Fixing these problems can turn your publication into a powerful membership growth and retention tool

By Bill Carney

Over the past 30 years I’ve conducted dozens of workshops designed to help editors publish more effective association newsletters. In conjunction with those workshops, I’ve critiqued hundreds of publications. While there are plenty of bad practices I’ve come across, I find that there are five mistakes I see over and over that tend to ruin the effectiveness of these publications. I’d like to share those five “deadly sins” with you now.

1. Not understanding the purpose of an association newsletter.
You’re not working for the Washington Post, so many of the tenets you learned in journalism class – like being unbiased – need to be set aside. Don’t be confused about the purpose of your newsletter. While it’s important to inform, congratulate and thank your members in your newsletter, never forget that the main purpose of any association newsletter is to sell! You’re selling meeting registrations, exhibit space, sponsorships, certification programs, continuing education products and – by extrapolation – you’re selling membership and membership retention.

The main thrust of your publication and the articles within it must focus on this purpose. If you’re not selling through your newsletter – and selling hard – you’re doing it wrong.

2. Turning to a graphic designer to make your newsletter more effective.
If your newsletter is getting poor reviews from your members, don’t turn it over to a designer for solutions. That’s like taking your car to the car wash when it needs a tune-up. It may come out looking prettier, but it certainly won’t run any better. You need to fix the content.

The most valuable newsletter I read on a regular basis is CEO UPDATE, a source for association management news, trends and advice. This newsletter is produced in black ink only and has almost no graphics. It keeps my attention because it contains compelling information, it’s written well, and it draws me into specific articles with powerful headlines, subheads and photo captions. More on that later in this article.

3. Not writing effective headlines.
When we open a newsletter, we’re all scanners, not readers. We’re scrolling down looking for something of interest. A headline is a critical tool in turning a scanner into a reader – it’s the No. 1 “hook” that gets body copy read. If you’re not driving scanners into the body copy, you’re not doing your job, because almost all of the selling takes place in the body copy.

What I find is that most writers/editors spend two or three hours writing an article and then spend 20 seconds on the headline – if they actually write a headline at all. Many times, all I see are labels – “From the President” or “Annual Conference Update.” Those are not headlines, and they certainly don’t make me want to read the article. A headline should be gripping – it should ask a question, make a bold statement or list a benefit. And a strong headline might also be augmented by a subhead to further draw the scanner in. (See the headline and subhead of the article you are now reading!)

I suggest you spend as much time as it takes to write – and rewrite – your headlines so they will turn scanners into readers.

4. Not understanding the power of a photograph.
Your newsletter scanners will usually read headlines, subheads and pull quotes – but they will also stop and look at photographs. You can make a photograph as powerful as a headline by understanding that the power of a photograph is in the photo caption, not in the photo itself. A solid photo caption can turn a scanner into a reader.

Don’t simply label the photo – “Joe Jones at this year’s annual conference.” Turn the scanner into a reader with a captivating caption – “What are the three most important factors that can help you retire early? Joe Jones gave us a wonderful blueprint for early retirement during his keynote address at this year’s annual conference. Details are included in our conference coverage article.”

5. Not publishing your newsletter frequently enough.
Sorry, but publishing your association newsletter quarterly is simply not acceptable. At a minimum, we need to be out in front of our memberships every month telling them about all the wonderful things we’re doing for them with their membership dollars. Otherwise, the information is stale and we’re not communicating enough to really connect.

Remember the CEO UPDATE newsletter I raved about earlier? It’s published every two weeks – and it’s printed and then delivered to me by U.S. Mail! That in itself is so unusual these days, it might be worth exploring for your newsletter. But at the very least, you need to expend the effort to get out in front of your membership at least once each month.

Of course, there’s more to consider when it comes to an effective newsletter. But if you can take care of these five problems, you’ll go a long way toward producing a much more effective publication. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Bill Carney is Vice President of Association Services & Business Development at ADG. For more than 30 years he has been helping associations of every size and scope grow and retain their memberships, become more financially stable, produce more effective publications, fill conference seats, sell out exhibit halls, establish certification programs and set new sponsorship sales records.