10 tips on producing winning newsletters

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Author: Eric Gershman
Date: Sept. 1993
From: Bank Marketing(Vol. 25, Issue 9)
Publisher: Bank Marketing Assn.
Document Type: Article
Length: 3,567 words

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There are 10 rules that marketing directors should follow when designing a newsletter aimed at cross-selling customers. First, they should designate a chain of command. Second, the managers should consider the audience to be targeted. Third, they should set the goals that need to be reached. Fourth, they should select the appropriate format for the newsletter. Fifth, they should select the proper frequency of publishing the communication tool. Sixth, they should choose an informative name for the publication. Seventh, these directors should never forget that the information is critical to the newsletter. Eighth, they should coordinate the processes involved in the production. Ninth, they should solicit for qualified responses from readers. Lastly, the managers of the newsletter programs should print more newsletters than are necessary.

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Internal and external news can be effectively communicated if you follow these 10 steps--and 9 cautions.

Customer service has evolved into a mostly reactive phenomenon. The most important strides in customer service are essentially being made in technology, where the advent of imaging customer documents and sophisticated MCIF systems are improving service when a customer calls or enters a branch. But what of proactive customer service, where banks are going above and beyond the call of duty to extend service outward? What possibilities exist for banks seeking to cross-sell customers by developing tools that reach customers without being intrusive? The truth is a dynamic customer newsletter may be a lone warrior, and one of the most effective tools to cross-sell customers proactively.

By some estimates, there are well over 100,000 "private label" newsletters being published in this country, and departments within banks--from credit cards to trust to commercial products--certainly contribute their share.

While average direct mail response levels of 1 percent to 2 percent hold true for newsletters as well, it is not unusual to find actual readership in the 60 percent to 75 percent range. How can you take advantage of a medium that close to three-quarters of your customer base will spend two to eight minutes reading?

Whether you are currently publishing a newsletter or planning to create one, these facts point to a more realistic vision of your newsletter--from a medium with a few articles on your products and services to one of tremendous and important selling advantages. Marketing directors with successful programs know that their newsletter is nothing short of a powerful tool that works every day to inform, educate and sell. Let's examine 10 commandments (and 9 stern warnings) for making your newsletter the marketing tool it can be.

1. Designate a Chain of Command

A newsletter is a personal message from your organization to your exclusive customer base. It is not unusual for senior management at your bank to want at least partial say about issues such as writing style, content or graphics. While the very success of your newsletter resides in its ability to get many areas of your bank talking to one another, designating a team with clear decision-making responsibilities is critical.

Sherry Costanzo, assistant vice president for CoreStates Bank, N.A., a $23 billion bank headquartered in Philadelphia, agrees. "It is important to keep a newsletter full of fresh ideas, and this requires involving many people within the bank."

Costanzo, whose newsletter "Trust Talk" reaches 5,000 plan sponsors and prospects of the Institutional Trust Area, runs her newsletter program with a careful eye toward providing useful information. "We see the newsletter as a sort of goodwill gesture, sponsored by CoreStates' Trust and Investment Group. It supplies our customers and prospects with information they must keep abreast of about issues in the industry, in addition to highlighting the CoreStates' Trust products and services that can make their jobs easier or make their money work harder. This may involve talking to anyone from a current portfolio manager to a salesperson, but final decisions are made by the new and better team."

Costanzo, who uses a professional newsletter management group to assist the bank, has nonetheless designated one person on her staff to supervise the internal coordination between the bank and its vendor.

A Word to the Wise: Lack of a formalized decision-making structure within a bank is the single greatest obstacle to producing a winning newsletter. The "too many cooks in the kitchen" adage is especially true when producing a newsletter. Inform newsletter committee members of the time commitment a quality newsletter will take beforehand, and obtain the permission of all supervisors to make all final decisions.

2. Know Your Audience

The dramatic growth of defined contribution plans has created critical needs for educational newsletters that inform plan participants about the basics of investing. Conversely, a newsletter directed at private banking customers with average assets under management approaching $500,000 requires a very different tone, message and overall look. Clearly defining your audience and goals--before even opening a new file on your word processor--is criical to the success of your newsletter program.

Let's say you are producing a newsletter for your seniors market. Every decision, from type size to colors to the age of the models in the photographs, must take into account your readership. For instance, the American Association of Retired Persons recommends using a minimum of 12-point copy size and avoiding such common features as coated stock (because of its glare) and screens that reduce type legibility. Seniors view themseles leading lifestyles on average 15 years younger than their age, and photographs in your newsletter need to contain models that reflect this perception.

A Word to the Wise: A common error in newsletters is to "write for the writer." Banks that fail to define their newsletter audience clearly fall into a dangerous trap where the information presented is either overly sophisticated or insultingly simple for the reader. One way to avoid this mistake is to obtain software that can evaluate your articles and assign them a classroom reading level. One such package written for the Macintosh is GrammatikMac, (800) 321-4566, available at most software stores.

3. Define Your Goals

A newsletter needs to justify its own existence by producing tangible results, and defining goals upfront is one of your first crucial steps. While many marketing directors are content to cite objectives such as "better communications" and "improved public relations," experts recommend you avoid these generalities.

Instead, ask your newsletter committee what will have been achieved after producing four issues of your newsletter. Will it open up annuity contracts? How many? Will it turn private banking customers into trust customers? By what percentage? Setting and meeting clear, definitive objectives is the heartbeat of a successful newsletter program and will be the central factor in obtaining funding for the program.

A Word to the Wise: Define your goals in terms of the reader. Fleet Investment Services, part of the Fleet Financial Network, publishes a newsletter for branch level personnel to inform them of the bank's groundbreaking family of Galaxy Mutual Funds. Timothy Forbes, assistant vice president for Fleet, says, "We defined our goal as educating our branch personnel in order to increase referrals to our actual mutual fund sales force, the investment specialists." Forbes, who also made the decision to outsource his newsletter program to a professional newsletter group, concludes: "It has to be written in such a manner as to provide just the right amount of information in order for our employees to make a quality referral."

4. Develop a Format

South Bank in Birmingham, Ala., is a diversified institution that produces several newsletters directed at various customer segments of the $11.1 billion bank holding company.

"We have gone through tremendous efforts to format each publication clearly," says Valerie Holman, vice president for the bank. "For instance, we recognize that our seniors market requires specialized information to help this customer base make informed decisions about their financial lives. As a result, we've specifically created a niche newsletter called PrimeTime Perspective that serves this market, and we include article content of great interest to retired and near retired individuals."

One way to format a newsletter is to divide the newsletter into sections. By identifying the major strengths of the bank, you can begin to identify major topics that should be covered in each issue. If one strength of the bank is its commercial loan officers' strong relationship with their customers, create a page featuring interviews with customers on their experiences with the bank. By repeating this section in the newsletter but interviewing a new customer each issue, you will create consistency while keeping the material fresh.

Not take this to the next logical level. Assign each of your staff members a specific section of the newsletter for which he or she will be solely responsible. Delegating tasks will streamline the overall management of your newsletter program.

A Word to the Wise: Avoid formatting your newsletter to heavily emphasize products. Instead make your product discussions come as solutions to the legitimate issues raised in your story. But don't bury you product discussions inside stories, your readers may never get there. Instead separate them out in "sidebars" so they call attention to themselves without diluting the informational tone of your primary story.

5. Decide on Frequency

How often should you publish your newsletter? Quarterly, three times a year, every month? Too often banks make this decision based upon their own time constraints instead of the best interests of the reader.

The timeliness of the information within your newsletter is the single factor that should dictate the frequency of your newsletter. For instance, a bank publishing a newsletter for its corporate trust customers may time its publication around fiscal quarters to report performance numbers. An investment services company within a bank may choose to publish its newsletter monthly to reinforce systematic investment plans. A bank's credit card division may choose a bimonthly schedule to announce frequent card use premiums without over saturating its customer base with a monthly publication encouraging use.

AmSouth Bank's Holman prefers the quarterly approach. "We try and listen to our customers, understand their informational needs, and then come out with a timely publication," she states. "We make sure that each newsletter we publish has important news in it, such as the announcement of a new program, a significant performance achievement or another tangible benefit. This reduces the perception on the part of customers that the newsletter is merely a sales letter."

A Word to the Wise: Pay carefull attention to your data base to ensure that households are not receiving several publications featuring similar information. Studies show that customers perceive this common error as impersonal and sloppy--exactly what you do not want!

6. Choose a Name that Makes a Statement

Check your mail tonight when you get home. There's a newsletter from your cable company called Trends. There's also a newsletter from your health club called Update. Or is it the other way around? Names such as these promote vague and nondescript messages, and should be avoided in favor of more specific nameplates.

Many banks sponsor contests among employees to name their newsletters. The right name states a clear message related to the goals of your publication. AmSouth Bank's commercial services newsletter, Business Rewards, immediately tells busy small business owners what they have in their hands, and how they might benefit from it. So deoes Houston-based Bank United's newsletter, Investment Strategies, a newsletter designed to keep investors abreast of important economic and political trends.

"The name of the newsletter is the first contact a customer has with the publication. It must quickly communicate the intent of the newsletter and instantly make the point that the newsletter is a helpful information source, not a sales device," says Holman, a strong believer in hiring a single professional newsletter group to manage the responsibilities of producing the banks' newsletters.

A Word to the Wise: Here are the most commonly used newsletter names in the country. Use them in consort with a descriptive adjective (as in Bank United's case of placing the word "Investment" in front of "Strategies").

7. Newsletters Must Contain News

Your newsletter is competing for the attention of your customer--so it must contain genuine information that is useful and provides value. Many newsletters fail by not understanding this simple point.

Understand the mission of your newsletter. It is a medium to help people understand the daily stock market, or is that job best left to the daily paper? It is a medium that gives customers ideas on how to spend their summer vacation, or is that best left to travel magazines? Avoid competing with other magazines and newspapers in a game you are sure to lose.

Your newsletter, on the other hand, can be a medium that helps people prepare and obtain a loan, get more out of their credit card, diversify their portfolio with your mutual funds or formulate a savings plan. These are all ideas that lend themselves to good news articles that will help people lead healthier financial lives while positioning your bank as the solution. They are also ideas that your bank is uniquely qualified to provide. In a word, these ideas are news.

CoreStates' Costanzo is careful to balance any product information with genuine news in her bank's plan sponsor publication. A recent issue of Trust Talk asked "Where is Global Custody Heading?" and explained "How Communications is the Key to 400(k) Plan Participation." These stories were featured alongside CoreStates' product information on the bank's securities custody services and participated in the communication program. Similarly, a recent issue of Bank United's newsletter prominently featured a story on Clintonomics and investing in bonds.

A Word to the Wise: Obtaining news is a continual commitment that requires daily monitoring. Start by defining a list of publications, newspapers and journals that you or your staff will scan daily for information and ideas. Also, public data bases such as CompuSurve (1-800-848-8199), America OnLine (1-800-827-6364) and Prodigy (1-800-776-0845) tap you into a world of data that you can use in your publications. More specialized data bases such as Dow Jones Information Service (1-800-522-3567), or (609) 452-1511 for the company's News Retrieval service, provide superior business coverage that you can download to hard copy right in your office.

8. Map the Process

Creating a financial newsletter is a management job. The coordination of processes, from brainstorming story ideas to choosing a printing source, requires a trafficking of responsibilities and a division of labor. That's why sticking to a rigorous schedule is the only way to produce a newsletter on time, every time.

Let's take a look at a quarterly newsletter. Starting time should be 90 days before mail delivery of your newsletter to your customer. "A few of our newsletters have an editorial board that reviews story ideas upfront," says Holman. "This is a time where we can group together people within each product division to discuss issues and communicate with one another. These sessions are always immensely beneficial for producing timely stories." This is also the time you want to begin the overall design of your newsletter.

Next, start the research process 10 weeks prior to mail delivery, and finish research within two weeks. If, for instance, your topics committee decides to interview a product manager, the research process involves acutally conducting that interview. Journals and facts need to be checked to decide on story content and focus.

WritEng copy is the next stage of the process, and it should be handled by an expert within your organization or out-sourced to a competent professional. A four-page, 11" x 17" newsletter containing two to six articles should take no longer than a week a write. But writing newsletter copy is a special art: it requires a thorough understanding of financial concepts and an ability to write short articles that educate and inform. Headlines require nouns and verbs and should make a statement that the reader can scan. The body copy itself needs to follow classic rules of journalism where important subject matter is essentially told in the first paragraph. Most important, good newsletter writing always emerges through rewriting.

Copy approval usually involves sending the document through the original topics committee, legal counsel and any regulatory bodies such as the National Association for Securities Dealers (NASD). If, for instance, your newsletter touts investment products, review NASD sections 134 and 482 of the Securities Act of 1940 for compliance.

Pagination is a term that applies to the layout of your articles within the four-page newsletter, and immediately follows the copy approval process step. Artists with experience in newsletter production must be retained to bring your copy to its artistic rendition. "The newsletter is as much a visual experience for the reader as it is a copy one," says Forbes of Fleet Bank. "Graphics need to be well thought through and should sum up the article in a visual sense." Allow one week to create your pagination.

A reliable printer is as much as part of a timely newsletter as the writing, and for print runs under 1 million, five business days is plenty of time. Treat your vendor as a partner because changes on press and tight deadlines require a close relatonship. Remember, your printer views your newsletter project as ongoing work and places a higher priority on it because of its possibilities for repeat business. Hire the right printer for the job: for instance, if your newsletter is a straightforward two-color production, you do not require the services of a more sophisticated print shop whose primary business is high-end, four-color glossy brochures.

A Word to the Wise: Many banks purchase desktop publishing equipment with high hopes of streamlining the production process. The truth is, desktop publishing is only as good as its operators. You still need an accomplished writer, a strong artist, a photographer, illustrator, research, an editorial board and an experienced printing source. Banks whose intention is to reduce costs by purchaseing desktop publishing may find the opposite effect if the right people are not assigned to the right job.

9. Get Qualified Responses

Response to your newsletter is a far cry from qualified responses. If you were to give away $1 to every reader who responded, or a full-color brochure on a related subject, you would get high response levels. But how qualified is that response in reachng customers who are willing to purchase more products or services in the short term?

Studies show that qualified respondents are those apt to do the most work in communicating a message. Ask yourself: have I ever clipped a coupon from a newspaper, filled it out, obtained a stamp, placed the coupon in an envelope and mailed it? Readers who go to this extraordinary effort are usually far more interested in the subject than those seeking free information or a promotion.

Obtaining qualified responses may include placing interactive media within your newsletter. Try putting in a crossword puzzle, a detailed survey, a fax-back response card, a work-sheet or a word find puzzle. Your goal in producing response is getting the most response, but the most qualified response to the offers and information you have placed within the walls or your publication.

A Word to the Wise: Good process is done by design, and bank marketers who hava enjoyed the highest levels qualified response have designed the response mechanism around the reader. "By putting in a crossword puzzle that allows our platform people to test their investment knowledge, we have received hundreds of responses to our newsletter from a print run of roughly 6,000," Forbes states proudly. "I suspect that this approach gives our branch employee readers a way to request additional information in non-threatening manner. This is precisely our goal."

Use the right mechanism for the right audience. For instance, commercial customers may prefer a toll-free fax-back reply, while trust customers may prefer to call their account officer. To be safe, bank marketers should give their newsletter several ways to respond.

10. Print More Than You Need

A newsletter eventually becomes paper on a press, and on a relative scale, paper is inexpensive. The difference in cost, for instance, between 50,000 and 51,000 2-color newsletters can often be less than $100. This is nothing short of an invitation to rethink your distribution, and use your newsletter for increased selling efforts.

Here are a few ideas: use your selling force and charge them with the responsibility of distributing a portion of your newsletter run with a personal letter; give out a copy of your newsletter at a seminar you sponsor; include the last four issues in your fulfillment package to demonstrate your ongoing commitment to communicate; give a handful to your CEO for him or her to distribute to key clients with a personal message; conduct a target mailing to a new ZIP code, or to a specific customer base, such as lawyers, doctors or customers involved in your investment products.

If your have a sizable customer base, a newsletter may be one of the most important proactive links you have. You may charge your selling force with the responsibility of calling each customer, but this is uncontrollable. Telemarketing can be highly impersonal and expensive. A newsletter is a relatively inexpensive way to interest your customer in doing more business -- investment, mortgage, credit card, credit -- with your bank. Given this level of importance, understand any limitation your bank has from the beginning. If your do not have the resources to publish a truly outstanding publication, consider the services of a competent newsletter management group that specializes in finanacial newsletters.

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