By Alvin Hattal
If your publication is to-the-point,
does it have to be pretty?
(Published in Executive Update)
Association publications can learn from for-profit newsletters.
Targeting specific markets, newsletter publishers and editors have finessed certain "tricks of the trade.”
For-profit newsletters focus on content rather than design.
Readers often want informative — not "pretty" — newsletters.
Content should be "need-to-know" information.
In this way newsletters capture and increase their readership.
Increased postal rates affect every publication.
But some newsletter publishers have found ways to cut costs.
For associations, staying ahead of the competition
means more than just growth in ad pages and revenue. Most savvy
association publishers and editors know there is another kind of
competition--for their readers' time. Other publications
(association-related or not) are also striving to capture the
attention and valuable time of the same readers. And associations
who think they have a captive audience soon have a shrinking
As pioneers in niche-marketing, publishers of the country's thousands of subscription newsletters have developed techniques and approaches that have meant the difference for their publications' survival. Association publishers and editors with small budgets and the desire to keep the interest of their readers should consider adopting these newsletter techniques.
Design versus content
Unlike some association publications, for-profit newsletters place more emphasis on content than design.
"People who pay hundreds of dollars for a newsletter are buying information--not design. Design sometimes gets in the way of putting out the information,” says Frank Joseph, publisher of Key Communications Group Inc., in Bethesda, MD. "The less urgent the information, the more important is [the] design.”
"We believe our readers want useful newsletters, not pretty ones,” says Daniel Y. Warren, senior vice president and associate publisher of Warren Publishing, Inc., in Washington, DC, which produces 13 newsletters and four directories in the broadcasting and telecommunications field. A "sophisticated desktop publishing program" does not automatically turn editors into designers, he adds.
Today's newsletters are personalized for the reader, and content is more important than looks, says Michael Kibler, membership director of Arlington, VA-based Newsletter Association, which represents subscription newsletters. "Subscribers want every one of those pages to contain information they can use. They don't need a pretty front page. Even the contents page has to earn its space and prove its usefulness.”
Newsletter publishers and editors also concentrate more on content than design to make the newsletter information appear "fresh.” The Consumer Affairs Newsletter in Washington "requires the appearance of a `hot-off-the-computer' look, rather than a carefully designed publication,” says George Idelson, the newsletter's editor and publisher. “It's sometimes counterproductive if it looks too slick. Many of my readers are writers; they trust the look of the typewritten page.”
However, some newsletter publishers and editors are placing an increased emphasis on design. Alexandria, VA-based Capitol Publications, Inc., which publishes more than 20 health, education, energy, and business newsletters, recently upgraded its equipment to beef up its newsletter design, says Kristen Winters, Capitol's director for seminars and conferences.
And Warren Publishing recently hired a designer to design a layout for one of its newsletters.
Like association publications, independent newsletters--consumer and business-to-business--are constantly competing for readership. But publishers and editors are often not sure what their newsletter audience wants; rather, they confuse their readership with the readership of other publications.
There are two kinds of subscription newsletters, Idelson says: "The must-have and the nice-to-have. Mine falls in between. I've got to make my readers and prospects information seekers and demonstrate the importance of knowing a lot of things about many things that relate to consumer interests."
Besides paying close attention to content, some newsletter publishers and editors reevaluate their readership marketing lists. Association editors and publishers who want to broaden their membership and readership and promote their publications might adopt the formula developed by Fran Goldstein, publisher of American Health Consultants.
With several publications ranging from 1,500 to 35,000 subscribers, Goldstein says she often uses associations' membership lists to gain new readers but finds many are out of date. She focuses on the well-targeted list of a small association, such as the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.
"Although it takes some time, it's worth trying to target your lists," she says. "We've found it much better to build our list from smaller, more specific groups--say, a thousand--instead of a random sample of one big list:"
Her organization's regular promotion includes a four-page, full-color brochure, a six-page letter, and a "lift note,” which is a memo from the publisher that tries to persuade the hesitant prospect.
Coping with costs and the media
Newsletter editors who want publicity for their publications have found a way to work with the media.
"When we get a hot story, we try to interest the general press in it," says Dan Warren. "If they run it, we get a great deal of good publicity.”
But, Warren notes, the media often delete the reference to the source. "That's what happened to us when we tipped off [a wire service] about an important story we were going to publish. We agreed to let them break [the story] first if they mentioned us as the source. They didn't mention us. We learned from that experience that you have to negotiate such deals very carefully."
Rising postal costs are also affecting newsletter publishers. How are the for-profits handling the rate hikes? "We cut out some mailings where the returns were very close to unprofitable, because of the postal increases and the general decline of the economy;" Dan Warren says. In addition, Warren's newsletters are available on-line, by electronic mail, and by facsimile.
In short, association members, who look to their newsletters for vital, up-to-the-minute news and information to help them run their companies, want it fast and factual. Design is important, but facts trump everything else.
Executive Update/May 1991