And The Winner Is…

My last newsletter, in addition to being jam-packed with irrelevancy and the occasional useful gem, included a contest at the end.

Specifically, I asked readers to call my voicemail and sing (to whatever melody they wished) the lyrics that my nine-year-old son Jonathan had written:

Sometimes when the world comes crashing down
And I got nothing left to do, but sit around
I find the truth waiting there for me
Baby, come back to me, I’m sorry for what I did to you

I’m happy to report that five brave souls – Colton in North Easton, Massachusetts; Mark in Little Rock, Arkansas; Julie in Denver; Jane in Boston and Bayberry in Marietta, Georgia – all took on the challenge. (Julie was the third caller, and as such, the winner of a genuine Blue Penguin T-shirt.)

The result was an inspiring, grin-inducing montage – three minutes long and available for your listening pleasure here (anchored by my son Jonathan’s version at the end).

So here’s my question for you… Why did I bother? What’s the point of putting an off-topic singing contest in a business-to-business newsletter, knowing that less than one in a thousand readers will take me up on it?

Isn’t it a waste of time? Isn’t it a distraction? Isn’t it unprofessional?

No. Yes. Exactly.

There are (at least) three good reasons for including this kind of thing in a business E-Newsletter, all of which have to do with helping yours stand out from the rest:

  1. Fun. Most business, most days, is at best routine and at worst just plain boring. And so while your readers come in anticipation of the useful, focused, on-topic information your newsletter provides, time and again I find that it’s the fun diversions that generate the most activity.

    When my (wonderful) client, Daruma Asset Management, for example, mentioned its CEO’s high school connection with Barack Obama in a recent issue, the click rate was through the roof. Useful information + Fun = Compelling Content.

  1. Community. While you may think of your readers as a group, to them, each of whom receives just one newsletter copy in isolation, there are no other people “in the audience.” So while you and your coworkers may feel a group buzz each time you publish, left on their own, your readers won’t.

    Seeing other readers participate, however – via reprinted reader comments, links to reader web sites and yes, contests – reinforces the idea that there are more people in the community. Best of all, readers don’t need to actively participate to feel connected, which is why in this case, “one in a thousand” is just fine.

  1. Humanity. “Off-topic” contests in particular, reveal the human side of both you and your readers… a side that tends to remain hidden when readers are asked to respond in a more serious way on more serious subjects.

    As for the fear of appearing unprofessional, proving your credentials is not your biggest marketing problem anyway. To the extent you don’t have all the business you want, it’s mostly due to the fact that you and your colleagues have not revealed enough of your authentic selves to help readers both remember you and like you. Personally, I view “unprofessional” as a competitive advantage.

Ok, so assuming you buy the “Why” of silly newsletter contests, here’s a little bit of the “How”…

  1. Share names and locations. Not only is it more interesting for your readers to see who and where your other readers are, it positions your company as having a broad-based (i.e. “They must be experts”) following. In the contest results above, I deliberately tell you where the participants live. I’m only sorry I didn’t have a few non-American participants to further reinforce the extent of my reach. Maybe I should have made some up?
  1. Don’t make things up. It’s tempting to manipulate the system by inventing reader e-mails, rearranging the order in which contest entries came in, or exaggerating results in general. While there’s nothing wrong with putting things in the best possible light, out and out fabrication will come back to bite you (insert your own Congress joke here).
  1. Get as much mileage as you can. If you have a contest, make sure to publish the results and winners in the next issue. If you give away a prize, why not make it something that ties back to your brand (e.g. Blue Penguin T-shirt rather than Starbucks gift card)?

    Maybe – and I’m not necessarily suggesting you do this but I’ve heard of some people who do – write an entire newsletter on the subject of a contest you held, just so you can shine a bright light on the contest itself (ahem).

Here’s the bottom line: Quality content carries the day, no doubt about it. Keep in mind, however, that your readers are as hungry for the fun diversions as they are for the useful information. Figure out how to mix the two and you’ll earn both their respect and their attention.

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