Curse of the Me-Newsletter

You know what I like about working for myself? No dress code. You wear what you want every day of the week and nobody much cares. Frankly, it’s gotten to the point where if I’ve got long pants on between Memorial Day and Labor Day, my kids want to know who I’m meeting with. (If I’m wearing a tie, they want to know who died.)

And so yesterday evening, when I arrived home from my office wearing pants that weren’t jeans and shoes that weren’t sneakers, my family knew that something was up.

“Where’d you go today?,” my eight-year-old son Jonathan asked over dinner. I told him that I drove to see a client in Hingham (pronounced “HING-um” for those of you raised in normal-speaking parts of the world), a town about 50 miles away.

“How long did it take you to drive there?,” he asked.

“About an hour each way,” I said.

I could see that the wheels were now turning inside Jonathan’s third-grade brain.

“Wait a second,” he said. “Why did it take you one hour to drive just 50 miles, when we drive to New York City in four hours… and that’s a thousand miles away?”

Now I was confused. Even ignoring the implication that my Ford Focus could ever reach 250 miles per hour – something I doubt it could do if you dropped it out of an airplane – we live in a suburb of Boston; New York City is only about 200 miles away.

So I asked him, “What makes you think New York is a thousand miles from here?”

“Easy. In that song Hey There Delilah, the guys sings: ëWhat’s it like in New York City? I’m a thousand miles away, but girl tonight you look so pretty.'”

His reasoning was based on a bad assumption, of course, but I had to admit, in a kind of topsy-turvy, me-centric way, it almost made sense. (The thought crossed my mind that he may play an important media relations role in some future White House administration).

For an eight-year-old, it’s pretty normal to assume that the world revolves around you and everybody else shares your same perspective. Unfortunately, for newsletter writers of any age, the same (flawed) assumption is often at work.

Here’s what I mean. Many companies – whether they say it out loud or even consciously realize it – work from the belief that the way they’re organized, the people they’ve got on board, and the products and services they sell, are of keen interest to their newsletter readers.

It’s a bad assumption. Here are some examples of how it often plays out:

  • Your newsletter content formula matches the structure of your business. Time, Inc. publishes Sports Illustrated for Kids, Woman’s Weekly and Land Rover World. And yet I think you’d agree that if they ever tried to combine the three into one magazine, they’d be very successful in appealing to nobody.

    By the same token, and while it’s fine to have a company that sells auto insurance to consumers, health insurance to small businesses owners, and financial aid advice to college students, if you try to cover all those topics for all those audiences in the same publication – simply because it’s what you do – you’ll be wasting your time.

    Pick a narrow content focus and stick to it month after month. How narrow? As narrow as you think possible, and then a few steps more narrow than that.

  • Your newsletter is written by several different people in your organization. Some companies rotate contributors with the idea of “giving everybody a chance and letting our clients get to know us.” That’s a nice way to get buy-in and participation from within your organization, but again, it’s a capital-L-Loser from the point of view of your readers, who don’t much care about any of that.

    Settle on a clear, consistent, recognizable voice and stick to it month after month. Be willing to ignore certain groups in the name of building a loyal following among others.

  • Your newsletter’s topics and content all point back to you. As a marketing person myself, I appreciate the urge to keep citing your experience, pointing out your capabilities and gushing over your own wonderfulness when writing your newsletter. After all, you may be thinking, isn’t the promotion of our business the point of this E-Newsletter exercise in the first place?

    Yes it is. The problem, however, is that the minute your readers see you wander from the bright and cheery land of useful, unbiased information into the cold and calculating campaign bus of self-promoting half-truths, you’ll lose them (sorry about the metaphors; I think I’m watching too much political coverage).

    Remember, you’re building relationships, not closing today’s sale – a strategy which in the long run is easier, more profitable and more long-lasting than trying to work the room at every turn.

Here’s the bottom line. If you want people to anticipate, open, read and pass along your newsletter (and I’m guessing that you do), you need to put yourself in the shoes of your readers. Try to offer content that will help them do their jobs better or live their lives easier, and the rest will take care of itself.

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