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News worthy: e-newsletters drive sales, improve customer loyalty and build credibility.

Many shoppers are making purchasing decisions based on information they get from e-mail or Web sites. So getting your company's message into your customers' in-boxes is critical.

However, research shows that the average person is bombarded with 3,000 advertising messages daily. They notice approximately 80 of them and react to a mere 10.

"The attention span of the average Web surfer or e-mail reader being what it is, newsletters that don't offer a direct benefit usually end up being deleted before they're read," says Joe Procopio, president of Intrepid Media Consulting in Chapel Hill, N.C. "When e-newsletters are used to convey benefits, such as weekly specials or some other value proposition, they stand a much greater chance of being read and acted upon."

There are many ways e-newsletters can deter sales rather than attract them, Procopio adds. "But when done correctly, timely newsletters sent unobtrusively with relevant content can encourage additional sales, and increase market share and customer loyalty."

Here are six steps that will get your e-newsletters off to a promising start:

1 Set clear goals.

Before you develop an e-newsletter, define your goals, advises Rabia Shirazi, principal at Realize Strategic Communications in Hoboken, N.J. "Determine what you hope to achieve--or more specifically, what action you want subscribers to take--and use that to drive the content."

If you want to get people to buy, prominently feature coupons, product reviews and customer testimonials, she says. If you want to be seen as an expert resource, offer tips, how-to articles and advice.

The key is to know your audience, Shirazi says. "If you don't know what they want, ask. It's only a win-win when you deliver something the competition can't."

2 Make a list.

Next, segment your list. Results from a JupiterResearch study found that this garnered higher results than sending the e-newsletter to your entire customer list.

"Segmentation, the practice of sorting contact lists using pertinent criteria, helps you generate results and cultivate relationships with your contacts," notes Joe Colopy, founder/CEO of Bronto Software, an e-mail marketing company in Raleigh, N.C. "Segmentation allows you to play to their interests."

Experts recommend bypassing generic, general-interest e-mails. You can achieve higher responses by creating individual e-mail list segments and messaging based upon specific interests, purchasing history, ZIP code or other fields of information.

3 Be aware of spam.

Don't underestimate the role of spam--unsolicited e-mail ads and offers--in undermining your e-marketing success. "The best way to prevent the appearance of spam is to tell users what the e-newsletter is about and let them opt-in," says Michael Driscoll, an Atlanta-based communications strategy consultant. "Unless readers are expecting to hear from you, you're just spraying bullets at a target."

To steer clear of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, don't buy lists or subscribe people without their knowledge. "Create and maintain your e-mail contact list using permission-based practices," Colopy says. "Only send e-mails to contacts who have asked to receive them or signed up for your newsletter. Use online sign-up forms, or registration at trade shows ... to create and grow your opt-in lists."

Federal and state regulations require e-mail marketers to provide a way for contacts to easily unsubscribe from lists as part of each message. That means including at least an e-mail address, if not a name, physical location and phone number in every missive.

In addition, be mindful of how often you send out e-newsletters--certainly, no more often than monthly. If you have some "breaking news" to report, segment your list carefully so it's going to people who truly care.

4 Design it right.

Designing a good e-newsletter is more than just putting words on the page. The issues of space and size are critical. "Studies have shown that the fewer words that appear on the screen, the more likely people are to finish reading an article," Shirazi says. "Keep the text within the 500- to 700-word range," If you've got a lot to say, write a few sentences and then link to the full story on your Web site.

Marc Borzelleca, a graphic designer based in Los Angeles and Staunton, Va., says effective newsletters are simple and clean. "Since people scan e-mails quickly, you've got to hook readers immediately," he says. "The most common mistakes e-mailers make are burying the information and adding too many colors, buttons, fonts and pictures that take too long to download."

He suggests placing the most important information early in the document and emphasizing it with a larger or bolder font size. "Use fonts like Verdana, Helvetica, Arial or Times, which are easy to read and universally recognized by most e-mail programs," he says. "And keep your color scheme simple--one or two colors."

Be careful with images. "Fancy graphics and embedded links back to your Web site are sweet eye candy, but they can cause trouble," Procopio says. "A number of virus checkers tag embedded graphics and script for quarantine, meaning a good portion of your customers will never get the e-mail to begin with. Finally, there is the annoyance factor. If I'm on the road and waiting to download a 500K e-mail over a less-than-optimum connection, I'm going to be upset."

5 Craft the content.

With a clear set of goals, a targeted audience and a solid word count, you can begin writing. "There is no true formula for e-newsletter content, nor should there be. It's about giving your readers the information they want," Shirazi says.

To do that, conduct a trial run. Create different versions and send them to segments of your list. Then track subscribers' behavior. "See what actions they take after reading the e-newsletter and balance content accordingly," Shirazi says.

"If Web-site traffic and new product page hits skyrocket, then use the newsletter primarily as a sales tool. Highlight product reviews, offer sales coupons and complement them with expert articles," she says. "If more people are heading to your store for the materials and supplies mentioned, run more features and offset them with product announcements."

6 Seek professional help.

If you aren't comfortable handling e-mail marketing in-house, use an e-mail service provider. Advanced features and deliverability are just two reasons you should consider using a service. "Features such as segmentation, design templates and detailed tracking (opens, click-throughs and forwards) enable you to send professional e-mail newsletters and track results," Colopy says.

These providers also can make sure more of your newsletters reach their intended recipients. "Delivery is becoming more challenging with the rising popularity of filters, authentication and image blocking in e-mail clients such as Gmail, AOL and Yahoo!," Colopy warns. "E-mail service providers have technologies and IT staff in place to deal with these issues and ensure your messages get through."

RELATED ARTICLE: The write stuff.

Don't feel like tackling an e-mail newsletter just yet? Then start a blog, which is a Web-based forum/diary where you can connect with customers while sharing ideas and information.

"Blogs have evolved from geek venue to 'instajournalist' log to cutting-edge business tool," says Catherine Kaput& brand strategist and author of U R a BRAND/How Smart People Brand Themselves for Business Success (Davies-Black Publishing, 2006). "Blogs are the ultimate branding and business generation tool. It is a powerful and inexpensive way to create awareness of your business among prospects and create a community of loyal brand fans, also known as customers."

People flock to blogs for fresh viewpoints and information not available on company and industry Web sites, she says. "To get people flocking to your blog or Web site, try to be a news source and offer advice," she says. "lf you attend an industry conference or are aware of new trends in your industry, use your blog to talk about what's going on."

Getting started

It's easy to get a blog under way. There are many blogging software companies, such as Blogger, that provide free startup software and hosting.

"Blogs are much easier to set up and use than setting up a Web site," Kaputa notes. "You don't need to know code. Nor do you need to contact your Web designer to add new information. You just focus on writing while the blog program dates and archives your entries, and automatically produces a blog."

Improving your return

Kaputa suggests these tricks for getting more from your blog:

* Post frequently. You should add new content at least once or twice a week. The more updates you provide, the more relevant content that keeps people thinking about you--and your business.

* Convey personality. "People like blogs because they're interesting and engaging," Kaputa says. So show your personality in your writing and design. "Create a brand personality that's distinct from others and reflects who you are."

* Use links. Include links to industry reports, articles or other items of interest to your customers. "Just write a couple of sentences about the article and link to the original source so your blog's readers can read the entire article," she notes.

Proceed with caution

This is not the place for overt selling, Kaputa warns. "Use your blog to sell your ideas and expertise on what's happening in the industry, such as new products and trends," she notes. "Use your Web site to sell your company's products and services."--M.C.L.
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Author:Lester, Margot Carmichael
Publication:Pool & Spa News
Date:May 8, 2006
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