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Writing Effective Newsletters, Online and Off

By Tom Ahern

(June 16, 2009) Award-winning journalist and communications trainer Tom Ahern answers some of the most common questions he hears about nonprofit newsletters—about how they are sent and what makes people want to read them in the first place.

Question 1: Can I replace my paper newsletter with an e-newsletter instead?

This is the most commonly asked question at my workshops. My considered answer has stayed the same for the last five years: " You really want both."

A well-done paper newsletter can produce significant revenue. Witness the Gillette Children's Foundation in Minnesota, which went from generating $5,000 per issue to $50,000 per issue just by changing a few things.

Understand, too, that paper and electrons are two very different media.

Paper is slow—the good kind of slow, the kind that's made the "slow food" movement so popular among the health-conscious. Paper is a reader's medium, a relaxing place where you have the elbowroom to tell stories, show terrific pictures and report results.

An emailed newsletter, on the other hand, is fast. It's an ACT NOW! medium. Words are kept to a minimum.

In December 2008, Jeff Brooks shared with me some conclusions from the company Domain's ongoing research into e-newsletters. "I had a hypothesis," he wrote, "that e-newsletters were radically different from print newsletters. Not about story-telling," he clarified, "but about the actions you can take. We've tested that notion a couple of times, and so far, that's proving to be true. It seems what works is to have one topic with 3 to 5 actions a reader can take, at least one of which is to give a gift, but the others aren't."

A fully firing communications schedule stays in touch with the donor base at a minimum once a month. Electronic newsletters help you satisfy that torrid pace. But if you pull the plug on paper and switch to utterly electronic, your donor income will almost certainly fall.

Here's a tantalizing bit of confirming data from Convio, via Ted Hart: Donors you contact with BOTH email and conventional mail give $62 on average annually versus a $32 average gift for those donors whom you contact ONLY through postal mail.

In other words, it's NOT an either/or situation, paper or electronic. It's a BOTH situation: paper AND electronic, if you want to maximize results.

Of course, that assumes you are actually getting results. If you aren't currently making money with your paper newsletter, don't expect to do any better with an e-newsletter. Really good donor newsletters are few and far between, in my experience. Most nonprofit newsletters sent to me for audits are unwittingly built to fail, due to a variety of unguessed fatal flaws.

Question 2: How can I get you to open my emailed newsletter?

One thing determines pretty much by its lonesome whether I bother to open your email or not, and that one thing is your subject line.

In 50 characters or less, you need to grab my attention, intrigue me, convince me there's something inside worth reading. (Why so short? Many email in-boxes only display the first 50 or so characters of the subject line.)

In direct mail, the purpose of the envelope is not to protect the contents. The true purpose of the envelope is to get opened—because the rest of the mechanism can't begin to work unless someone dives inside that envelope. Similarly, with emailed newsletters, the purpose of the subject line is not to label the contents. The true purpose is to get someone to open the email.

I send out a tips-and-opinion newsletter about donor communications roughly twice a month through a service called Constant Contact. Constant Contact reports back to me a number of revealing metrics about my emailed newsletter: bounces (sent but not received), opt-outs, forwards, which items people clicked on and how often. But the most important metric by far, the one I'm glued to, is my opening rate. That measures one thing: how well written and how relevant my subject line was to my target audience. Here's the subject line that fared the best in 2009, garnering a 44 percent opening rate:

The dirty truth about cases.

Why did that particular subject line work well? Because it promised to reveal a nasty secret. Did you know that some of the best-paid writers in journalism worldwide are the people who write headlines for tabloid newspapers? Publishers of the gossip rags know that a good headline is worth its weight in gold. They also know that the human brain is a curious beast. Promise to show it something it does not know, and the brain will snap to attention.   

Tom Ahern is the author of How to Write Fundraising Materials that Raise More Money, and Raising More Money with Newsletters than You Ever Thought Possible, available in the AFP Bookstore. His newest book is titled Seeing Through a Donor’s Eyes. Ahern is an international communications trainer and an award-winning magazine journalist.

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