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Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Could I interest you in one of my "Ready, fire, aim" rejects?

My partner often accuses me of writing the copy then looking at the brief.

She is right. It's amazing that I ever produce anything that works.

A good example has come up in the last week.

A lady asked me to write a piece for a fundraising magazine. I normally write for money, but as it was fundraising I did it for nothing. This was a mistake, as the publishers are very wealthy.

But anyhow, what I gave them was not what they really wanted. They wanted a "toolkit" -whatever that is. I think it's a "how to" piece.

What they got was this. It may not suit them, but it might suit you.

My title was What makes a good newsletter? Lessons I learned the hard way and it read like this:

First, a confession. I am barely qualified to write this. I have never published or even written for a charity or fundraising newsletter.

So take this as one man’s point of view - and feel free to disagree.

However, I have owned a newsletter, and I have worked for at least 20 non-profit organisations – from my late mother’s animal rescue home to Save the Children to The Arsenal Supporters Trust. And I have been paid to advise people in the public sector on what to do with their newsletters

From this I have arrived at a few conclusions - things you ought to do and things you should never do.

I learned what not to do the hard way. I paid for my lessons. This happened four decades ago. I bought a newsletter from a man who knew a great deal more about what works and what doesn’t in publishing. The strokes of genius I then applied very nearly ruined me.

But before going further, let me compare two wildly different types of publication.

One is Grazia, perhaps the most successful woman’s magazine, with a huge circulation. The other is Subscription Strategy, a newsletter with a tiny circulation which does very well.

You can get Grazia everywhere and through the post if you subscribe. It is a weekly, can cost you as little as £1 a week and usually has over 100 pages, with lots of excellent pictures and features printed on glossy paper, with very good design and typography.

You can only get Subscription Strategy if you subscribe. It appears 6 times a year, with no more than 16 pages, very few cheap pictures, in double spaced typewriter face, and costs £XXX a year.

Both these formats work well. The difference is that Grazia is for everyone – a public thing – whereas Subscription Strategy is private, only for a limited number of people.

This distinction lies at the heart of what a newsletter should be – but most aren’t.

When I bought The Business Ideas Letter all those years ago I was young, and knew everything. Armed with this conceit I changed the winning formula the previous owner had devised. I will ignore various fatuous errors relating to the mailing I sent out at the wrong time of the year with the wrong format, but just talk about the style of the newsletter.

His format was very simple. He used a typewriter face – probably Courier; there were no pictures; the whole thing looked cheap - as though produced on a kitchen table.

I decided to smarten it up with pictures and a more stylish design. I wanted it to have a bit of class - to look more like a magazine.

This was a horrid mistake, and one I see in many, maybe most, newsletters.

A newsletter should be what the name suggests. A letter full of news. Something you send to friends, with news about what will interest them. A private, personal communication, not a public one.

It should make the reader feel one of special, closed group. It should not be flashy, but personal.

Most newsletters fail to do that. Computer publishing has made it so easy to do clever things, so people are tempted to do so. On that I quote an Australian friend talking about the many clever things you can do on the internet: “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

The sins committed in newsletters are very similar to the sins committed in advertising.

They are:

Talking about what interests you rather than what interests the reader. Too often I see the ugly mug of some self-important person in a prominent place better occupied by the face of someone your organisation is helping.

Using pompous “marketing speak” that makes the perpetrators feel good, but baffles and irritates ordinary folk.

Not enough information about what people’s money is doing. I subscribe to two children’s charities. They do not tell me enough about how they spend the money, or what good value they give.

Not enough emotion. “Pockets are the most sensitive parts of a human being. So we must touch hearts and minds first” – President Lula Da Silva of Brazil

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