Electronic Newsletters and Your Website
by Peter Shikli
Most of us have or plan to have a company website. After all, it is by far the cheapest way to reach the largest audience, and confessing to a prospect that you have no web site address is getting as embarrassing as confessing that you have no fax number. After converting your brochure into a website to help project your image, many businesses providing business-to-business services are making a disquieting discovery - your website is one in a group of a million and your website developer is talking about how to make your website entertaining and engaging in order to stand out. It's not just the expense that causes the problem, but rather the doubt in your mind that your customers can be coerced into revisiting your website by animated graphics and interesting sound bites that take forever to download.
There is a better way, in fact many better ways, and we will explain one of the cheapest and most effective ways to use a website - as a lead generator for your electronic newsletter.
Begin by recognizing that most websites are developed by people migrating from multimedia, a world where sound and light is king and the audience is usually the consumer. Your customers are more likely to be business people with more money than time, and they don't look to your company for entertainment.
"Our customers look to us to save them time by giving them information," says Gary Griffin of Griffin Communications Inc., a publisher of insurance and risk management references and periodicals. "Such customers often don't have the time to keep coming back to our website to see if there is anything new - even if we do keep our website current with information about our latest publications and special offers."
Now for the good news - it is significantly cheaper and more effective to push information to busy people in order to maintain your marketing visibility than to pull them in to revisit your website.
This sounds suspiciously like mass mail, and internet users are quick to point out that mass mail doesn't work on the internet. Whereas this is true in terms of sending unsolicited email advertisement, it is not true when the mass mailing target has requested to be on your mass mailing list, ie your newsletter subscribers.
As you will see, this is easy to arrange and then almost free to maintain. In fact, we consider it one of the primary marketing missions of a website.
The approach is simply to provide an online form for the cybernaut to fill in if they would like to be added to your mailing list. In the information hungry world of the internet, it is not hard to convince someone browsing the web that they should sign up if your web page introduces them to valuable information. This can't be just cute clip art, gratuitous graphics, or a technical curiosity - your website has to demonstrate an ability to deliver useful information to cybernauts with a specialized interest.
The form could request standard information such as name, address, phone, email address, etc., and it could also have pick lists to help categorize your customers and their interests. Look to the "bingo cards" you or your competitors now use to send prospects the type of information they need.
Most of you command information in one or more specialized areas. These could be pick lists on the form, and cybernauts are thus able to signup by focused interest areas The key is to present yourselves as specialists.
Griffin Communications, for example, has seven different areas of interest which customers can choose from, including Professional Liability, Fiduciary Liability, and Employment Practices Liability and Property.
A well designed web page can gather dozens or even thousands of such signups per day 24 hours a day. A busy sales prospect should be able to arrive at your website, determine that you are a valuable information asset, subscribe to a focused mailing list, and be gone in under 10 minutes.
What is that worth? Mailing list companies sell addresses from 10¢ to $1 each depending on how good a match it is to your products or services. And how could you get a better match than someone who expresses an interest in your business? Most sales people don't refer to this as generating a mailing list but as generating leads.
Once you have the growing mailing list (aka lead list), servicing it is easier, faster and cheaper than any paper newsletter. Every email software program supports mail groups. You establish a mail group for each area of interest and add email addresses to it as you get signups. When you have a sales announcement, a monthly news flash, product release, or any other tidbit of useful information, you throw it together as an email message and queue it to be sent to the interest group(s) of your choosing. Unlike paper newsletters which require extensive layout design to present your image correctly, email is simply text - you don't spend hours working with fonts, columns, and clip art because you can't, and you can't lose presentation points on account of it. As you can guess, the content is what matters - it has to be short, clear, and useful.
After that, you sign off and your email system goes to work sending off your newsletter article to thousands of your prospects across the street or across the world.
The reasons to justify using your website to gather leads and servicing them via email are simple and have little to do with the details of the technology. Consider that the cost per bulk mail piece averages 50¢ and the opening rate is often under 2%. Although subscribed newsletter opening rates average over 30%, their per piece cost can be several dollars. Consider that the cost of email is 0¢ and the opening rate (click to scan text body) is over 80%. Whereas the call-to-action on a piece of paper can't get much easier than a request to call an 800 number, the call-to-action of an email message is a simple reply button. Whereas newsletters average a week from concept to delivery, email messages are prepared in under an hour and delivered in seconds.
For examples of such web sites in action, see Warren, McVeigh & Griffin and Griffin Communications (www.bizware.com/griffin) and Benefit Solutions (www.bizware.com/cape), health insurance services to government employee unions.
Once you commit to leveraging this emerging technology by using your website to generate leads for your electronic news flashes, here are some practical tips from the lessons-learned department:
1. Be brief. Rule number one to address busy people is to keep your message to a paragraph or two. You can refer to the web page on your website where your customer can read more. Most email software allows users to click on the link directly from the email message you sent, and your web page appears in their browser. Summarize a case study with a link to the whole story on your website, for example, and your customers qualify themselves as to interest.
2. Lose the bulk mail stigma. Call the signup something like "Electronic Bulletin Signup", make unsubscribing easy (cybernaut replies anytime with the word "unsubscribe"), and never sell email addresses.
3. Avoid regularity. There is no need to commit to a weekly or monthly delivery like a magazine. Why collect stories or bulletins when it is better and easier to send info as you get it? You are more current, get more exposure, and your recipients realize they will hear from you only when you have something to say.
4. Use full signatures. Unlike the body of your message, your signature need not be brief. It should give name, company, phone number, email address (they may print your message, pass it around, and act on it later), website address, and a note reminding the reader that they can use the "forward" button on their email software to cc: your message to a colleague.
5. Convert from paper. If you have an existing newsletter or other paper-based bulk mailing list, include a sidebar giving readers with email addresses a way to convert to your electronic bulletin format. You save money and they get the info sooner. Let's say you average six short articles per month in your newsletter. Which is better for marketing visibility: mailing one document once a month or getting in front of the customer six times a month with a single, short piece of information?
6. Simplify, don't qualify. Review the questions you pose on your signup form to see if any of them are holdovers from the days you had to qualify prospects to justify the cost of sending them brochures or newsletters. Whereas you may have asked for an individual's title to weed out students, for example, you no longer have to lose legitimate prospects who refuse the intrusion of your form. Since your incremental cost of adding an email address to a mailing group is zero, you may as well cast as wide a net as possible. If you can reduce your signup form to just the cybernaut's email address and a comment, you can use a simple "mailto" signup construct on your website that automatically inserts the cybernaut's email address. As recipients respond to your email with questions that will take time to answer, then you can qualify them. It may be the student who has graduated and is running his dad's investment firm.
7. Be ready to scale up. When the audience passes a few hundred, invest in a professional strength email program such as Eudora Pro and mailmerge tools, such as Arial's E-Mail Merge or SoftQuad's NetMailer, which allow you to personalize each message. For the truly hard core, take a look at the listserv systems used by newsgroups to service hundreds of thousands of members.
8. Watch for the bad guys. As with your regular bulk mail, assume your competitors are subscribing. With email, this means never sending a message with your target group in the To: or cc: fields of the message - use the bcc: field instead, or a mailmerge tool that makes individual messages. Otherwise, recipients can check their message header for a list of all email addresses on the list - and clip and paste the entire list for their own purposes.
To summarize why you may wish to make electronic bulletin signups an important mission of your web page:
An expansion of the above concept is a hot topic on the internet these days, having gathered a buzzword called "push" technology and its subset caller cybercasting. A company called Pointcast has popularized an approach whereby cybernauts can subscribe to information broadcasts from you to a corner of their browser. As people gain permanent internet access through local area networks or intranets, they will use the browser more as their PC desktop, in which case such cybercasting could present your message easier than if the recipient had to check their email. Unfortunately:
Chat groups (aka news groups, discussion groups, usenet, etc.) may seem like a logical extension of the outbound marketing you can build with signups from your website, but its applicability to professionals in a service business is minimal at best. Consider that chat groups are a forum you establish on the internet where cybernauts can discuss what's on their mind. If your problem is that your customers are too busy to visit your website, what is the likelihood that they will become regular participants in the internet's version of a lonely hearts club? Worse, your forum will require a lot of your time to moderate discussions or it could degenerate into a place to air dirty laundry, launch into combative side trips into politics, religion, or even erotica - all under your flag.Recommendation: If you feel the urge, setup a chat session on a particular date and time, make sure a distinguished person is present as a draw, advertise it through your web site, and moderate it closely. Otherwise, avoid this unless you need a new hobby.