Over the past decade, I've met thousands of business and franchise owners, nonprofit and association marketers and other professionals who've harnessed the power of e-mail marketing to connect with their customers and drive repeat sales.

Their industries have ranged from real estate to retail, travel to professional services, and pretty much everything in between. But no matter the type of business or organization, they all have one thing in common: Their e-mail newsletters are the centerpiece of their successful online marketing campaigns.

Which brings me to the topic of this column: It's 2010. Have you launched an e-mail newsletter yet? If not, I can probably guess why.

It's not that you don't have industry insights and expertise to share. And it's not that you don't want closer customer relationships by inviting two-way dialogue through a newsletter. When I ask why someone hasn't created an e-mail newsletter, the most common answers I hear are: "I'm not a writer" and "I don't know what to write about."

Good news: You don't have to be Shakespeare to create an engaging e-mail newsletter! There are plenty of topics to cover, sources to tap and material to be used--if you know where to look.

Hot Newsletter Content Anyone Can Cook Up
The internet has changed how people communicate. Short, crisp, direct writing works best for web pages, blogs, tweets and e-mail newsletters. That should come as a relief if you're among the entrepreneurs who don't like to write or can never find a quiet moment to put pen to paper. You can still publish an e-newsletter that contains interesting stories your audience will be eager to read.

Here are some types of content that reluctant writers can create easily (and avoid breaking their keyboards in frustration).

  • Customer success stories and testimonials. Nothing says "Buy my products" or "Engage my services" like a ringing endorsement from a satisfied customer. Invite current or former customers to e-mail you their success stories. Publish the best ones in your newsletter. You could run a contest and give something away to the readers whose stories are picked. Help customers and prospects see themselves in those real-life success stories. Look for anecdotes that tell how your products or services solved a problem or made someone's life better. Ask for photos of your happy customers to include with their success stories. That will help bring the stories to life.
  • Q&A with colleagues, authors and other industry experts. What are the current hot topics in your field? What questions are on your clients' and customers' minds? Get some answers to share with readers by interviewing business colleagues, book authors and other industry experts. With the sources' permission, record your interviews, transcribe the audio and publish excerpts as question-and-answer articles.

    • Viral marketing bonus: Interviewees may forward your newsletter to their contacts and friends.
  • Existing material from your website and other sources. You can become an aggregator of useful information for your readers. Comb through blogs, newsletters, articles and websites. When you find something thought-provoking, ask the author for permission to reprint the item in your newsletter. Link back to their website as thanks.

    • Remember: Unless you are the original author, you must get written permission to republish someone else's work. It's their intellectual property.
  • Your websites Frequently Asked Questions page. Each FAQ can be repurposed as a newsletter item. Another idea is to check with vendors, corporate franchise owners and professional associations to see if they have product, market or industry information that you can use for newsletter content.

An e-mail newsletter is a powerful communications tool to engage your audience on the topics that are most important to them. If you haven't published a newsletter before, let 2010 be the year that you start. That's something to write home about!

Your Easy Editorial Calendar
It's easier to put out a regular newsletter if you have some idea of what you want to feature from month to month. Here are five tips to get you started:

  1. Map your newsletter calendar against the yearly calendar--note holidays, change of seasons, lifestyle events (e.g., summer vacation, back to school) and any other times that impact your sales cycles. Plan stories that sync up with your industry calendar.
  2. Survey your audience regularly to find out what they'd like to read about. You can plan content in advance and still respond to fresh ideas and customer feedback.
  3. Keep a tickler file of article ideas, people to interview and other content that might interest your readers. Get permission to feature other authors' content in advance; that way, when you're in a pinch, you'll have a file of good material ready to go.
  4. Archive your newsletter articles from your e-mail campaigns on your website. You'll build an enduring body of work that demonstrates your expertise. Search engines will find those pages, too.
  5. A picture helps tell the story! Use photos and illustrations to make your newsletter more visually compelling. Think about artwork to accompany your articles as soon as you plan your editorial calendar.