All the News that's Fit to Blast
Sep 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Don Kreski
What an email newsletter can do for your business—and how you can create a great one.
E-newsletters are a great way for AV professionals to offer “added value” to customers, says Bill Mullin, VP of Starin, a distributor based in Chesterton, Ind. — a company which currently supplies its clients with its newsletter Learning Curve. “It's a whole new day now. We can't just say, as we did in the tech boom, that technology is cool, and you should have it. The thing about offering added value is that there's always somebody out there who wants to commoditize what you just proposed. You have to keep telling people, ‘here's what I have to offer, and here's why we're going to be a good value,’” he says.
John Laughlin, chief operating officer of St. Louis-based integrator Conference Technologies, has similar reasons for publishing the CTI Solutions newsletter. “We're looking for additional and consistent contacts with our potential client base,” he says. “It's very difficult for our consultative staff to touch each and every client regularly to reinforce our name.”
Kari Mickits, AMX corporate communications manager, sees the Inside AMX newsletter as a critical part of an overall effort to help customers grow their businesses. “Not only do we engineer products to simplify the lives of our end users, but we try to develop sales and marketing initiatives that simplify the lives of dealers, consultants, and other audiences,” she says.
There are, of course, several ways to accomplish these goals, but, as Mullin says, “people love a story.” With stories about your customers, your business, and the technologies you use, a newsletter can do a great job communicating how you can help readers solve their business problems.
NO EASY TASK
Having launched at least 10 newsletters for various companies over the years, I can tell you there are some real challenges involved. The first issue can be fun to produce, but you'll face a number of challenges if you try to bring it out regularly.
One of the biggest concerns is who is going to be devoted to the project. “There really needs to be one person who has editorial control or who at least can manage and assign projects,” Mickits says. AMX solved the problem by hiring a full-time newsletter editor who writes most of the articles and also asks other members of the marketing and management teams to contribute. Some firms divide up the task by asking sales reps and managers to contribute articles. Others will bring in outsiders such as writers, designers, programmers, or a PR or marketing consultant to help. Mullin cautions, however, that if you outsource, you can't take yourself completely out of the process. “If you're the driver of your business, then you'll need to be intimately involved in the storyline you're communicating. On the other hand, you can step out of the way and forget the mechanics, because the mechanics are not what your job is.”
Budgeting can also be an issue. Though publishing by email saves you printing and postage, creative costs can still be significant. Dealers and other firms often rely on co-op funds to pay for the effort, but co-op is not what it once was. (For more on co-op funds, see svconline.com.) Mullins says that every manufacturer is asking whether or not this is a good expense. “The answer, however, is not to cancel your marketing, but to provide the data that shows it is, in fact, a good use of your funds or the manufacturer's funds,” he says. Email publication makes this kind of documentation easier; most broadcast services provide detailed reports showing open rate, click-through rate, how many clicks each article receives, and exactly who opens the newsletter and follows each link.
Be careful in how you present your content. “Strike the right balance with the writing style,” Mickits says, “so your non-technical readers understand the message, while your tech-savvy readers aren't craving more.” Inside AMX addresses the problem by offering a large number of stories written for different audiences. A smaller firm might stick with simpler offerings, but then provide links to more technical explanations for those who would appreciate them. I advise my clients to use plenty of photos, subheads, and bullet points so readers can skim the text and images to pick up the gist of the story. But remember to also include the details for those interested enough to read more.
Timing is critical when sending your newsletter. “Don't overwhelm your audience with too much, too often,” Mickits suggests. “If you bring your newsletter out too often, you'll end up writing a lot of fluff, instead of value-added content.” On the other hand, it's really important to get on a regular schedule and stick to it. AMX decided on a monthly schedule, as did Laughlin at CTI. “I think any more than that is irritating,” Laughlin says, “but anything less is inconsistent.”
You'll also need to think through your distribution list. Mickits says Inside AMX goes strictly to those who have chosen to subscribe. Most companies, I believe, should send their newsletters to their complete customer and prospect lists. There are legal requirements for unsolicited email, but an opt-in is not required. It's very important, however, to provide a reliable way for recipients to opt out.
What's your strategy to start a newsletter if you can't afford a full-time editor and don't want to spend your weekends writing copy? You might want to start with a smaller publication — that's been Laughlin's approach. “I believe most decision makers educate themselves in short bursts of information. If you try to give them too much, they're not going to want to read it.” For that reason, the CTI newsletter consists of just two related articles and a call to action. Laughlin has also been careful to outsource the design, writing, and programming of each issue, and he delegates the day-to-day production to one of his managers.
“The short and sweet puts it into a form that we can be consistent on,” he says. “It allows us to create a discipline among ourselves that we can maintain and achieve.” His goal, Laughlin says, is to sustain the effort for at least five years. In the short term, he says he hopes to increase awareness of who CTI is and what they offer, and to motivate his sales consultants to build their databases. In the long term, he expects the newsletter to help him significantly expand his customer base.
Mickits says that after six years of publication Inside AMX has helped achieve all those goals. “The response has been really amazing,” she says. “People feel that they're getting all the news they need in an easy to read format, when they need it.”
To sign up for a suite of newsletters dedicated to AV professionals specializing in education, residential, or house-of-worship installations, visit svconline.com/newsletters.
You can reach Don Kreski at www.kreski.com/contact.html
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