Extra! Extra!

Newsletters are a great way to grab customers' attention--and they don't cost a fortune to produce

With his shaggy blond hair and diamond-studded star earring, you might not think that Bob Dron, a 45-year-old Harley-Davidson dealer in Oakland, Calif., is a publisher. But then you probably haven't read The Open Road, the six-page newsletter he has sent customers every quarter since 1997. For about $6,000 an issue, he reaches 7,000 bikers who lap up technical tips, customer profiles, and news about the shop. "It's amazing--people come in and ask to get on our mailing list," he says.

In this age of ad clutter and junk mail, entrepreneurs are finding that one of the easiest ways to connect with customers is to moonlight as a publisher. Newsletters remind clients you're still there, help spark repeat business, and sometimes can be used to attract new clients. "It builds loyalty," says Art Lee-Drewes, a Harley rider and a big fan of Dron's newsletter. "You feel like you belong to something."

Newsletters are certainly catching on. The Standard Periodical Directory counts more than 4,000 of them and estimates the number grows 15% a year. Maybe that's because it's not hard: All you need is a little cash and creativity.

First, obviously, decide what to say. Stick to useful information, as opposed to self-promotion. Can you offer tips unavailable elsewhere? How about new ways to use an old product? As for design, software programs such as Adobe PageMaker provide templates for the do-it-yourselfer. Or you can hire a professional out of the Yellow Pages or off the Web. They'll do the design work, write the copy, and even do the mailing. Expect to spend about $1 per copy, including postage, for a run of several thousand; unit costs drop as the press run increases.

Newsletters also can be published on the Web or sent via e-mail, but beware: Experts say unsolicited e-mail is far less effective than a physical publication. In either case, aim for people who will find it genuinely useful and interesting. "If you don't send it to the right people, it just gets thrown out," says Paul Swift, editor of The Newsletter about Newsletters.

A poorly designed newsletter, or one rife with errors, is worse than no newsletter. A newsletter should not be seen as a substitute for efforts to expand your existing customer base. "You still need to try to get yourself mentioned in real news media," advises Laura Ries, of the Roswell (Ga.) marketing firm Ries & Ries Inc.

A well-executed newsletter can work wonders. Consider the one Lisa Skriloff, owner of New York's Multicultural Marketing Resources Inc., puts out. Every two months, Skriloff spends several days--and several thousand dollars--producing Multicultural Marketing News, a four-page newsletter filled with tips on reaching minority consumers. "It helps position my company as an expert in the field," Skriloff says. She also distributes the newsletter at conferences and mails it to potential clients--outreach that generates 10% of her business. Perhaps it's time more entrepreneurs take a page from the academics: publish or perish.

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