How To Decide If Your Business Needs a Newsletter

Since people pay me to write newsletters for their businesses, I’m mostly in favor of them. But there are some situations where they just don’t work. In this post, I’m going to tell you about three of my past clients. Reading about their experiences with newsletters, and in one instance, social media, may help you make some decisions about your own marketing efforts.

Blueberry or Apple? Sometimes decisions are hard!

Case Study #1 – The Plumber

I live in a small community, on a mountain. There are somewhere around 7,000 residents, and three plumbers. One of those plumbers decided to hire me to improve his company’s web site copy and to write a monthly newsletter.

What kind of content would you like to receive from your plumber? In retrospect (this was one of my first clients) I think that a quarterly newsletter, sent at the beginning of each season, would have been better than a monthly newsletter. It should have included lots of tips on maintaining your home during the upcoming season, a funny story or customer highlight, a coupon of some sort, and maybe a note about the plumber’s family, or even a small community news section.

Instead, I did what the owner asked and sent out a rather bland, monthly newsletter with sort of generic content that was more or less an ad being delivered to customers via email. I will readily accept the blame for  the fact that this newsletter didn’t produce the desired results because hindsight is 20/20. If the same, or a similar, client were to approach me today, my advice would be much different and also much more adamant.

Producing a newsletter that is almost like a community bulletin board is hard work. Telling people how to fix things you get paid to fix feels like a risk. Writing in a very personal way to your customers can feel unprofessional. But those are the ways to make a newsletter work for a company that customers only need to call every few years. It may very well be that your time and money would be better spent on ad space. There is not a one size fits all marketing strategy.

*Note: Every business with a physical location should be findable online. There are still people who keep phone books, but most of us are searching for phone numbers online. Make sure we can find you! 

Case Study #2 – The Hair Salon

Another of my very early customers was a hair salon. The owner of the salon had tried a newsletter and gotten very poor results – along the lines of a 7% open rate. That means only 7% of the people she sent the newsletter to even opened it. Since this was still early in my copy writing career, I wanted to see if a newsletter could be effective for a salon, so I talked the owner into trading three haircuts for three newsletters.

You may be wondering what kind of open rate you should expect. It varies by industry. For the beauty industry the average is around 15%, which I think is absolutely dismal and reflects the fact that there is some bad email marketing going on in that business sector. The average open rate for my clients is around 30% across a range of industries.

For a hair care/beauty related establishment, email marketing can work wonders. By the end of our three months, the salon’s open rate had moved to 27%, and with each issue the owner reported a bump in the number of appointments for the following week. So, what did we change?

We took the stories from general to specific. Instead of talking about trends across the nation, we talked about things that were becoming popular locally. We offered customer spotlights, and included photos of customers. The salon owner kept track of questions customers asked each week and we developed articles based on those questions. We tested subject lines to find out which ones motivated people to open emails. The owner offered exclusive deals to newsletter subscribers.

The salon owner and I talked on the phone about once a week, and exchanged emails a couple of times a week. Generating ideas, finding images or taking photographs, thinking up deals and promotions, and even proofreading the rough draft of each issue took up a significant portion of her time. In this instance, it was worth the effort because it paid off in at least a few appointments more each month. Depending on your resources, time, and situation, you may decide email marketing is not worth the effort. This case study illustrates that poor results from email marketing can be remedied.

Case Study #3 The Truck Repair Business

Of the three case studies presented in this post, this is the one that I hesitate to share. I’m going to be very vague about the details, in an attempt to protect the identity of the company. I met with the CEO who had started his business in the 70s out of a trailer and worked his ass off to turn it into a nationally recognized company with representatives all over the country. There is absolutely no denying his business acumen, and I was flattered he agreed to talk with me.

He had been approached by an agency who had pitched him a digital marketing package. They would handle his company’s Twitter account, blog, and Facebook page – none of which existed at that point. He asked me for a proposal, and my price was a fraction of what the agency was going to charge. He accepted my proposal, and I set about trying to learn how his industry works, and what his needs were. Even though I really believed a newsletter would be an excellent tool for his company, he was unconvinced, because he really hated receiving newsletters from other companies. I began with social media.

He was desperately seeking a salesperson for a particular region at that point, so I offered to try write an ad he could post on a couple of major sites. I mentioned it on his newly-built Facebook page.

As soon as he saw it, he called and scolded me and asked me to immediately take down the post mentioning the job opening. He told me “We are not the kind of company that looks for help in a place like Facebook.” I cannot adequately convey the amount of scorn that went into his voice when he said the word “Facebook.”

I am not now, nor have I ever been a big fan of Facebook for business purposes. It’s hard to deny the power of social media when it comes to filling employment vacancies, though. Maybe he didn’t want his competitors to know he had a vacancy. Maybe he had some other reason, I don’t know.

What I do know is that if you feel annoyed every time you open your email because you have too many messages, if you can’t stand Facebook, if you think Twitter is the stupidest thing ever, and you have no clue what Pinterest is, but you know that anything with a name that dumb is worthless…well, digital marketing is probably not a good place for you to spend your marketing time or budget – no matter what people are telling you.

When you run a small business, you must be comfortable with your marketing activities. It’s okay if you distrust the internet. There is no rule that says that you have to market online. People need to be able to find your company using a search engine, but you don’t have to use email marketing, or any other digital tool, to be successful. Just because something is working for someone else does not mean it will work for you.

Evaluate your customers’ needs, your resources, and your tolerance levels before you make decisions about newsletters or any other marketing tools. Even if the gurus are telling you that you must do a thing, decide for yourself, and if something doesn’t work, abandon it and find something that will work.




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6 Ways to Mess Up Email Marketing

Super secret sale! This Saturday from 4-6pm only! Get 10% off all men’s underwear!”

Have you ever gotten an email that advertises a “sale” where you might save 15 cents, IF you get there at the right time, IF you know what to buy, and IF you know the super secret code word? Poorly executed email marketing annoys people you should be pleasing. It hurts your reputation as a business, and it could even have a negative impact on your sales. Here are six mistakes to avoid:

1. Sending the same thing all the time. You might think you are varying your offer, but a 15% sale on shirts one week, then a 15% sale on skirts the next week, and a 15% off sale on socks the week after that, and on and on for 3 months? I quit opening your emails after the second week, and everyone else probably did, too.

Keep a list of promotions and ideas as they occur to you and refer to it when you need inspiration. It’s a good idea to send email without a promotion now and then – just share information, or advice, or even a joke. It’s fun to not know what to expect when you open an email.

2. Focusing on what YOU need instead of what I need.You opened your business so that you could have more flexible hours, be in control, and live the life you want to live, right? You want to rule out customers who argue about price, or who are rude, or who are always late, or who always complain, or whatever. Focusing on reaching your target audience and your ideal customer is great – just make sure

This dress is a fashion fail! Don’t let your email marketing be a failure too!

you aren’t alienating them in your efforts to rule others out.

Read your emails as if they were coming from a company you do business with as a customer. For example, if you own a clothing store, you could pretend your email is from one of your vendors. Practice seeing things from your customers’ point of view.

3. Overload! Hubspot says their studies have shown that people do not unsubscribe at a higher rate whether they send weekly or daily emails. Even though they are a big, well-known agency with all kinds of expertise, I’m going to have to disagree. Unless I signed up for daily emails, don’t send me daily emails. Or even every-other-daily. You are cluttering up my inbox, taking up my time, and really getting on my nerves.

When deciding how often to click “send” consider both what your subscribers signed up to receive, your own preferences, and whether or not what you have to say is really worth your subscribers’ time.

4. Sending to me without explicit permission. If you require my email address in order for me to complete a transaction and don’t tell me that you are also adding me to your list, it’s not only rude, it’s skirting violating the law. The CAN-SPAM Act exists for lots of reasons. Besides getting my permission, you need to make sure there is a way for me to unsubscribe.

5. Using a horrible template. Just because you can use lime green text on an orange background doesn’t mean you should. Just because you like a 24 point font doesn’t mean everyone else does. You get the idea. Try to take an objective look at your template. Is it hard on the eyes? Do you have to scroll for three days to get to the bottom? Is it cluttered? Are things off-center and weird looking?

It might seem petty, but I’m pretty quick to unsubscribe from ugly newsletters. Of course “ugly” is subjective, but it’s hard to go wrong with the basics. If you have any doubts about your template, go with the simplest, most basic one you can. After all, your message is what’s important, right?

6. Being consistently negative. You don’t have to act like one of the Stepford Wives, but try to look for a little brightness. Chances are, if you are sending out marketing email, you are selling something. Happy people are more likely to spend money.

Of course, if you are selling bomb shelters or something, by all means, be negative and create as much fear as you can muster. Just don’t expect me to subscribe to your emails!

Note: As I was writing this post, it felt a little familiar. Apparently these things have been bugging me for a while. A very similar post appeared on Smiling Tree Writing on February 15, 2012. It bears repeating, though, so I’m posting this one too! Maybe this counts as a blogging mistake, but oh, well. 


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There Is No Right Answer

Yesterday, I spoke to a potential client on the phone. We had already met in person, exchanged emails, and talked in detail about the work he’s considering paying me to do. His main question yesterday: What’s the difference in a blog and a newsletter?

It was an interesting conversation for lots of reasons. On the surface, the answer to his question seems pretty simple. But his real question, the one he didn’t know how to ask, was different. What he really wanted to know was how to use his blog posts and he email list differently for marketing. He couldn’t quite grasp the difference between subscribing to a blog so that you get an email when there is a new post, and a newsletter. I’m not sure he understood it any better when we hung up.

We have more marketing tools than ever before. Most are easy to access, and many are either free or very low-cost. How do you choose which ones to use? What is going to make the biggest impact in the least amount of

Which of the blooms is the best?

time? (Note: I didn’t say for the least amount of money. These days an investment of time is often more costly than an investment of dollars.)

It depends” is generally not what business people trained during a different era and comfortable with a different set of rules want to hear. They want me to sell them something. They want me to list all the reasons they should use email marketing, or social media, or whatever they are thinking about doing, and make them feel good about it the way someone selling ad space might have done at a different time.

But blog posts are not ads and email newsletters are not direct mail, and social media is not the same as Chamber of Commerce networking events – and ad space is still relevant. The digital marketing tools at your disposal can be used successfully in lots of different ways. Your personality, or your brand depending on the size of your organization, plays a huge role in how you should approach marketing. If you prefer a suit and tie, you are probably going to be more comfortable using LinkedIn than Twitter. That’s a broad generalization, but sometimes those are useful.

The individuals who are most successful in digital marketing are not afraid to be who they are, warts and all. If who you are is buttoned-up, perfectly coifed, and pulled together all of the time, then you should choose a niche that celebrates rigidity and formality. Everyone else will most likely find you a little boring. Sorry to be brutal, but it’s true. Humans who make mistakes, laugh, cry, and succeed despite struggles are interesting. They have stories to tell and people like stories.

I’m still struggling with how to explain clearly, simply, and accurately why my potential client should generate different content for his blog and his newsletter because what he really needs to do is share his story – with an audience likely to find it interesting.

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Something Exciting for Me and Something Free for You

It’s no secret that I am really interested in self publication, and since I’m a writer, it’s no stretch to imagine it’s because I want to write and self publish a book someday. And that is the case. In fact, I’ve written a book. It’s not a cool, sexy book about my life or vampires or anything really interesting like that. Instead it’s a book for people who run businesses, but hate to market, and just sort of fumble along, doing a little here and a little there to market their businesses. (People who are very much like me.)

The book is set up so that you get a tip each week, that should only take an hour or two to put into place. The idea is that if you just spend one to three hours a week marketing, you will eventually develop a solid plan that generates good results for your business. It doesn’t have to be painful, and it doesn’t have to exhaust you.

There are lots of tips that involve testing things, because not every marketing strategy will work for every business, or every personality, or every audience. You might be delighted to find that in-person networking is not a good strategy for you, or if you hate writing, you might be happy to see that blogging generates little in the way of results for what you do. The tips guide you through figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

It’s funny that I’ve written a book detailing exactly how to do something I am not very good at doing for myself. It was almost like writing a marketing plan for Smiling Tree Writing, or like writing down everything I have learned in steps that wouldn’t be hard for someone even as lazy as me to take.

Now that the time to publish and market the book is getting so very close, I should probably start implementing the tips to sell the book. Isn’t that an odd notion? I will use the tips that are for sale in order to sell those tips. It’s like some kind of weird brain teaser.

Of course, the fact that I’ve written a book is exciting for me, but why should YOU care? Well, I came up with a few extra tips, and I’m going to be sharing them with folks who are interested in free marketing advice. If you’d like to get the freebies, just sign up for my newsletter. I promise not to spam you, or sell your email address, or send you an email a day. I’m lazy, remember? Hopefully you will smile a little and possibly learn a little, and if you find that is not the case, you can unsubscribe at any time.

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Don’t Be Another Boring Navy Blue Suit

When you are writing for business, there is this terrible temptation to “be professional.” Unfortunately, being professional is often the equivalent of being really, terribly, horribly dull. Think about suits. Suits are not interesting. To tell an expensive one from a cheap one, you have to look at subtle details. You don’t want your business blog to be like a suit because readers are not going to look for the subtle details.

Several years ago, when Smiling Tree Writing was just beginning, a new client told me to look at her biggest competitor’s web site to get ideas for her blog. Then she suggested I could save time and she could save money if I just “copied everything they did.” Aside from the obvious copyright issues, I tried to explain why that approach wouldn’t work. She insisted that her company did the same thing as this other, bigger company and since they clearly had a marketing department, the best thing to do would be to copy them. In her mind, it was like getting a marketing department for free.

Although this client was not sophisticated in stating what she wanted to do, she was also not unusual. If you choose any industry, in any particular location, then look at the web sites, blogs, and other marketing materials of several, you are going to see commonalities. I am not acquainted in any way with these three businesses, but take a look at how this establishment, and this one, and this one are visually similar. At one time, pretty much every photographer in Chattanooga had music and a flash intros on the landing pages of their web sites. Real estate agents tend to have lists of tag words longer than their posts on their blogs.

It makes perfect sense to look at what someone you admire is doing and emulate it. But, it makes more sense to evaluate what the others are doing, then do something a little different.

Be just a little different.

Stand out from the crowd. Distinguish yourself. Show your personality.

Standing out can be tricky, though. If everyone else is wearing a navy blue suit and yours is gray, you might stand out. If your suit is purple, you will definitely stand out, but it might not be a good thing. So, there is a balance to be struck. Most people try to stand out in some small way, and it turns into the equivalent of wearing a novelty tie when everyone else is wearing a solid color tie, and that might be enough, depending on your industry and audience. When I was researching photographers a few years ago, if I found one that did not have music that automatically played when I landed on their site, it was enough to make make me look at them closer.

All of this goes back to your uniqueness – your USP, or unique selling proposition. What is special about you? What makes your widget better than the widgets for sale down the street? Why should I choose your business out of a list of forty results on the first couple pages of Google results? You don’t want to copy the marketing department at Competitor XYZ because they are not you, and being you is one of the biggest advantages you have in the marketplace (even when it doesn’t feel that way).

Have you observed any industries where all of the copy reads the same, or all of the web sites look the same? Do you purposely toe the line that exists in your industry in order to be professional? When you are shopping for a good or a service, are you more likely to look for the business that is different, or do you find comfort in working with someone who seems to know what the standard for his industry is? 



*NOTE: Just in case you are wondering, the first interview with an independent writer will be posted on Thursday. YAY!


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