The Mystery of the One-Issue Newsletter

It wasn’t Charlie Controller in the boardroom with an adding machine. Nor was it Sally Salesrep in the supply closet with a PDA. Even Percy President and his poison pen had a firm alibi.

So who killed the newsletter?

Remember when we started it? It was so exciting. The company was finally going to let customers know everything that was important. Each department had been told to contribute something. Management agonized for hours over the name. Sales came up with enough key customers to profile for the next three years. The graphic designer presented a breathtaking layout that actually earned applause. Finally, two thousand copies arrived in customer mailboxes to great acclaim. Everyone eagerly awaited the second issue.

And waited.

“The killer of the newsletter was … the schedule. ”

But it never arrived. A year later, everyone is still trying to solve the mystery. There are some vague ideas about why it never happened. While plenty of people are pointing plenty of fingers at the usual suspects, nobody has been able to pin down who is really to blame. And the eight-page corpses are still piled on the reception room table, gathering dust.

I’ve seen so many of these crime scenes that they no longer shock me. In fact, I’m confident that I don’t even have to sift through the evidence before fingering a suspect. It wasn’t a lack of ideas. Nor was it a shortage of content. Nor the absence of enthusiasm or sufficient budget.

The killer of the newsletter was … the schedule.

If I say that I’ve seen it happen a million times, I’m exaggerating only slightly. I’ve never seen a well-thought-out newsletter – whether in print format or electronic – die because nobody could think of anything to say, or because there wasn’t an audience that needed to hear it. In nearly every case, newsletters die because they lack a firm schedule. And when newsletters that have a schedule die, it’s nearly always because nobody is enforcing that schedule.

For a newsletter to be an effective communications tool, it must be consistent and regular. That isn’t because readers will wait with breathless anticipation for the next issue. It’s because consistent and regular production is the only way that an organization will continue to produce the newsletter. If distribution plans are vague (“let’s send one out sometime this summer”) or sporadic (“we’ll send another when we have something new to say”), the newsletter is destined to die.

Management needs to make a commitment that a certain number of newsletters will be issued each year and specify when they’re going to arrive on customers’ and prospects’ desks. Given that delivery date, the team can create a schedule that spells out when every step must be completed and provides due dates for each participant. Those dates are not only important for your internal staff; they let outside vendors such as your printer know when they can expect the project, so they’ll be ready to turn it around on time.

The schedule is mandatory, but a carefully crafted list of dates isn’t enough to make your newsletter succeed. You also need someone – one person – who can drive the process and keep everyone else on their toes and on time (those of you addicted to trendy corporate-speak might call that person a “champion”).

After all, most people are well-intentioned, but without deadlines and someone to make sure those deadlines are being met, they won’t hold up their ends of the project. That’s why your payroll department constantly has to nag people about timesheets. It’s why your sales team never files call reports without a half-dozen reminders. Anything that seems to be an insignificant part of the daily workload gets pushed aside.

When people are told that they have to complete something by a certain date, and they know they’ll be held to that date (or face a scolding), they’re much more likely to do what they should. Plus, when the process works, and they see the newsletter going out on time, they’ll take their own role in it far more seriously.

So who should do the scolding? Many companies simply hand responsibility for managing the newsletter process to an employee who already has an overwhelming workload. In those cases, it’s not surprising that the newsletter becomes a very low priority – and invariably, it dies a quiet death within a fairly short timeframe.

That’s why it’s often a smart idea to outsource the management of the newsletter process (and production of the newsletter itself) to a freelance writer, graphic designer, ad agency or public relations firm. Outsiders don’t face the same internal pressures as staff people. In addition, their real-world experience with projects such as newsletters gives them an edge when it comes to managing the process. Finally, because they aren’t face-to-face with the rest of the staff all day, they can afford to be the “bad guys,” pushing, prodding, and even nagging to make sure everyone meets his or her commitment to the project.

One last point: you’ll hear a lot of self-styled experts tell you that newsletters are old-fashioned tools and no longer relevant in our gee-whiz technoworld. Bunk.

If your newsletter contains relevant information that will help your customers do a better job of operating their own businesses and serving their own clients and customers, they’ll read it. If you use it to provide practical examples of the expertise you offer, they’ll keep you in mind when they need help. If they know that each issue contains valuable insights, they’ll trust you.

But if your newsletter is nothing more than a thinly veiled “gosh, aren’t we great” reminder, not even the best schedule and project management will save it. And in that case, you’re the guilty party.