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Spring 2003 Newsletters That Pay

If you’re like most retailers, you figure you’d make more sales if you could only get your
message out to a large number of your target customers. And you’d be right: the more people know about your products—how terrific they are and how they meet their needs—the more likely that they’ll come and buy from you more often. So how do you get the word out without breaking the bank? By creating and sending out customer newsletters.

A newsletter can build sales by communicating your marketing message: information about your merchandise, services, store features and more. If done well, a newsletter is “a good tool for achieving competitive advantage,” says Robert F. Abbott, president of The Newsletter Company (Airdrie, AB). “For many retailers, it’s the perfect way to differentiate themselves.” Abbott says you reap the benefits when your newsletters do any of the following:

  • Brand your retail business to distinguish it from competitors.
  • Build a relationship with your customers and prospects.
  • Reduce buyer’s remorse. After a customer buys something on impulse or something expensive, “they feel good if they get something in the mail confirming they did something wise.”

Talk first, then sell

But the benefits aren’t automatic. Your mix of offers, editorial content and graphics must be fine-tuned for your target customers. And then there’s the question of cost. “To pay for itself, a newsletter needs to make a lot of sales for a retailer, [especially if] price points for most items are relatively low,” says Elaine Floyd, a newsletter consultant in St. Louis, MO, and author of Marketing with Newsletters. This is different from a newsletter promoting a typical business-to-business enterprise, she says, “where a single sale might pay a newsletter’s costs for a year.”

On the upside, this means you’re rewarded for showcasing as many of your products and services as possible. “One of the retailer’s biggest challenges is telling customers about all the products and services available,” says Floyd. “Newsletters are great for combatting the ‘I didn’t know you had that’ syndrome.”

Start with content that attracts customers, and follow up with ads and special offers that lead to sales. For example, write about a merchandise category you carry, then run a dollars-off coupon for those products right next to that article, says George Whalin, president of Retail Management Consultants (San Marcos, CA). “Your content should support your marketing message.”

How do you decide what content to put in? The newsletter isn’t about you, the retailer, says Abbott—it’s about your customers. If there’s one simple rule, he says that’s it: build the newsletter on what the customer wants to read, so that they’ll actually read it—because if they read it, they’ll get the selling messages you put in. So you have to start by giving them information that’s useful to them, or interesting or funny, he says.

Just as you target the content to your customers, target your mailing list so that you send the newsletter to the right people. “A newsletter is a great idea,” says Liz Tahir, a marketing consultant in New Orleans. “But qualify your enthusiasm by sending the newsletter only to individuals who have requested it, or who are your top customers.” The idea is to avoid wasting money on printing and mailing to uninterested recipients who will toss it without reading it.

Quick tips to spark sales

Newsletter gurus offer these tips for making your newsletter work to increase sales:

News sells. “Newsletter” starts with “news.” Readers are attracted to newsy items more than anything else. “Couch your items in a news format” as much as you can, says Harry Cartales, president of Newsletters Only, a Seattle-based marketing firm that produces newsletters for businesses. Do you have a new line of merchandise? Write an announcement that tells how it will help readers lead better or happier lives. Then run a store coupon next to the article.

“People don’t want to read a newsletter that’s one big ad, but don’t be afraid of running ads, as long as you separate the two,” says Cartales. “Objective editorial will give your newsletter more clout.”

Nonetheless, make the tone of your newsletter content friendly and inviting. (It’s still a “letter,” after all.) And because people love knowing more about other people, include pictures of your staff, your customers, and yourself.

Create your own column. Speaking of pictures, you have to put one of yourself (usually a head shot) on your column. Yes, you get to write and run your own column in every issue, a personal, friendly me-to-you message. “If your column is written like a general article coming from an unknown person, it won’t do its job,” says Whalin. “But if the reader can relate to the person [in the] picture, it changes the way people look at it and process it,” especially if customers come to your store and recognize you and your staff from the newsletter photos. But Tahir advises not getting too personal. “Chat about personal characteristics that establish your expertise,” for example, but not that you just sent your kids to camp, she says. Stick to your customers’ needs and interests as they relate to your retail business.

Aim at customers,not prospects. Newspaper ads and free-standing coupons attract prospects, but newsletters don’t. One reason is that a newsletter is designed for “insiders”: in this case, customers who already know you and want to know more. They’re far more likely to read most if not all of your newsletter’s content and ads than is someone who doesn’t know you and probably doesn’t care. Another reason: it’s easier to garner repeat sales from existing customers than to turn prospects into first-time buyers. Make your customers feel as if they’re part of your retail family.

Keep it short. The articles, your column, the whole newsletter. People perceive lengthy content as hard work, and won’t bother reading any of it. And that’s a waste of your effort, and your message.

Keep it simple. If you don’t have the time, skill or wherewithal to stuff your newsletter with content and make it a wonder to look at, no problem. You can simplify the process dramatically by sticking to the basics: news in a letter that’s simply written, neat and attractive, and produced on business stationery with your store’s logo. Abbott suggests starting by saying that you’re writing to let customers know what’s new. And if you “avoid the minutiae of desktop publishing and graphics and just send a simple message, it will have a lot of staying power,” he says.

Have fun! In each issue you can include a little diversion—something like a crossword (not too hard but not too easy, either), or a cartoon, checklist, quiz, trivia, recipe… something fun to involve the reader, keep things light, and make your newsletter welcome in their homes.

Try postcards. If you’re short on time, consider using a postcard as a mini-newsletter. Since they’re pretty easy to create and cost less to mail, it may be easy to send them often, each with just one main message (a sale, or new merchandise). The more often they go out, the more your business’s name is in front of your customers.

Via email. Everybody’s doing it, it seems. The biggest advantage? It doesn’t cost you anything for paper, ink, postage. (But make sure your customers have actually subscribed—no spamming!—and that they can easily unsubscribe.) Again, keep the content short. To make your e-newsletter stand out from the crowd, “come up with an offer to motivate people to sign up,” says Floyd. “Maybe every month, you send out a special offer that will only be available to email subscribers.” When you can, hook your special offers to new merchandise or change of season. Plus, if you have a website, promote it here. “You can use email newsletters to draw traffic to [it], where you can post the color photos that may be too expensive to include in your printed newsletter,” she says.

Timing counts. People are constantly hit with retail messages, so you need to cut through the clutter and stay out in front—”top of mind”—by mailing frequently. “You’re getting new merchandise and offering new services all the time, so mail monthly,” says Floyd. And avoid the temptation of letting the calendar—instead of your own sales cycle—dictate your mailing schedule. You’re not tied to a production schedule the way a magazine is, she says. “Look at your seasons. Maybe you want to put out a newsletter every two weeks when things get busy, [and] maybe only once during a quarter when sales are usually slack.”

Keep it going. All too often, a retailer with the best intentions produces and mails or emails a wonderful newsletter—once or maybe twice, never to appear again. If you want it to work and be worth the effort you put into the first and second issue, then commit to publishing regularly according to the schedule you had set up. If you don’t think that’s possible, then it might be better to send a simple letter (as described earlier) every now and then. People have lower expectations for receiving regular “issues” of a letter than a newsletter.

Your mailing list

You could rent a list of names from a list broker, but that’s rarely worth the cost, especially if you’re just getting started. One key reason: the list isn’t targeted. Even if you order names just in your location’s zip code, a sizable percentage of those people will have no use for your products (e.g., you sell dolls, and the list is full of young single men).

The best mailing list is your “house list.” Create one by asking customers to sign up for a newsletter. Just keep a guest book or small notebook and a pen at the cash/wrap. Invite every visitor to sign, even if they didn’t buy something. Another way to generate names for your list: use the entries for any raffles you run at your location and at events you might participate in. Add new names from those entry slips to your list.

The last word

Whatever medium you decide to use—paper, postcards or email—keep your sales message focused, and mail often. That’s the point of newsletters, whatever form they take. So why not start jotting some ideas now—while this article’s here in front of you—and see what you come up with. Chances are, you’ll have enough in those jottings for your first issue, if not more. Then start thinking about the best times to mail. The sooner you put it together and send it on its way, the sooner you’ll see the results.


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