Newsletters and blogs

In the last 4 or 5 years, I’ve had many occasions to talk with clients about their monthly/quarterly newsletter. Usually in the context of, "We want to email these suckers to everyone and (somehow) make them read them."

I try to persuade them that a blog is a better tool but requires a shift in perspective. More on that in a bit.

Here are Three Truths I’ve discovered about newsletters:

  1. Managers love newsletters.
  2. The people who have to "write" newsletters hate them.
  3. The people who receive newsletters are bored by them and –for the most part– never read them.

Why do managers love newsletters?

Managers love newsletters because they don’t have to write them… but do get to proof (several times) every word and every piece of clip art.

Managers see the newsletter as benign propaganda. A great tool for recognizing workers who put in a bunch of extra hours on a project, for no extra money.

Newsletters say "we are one big happy family and here’s what we’ve been up to since the last newsletter."

Why to the people who write the newsletters hate them?

Because they don’t really get to write them. They have no real say about the content and they can’t/don’t try for a human voice because it isn’t really coming from them. It’s from the boss (although she doesn’t write them either) or some middle manager who proofed all the life and fun out of the thing before letting it out the door.

Pulling together a newsletter every quarter (or every month, god forbid!) is the worst kind of cat herding. They beg and plead with department heads to submit something for the newsletter and they’re always late, so the "editor" is scrambling right up to deadline to pull the thing together. And it reads like it.

But, most of all, they hate the newsletter because they know that few, if any, read the damned thing.

Why do the recipients rarely read newsletters?

First and foremost, there is almost never anything "new" in them (see #2 above). In today’s wired, mobile, always connected world… something that happened 4 or 5 weeks ago is ancient history. And everyone knows that management would never allow anything really interesting to find it’s way into the newsletter anyway.

Why is a blog better?

To understand why a well written and maintained blog is a better communication tool, let’s look through the other end of the telescope.

Readers like blogs for all the reasons they hate newsletters. They have news. Usually every day. They’re written by real, live, flesh-and-blood people. With opinions and perspective and insights. They care about what they’re writing about, so I care too. And because I care, I subscribe to the blog’s RSS feed get the latest post when and where I want it, while it’s still fresh and relevant.

The person writing the blog loves doing it. They care about the subject and their passion and interest comes across in every post. They’ve been empowered and entrusted to communicate with their readers and they take the responsibility seriously. And because they post whenever some new or interesting comes along, it takes less time (or seems to). No tedious Page Maker layout or agonizing html hassles. Today’s blogging tools make posting as simple as an email.

Which brings us back to the manager. Why does he/she hate and fear the blog? In my experience it’s all about control. Specifically, the loss thereof. With a newsletter, the boss can edit and re-edit and edit again. Until he gets the perfect sanitized, homogenized, safe-for-all-pay-grades piece of corporate-speak.

Blogs don’t work that way. Blogs are living, breathing things. Which is one of the reasons they are fun to read. And so damned scary to "the people in charge." What if somebody writes something that gets us in trouble?

These days, I don’t waste a lot of energy trying to sell blogs over newsletters. When a client says, show me how to do this blog thing… I’m happy to show ’em the ropes. But if I see that they really aren’t there, I encourage them to go back to the newsletter. And I always get a mental image of a C130 flying low over a village, dropping leaflets ("Put down your weapons. We are here to help you"). The villagers never read these but they hang on to them because you never know when you’re gonna need some extra paper.

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