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Content-centered e-mail in 6 steps

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It’s time to face the music: Nobody wants another ad, coupon or press release in his or her in-box. Thanks to the glut of spam, plus a healthy dose of over-mailing by well-meaning marketers, average-quality e-mail marketing isn’t doing the trick anymore.

The solution? You’re going to have to turn your e-mail ads into e-mail newsletters if you want them to get read.

Americans complain about advertising, but they also accept a huge amount of it—if it’s tied to valuable content. We don’t mind that one-third of our time watching NBC’s "Friends" is spent viewing ads; we accept the ads because the show is funny. A newspaper is 70% ads, but if it’s informative and interesting, we’ll read it, and even pay for it.

The good news is that it’s much easier than you think to create must-read e-mails that will also do a great job selling your products and services.

Step 1: Decide what to write. Good e-mail content is short, simple and focused on the interests of your readers. We recommend 200 to 400 words, delivered weekly. Anything longer isn’t going to get read, and it isn’t worth the effort it takes to write it.

Choose a hook that is easy to repeat week after week. Our favorite types of newsletter features include: tip of the week, news roundups, research or data about the industry, and "how-to" articles that help the customer use your product. Never write about company news, new products, new hires or anything else that should be in a press release. No one cares, and no one is going to read it.

Choose content that addresses the needs and concerns of your audience rather than directly selling your products. A newsletter about caring for children is much more interesting than a newsletter about buying diapers. Readers will make the connection on their own.

Step 2: Keep it short and frequent. We like newsletters that are weekly, as well as brief. Send them any less often and you’re not going to build a bond with your readers; they’ll look at your e-mails like occasional ads instead of a publication to look forward to regularly.

Don’t worry about over-mailing. Newsletters are voluntary publications that readers ask for. They’ll subscribe or unsubscribe to reach the mailing volume that works best for them. A benefit of offering three or four titles is that you give the reader many choices and combinations of mailing times and frequencies. And your biggest fans will read everything, giving you three to four exposures each week.

Step 3: Get a real writer. Sorry, folks. Great marketers write like marketers. You need a real writer who can create honest, compelling content that doesn’t scare your readers away with a sales tone. Great free-lance journalists are surprisingly inexpensive yet professional. If you choose a newsletter topic that isn’t time-sensitive, you can have a writer prepare 52 issues all at once.

Step 4: Choose an easy-to-use e-mail service provider. It’s never worth the trouble to send your newsletter yourself. There are dozens of great companies that will send it for you and deliver it correctly, with complete subscriber management and detailed reporting.

Plus, if you send your own e-mails, you’ll probably get blocked by spam filters at the Internet service providers. Expect that 20% of your messages won’t get to recipients if you send them yourself. Your e-mail hosting company will take care of this for you.

You can get basic, effective solutions starting at about $25 a month, with complete, professional-grade e-mail direct marketing platforms starting at about $500 a month.

Step 5: Sell aggressively but tastefully. A newsletter that provides valuable content can still be an aggressive sales tool. Don’t forget your marketing math: Repetition and frequency drive sales, and a weekly newsletter reader is going to get a much stronger exposure to your message.

There are many places you can tastefully insert product promotions in a good newsletter, including banners or large ads, footer text about your company and products, logos and links to your Web site, and the occasional "news from our company" story.

Step 6: Watch the numbers each week. They will give you a good sense of how things are going. Pay attention to subscribes vs. unsubscribes, the percentage of readers who open the e-mail, the number who click on the links and how many buy after clicking.

There is another number that you should be watching, too, though few marketers do. We call it "First Issue Unsubscribe Rate." It’s the number of readers who sign up for your list, get one issue and then ask to be removed. It’s the best indication you have that your e-mails aren’t worth reading. If the number is high, get a new writer and change the content.

Establishing a good e-mail marketing program isn’t as hard as you think. You’ll spend a few weeks designing a template, setting up a server and planning content. But after that, publishing a newsletter is a fairly easy and automatic process.

The e-mail server will handle all the mailing, processing subscribes and unsubscribes, and dealing with bouncing messages. Your only real job each week is to write—or hire someone to write—a few paragraphs, insert them into a template and add in a few promotions. Plan on spending no more than five hours per issue on the whole process.

Andy Sernovitz is founder and CEO of GasPedal (www.gaspedal.net), an e-mail consultancy in New York.

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