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Creating Newsletter Content Here's how to craft compelling e-mail newsletter content quickly and effectively.

You may take it for granted, but you know a lot about your business that customers would find interesting. You also bring your personality to your work. So you already have the foundation for the content and tone of your e-mail newsletters--you're ready to publish something that engages your audience and drives sales. It's really not that hard.

When faced with composing a newsletter, some business owners say, "I don't have time" or "I don't have anything unique to say." They get "writers' stage fright" when they stare at a blank screen. They feel that an e-newsletter has to be substantial and formal. But my opinion differs from all those notions. Every business owner has something to say. It's just the first newsletter that's the hardest, so let's get started.

First, you need to figure out just what interests your audience. How do you go about finding out what your customers want to read about?

1. Look to your customers for potential topics. What do customers ask about when you discuss your business? What are their frequently asked questions? You can use the answers as bits of "teaser" information--offering them free, valuable content to show them your expertise and bring them in for business.

2. Observe what your customers actually read. The fabulous thing about e-mail marketing is that everything is trackable. Once you get started, your reporting results will tell you which articles most interest your readers. Then you can experiment with placement and move items with higher click rates up "above the fold."

3. Give readers a feedback link. What else would they like to hear about? Throw out a theory and invite feedback. Stir up some controversy. Get the dialog going and invite readers into your process.

Rest assured: You don't have to divulge all your industry secrets and know-how in your e-newsletters. You do need to give away a little bit of free advice, however, to bring people into your world--and to convert readers into customers.

What you write about will depend on your business. If you're a landscaper, tell your readers what plants do well in our climate zone. If you're an accountant, share a little-known business expense people can write off on their taxes. If you're a scuba shop owner, report on a great dive site. Tell people things you think they might already have heard about but may need a refresher on. Then tell them a little more. Give people something to think about. Teach them something. You don't need to be the world's expert on a topic. Just be your customers' expert.

When you're writing, you need to feel comfortable using your own voice, your own personal style. You know how to talk to customers. So pretend you're sitting across the desk from them when you're writing your e-newsletters. Think about what you like to read. You most likely enjoy reading things that are fun, that have personality, stories that are brought to life with examples. Put yourself in your reader's shoes: When you open a dense or serious newsletter, you recoil. So keep things light and interesting and useful. And brief. Remember: Less Is more.

So just what things should you include in your newsletters? Here are a few essentials:

Features. Every newsletter should have one short feature. It could be a customer or employee spotlight, an anecdote, a short case study or a testimonial. Nothing makes your value come alive like showing what you did for a customer. Tell a story. Use humor. And keep it relevant. Each item should be a teaser to direct people back to your website, where they can learn more about your company and your products or services.

Short items. Digestible info-nuggets play well in e-newsletter format: Include such things as advice ("Hints & Tips"), training techniques, best practices or "News You Can Use" (information about store openings, events, new products or services). It's OK to include relevant promotional content. For example, if a landscaper writes about winterizing lawns, it's fine to recommend a product on sale that meets that challenge. But keep the ratio 75 percent editorial and 25 percent advertising. Readers who recognize ads disguised in an article wrapping feel tricked.

Link to other articles. You don't have to write the whole newsletter yourself--you can link to other authors' articles, if they're relevant. If you see something of interest, e-mail the author and ask permission to link to that article, citing the source. Most will say yes. By assembling articles by other experts, your audience will come to count on you to keep track of relevant business trends and ideas for them. It's about delivering value.

To stay ahead of the game, keep a tickler file for future issues. Write your ideas down whenever they come to you, and put them in one of two files, "Newsletter Ideas" and "Articles to Link To." Once you get started, you're sure to come up with topics no matter where you are: when you attend trade shows or networking events, when you're speaking with customers, while you're commuting to and from work. Next time you sit down to work on a newsletter, the ideas will be waiting.

Monthly is a good frequency to publish; quarterly is good if you're just getting started. And once you're in a rhythm, your e-newsletters will practically write themselves.

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