Category Archives: Putting Writing to Work

Direct Marketing — The More Things Change…

When Julius the cat wants my attention, he jumps on my desk, situates himself between me and the screen, looks at me earnestly, and taps my face with his paw. It’s annoying and endearing at the same time. When his cohort, CC, wants my attention, he prefers to scratch at my leg. Annoying, yes. Endearing, no. While both of these direct communication approaches are effective at getting my attention, one is more likely to get the desired (food-related) result than the other. It’s the same with direct marketing.

While any number of approaches can get your audience’s attention, getting results hinges on finding the approach that appeals rather than repels.

Consider some options:

  • Direct mail is the granddaddy of direct marketing. In my previous job, 10 to 15 years ago, we did a ton of direct mail in the form of conference flyers, event invitations, new product announcements, newsletters, and general product marketing. We also did “3-D” mailers, where we’d target a certain group to receive a nicely packaged gift or gadget, cleverly tied to a product or service we were marketing. Considering printing, postage, mailing list purchases, any packaging and gifts, direct mail can get very expensive, and my clients use it less and less.
  • eMarketing became the next big thing, as people complained about being inundated with paper mail (that they mostly just threw away without reading). So came the slew of e-mail — some more sophisticated than others — and the rise of spam and spam filters. While still popular, eMarketing has its own challenge to reach the right audience, cut through the clutter, and avoid ending up in the trash.
  • Web 2.0 is the term coined for “next generation” uses of the Web to facilitate social interaction and communication, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and blogs. These tools have opened up a new avenue for businesses to market to potential customers, and the trail is still being blazed. Have you been asked to “Friend” a business? Has your company started a blog or do you follow another company’s blog? Have you Tweeted about your company or followed a link in another business’s Tweet? Are you marketing yourself on LinkedIn?

What’s interesting is that as direct marketing evolves, the basic tenets remain the same:

  • Address your audience in a personal way, which means knowing enough about them to gauge their interests and what messages may resonate with them. The more you know about the people you market to, the greater your chance of success.
  • Push benefits.  Don’t tell me about your product or service, tell me what it will do for me and why I can’t live without it.
  • Measure your effectiveness, make adjustments, and measure again. What response did your direct mail letter generate? How many responded to the e-mail version? (You did both, right?) How many hits on your Web site or blog? How does that change if you vary something in your approach — doing a mailer instead of a letter, adding a coupon or other offer, Tweeting about it? Throwing something out there and hoping it works has never been the recipe for successful direct marketing. Make “test and tune” your mantra.
  • Be realistic about response rates. I remember being shocked when I first learned about typical direct marketing response rates — 1 percent, 3 percent, fractions of a percent. That low? Yes, that low. Know your break-even point so you can decide whether a particular direct marketing avenue is even worth the cost.

And of course,

  • Be endearing, not annoying. I can point to the most endearing direct mail solicitation out of the hundreds I’ve received. It was nearly 20 years ago, promoting a literary magazine I had never heard of. But it was so well written, so targeted to capture a young writer’s (and avid reader’s) imagination and dreams of glory, I just had to subscribe. (Turns out, the magazine was way too erudite for me, but I still liked the idea of subscribing to it.)

This piece lives on in my head as the hallmark of effective direct marketing, in stark contrast to the endless (annoying) solicitations for mega-cable/ mega-phone plans that clog my mailbox (and soon my recycling bin) or the spam that slips through my filter.

Can you point to a particularly effective direct marketing solicitation you received? (Maybe the earnest young student telemarketing for your alma mater. Or that preview of a new magazine you couldn’t resist. Or the e-mail pushing an industry conference that was just what you needed.)

Think about why it worked for you, then incorporate some of those qualities into your own marketing efforts. And remember…research your audience, talk up benefits, test and tune, be realistic about results and, above all, aim for an endearing tap on the face rather than an annoying scratch on the leg.

# # #

Make it simple. Make it memorable.
Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.
~ Leo Burnett


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Newsletters — Read or Dead? Part III

In Parts I and II, we looked at what newsletters can do for your organization and what makes them successful…or not. To conclude, we’ll look at some of the many newsletter options as well as some alternatives when a newsletter isn’t the best fit.

An all-purpose “here’s what’s going on” newsletter is where many organizations start. It allows you to cover a variety of topics — often any topic — from highlighting particular projects to plugging a new product to publicizing employee happenings, the latest “we’re going green” initiative, or the company picnic. Organizations choosing this type of newsletter often set up ongoing features or departments (for example, a letter from the CEO, “News from the Shop Floor,” “Employee News,” “Ask the Expert,” and the like).

You can cover a lot of ground in a newsletter like this, and readers can take or leave what they like. Depending on your organization, though, you might consider the impact of a more targeted newsletter — targeted in terms of what you write about and who you send it to.

A software company may focus an “insider” newsletter on a particular product and send only to buyers of that product. A non-profit may highlight a particular program and send the newsletter to that program’s donors. A law firm may cover legal issues related to a particular audience — manufacturing clients, for example.

Targeted newsletters can even be internal to your company — one company I worked for published a newsletter just for employees. It was popular, and helpful to maintain the company’s sense of “family.”

One of my clients publishes a variety of internal (online) newsletters covering various aspects of the business, such as project “wins,” successful examples of interdepartmental cooperation on client projects, and explanations of new initiatives or specific market segments. Along with being informative for employees, the newsletters encourage specific, beneficial business practices, such as looking for opportunities to add value for clients by pulling in experts from other parts of the company.

Targeted newsletters can be short — a page or two, or even just one meaty, e-mailed story — and therefore require less effort. Another advantage — reader interest is likely to be high, assuming you target properly.

Even a poorly aimed newsletter occasionally hits the mark. I somehow got on a mailing list for a sales-focused newsletter — more specifically, how to grow your business by focusing on your sales force.  Every two weeks, it shows up in my e-mail. I could have stopped it long ago (since it offers the all-important opt-out option), but I’m rather impressed by it.  When I take the time to skim it (because I’ve written about sales-related topics and some of my clients have sales forces), the articles are consistently well-written and ring true. I admire the company’s ability to publish consistently and send consistent messages — it’s doing everything right. So I keep receiving it, and maybe someday I’ll be able to pass the company’s name along to a client, or refer to something published in the newsletter for a project.

Sometimes, though, your newsletter isn’t the best primary marketing venue for a particular topic. Ask yourself, is it really “news” or is it a meatier story you want to tell? Would someone skim it over morning coffee or lunch at their desk, or does it take more concentration? Is it important enough to deserve its own venue, its own splash, rather than a shared one?

Some stories, for a variety of reasons, are better off told in another way, perhaps a third-party publication (such as an industry journal), a targeted direct mail campaign, a podcast, or a press release. You can always cross-market by mentioning the article, podcast, etc. in the newsletter. We’ll look more at direct mail, published articles, and the like in future WordPlay at Work posts.

The Bottom Line: Are newsletters read or dead? I believe even in today’s information-saturated world, well-conceived, well-executed newsletters still have their place and the potential to be a positive force for your business. Think “current,” think “useful,” think “targeted” — and most of all, think about what matters to your readers. Don’t know? Ask them!


I have no fans. You know what I got? Customers.
~ Mickey Spillane

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Newsletters — Read or Dead? Part II

Last time, we looked at what newsletters can do for your business. Now let’s look at what makes them successful…or not.

These qualities are key:

Consistent. The newsletter is published regularly (monthly, bimonthly, quarterly, biannually) and has been through several cycles. Readers have learned to recognize and expect it.

Consistency must be your goal if you’re starting from scratch — commit to seeing it through for at least two years. If you’re anticipating monthly , bimonthly, or even quarterly releases, realize this can be a brutal schedule, depending on the scope of your effort and what else is on your plate. Are you sure you’re up for it? Map out at least a few issues ahead to see if you can sustain it.

Targeted. The publisher knows its audience and what interests it, and tailors the newsletter accordingly. For example, I wrote for a software reseller’s newsletter, targeted to professionals in the IT industry. All of the articles focused on IT-related products and issues. Many other types of newsletters are possible and can be successful. We’ll talk more about those in Part III.

How well do you know your clients and their interests? Consider conducting a pre-launch survey to test potential topics (or even the idea of a newsletter at all) if you’re unsure.

Anticipated. Readers look forward to receiving the newsletter, for whatever reason. Maybe because it provides valuable information they can use on the job; maybe because they’re interested in what else your business is working on; maybe because you include an “Ask the Expert” section or FAQs they like to read.

How do you know readers anticipate it? You ask them, or they’ve told you unsolicited. Again, a survey can be helpful to see what sections or features they value (or would like to see) most.

Timely. It’s called a “news”letter for a reason. I wouldn’t use a newsletter to publish articles that aren’t tied to something current — there are other, better options  if you want to talk about certain topics in general.

What do you want to cover in your newsletter? If it’s “new” or “upcoming” or “hot off the press” or has very recently happened, it’s newsletter-worthy. Otherwise, consider other ways to spread the word. I’ll mention some of these in Part III.

Easy to read. This doesn’t mean the newsletter needs a fancy layout and full-color graphics. Simple use of text formatting can make a newsletter easy to read (like this one, for example).

Even if you intend to handle layout in-house, invest in having a professional graphic designer evaluate your proposed design or design a template for you. Even simple changes in fonts, type size and style, line spacing, and the like can make a significant improvement.

Respectful. By this I mean respectful of readers’ time, offering the ability to opt out of receiving further issues or the choice to receive by e-mail instead of regular mail (if the newsletter is printed at all).

Whether you publish in print or electronically depends on your audience, of course. Are they Web-savvy? Do they have online access at work? Cost is another consideration — is it worth it for you to print?

Appropriate. I regularly receive an oversized, full-color newsletter in the mail from my health insurer, and it never fails to annoy me. It offers no option to discontinue it, or receive it online, and all I can think about is my monthly premiums funding it — twice, because my husband receives the same one and both arrive together (and neither of us gives it more than a cursory glance, if that). Similarly, I just received a full-color magazine of sorts from a charity I supported last year — a less deluxe publication would have seemed a more appropriate use of donors’ funds.

First, be sure a newsletter makes sense given your organization and audience. Then, be sure it sends the right message. Glossy or low-key? Fun or strictly business? Creative? Elegant? Bold? As with all of your marketing materials, the newsletter should express and support your brandand have a clear raison d’être that doesn’t leave readers puzzled, or worse, annoyed.

Next time, in Part III, we’ll finish up by looking at different types of newsletters and some of the other publishing options when a newsletter isn’t quite right.


I try to leave out the parts that people skip.
~ Elmore Leonard


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Newsletters — Read or Dead? Part I

Over the years, I’ve edited, written for, and proofread dozens of newsletters for my employers and clients. And, like you, I’ve been on the receiving end of newsletters from various organizations. Some of these have been successful; some haven’t. Here’s why.

First, let’s consider what a newsletter can do for your business.

  • Regularly keep you in front of clients.
  • Position you as an expert in your field, highlighting your accomplishments and allowing you to share your expertise with others.
  • Add value to your clients beyond your normal relationship, giving them information or interpretation they might not get elsewhere.
  • Boost client morale by featuring them in articles or inviting them to be guest authors — and by making them feel good they do business with such an accomplished organization.
  • Boost employee morale by touting their accomplishments or giving them by-line opportunities.
  • Educate, inform, entertain (maybe all 3).

Notice I didn’t say, “Make you money.” Although there’s no reason why a newsletter can’t do that, too, by helping you build customer loyalty and attract new customers, I wouldn’t start a newsletter simply as a money-making tool.  (Unless, of course, you intend to sell the newsletter, á la  Kiplinger, The Motley Fool, or the Harvard Health Letter. That’s a whole other ballgame.) Newsletters are generally a marketing tool or an information tool; making money off them is secondary for most organizations.

Newsletters also have the potential to annoy, send the wrong message, and waste time and money.

Next time, we’ll look at what makes newsletters successful…or not.


You can write about anything, and if you write
well enough, even the reader with no intrinsic
interest in the subject will become involved.
~ Tracy Kidder

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