The newsletter tumbled through my mail slot like a paper airplane from the 1950s: four pages of humble-brag, printed in bland black and blue ink, pocked with stiffly posed B&W photos. Over and over, my state legislator was smiling and shaking hands with someone or other.

Waste of trees, time, and (taxpayer-subsidized) postage. My legislator’s dull content could go just as unread on the internet. Who pays attention to newsletters anymore, anyway?

Lots of people, actually. Newsletters, in digital and paper form, are efficient vehicles for reaching highly targeted audiences. But just showing up is not enough. People won’t read your newsletter unless it’s relevant, appealing, and interesting. These three qualities interlock, but let me try to tease them apart.

 

Relevant

Relevance trumps all other factors. If only you could get your points across by delivering a personalized vacation-photo album to every member of your audience….

More to the point, I subscribe to a medical newsletter that looks even more dated than my state legislator’s. The page design harkens back to the stacks of Readers Digest moldering on my grandmother’s side table. The color scheme is my old favorite, black and blue. But I grab it off the mail stack because the topic is near and dear to me.

How can you make your newsletter more relevant? Begin with a well-groomed distribution list. Get a full understanding of the audience who receives your publication, which for a newsletter is usually a well-defined interest group. Then use taglines and headlines to telegraph to these recipients the connection between them and your articles.

The Letter by Alfred Stevens

Newsletter appeal is primarily visual, but words play a role in allure, as well.

Appealing

Think “sex appeal.” It’s mostly visual. A well-designed newsletter uses graphics to lure readers’ eyes. Arresting photos are great if appropriate, but charts and diagrams are just as useful and often more appropriate.

And don’t forget the important role of nothing in design. White space on a page gives readers room to think. Words can have sex appeal, too. Just as a bedroom voice helps seduce, so does an alluring headline.

Wordplay—humor, metaphor, simile, punning—is great when appropriate, but what if it’s not? Callouts, subheads, captions, and other text-based graphic devices are always appropriate. Think of them as verbal on-ramps to the full story.

Interesting

There are no dull topics, only dull writers. Nevertheless, a topic is inherently uninteresting if it has no relevance to the audience. Don’t include a bowling article in a golf newsletter, unless it says something like “bowling all winter will make you a better golfer next summer.”

Appealing art can make a topic more interesting. But most newsletters are mostly about words, so those words better be good.

Interesting writing is taut, to-the-point, and as vivid as circumstances allow. Even when the topic is technical, it’s no license to unleash an avalanche of jargon. Just because the author’s the CEO is no excuse for corporatese. Never let false dignity get in the way of true clarity.

Newsletters still have a solid place in business communication. What’s changed in the smartphone age is further shrinking of tolerance for boring content and bad design. What’s timeless is the power of relevant content conveyed through appealing graphics and interesting writing. This formula will always draw an audience that thinks your newsletter is worth their time.