.

3. Time savings. Do you know how long it takes, beginning to end, to put together and distribute your firm's newsletter? Chances are the time is considerable. With an e-newsletter, the production and distribution time is slashed. There is no need to juggle the copy to fit into the available space, and you don't have to deal with printers or mail delays.

4. Two-way communication. The best e-newsletters allow readers to request services, provide feedback and ask questions. By allowing readers to interact through two-way communication, CPAs have the chance to build relationships with clients, as well as begin new associations with prospects and referral sources.

5. Year-round contact. Accountants who get in touch with clients only when there is money to be made are, in a sense, encouraging them to go elsewhere. Loyalty isn't built strictly through billable transactions. It's nurtured by developing and maintaining relationships so that clients know that you care. Newsletters allow you to contribute to clients' success throughout the year, and e-newsletters with "comment" capability let clients know that they can maintain a dialogue with you.

6. Proactive marketing. Between transactions, your firm may want to offer additional services to clients and prospects. But how do you know which readers are interested? For example, you can focus your energy on approaching certain readers about business succession strategies if you see that they have consistently opened and read estate planning articles on the subject. That can turn a cold call into a warm call.

7. The ability to target seminars. A great way to market your CPA firm is to host seminars. Naturally, you want the best possible attendance of engaged clients. With online tracking, you can see which articles get the most attention and set the agenda armed with that knowledge. Plus, by being able to see which clients read which articles, you can personalize invitations to those with a demonstrated interest in the topic.

8. Niche development. You can gauge clients' interest in niche specialties before deciding on a new area of practice.

All of these metrics are possible with today's technology, although some e-newsletter companies may offer only a few of them.

From a marketing standpoint, it's hard to find a more effective vehicle than electronic newsletters. They can offer solid benefits, including an audit trail, lead-generation capabilities, a proven business development platform, tools to measure ongoing success, and real-time information - all of which help your firm improve its bottom line.

Jay N. Nisberg, Ph.D, is a nationally known lecturer and consultant to CPA firms. Reach him at (203) 743-2567 or jaynisberg@snet.net.

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