Lost In America

I was driving back from Waltham, MA last night, making my way home from dinner with a friend. As I turned out onto the main road, I saw flashing blue lights and a line of traffic backed up for a good half mile.

Deciding to test my uncanny sense of direction, I turned off on a side street and attempted to make my way around the mess.

That was a mistake. 45 minutes and ten miles later, I was no closer to my destination and now completely lost. Although reasonably certain that I was still in North America, I felt pretty sure that the town of Waltham was long gone.

I drove a few more minutes and was lucky enough to find an intersection with street signs (a rarity in a state whose philosophy relative to lost strangers is, “There were no signs when we landed here 400 years ago, why should we help you?”). I pulled out my Massachusetts street map and attempted to locate my position.

That’s when I had my big insight of the evening: Maps are not useful if you don’t have at least some idea of where you are.

With every street in every town in New England named after either a dead patriot or a leafy tree, looking up at the sign and seeing that I was at the corner of Washington and Maple, wasn’t all that helpful.

Despite the darkness and the driving rain, you’ll be pleased to know that this got me thinking about E-Newsletters (I never stop working for you). Stay with me, I’ll explain. . .

I am frequently called upon to answer questions about the “right way” to do an E-Newsletter. Most of the questions — whether at the end of a workshop, on the phone, or in emails from many of you — focus on the mechanics: “How long should it be?; What should the ‘welcome message’ say?; Is HTML or text better?; What colors work best?; etc.

I’m happy to say that I’m very consistent in my answers. No matter what the question, I always say, “It depends.”

The reason it depends — and this is how it relates to my experience the other night — is that you can’t answer these small, tactical questions without first getting a handle on the larger strategic questions. Just as the names of the streets were of no value until I figured out what town I was in, trying to make design, layout, or content decisions before you understand the big picture is a waste of time. The details without the larger context are useless.

Consequently, every client project we work on begins with 3 key questions:

1. What town are we in? I’m kidding! We ask,Why are we doing this? The “build first ask questions later” mentality that inspired the development of millions of useless corporate web sites at the end of the last century, has resurfaced in E-Newsletter land. Every company thinks it needs one, but few have stopped to figure out why. If you can’t list and prioritize your objectives (More sales? Better relationships? Increased visibility?), you have no fixed point against which to make your tactical decisions.

2. Who’s the audience? Is it 18 year old videogame playing boys, or golf loving seniors living in Arizona? Everything from how you speak (“Hey dudes” Vs. “Welcome Readers”) to the font size you choose, needs to be aligned with the needs and expectations of your audience.

3. What will we write about? I know, I’m a “content is king” broken record, but it’s the most important piece. The question you want to ask yourself is, “What information or knowledge or perspective do we have that our target audience wants?” Until you can answer that, you don’t have a newsletter. . . you’ve got SPAM.

Bottom Line: You can’t do a good, consistent job of answering the small questions until you’ve tackled the big ones. Start at 30,000 feet and work your way down to street level. I’ll probably still be driving around, so look for me.

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