PRODUCING NEWSLETTERS: BEWARE OF THE BIRDCAGE
Posted by Tim Bryce on July 9, 2012
- Writing newsletters that will be read as opposed to discarded.
As I have been involved with a variety of nonprofit organizations over the years, I am often saddled with the task of producing the group’s newsletter. Maybe it’s because I know how to string a few words together and have worked with computers for more years than I care to remember. Nonetheless, I have probably produced over a thousand newsletters over the years for management groups, technology associations, homeowner groups, and fraternal organizations. Because of this, I like to believe I have learned a thing or two over the years about these publications, the first being they should never be taken for granted. Too often I see newsletters prepared frivolously where the same verbiage is spewed out month after month thereby become very predictable and quite boring. I know of newsletters where the same copy is used year after year and nothing changes except the names of the club’s officers. Surprisingly nobody notices. There is nothing wrong with devising a standard format, which readers tend to adapt to, but if there is no “news” in the newsletter, in all likelihood it will only be used to line the bottom of a birdcage. However, if they are meaningful, not only will they be read, they’ll also be kept for future reference.
When writing copy for the newsletter, keep it simple and to the point. Do not ramble as most readers of newsletters have the attention span of a gnat and become easily bored. You have less than thirty seconds to grab a person’s attention with a newsletter, after which they will decide to either read it or discard it. I tend to see the newsletter as a working tool which is why people should discuss more about what is on the horizon and less about what happened in the past. Your column should be positive and upbeat, not negative and depressing. In other words, keep the glass half full as opposed to half empty. We write to communicate, not to put people to sleep. People will likely follow you if you are more optimistic. If you’ve got bad news though, do not try to sugarcoat it, give it to your members straight so you get their attention and encourage participation if necessary.
Other than news, a schedule of upcoming events should be included, along with a listing of club officers and their contact information (e.g., telephone, e-mail). These two items are what most people are looking for, everything else is secondary. In terms of “filler,” there is a lot you can add, but do not overdo it as you should be mindful of the birdcage liner phenomenon. I have seen a variety of things used, such as a welcome of new members, a listing of past presidents, this day in history, cartoons, some useful tips and techniques, educational trivia, and a listing of sponsors.
As I begin editing the newsletter, I collect all of the notes and columns from contributors and place them into a plain text file (ASCII) suitable for use with any text processor, e.g., MS Notepad. People always wonder why I do this. The answer is simple, in this format I can migrate it to any other computer file format, be it a word processor, desktop publishing, HTML (web page), E-Mail, PDF, etc. Whereas these other formats are limited in terms of migrating to other file formats, plain ASCII text can go anywhere. In one association I am involved with, I produce multiple versions of the same newsletter: using desktop publishing, I produce a paper copy to be printed and mailed and a PDF version to be e-mailed; I also produce an HTML version for our web page. This is all simple to do, but not possible without first preparing the plain ASCII text version. As an aside, I am a big proponent of Adobe’s PDF file format as it is more universally applicable than word processors like MS Word.
Since your files are now on the computer, be sure to run spell checkers and grammar checkers on the text. In this day and age, there is no excuse for not doing so.
I tend to name computer files in a specific manner so I can easily sort through them and find what I want, as well as to easily backup files. For example, I put the publication date into the name; to illustrate:
NEWS0612.TXT – Representing the June 2012 edition (MMYY) – my personal preference
NEWS1206.TXT – the same thing backwards (YYMM)
NEWS200612.TXT – Representing the June 20th, 2012 edition (DDMMYY) if so inclined
I have seen other people name them based on Volume and Edition number; for example:
Vol06Ed10.TXT – Volume 06, Edition 10
How you name your files is your business but I encourage you to devise a standard format thereby simplifying the storage and maintenance of the files. This is also useful for setting up a new edition of the newsletter. Instead of inventing an entirely new edition of each newsletter, I copy and rename a past issue and use it as a template to build the next edition, thereby saving considerable time.
In terms of layout, devise a clean and simple approach that you can standardize on, thereby inviting readership as opposed to discouraging people. Most desktop publishing tools have standard templates for such purposes. Always be cognizant of your readership and try to accommodate people. For example, do not use a tiny font or strange type style that nobody can read. Break your text into multiple columns on a page, two or three, and leave a sufficient amount of white space between columns, thereby making it easy to read. Underline or highlight key words you want to draw attention to but do not do so excessively as people will start to ignore it.
Again, I warn publishers of newsletters, regardless of how graphically appealing your publication looks, it it doesn’t say anything of substance it will inevitably end up in the birdcage. Before you release it though, try to get a second set of eyes to review the publication. Another person might be able to spot something you have overlooked.
Although most publications today are distributed via e-mail and web pages, there are still people who do not have access to a computer, particularly elderly members who prefer printed copies instead. This means you need an address book that can produce both mailing labels as well as a listing of e-mail addresses. Electronic versions of the newsletter have no restrictions in terms of number of pages. However, printed versions do, as dictated by postage costs. I have seen many organizations struggle with the issue of discontinuing the printed version of the newsletter. Electronic versions are cheaper to produce, and you can do more with them, but if a sizeable portion of your membership cannot access it, you will inevitably alienate them. Then again, this may become a moot point if the economics of the group cannot justify the continuation of a printed version.
The question remains though, can a simple newsletter truly impact a nonprofit organization? You betcha. First, it reflects the personality of the group (tired versus stimulating; lethargic versus ambitious). Second, it gets the word out as to the plans and activities of the group. I would wager you this: those groups without a newsletter or offer nothing more than a “birdcage liner” are probably the same groups suffering from apathy, lack of attendance, and a decline in membership.
All that is needed is someone who can string a few words together and feels comfortable around computers. Oh oh, now I know how I get trapped into doing this.
Keep the Faith!
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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Copyright © 2012 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.
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