Eight Streetwise Clues for Publishing a Successful ENewsletter

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What if the real attraction of the Internet is not its cutting-edge bells and whistles, its jazzy interface, or any of the advanced technology that underlies its pipes and wires? What if, instead, the attraction is an atavistic throwback to the prehistoric human fascination with telling tales?"

So begins the introduction to The Cluetrain Manifesto, one of the most intriguing, infuriating, and yet compellingly useful tracts written about doing business on and via the Internet. Long before the dot com bust, the authors of the Manifesto predicted that palatial Web sites built atop deep canyons of content and gussied up with all manner of eye candy and interactive gizmos would fail-and fail miserably.

For no matter how visually appealing, sterile happytalk simply doesn't work online. Much to the surprise of those who squandered millions in the futile quest to build up "sticky" destination Web sites, the lowly, ephemeral email newsletter has turned out to be one of the Net's killer apps. Not because of the technology, but because the best email newsletters provide direct and often individually meaningful content to their subscribers.

Offering a free email newsletter is now considered an essential strategy by just about any company with an online presence. Compared to building a monolithic Web site, it's relatively easy to create a compelling, must-read newsletter that both maintains essential contact with customers and builds brand value and good will. But the effort will be doomed from the outset if you approach the task with traditional tactics, even if you've had relatively good luck building an online Web presence.

Successful newsletters require a different mindset. In the spirit of The Cluetrain Manifesto, here are eight "clues" drawn from the experience of several successful email newsletter publishers, most of whom are probably familiar names to EContent readers.

1. Develop Your Own Voice
"Markets are conversations," says The Cluetrain Manifesto, and conversations are only interesting if those involved have something interesting to say. The best conversationalists, just like the best storytellers, have developed a unique voice that compels others to listen to them. Most newsletters, on the other hand, serve up mindless corporatespeak that makes the reader's eyes glaze over, or, worse, sends the newsletter unread into the trash can.

"I doubt anyone listens to Howard Stern because of his 'subject matter,' says Andrew Goodman, editor of Traffick, an enewsletter that covers Web portals. "Even people who watch the evening news are really just tuning in because it's Dan Rather, or John Roberts, or whoever, since the news always seems so similar to yesterday's news!"

Developing your own voice isn't easy-you need to be willing to take risks and make yourself vulnerable to criticisms or even attacks from the inevitable group of readers who take issue with you. But those who do successfully speak in their own voice develop a loyal following. "When I think of the newsletters I unsubscribe from, they are often dry ones that I feel I 'should' stay on out of a sense of duty," says Goodman. "And when I think of newsletters I stay subscribed to, they are often frivolous gossip that somehow makes a point about business, à la Chris Locke's silly Entropy Gradient Reversals and Penelope Trunk's (Business 2.0) Brazen Careerist."

2. Know Thy Reader
It's easy to imagine your newsletter readers as an anonymous mass. But they're not. They're individuals who have voluntarily subscribed because they believe you can offer something unique, so it's important to make sure you give them what they want. This may be anything from mildly interesting new information to hard-hitting analysis.

Don't be afraid to take stands on particular issues. "I actually hope some people read our stuff because they admire its courage," says Traffick's Goodman. "We've focused on shortcomings in the Open Directory Project, and have taken some heat for this, but the nice thing about taking certain positions is that if you're proven right, people will remember this and listen to you next time."

Positions must be backed by reasons and expertise, though. If your readers expect your voice to be calm and balanced, they'll be put off if you suddenly begin ranting about a particular issue. "Empty spouting can't gain traction long-term, unless you're Rush Limbaugh," says Goodman.

Go beyond just considering whether the content you provide is what your readers want. Two other very important issues are the frequency and length of your newsletter. Respect the time of your reader. When I first began publishing SearchDay, a daily newsletter covering the world of Web search, I wrote lengthy, highly detailed pieces. Rather than being grateful for the information, a number of readers actually complained that I had become a major source of information overload! The lesson here for newsletter publishers is that sometimes less is more.

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