How to avoid the most-common company newsletter mistakes
by David Kandler
Editor's Note: The author of this article, David Kandler, is the founder and president of CompanyNewsletters.com, an Internet firm that produces newsletters for companies throughout the United States. Learn more about how his firm can help your company produce printed and electronic newsletters.
Over the years, I've been asked by numerous company newsletter editors for my advice on how to improve their publications.
After critiquing a wide variety of customer and employee newsletters, I noticed there were weaknesses that were common to the majority of the publications. Much of the advice I'd give one editor would also be relevant to other editors.
The following is a summary of the most-common mistakes that newsletter editors make, and more importantly, how to correct those problems.
Mistake #1: Your newsletter isn't published regularly
For obvious reasons, it's vital you keep your commitment to readers. If you tell them they'll receive your newsletter every month, make sure you live up to that promise, or your company loses credibility with readers.
Quite often, I receive customer newsletters in the mail in which the company proudly announces that this is the first issue of its new quarterly publication, and that I should be sure to watch for new issues every three months. About 5 months later, I'll receive the long-overdue second issue. After that, the newsletter invariably dies and I never receive another issue again.
The reason this happens is that editors of company newsletters are typically given this responsibility in addition to their regular job duties. For instance, a sales person who is a good writer may be put in charge of producing a customer newsletter. A human resources specialist may be assigned the task of creating an employee newsletter.
Never having served as a newsletter editor before, these employees - and their bosses - generally don't realize how much time is required to produce a quality newsletter.
As a guideline, it usually takes a non-professional writer about seven hours to write, proofread and revise the editorial content for each page of an 8.5-by-11-inch newsletter. That means a four-page newsletter requires about 28 hours of editorial time. If the editor is also handling the newsletter's design and layout, you can add even more hours to the estimate.
If the company underestimates the time required of its employees to produce the newsletter, the publication will suffer. The company may find that the production of each issue is delayed because the editor simply can't find enough time to do his or her normal, everyday job duties, as well as the additional newsletter duties. Eventually, the company realizes that the newsletter is taking the editor away from his or her regular job duties too much, and the newsletter is given the ax.
The solutions: A company should make sure that its newsletter editor has enough time freed up to produce a quality newsletter on time. If that's not possible, the company should assign other employees to help the editor with the writing, proofreading, etc. And if all employees are too busy to set aside enough time to help produce a newsletter, the company should consider hiring an outside company to produce all or parts of the newsletter.
Mistake #2: Using headlines that aren't descriptive or catchy
Which of the following employee newsletter headlines would be more likely to get you to read an article?
You probably picked the second headline because it's more descriptive, and it's more likely to pique your interest.
Headline writing is an extremely important function for newsletter editors because the quality of each headline determines whether or not its corresponding article will be read. Your newsletter may feature the most interesting, well-written article in the world, but readers may skip over the story if it has a boring, non-descriptive headline.
How can you write a catchy, descriptive headline? For starters, make sure your headline is a complete sentence and contains a verb.
Some good and bad examples:
Bad headline: A
message from our CEO
Bad headline: Customer
Bad headline: News
from our regional offices
When writing an article's headline, also be sure to pull the most interesting news out of the story and make that part of the headline. The "better headlines" above illustrate this.
In some cases, as in the "Customer spotlight" headline above, you may want to use an incomplete sentence as a title for an article. For instance, if your newsletter regularly features a "customer spotlight" article in each issue, there's nothing wrong with specifying which article that is. However, use the words "Customer spotlight" as a smaller subhead, and then use a more-descriptive, complete sentence for the article's main headline. For instance, it might look like this:
Mistake #3: Using headlines that are all the same size
If all of a newsletter's headlines are the same size, none stands out. However, if you vary the size of your headlines, like major newspapers do, you will make your newsletter look more interesting and help readers prioritize the order in which they should read the articles (from most important to least important).
Generate greater interest in your newsletter's more-important stories by using larger headlines. Likewise, use smaller headlines for less-significant, shorter articles.
Mistake #4: Writing weak lead sentences
After a headline, the next most-important part of an article is the lead (first) sentence.
Just because readers start an article doesn't mean they'll finish it. If a lead sentence is boring and doesn't capture the attention of readers, people may not read any further.
For hard-news stories, journalists go by the rule: Write the article so the information that is most important to the reader is listed first.
For instance, say you were writing an article for your employee newsletter about your company's annual shareholders' meeting, which recently took place. Some writers would be tempted to start the story as follows:
The annual shareholders' meeting was held Feb. 10 at the Midtown Holiday Inn, in Orlando, Fla.
This is a poor lead sentence because most readers probably don't care exactly where or when the meeting was held. They want to know what important information came out of the meeting. A better lead sentence would be:
Acme CEO Katherine Watkins unveiled plans at the recent shareholders' meeting to aggressively cut the corporation's expenses next year by 15 percent.
This lead sentence gets to the most important information first and would likely grab the attention of readers more than the other lead sentence.
Mistake #5: Using too many type styles and fonts in your newsletter
Certainly, you've seen these newsletters before. They look like the layout person just bought a new package of fonts and wanted to try out all 500 new type styles in one newsletter.
Luckily, not all newsletters are that bad. But many lack a uniform, consistent look because too many type styles are used.
Instead, newsletter editors should follow the lead of major newspapers. These publications use only one type style and type size for the main text of their articles and only one or two styles of fonts for headlines and subheads.
Remember to use the same type style and size for the main text of all your articles. If your story is too long for the layout space available, don't reduce the type size so everything will fit. Instead, cut words from your story, so you can keep the body text consistent throughout all articles.
By limiting your use of different type styles and keeping your article text uniform, your newsletter will look consistent from one page to the next, and your publication will establish its own identity in the minds of readers.
Want proof of how a publication can establish its own identity? Try this: From a distance, show various people an inside page from USA Today and ask what newspaper they think the page is from. Because of the newspaper's uniform, consistent look, you'll likely find that most people will instantly identify that the page is from USA Today.
That's the same familiarity that you want readers to have with your newsletter.
Mistake #6: Laying out articles on the page so they're all one-column wide
To maximize layout possibilities while keeping column widths reasonable, I recommend a three-columns-per-page design for a standard 8.5-by-11-inch newsletter. Then vary the number of columns that each article stretches across.
For instance, with a larger article, you might run it at the top of the page across all three columns (see sample at right). Below that and to the left, you may decide to place an article that stretches two-columns wide. And to the right of that, you could fill in the remaining space with a one-column story.
This multi-width layout is far more interesting to look at than a layout where all articles are the same width.
Mistake #7: Not using photos in your newsletter
Using photos in your newsletter is probably the best way to draw-in readers and make your newsletter look visually exciting. Readership experts have concluded that when people look at a page, the first thing their eyes are attracted to are photos.
Pictures also make articles more memorable for readers. It's one thing to read about a company's new sales manager, whom you've never met. But when you also see a photo of that person along with the article, it makes the story much more personal and impactful.
Photos also add credibility to a newsletter because they put the look of the publication more on par with a newspaper or magazine, both of which use photos generously.
Why don't more newsletter editors use photos in their layouts? It's mostly because coordinating the photography requires extra work and a lot of lead time to plan. However, most editors find that the extra effort pays off because the enhanced look can dramatically improve readership.
Too often, photos are nothing more than an afterthought that takes place after all the newsletter's articles have been written. Then there is not enough time to coordinate the taking and developing of the photos. Make sure to plan ahead for photos. The best way to do this is, when you are putting together an article outline for your next newsletter issue, list out a photo possibility for each major story.
For instance, if you plan to feature a story about your company's new human resources director, make a note to "arrange head and shoulders studio photo" of the employee. Or if you are doing an article about a new plant that your company is opening in Miami, make a note to "arrange to have photo taken of new plant's assembly line."
Once you have your story outline done for the upcoming issue, simply assign the photo duties along with your story assignments.Read more newsletter ideas, tips and "how to" articles from CompanyNewsletters.com.
To learn more about the author's firm and how it can produce printed or online newsletters for your company, see http://CompanyNewsletters.com or call 952/892-6943.
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