When Good Newsletters Go Bad

by Meryl Evans | Category: Business, Customer Service, Marketing, Meryl's Notes Blog, Writing 1 comment

The wizard in The Wizard of Oz and the guy behind the curtain pretending to be him have different personalities. Which one would you rather listen to? The wizard who comes across as larger than life and unreachable, or the guy hiding behind the giant green face, a person like us?

Companies that publish newsletters without a name or a voice feel cold and untouchable like the wizard. Give a voice to one person and you put a face on the company. Readers respond to a person better than an invisible entity.

Do you receive an e-mail newsletter that used to provide a wealth of information but has become a victim of its own success? You used to look forward to receiving the newsletter, but it has changed … either into a big commercial for the company or a forum for someone with an ego.

This has happened to award-winning newsletters. For example, at the time of receiving an award, one newsletter provided powerful stuff, helping it achieve success and earning its many faithful subscribers. Once it reeled in readers and got comfortable, the material slowly changed for the worse.

For most of us, when we work on something for a long time, we fall into a rut and maybe without realizing it. It happens. However, there is a difference between falling into a rut and transforming a newsletter into a news release that provides little value to readers.

Prevent Mr. (or Ms.) Big Head

Another newsletter no longer provides articles. Instead, it points to the publisher’s blog, products for sale and Webinars starring the publisher. Yet another still offers an article but with not as much valuable information as in the past. The newsletter also announces the person’s accomplishments, newly landed clients and includes short articles recommending a product — articles that sound more like affiliate recommendations than reviews.

Another company keeps distributing news releases about its successes. Most issues leave the reader wondering, “So what? That has nothing to do with me or my needs.” Once in a while, it sends an issue with the latest products added to its database, which is the purpose of the mailing list. But it doesn’t provide updates on the industry anymore, unless they’re about the company.

An egotistical publisher takes advantage of the mailing list by sending out e-mails with specials, “check out this product,” “come see me,” “attend my Webinar,” and “attend so ‘n so’s Webinar” (that have nothing to do with the newsletter topic). The message comes across as if the person is a celebrity. But if you throw his name around to friends and colleagues, no one will have heard of him.

These newsletters from Mr. (or Ms.) Big Head are in danger of losing readers. They miss the down-to-earth style and person’s original voice that comes across like a friend or colleague who provides advice or information. If the unsubscribe rate doesn’t change much, you still aren’t safe. This could simply mean readers don’t want to bother unsubscribing, and instead, they filter the unread newsletters to the trash bin.

For example, in a recent conversation, a colleague and I admitted to each other that we don’t unsubscribe to certain newsletters for political reasons. We know the publisher, and it would be noticeable if we dropped the newsletter. Instead, we’ve created a filter so it goes straight into the junk folder. I also keep receiving some newsletters in hopes that the newsletter will return to its former brilliance.

Change happens

Change happens, and it’s okay, but the publisher should keep the readers’ best interests in mind. For instance, a popular newsletter drastically redesigned its layout, leading many readers to write about their disapproval of the change.

Keeping your audience happy doesn’t mean never redesigning the look and feel of your newsletter; rather, tread carefully on how you go about it. If you include readers in the process, you’re a step ahead and going in the right direction.

The publisher of the popular newsletter should’ve alerted readers of the redesign plans and explained the reasons for doing it. To help readers be more receptive, the publisher could ask readers for feedback as to what they want and don’t want to see. Some readers might be willing to review preliminary designs and provide feedback. After the change goes in effect, write an introduction talking about the change and invite input.

Get around the success trap

Readers hesitate to write and tell the publisher to “stop focusing on yourself so much.” It’s easier to provide feedback on a newsletter’s design or a new column than anything related to a person. How many of you have written a note to a person criticizing the person as opposed to an object or thing?

One editor does a fabulous job of sharing her news and successes without adding a drop of ego. She writes like a friend reporting on what’s happening in her life including the bad things. I use her as a model for avoiding the “me, me, me” trap.

What about the fact newsletters are supposed to bring value to the publisher and not just the reader? Many successful newsletters accomplish this without becoming a commercial or an ode to the company. Ways to accomplish this:

  • Ensure the advertising-to-content ratio is in favor of content, which should be at least 80 percent.
  • Include a free offer.
  • Put links to the site where appropriate (byline, banner, published line, etc.).
  • Create “special” offers good for a limited time (create a sense of urgency so readers act upon reading the newsletter).
  • Add related products or services at the end of an article.
  • Limit the sending of offers or specials in a separate e-mail.
  • Avoid putting “Forward this” in the subject of the newsletter — this gives the impression that you’d rather get more readers than have your current readers check out the content before forwarding (put the “Forward” info in the newsletter not in the subject).

About those special offer e-mails

Sending special offers between issues is A-okay. The approach and the frequency make a difference. Some companies increase them between issues, and soon readers give up looking for real content. A successful publisher sends a special once after every issue or every other issue. She also identifies such e-mail by using a different subject than her regular newsletter. An example:

Subject: meryl’s notes: January 2008

Subject: meryl’s notes Special for Readers

Not the most exciting or creative subject lines, but I’m sure you can think of better. The point is for offer e-mails, do not include the date or issue information. Ensure the newsletter/publisher is recognizable, but differentiate offer e-mails from newsletter e-mails through the subject heading.

Keep your voice

Your personal voice drives your newsletter’s success. When reading a favorite newsletter, what voice do you picture? A corporation? An employee? The company whose newsletters have turned into news releases comes across as an organization rather than a person, like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a big scary figure. When we meet the guy behind the curtain, we’re surprised by his personality and find him more likeable than the great Oz. Try to add that personal touch to your newsletters.

Then, the next time you read various newsletters, see which ones draw you in and which ones repel you. Answer the question of why they make you feel this way and use that to help you with your newsletter. When you show credibility and readers trust you, they will buy — as long as you provide them with value and a unique voice.

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