Finding Content for your Email Newsletter

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This is part of a guest post I wrote for Marketing Roadhouse.

It’s happened again. Someone said, “Why don’t we start an email newsletter?” Everyone then loudly proclaimed this idea’s brilliance. Except you—the person who will make it happen.

Or maybe you’re a small business owner, and it was your own idea to regularly reach out to your customers through email marketing.

Done correctly, an email newsletter is, in fact, a great idea. It keeps you top-of-mind with your customers and prospects, helps build loyalty, and introduces your products to new audiences. But like so many other great ideas, execution is where the rubber meets the road—and where many great ideas fall flat.

Read the rest of this post at Marketing Roadhouse.

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Making Stuff Up 101

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Light bulb drawn on a chalkboard

It’s happened again. The next issue of your newsletter is due next week. You’ve been scanning for content so you’ve got industry news and events, but your planned feature fell through. What now?

You have  a few options.  Number 5 is probably your best bet at the last minute, but you can only use it once (or maybe once a year, though I would avoid the predictable rush of December/January news highlights).

  1. Read. Keep a running list of ideas from your daily news “download.” Subscribe to industry news, customer or partner newsletters, and updates from industry associations. Government reports are a great source, especially in the health field. Check CDC, NIH and FDA for starters.
  2. Borrow. (But don’t steal.) Everyone is overloaded with news. Curate others’ content (with attribution/links, of course). Do this well, and you’ll stand out. Get ideas from internal meetings, conference presentations, technical publications–but be sure anything you’ve gleaned from these sources is OK to share. Linking to source files is always a good option.
  3. Beg. Ask your staff for news (for the 47th time). Ask your Twitter followers, Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections what they want to know more about. Do a survey of your engaged readers; any email marketing platform should let you create a segment of readers who opened your last message, or you can put a link in the next edition. Check your web analytics. Look at popular searches on your site, and create content around those.
  4. Record. Interview your colleagues about their areas of expertise or frequently asked questions, and videotape it. Edit the interviews down to short segments to make a series. Post them on your website and YouTube channel, and select one to highlight in each newsletter. If people aren’t reading your FAQs page, maybe they’ll watch a quick video. Worth a shot, right?
  5. Rerun. Have web pages with great content but so-so traffic? Repurpose them as newsletter features, or put a teaser in your newsletter linking to the page. Do a “best of” edition. List links and features that were your most-liked or most-clicked in the last year. If you get regular web hits on this content, people are still looking for it. Put it out there again.

If you happen to see a “best of” feature in my next newsletter, you’ll know I take my own advice.

What’s in your pantry?

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A shelf in April's pantry

Any cook needs a well-stocked pantry. From a few basic staples added to fresh ingredients, an imaginative cook can create dozens of dishes, using a variety of techniques and spices.

If you’re constantly struggling to find content to feed your various outlets–and who isn’t?–try looking in your pantry, your “shelf” of long-lasting content. The best way to do this is a communications audit.

A basic communications audit is an inventory of all your communication vehicles–print, web, social, intranets, email–anything you use to communicate with your various publics. It doesn’t have to be fancy; a simple spreadsheet works fine for small organizations.

An audit will help you identify that ancient can of sardines that needs to be tossed, and perhaps produce some unexpected treasures.

Some questions to ask once you have your list:

  1. Are these communications still reaching your audience? Or has the audience moved to another preferred method of communication? Look at open rates, page views, followers, likes, even how many people pick up that print brochure at a trade show. (For the latter, it’s not nearly as many as it was a few years ago. How else can you reach them?)
  2. What’s past the expiration date? You’ll probably find some content that’s a bit stale, or you might be spending time and resources supporting an effort that just isn’t getting eyeballs. Be honest with yourself, even if it’s your pet project. Know when to move on.
  3. What can be re-used? Often, you can repurpose content, even if it isn’t new. They key here is it isn’t new to you. For example, you might include a “featured question” in your newsletter, with a link to frequently asked questions on your website. If people are still asking the question, they aren’t looking on your website. Help them find the answer. Have great content people just aren’t seeing? Try cross-posting it.
  4. Are we consistent? Do your communications reflect the same voice, tone and messages? Are they the right ones? This is one area where small and one-person shops have an advantage. If only one person is writing most of your content, chances are it’s more consistent.
  5. What is my audience looking for? Look at your most popular web pages and most-liked content over time. Use the numbers to guide new content development. For example, if 25% of your website visitors consistently look at the Careers page, beef up that section, and publish your job openings in other communications as well.
Sometimes just making a list helps you view things differently. If you’re stuck for content, take the time to do a communications audit. You’ll probably find enough “new” content (or things you can stop doing) to more than make up the time, and spice up your communications.
p.s. For more on social media audits, check out Marketing Roadhouse.

Content Wrangling: How to Write a Newsletter When No One Contributes

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Writer's hands typing on laptop, with notepad and discarded drafts nearby

Just about everyone in your office thinks it would be super-fantastic to have a company newsletter. Except you… the person who has to write it. Sound familiar?

I am all for communication. But employees don’t want to be talked at. They never did, of course, but now that we have better ways for two-way and real-time communication, what’s the point of a newsletter that’s outdated before it’s even published?

But, newsletters (of the digital variety) can be especially useful for your external marketing, if you focus on providing useful information instead of sales pitches. (Hint: it’s not all about you, or your company. Would you subscribe to a newsletter that was nothing but a sales pitch?)

In either case, you’re the person who’s going to be stuck writing the newsletter. And even its most enthusiastic proponents are conspicuously silent when it comes to providing content. Why? They’re not like us. We–the communicators–create content almost as naturally as breathing. But we’re a minority. Only about 23% of social media users create blog posts or other content, and that number is dropping. (And remember, it’s unlikely that all your employees even use social media.)

But, you don’t have to be stuck for content. Here’s what works for me:

  1. Find a way to measure readership. Tracking clicks is a good way. Provide small snippets, and link to the full content elsewhere. (Tip: Use bit.ly links for internal newsletters to measure clicks, if you’re using a regular email program like Outlook to send.) After 4 to 6 issues, look at readership trends. If people aren’t reading the newsletter, you have a valid reason to stop writing it. Also, track how much time you spend writing each edition, so you can provide examples of more effective things you could be doing with your time, if you need to. [Note: for external newsletters, give it more time–you have to provide a reason for people outside your organization to care about your content.]
  2. Keep a running log of possible content for every issue. I create a Word document for each edition I need to write, and create section headings. Then I make a shortcut to it from my desktop. As I sort through industry email and RSS feeds each day, I put interesting content or events in my newsletter file, with links to the source. I always have to prune the content before publishing, but it’s much easier to cut from too much than find more at the eleventh hour. This process is easier for industry news-driven newsletters, but you can use the same method for internal newsletters by keeping running notes on intranet postings, email announcements and so on, with a focus on processes that are changing (people always need reminding about those).
  3. Look at what people are reading. (Again, measure clicks.) Add more of that type of content the next time. Don’t be afraid to switch your format around to focus on what your readers find most interesting. Feature that type of content in your subject line, to improve your open rate. (And please, PLEASE, don’t use the subject line “Company ABC Monthly Newsletter” alone.)
  4. Do a survey, especially for internal newsletters. What kind of information do people need? Want? How often do they want to receive it? Would they like to write a regular feature? (Don’t laugh–I actually had a volunteer when I tried this! You never know where you might find aspiring writers within your organization.) Be wary of surveying external newsletter recipients. For this audience, try a subset of people who clicked something in your last newsletter–those who are engaging with your content. You don’t want to prompt others to unsubscribe, and a survey request might do it. Think about it: how many survey invitations do you receive vs. how many you take?

This isn’t the only way, of course–just things I’ve found so far that make wrangling content a little easier. Maybe you already have really engaged employees who love to contribute news and features (lucky you!). Do you have other tips to share? I’d love to hear them.