E-Mail Newsletters

(This column first appeared in the November/December 1998 issue of Dive Report)

In my last column, I covered how you would go about promoting your Web site, but neglected to point out that most of the methods of promotion I discussed only dealt with getting first-time visitors to learn about and visit your site. As any good salesman will tell you, first-time buyers are great, but the real money is with repeat customers. The same applies to Web sites – you want to keep your customers coming back to your site.

That’s easy if you have Web content that changes constantly, as is the case with a Web site like CNN’s or USA Today’s. However, for most of us in the dive industry, our Web site content changes rather less frequently, and probably also rather inconsistently. This in turn means that repeat customers can’t expect to visit your site regularly and find new information, so they won’t bother.

The best way to get customers to keep coming back to your site is to let them know when they should come back, and one of the best ways to do this is to this is via an e-mail newsletter. An e-mail newsletter is pretty much what it seems – news specific to your organization, delivered by e-mail. This news can cover new services and products, an update on events that would be of interest to your existing and potential customers, and anything else you want to include which will help you bond with your customers. I should mention that in addition to serving as a way to attract people to your Web site, e-mail newsletters also serve as promotional material in their own right. E-mail newsletters provide two distinct advantages over their printed counterparts. First, production hassles and costs are virtually non-existent. After all, the e-mail newsletter is just text, there are no printing costs, and there’s no postage to be paid. Second, e-mail newsletters can be created and delivered in a very short period of time. I produce a weekly newsletter called the Bonaire E-NewsTM (see http://www.infobonaire.com/html/this_week.html) in a matter of three or four hours, and people have it sitting in their mailboxes mere minutes after I’m done with my final edit.

So, it appears that e-mail newsletters are a no-brainer, right? Not quite.

In preparing this column, I corresponded (by e-mail of course) with Peter Chestnut of Blue Water Photo, Dallas, Texas (bluwater@mindspring.com), Laurie Sutton of Fisheye & Sea-D, Grand Cayman (http://www.fisheye.com), Vicki Howden of Habitat, Curacao (http://www.habitatdiveresorts.com), Ron Marlar of Wet-N-Fla SCUBA, Lake Mary, Florida (wnfscuba@aol.com), and Shellyanne Chase at DEMA (http://www.dema.org), and asked them to share their experiences with the use of e-mail newsletters as a promotional tool.

While universally all of these people were happy with the fact that they had started a newsletter, they all had had some difficulties along the way.

Seven Rules of E-Mail Newsletters
Using the comments of the people I just mention, and my own experience with the topic at hand, I’ve prepared seven rules of creating e-mail newsletters for you to review and use as you wish.

Rule #1 – Clearly define the purpose and goal of the newsletter.
In this context, the “purpose” is what you want readers to understand as the reason they are supposed to read your newsletter. The “goal” is your own personal goal for what you want to accomplish with the newsletter. Without a true purpose and goal, your newsletter will lack focus, and your customers will
assume you don’t know what you’re doing. In fact, to help remind both you and your customers of what your newsletter’s purpose is, you should include the purpose in each edition of the newsletter. Peter Chestnut does this with his Blue Water Newsletter:

A NEWSLETTER that addresses Questions, updates on new films, processes etc.
CLASSIFIED ADS for Underwater Photo Gear & other stuff
MISCELLANEOUS Bits & Pieces that might be of interest

The goal of the newsletter can be anything, although to make it worthwhile to continue doing, there is usually some sort of financial reward usually attached. Most often, the goal of a newsletter will be to remind customers about the newsletter originators products and services in order to get those customers to ultimately spend more money on such products and services. According to Laurie Sutton, the goal of her Fisheye Netnews is to “Keep people interested in diving Cayman and Fisheye, and keep them feeling that they are part of our ‘family’”.

Rule #2 – Good Content is a Must!
People are not going to read your newsletter just because you wrote it. You must provide content which is interesting and useful, and present it in a fashion which is in tune with your customers.

Ron Marler accomplishes this with his newsletter for Wet-N-Fla SCUBA by providing key details about his upcoming dive shop sponsored dive trips, injecting a little humor in a few places, and mentioning the accomplishments of some of his customers and students. His approach helps show his customers that he knows their time is valuable so he isn’t going to fill it with fluff.

Vicki Howden’s Freedom Journal for Habitat Curacao addresses a different audience, namely people looking for an escape from their daily routine, perhaps to a nice Caribbean island resort, so her newsletters contain more a little more prose wrapped around the basic information she wants to impart. Her audience wants to spend a little more time reading because it helps them visualize something they are not exposed to all that often.

Rule #3 – Be Timely
I get pretty annoyed when I get a piece of mail that announces some really interesting event, only to discover that the event has already happened and for some reason I got the announcement late. With e-mail newsletters, there’s no excuse for this to happen. Because your delivery time is virtually nil, you should be able to plan your content so that it gives people enough time to review your newsletter and participate in scheduled events you announce with your newsletter.

Similarly, be consistent with the frequency of your newsletter. If your newsletter is supposed to be monthly, send a newsletter out every month, or, if you don’t have any news for a given issue, let people know that there won’t be a newsletter that month. If you promise one thing, and deliver another, customers
will translate that as a behavior that you use in business dealings too.

Rule #4 – Make it User Friendly
The best e-mail newsletters I receive provide several user friendly features. First, if they cover more than a couple of items, they include a table of contents right at the beginning so I can see if there’s anything in the newsletter that’s of interest to me.

Second, good newsletters have a consistent look and feel. I can tell with a single glance where one article ends and another one starts because they use the same delineator all the time.

Third, good e-mail newsletters have no special formatting (different fonts, bold or italic highlighting, etc.) – just plain text, with less than 80 characters per line to avoid odd-looking line wrapping. If special formatting is recommended to enhance the newsletter in some way, it’s available as an option – you can subscribe to the plain text version or to an enhanced HTML (the same format Web pages are in) version of the e-mail. CNN offers this for all their daily newsletters (see http://cnn.com), for example.

Finally, good e-mail newsletters do not contain file attachments with graphics, executable files, or documents in a specific word processing format. If any of these is recommended, then instead a link to a Web page containing these items should be included in the text of the newsletter.

Rule #5 – Quality is Key
Any materials you produce reflect on your organization. If the materials you produce are of poor quality, it implies your company’s products or services are of poor quality as well. In terms of e-mail newsletters, quality is judged by spelling, grammar, and factual accuracy. So, check your spelling and have someone with good command of the language the newsletter is written in proofread and edit your effort before you send it out. And, always check your facts. The most commonly erroneous facts are phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Web links. If you’re not sure about something, either don’t include it, or make sure that readers know that you are stating your opinion.

Rule #6 – Respect Your Audience
Without an audience, your newsletter is useless, so you need to show respect for your audience. First, don’t assume that they are stupid. Be truthful in what you write.

Second, understand that your audience does not have huge amounts of time to devote to your newsletter. Make it easy for them to quickly review the information they provide.

Third, not everyone wants to read your newsletter. Make it easy for people to remove themselves from your mailing list. Also, make sure people know that there’s a real person behind the newsletter that they can contact with any issues pertaining to such a removal, and respond to concerns. And, don’t wantonly
send out your newsletter to any e-mail address you can get your hands on – this is called spamming and is the current scourge of the Internet. Instead, send a short note to potential subscribers offering them your newsletter, and don’t take offense if they don’t respond. As an example of how to screw up all of these items, Rodale’s Scuba Diving recently published its first e-mail newsletter. I got five unsolicited copies of the same newsletter, and when I complained that while one copy would be fine, but five wasn’t, I couldn’t easily find who to contact, nor did I ever receive a response once I did finally find an e-mail address to complain to. This shows either a complete lack of organization or a serious disregard for the audience, and neither is very impressive. In fact, when I recently received a request from Rodale’s to swap my mailing lists (something we don’t do anyway) for the Bonaire E-News for some free advertising, I turned it down based on the lack of respect Rodale’s exhibited for me as a member of their audience – I wouldn’t want them treating my subscribers like they treated me.

I should add that there are a number of legitimate ways to get subscriber e-mail addresses. At Habitat Curacao and Fisheye, they have added a line to the dive waiver forms asking people to include an e-mail address if they want to receive the newsletter. For the Bonaire E-News, we post each issue on the InfoBonaire
Web site and document how people can add themselves to the mailing list. DEMA sends its DEMAlog to all DEMA members it has e-mail addresses for.

Finally, respect your audience’s privacy. Promise them that you will not give out their e-mail address, and, when you send e-mail make sure to put all your addressees on the “BCC” (Blind-Carbon-Copy) address line of your e-mail software so that their e-mail address doesn’t show up for all other subscribers (and your competitors) to see.

Rule #7 – Choose The Right Tools
In addition to the newsletter itself, mailing e-mail newsletters requires a list of addressees and some software to do the mailing for you. This software exists in two forms. The first resides on your computer, and can be as simple as your normal e-mail software package. I use Eudora Pro 4.0, and have put my 500+ subscribers for the Bonaire E-News into my address book. The same can be done in most other e-mail software.

If you want to personalize the e-mail, akin to how mail merging works in word processing software, you could look at a package like WorldMerge (http://www.softwaretitles.com/worldmerge/), which Habitat Curacao was experimenting with, or MailKing (http://www.mailking.com) which I have experimented with.

The other scenario is to use a mailing list manager residing on a mail server. The most common of these mailing list software packages are Majordomo and Listserv, and require quite a bit of work to set up to work the way you want, and usually require the involvement of someone at the company offering the mail servers (such as your local ISP). I just came across a more user friendly remote list manager called ListBot (http://www.listbot.com), which gives list owners a Web-based management interface. All of these work by sending your newsletter to one specific e-mail address. The remote mailing list software then broadcasts your newsletter to all the e-mail addresses on the list you set it up with. The remote mailing list software offers the ability to allow people to automatically subscribe and unsubscribe from your mailing list, but you need to make sure that they are set up so that only you can send messages to the whole list. Otherwise your competitors could use your list to contact your customers.

E-mail newsletters are an excellent way to communicate with and excite your existing and potential customers, but you need to make sure you do it right. After all, you want to impress your audience and not turn them off.

On a separate note, if you’re going to DEMA, you may want to catch one of my two Internet sessions. One will include a panel of dive industry members sharing their pain and gain from Internet marketing (at this time I’m still looking for panelists, so please contact me if you have Internet marketing experiences you’d like to share), and the other is a presentation to help people understand how the Internet can be made to work for them. Hope to see you there!