Spotlight on newsletters


6 Common Reasons Why Newsletters Fail


By Robert W. Bly



Newsletter publishers have been taking a beating in the marketplace as of late, with failed launches and weak tests outnumbering the success stories. Direct mail isn’t working as well as it used to, and most publishers have not figured out how to profitably acquire new subscribers on the Web.

To increase your chances of success, here are the most common reasons why newsletter ideas and promotions don’t work – and one good way to overcome each:

* Lack of a “Big Idea.” With so many information sources today on virtually every topic, why create yet another? To establish its place in the market, your newsletter must have a clear “reason for being” – a reason why it should exist and why people would want to buy it, even though other publications already exist.

What’s the “big idea” behind your publication – the unique selling proposition or USP? For FORBES Nanotech Report, a financial newsletter, the “reason for being” is to help investors (the audience) increase their profits (the benefit -- what it does) by buying shares of emerging nanotechnology companies early, then holding on for large gains (how it does it).

If you can’t clearly identify the audience, the benefit, and how you achieve the benefit differently than other information sources, then your product lacks a strong USP. And if the USP is weak, no promotion, no matter how strong, is likely to work.

* Bad fit. You may have a clear promise or big idea, but what if it’s not something the reader cares about? Then you are doomed to failure.

In his 1960 best-seller, Reality in Advertising, Rosser Reeves identified the three factors needed to have a strong, effective USP:

1. Each advertisement must make a proposition to the consumer. Each advertisement must say to the reader: “Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit.”

2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer. It must be unique – either a uniqueness of brand or a claim not otherwise made in that particular field.

3. The proposition must be so strong that it can pull over new customers to your product.

The third item above means that the big promise must be a good “fit” with your audience. It is something they want and care about.

What does your audience really want? You can make an intelligent guess, but you really don’t know. That’s why smart publishers do A/B split tests comparing different USPs, themes, or creative approaches.

Often you can test selling propositions inexpensively online with split tests of e-mails and landing pages, with one set reflecting sales appeal A and the second based on sales appeal B.

If A is the winner, then a small direct mail test based on concept A would be the next step. If that works, roll-out follows.

* High dispensability. Bombarded by information overload, today’s subscriber is less loyal and more ready to discontinue rather than renew. Only those publications that he either (a) really, really likes or (b) feels he really needs are likely to make the cut in acquisition or renewal decisions.

At a meeting of the Newsletter and Electronic Publishers Association (NEPA), I gave a talk entitled “How to Make Your Newsletter Indispensable.” Among the tips suggested:

(a) List the URLs of Web sites where readers can go for more information on your topic.

(b) List valuable resources, such as mini-directories of vendors (with contact information) that can meet subscriber needs.

(c) Focus on “news you can use.” Don’t just give facts; present actionable ideas and information.

(d) Include tools the reader can use verbatim, e.g., boilerplate clauses that can be inserted into contracts.

* Soft editorial. Hard news publications are inherently less dispensable than how-to newsletters. In a pinch, an executive with a beer company can give up his favorite newsletter on leadership, but he’s going to keep the fax or online service that gives him the daily wholesale pricing on hops and barley.

If your content is of the how-to variety, perhaps it is too general. Instead of merely giving tips that sound good, present coherent strategies and proven techniques for solving specific problems. Case histories and success stories are especially useful for making ideas seem more real.

* Insufficient ROI (return on investment). If you can prove to the reader that the information and advice in your newsletter will save him or make him many times more than your subscription fee, your chances of a sale or renewal are greatly increased.

The best strategy is to deliver a rapid ROI, so that the reader’s investment is paid back with his very first issue, in the subscription premium, or even in the promotion itself. For instance, the outer envelope for a promotion for a tax newsletter promised the reader an immediate $6,480 tax savings, and the technique was given on page one of the sales letter.

* No depth of reader familiarity. The best newsletters often have a “clubby” feel. They are written in the voice of one insider or industry member talking to another.

When the editor is an outsider, the newsletter often lacks this authoritative voice. And readers don’t trust it. Two solutions:

(1) Hire editors who come from the industry or profession you are writing about.

(2) Have non-expert editors spend time in the field – visiting factories, attending industry events, interviewing experts and subscribers one on one.

The conclusion? With the glut of information competing for the reader’s time and attention, the “free information” culture created by the Internet, and increasingly limited corporate budgets, you have to offer extraordinary value to your subscribers. That means major benefits (e.g., time savings), rapid ROI -- and ideas, analysis, or information they cannot easily get elsewhere in such a digestible and convenient format.

Quite a challenge! But worth taking, when you consider that the average newsletter costs the subscriber 20 to 50 times more per page than a magazine on a similar subject.*

* A 100-page monthly magazine with an annual subscription rate of $20 costs less than 2 cents a page vs. a 12-page monthly newsletter with an annual subscription rate of $100 costs more than 69 cents a page.


            About the author:

                Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter whose clients include Kiplinger, Forbes, McGraw-Hill, Phillips, Agora, and KCI. He is the author of more than 50 books including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Direct Marketing (Alpha Books). Bob can be reached at 201-385-1220 or at