E-newsletters: Making Your Customer Relationships Click

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Any experienced e-mail user knows the drill: Log on, check mark the spam, and click delete. Then, if you have any relevant e-mail, you open and read it. For those e-mails you’re not sure of, you may open them -- but if you don’t see the point within two seconds, click! Deleted.

This is the landscape that faces booksellers who send, or are planning to send, subscription-based e-newsletters to their customers. Consumers have no mercy when it comes to their inboxes -- if there’s any question to the relevancy of your e-mail, you can kiss your e-newsletter, and possibly any hope of building a solid customer relationship with that consumer, good-bye.

That said, an e-newsletter done properly is a great, inexpensive marketing tool, especially for independent booksellers, who depend on customer loyalty. E-marketing may be relatively new, but already, there are some fairly defined rules for creating a successful e-newsletter. Some things to consider when starting an e-newsletter are:

  1. Getting started
  2. Collecting e-mail addresses
  3. E-newsletter vendors and list management
  4. E-newsletter content and length
  5. Designing the newsletter: text vs. HTML
  6. E-newsletter frequency
  7. Gauging your e-success
  8. Posting your e-newsletter

Getting started. Before beginning your e-newsletter project, make sure you have clear objectives, said Michael Katz, the founder of Blue Penguin Development, Inc. (www.BluePenguinDevelopment.com), a consulting firm that specializes in the creation and management of effective e-newsletters. "Why are you doing this in the first place?" he said. "Is it to generate sales? Provide a service? Or to connect with customers?" If you have no clear reason for doing an e-newsletter, don’t do it just because everyone else is.

Bill Petrocelli, who co-owns Corte Madera, California’s Book Passage with his wife, Elaine, told BTW that booksellers shouldn’t consider doing an e-newsletter unless they have a Web site with a searchable database and e-commerce capabilities (i.e., allowing users to place orders via their Web site). That way, they can include in the e-newsletter a link to their stores’ Web site, where consumers can buy products, he noted.

As with starting anything new, it is important to do some research before launching. John Evans, president of Lemuria Bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi, recommended subscribing to all the e-newsletters "you can find" prior to creating your own.

Katz, as well as a number of booksellers who spoke to BTW, concurred. "I think that looking at what others have done, both good and bad, is good," said Katz. "Get your own sense. Go find newsletters you like and ones you don’t. Compare -- why do you like it? Or not?"

Nicki Leone, the manager and book buyer for Bristol Books in Wilmington, North Carolina, got right to the point: "Put yourself on the mailing list of other newsletters and copy the one you like the best."

Timothy Huggins, president of Newtonville Books in Newton, Massachusetts, said, "I’d also read Seth Godin’s book, Permission Marketing." Additionally, Katz has penned an eBook, E-Newsletters That Work, available at www.enewsletterbook.com.

Collecting e-mail addresses. As you are researching e-newsletters, begin collecting e-mail addresses. This is where the retail store has a huge advantage over other businesses -- foot traffic. Booksellers should make use of this and ask for e-mail addresses at every point of customer contact, said Katz.

"Collect everyone’s e-mail at the register -- start doing it about six months before doing your newsletter," said Debbie Weil, publisher of WordBiz Report, an e-newsletter on how to leverage e-newsletters (www.wordbiz.com), who also works with companies and organizations to launch and maintain cost-effective e-mail newsletters. Katz recommended placing a sign-up slip in each book you sell.

Additionally, you should also have a sign-up box on every page of your Web site, Weil said, preferably in the upper right- or left-hand corner so the user does not have to scroll down to find it. "Make it a fill-in box so you see it and know what it is," she explained. "Don’t make [the user] have to click to go sign up" somewhere else on the site. (BookSense.com bookstores, for instance, are provided with a template that includes an area where customers can sign up for the store’s, or BookSense.com's, e-newsletter.) The store also can use off-line methods, such as mailing flyers or postcards to drive traffic to its Web site, "presuming you are communicating with them already," Weil said.

Brookline Booksmith’s e-newsletter is sent out on a weekly basis. Dana Brigham, owner and manager of the Brookline, Massachusetts, store, told BTW that they have sign-up pads for the store e-newsletter at the front desk, and it’s mentioned at every store event. Book Passage’s Elaine Petrocelli noted that her store collects e-mail addresses from a variety of places: the store’s homepage, in-store, and "anytime someone is upset that they missed an event, I tell them to sign up for the newsletter," she said.

"We have a sign-up pad at the front desk and in our reading room," said Newtonville’s Huggins. "After events, I also have a bookseller asking people as they are leaving if they’d like to be on our mailing list for event updates. I also have a sign-up link on our Web site."

The collecting of e-mail addresses begs the question: Do you collect anything else with it -- such as name or address or phone number or favorite author?

"The more I ask of you, the less likely you’ll give me anything," stressed Katz, who pointed out that, in many cases, the e-newsletter is a way to communicate with people who are on the verge of becoming a good customer or not being a customer at all. Asking them for too much information could drive them the wrong way. Furthermore, a good customer or prospect will, inevitably, self-identify over time. "Collect just the e-mail address, and make sure they know it’s all private," he said. (For the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression’s suggested bookstore statement on customer privacy, click here.)

Huggins further stressed that a bookseller shouldn’t collect any e-mail information unless a commitment is made to do the e-newsletter. "I think too many places have mailing lists but never really do anything with it," he explained.

Most everyone would agree that one of the most important aspects of collecting e-mail addresses is to be clear in your intentions. Simply put, never send unsolicited e-mail to a consumer. Furthermore, always ask a customer to opt-in to your e-newsletter and be sure they know you will not sell your list to any third party.

E-newsletter vendors and list management. Okay, so you’re collecting e-mail addresses and many of your customers sound excited at the prospect of an e-newsletter. Now, it’s time to start making your e-newsletter a reality. Obviously, this means writing content, which we will talk about in the next section. The not-so-obvious part -- for those who have never produced an e-newsletter -- is e-mail list management.

List management (as well as e-newsletter publishing) either can be done in-house or outsourced to a vendor. Whether or not you outsource to a vendor will depend on a number of factors: the number of e-mail addresses on your list, how much time you wish to devote to your in-store e-newsletter (WordBiz Report’s Weil said that, however long you think it will take you to do an e-newsletter, times that by 10, and you’ll have a more accurate picture), how computer-savvy you are, and how much money you plan on investing.

Katz pointed out that, over the past year and a half, it’s become much cheaper to outsource an e-mail list. "The vendor houses your names -- it’s easily outsourced," he said. Furthermore, an e-newsletter vendor might charge in the neighborhood of $25 per session (an e-mailing) for 2,500 subscribers. "It’s so cheap, it’s a no-brainer," he noted. He made special mention of e-newsletter vendors such as Roving Software, Imakenews, and Subscriber Mail.

Working with a vendor is fairly simple. Katz explained that you simply put your e-mail list into an electronic format and upload it to the vendor. And, if you decide to publish your e-newsletter through the vendor, the vendor gives you the template and you flow in the content from Microsoft Word.

The most obvious benefit of using a vendor is timesavings, but they also offer other benefits, said Katz. "Vendors can you give you click-through rates [the number of subscribers that click on a link in your e-newsletter], open rates [the number of e-newsletters opened divided by the number of e-newsletters delivered]," he said. Additionally, since e-mail addresses have a notoriously short life span, for large lists, it makes sense to have a vendor handle "bounce management." In other words, removing invalid addresses from the list.

Additionally, for beginners, a vendor can walk you through the whole process, as was the case when Brookline Booksmith’s Brigham started her e-newsletter.

Bristol Books’ e-mail list numbers approximately 900 people. Leone said she uses Microsoft’s bCentral List Builder (www.bcentral.com/products/lb/default.asp) to manage her e-mail list and to send out her store’s e-newsletter. "As people join, I send [bCentral] a file every other day -- it’s easy," she said. "But don’t outsource unless you have a lot of people on the list. If your bookstore is large enough to have its own servers and applications, it’d probably be cheaper to do it yourself; or if your list is fewer than 500 e-mail addresses, you can manage your list off your home computer."

Both Brookline Booksmith and R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut, outsource their e-newsletter management to Topica.com, a leading independent provider of turnkey solutions for e-newsletter publishers. Lemuria Books outsources list management to Listserve.

Still, while e-marketing experts recommend outsourcing list management, and even e-newsletter publishing to a vendor, there are many booksellers who are doing it all in-house -- and successfully. For one, Newtonville Books’ e-newsletter, which has a very good reputation among booksellers, is managed completely in-house, said Huggins. "I just keep everything in a Netscape address book and a copy on an Excel file," he said. He added that it takes about an hour to write and send the store e-newsletter.

It bears repeating that, aside from list management, most of the vendors mentioned will also handle e-newsletter publishing. Ultimately, deciding to outsource will depend on how much time you wish to spend creating and managing your e-newsletter -- and how much money you wish to invest.

E-newsletter content and length. All right, you have your list (and we’re assuming that everybody on your list wants to be there), and you’ve decided on how much, if any, of the e-newsletter management you will outsource to a vendor. Now, it’s time to start writing. This is where all your research -- looking at other e-newsletters -- should pay off. Remember, with all the spam out there, you need to write something that will make your open rate soar, and, of course, develop customer loyalty.

There are two key issues to consider toward this end: the content and the e-newsletter length. "How do you get [your e-newsletter] to stand out from the crowd? It has to be useful and relevant to the reader," said Katz, who noted that, if the e-newsletter is written well, it becomes the voice of the store. "The owner should write it -- don’t give it to a staffer. Don’t look at it as something you throw together and give to the new guy. You want [the owner’s] personality in the e-newsletter -- it should be very un-self-promotional."

In the article, "Top Five Tips on Writing Great E-mail Newsletters," by Anne Holland (at www.MarketingProfs.com), the publisher and managing editor of MarketingSherpa.com, Holland noted that top Internet marketers recommend using a personal and casual tone in an e-newsletter. She wrote, "[Customers] respond much better to e-newsletters that are written by one particular individual at a company whom they can get to know over time. They like little personal comments that could only come from a single human being, like ‘Don’t tell my boss, but I stole his lunch from the office fridge today!’ (That’s how one major software firm’s successful e-newsletter opened last week in fact.)"

Without question, most booksellers who spoke to BTW described their e-newsletter tone as being casual -- as if they’re talking personally to each customer. "I’m very chatty," said Bristol Books’ Leone. "I put personal stuff in there, like ‘I just got back from vacation’ and that seems to help. I get a ton of feedback from customers."

Roxanne Coady, owner and president, R.J. Julia, concurred and said this style works very well.

On the other hand, Book Passage’s Elaine Petrocelli said, "What I think works is keeping it simple. Long, chatty stuff can get people to delete. We give very direct info, [store events] are our main focus. Our customers know why they get it. Don’t try to be too fancy, because nobody has time for that."

Whatever tone you choose, everyone agrees: keep your e-newsletter short and get to the point. "I try to be informative and personal, while also being conscious of the reader’s time and energy," said Newtonville Books’ Huggins. "Ideally, I’d only want to take up a minute or two of the reader’s time, and I attach links if more information is desired on the reader’s part…. I try to design the newsletter so that it gives brief and consistent tag lines to give quick indications about what kind of information will follow. I also keep the design format the same for each newsletter."

WordBiz Report’s Weil’s rule for e-newsletter length is "1,000 words maximum if customers are going to read it on the screen," she said, and added that, if you know that your customers are printing it out, you might be able to get away with a longer e-newsletter. "A thousand words is not very much when you think about it."

"My belief is that it be short enough that I read it [when I open it], not that I’ll read it later -- 600 to 700 words," Katz said. "That’s all you’re looking for."

Finally, as you know from checking your own e-mail, keep in mind that your customer sees your subject line before he or she sees your e-newsletter. In her "Top Five Tips" article, Holland stressed that consumers "are looking for an excuse to delete your e-newsletter -- don’t let them! For example, don’t use a subject line reading something like ‘Our October Newsletter.’ Instead, use a subject line that engages your reader’s attention with an interesting topic or headline from the e-newsletter, such as ‘Venture Capitalists Explain How to Get Funded’ or ‘Inside: Exclusive Interview with Shania Twain!’"

"The secret is to write a subject line that grabs your recipients attention and piques their interest enough to open your e-mail without being so blatantly promotional that it sounds like spam," stated Roving’s E-mail Marketing Hints and Tips, Volume 1, Issue 4, e-newsletter (www.roving.com/marketing/newsletters/hints-tips/). "When writing a subject line, think in terms of your offer and your audience and what few words would most likely get them to open your e-mail."

Finally, you must make it incredibly easy for the recipient to unsubscribe. "Whatever system you work with, you have to do that," stressed Weil.

Designing the e-newsletter: text or HTML. Why should you even consider HTML (the coding used to build Web pages)? Simply put, the use of HTML allows you to add graphics and links to your e-newsletter. Additionally, as noted earlier, it allows you or your vendor to track click-through and open rates, key elements for knowing whether or not you’re doing a good job with your e-newsletter. And while a year or so ago, a user might have found an HTML e-newsletter difficult and slow to open -- often resulting in a deletion -- today, most users have modems fast enough to handle a simple HTML document. Just don’t make it too graphic-oriented.

"[HTML] is more work," Weil said. "But it’s a branding thing. Take your store logo -- why not put that into a store e-newsletter? It’s very powerful. People respond to visual stimuli."

"My belief is that HTML has gotten really easy to do," said Katz, and noted that HTML adds both professionalism and the store’s ability to brand to an e-newsletter.

Book Passage used to have a text-only e-newsletter, said Bill Petrocelli, "but it looked so damn dull. We don’t use graphics, but we are using bolds and italics. I haven’t heard any complaints."

If undecided, the best solution might be to compromise. "Give your customers the option of receiving messages in text or HTML format," wrote Mischelle Weedman, director, North American Marketing, NewWorld Commerce, in "12 Tips for Successful eMarketing." "Some people prefer text to graphics. Give it to them their way."

E-newsletter frequency. Now, you must decide how often you will send out your e-newsletter. As much as anything with e-newsletters, testing will help you decide on the right frequency. However, both Katz and Weil concurred that sending it out less than once a month is not enough to make your presence felt. After that, it’s up to you, though, Weil warned, sending your e-newsletter out once a week is "too much unless you have something incredible to say." Weil publishes her e-newsletter twice a month.

There are exceptions, of course. For stores that have a lot going on -- maybe daily author events, classes, or music -- once a week might be the best way to keep the e-newsletter short and to the point. Experts note that the higher the frequency the shorter the e-newsletter should be.

Both Newtonville Books and Lemuria Books send their e-newsletters out weekly. "I send mine … on the same day each week," Huggins said. "I think the important thing is to build anticipation. To do this, you need to be sending relevant information and in a consistent manner."

Brookline Booksmith’s Brigham decided on a weekly format after two years of tinkering and trial and error, she said. "We tried once a month with a longer version," she said. "The main reason we have an e-newsletter is to get people interested in author events. There was more response to events in a weekly."

One thing to think about before deciding on the frequency: If you choose to do a weekly, you’ll need to have 52 exciting things to write about (i.e., 52 newsletters for 52 weeks). If you go monthly, you need only 12. If you don’t want to spend a lot of labor working on your e-newsletter, this may be the way to go. "Better to do it once a month," said Weil, "and you can always increase the frequency."

Gauging your e-success. As Katz mentioned earlier, odds are, you’ll have to tinker with your e-newsletter as you move forward. And, most likely, the reason you’ll change the e-newsletter here and there is because it’s not as successful as it could be. But how are you judging the success? Anecdotal feedback? Personal feelings? Open rate? Unsubscribe rate? All of the above?

Most booksellers who spoke to BTW judged the success of their e-newsletter via anecdotal feedback, which, Weil said, was a "perfectly acceptable" method.

"We look for attendance at events," said Brookline’s Brigham. "Our e-mail person was away for a week ,and we got comments from customers, Where was [the e-newsletter]?"

Newtonville’s Huggins pays attention to how books sell, how events go, and feedback through e-mail and comments from patrons and publishers. "I cannot think of a more personal and effective way for me to market my bookstore to people who are customers, publishers, authors, and such," he said, adding that his only cost for the newsletter is the time it takes to write and send it out.

Without question, what differentiates e-newsletters from typical marketing endeavors is the low cost. Tracking sales numbers and the like does not have the same urgency as, say, an expensive direct mail effort. Cheap or not, and while anecdotal feedback may be useful, hard numbers are, too, said both Weil and Katz. For instance, a bookseller should know if those 10 people that raved about the e-newsletter were the only ones out of 100 who opened it.

"If 90 percent open, you’re doing well," Weil said. "Anything over 50 percent is considered good." But, she continued, just because they opened it doesn’t mean they’re reading it -- for that reason, it helps to put links back to your Web site (meaning your e-newsletter needs to be in an HTML format). Another indicator as to the success of the e-newsletter is the subscribe and unsubscribe rate. "If a significant percentage of readers unsubscribe, something is wrong," she said. "If there are a number of new subscribers -- say people liked it and forwarded it -- that’s easy to measure."

While Katz concurred with Weil and noted there are a number of tracking methods available to the e-marketer, he added that some e-newsletter benefits are more intangible. "An e-newsletter is a relationship building tool. [Tracking its benefits] is similar to asking what is the benefit of training your sales person to say ‘Thank You.’"

Posting your e-newsletter. After the e-newsletter is delivered, it is understandable to think that your work is done, and that it’s time to think about next week’s, or month’s, e-newsletter. Well, you’re half right. While most of the booksellers we spoke to said they didn’t post their e-newsletter on their Web site, both Weil and Katz told BTW, in no uncertain terms, you should.

"You’re absolutely nuts not to post it to your Web site," said Weil. "It shows continuity, and people can go and look for items in past issues. You’re creating content, why not add it to your site?"

"Putting the e-newsletter on the Web site allows you to create an archive," said Katz. "It then allows you to reference things you said in the past. It’s a good use of the Internet, and it helps you get found by search engines." --David Grogan