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When Buckley Kolar, a Washington, D.C.-based financial services law firm, launched its weekly e-mail newsletter in 2001, it had about a dozen subscribers. Today, nearly 2,000 readers subscribe to InfoBytes to keep apprised of legal, legislative, and regulatory developments in the financial services sector. E-newsletters work because they are founded on the concept of permission-based marketing. Customers who “opt in” to receive e-mails from law firms do so because they want or need your information. When done right, e-newsletters forge a link between you and your clients, and in many cases, with potential clients. They showcase the capabilities of your firm, its practice areas, and the expertise of your colleagues. In short, e-newsletters can build firm business. InfoBytes, for instance, offers “timely analysis of a great deal of information, and lets me know what’s coming down the road,” says John Beccia, chief regulatory counsel at the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. The newsletter covers legal, legislative, and regulatory issues in the states, and Washington issues such as predatory lending and compliance with the USA Patriot Act. INBOXES AT CAPACITY Yet the very success of e-newsletters has undermined their effectiveness: With e-mail inboxes filled to capacity with all sorts of electronic communications, users have become more discriminate about what they choose to read and indiscriminate about what they choose to delete. An independent study, co-authored by Jakob Nielsen and Amy Stover of Nielsen Norman Group, a California-based corporate consulting company, shows readers increasingly use spam filters to block unwanted newsletters in lieu of using the “unsubscribe” function. That makes it all the more important for firms to get the e-newsletters right in the first place. A firm must devote the resources necessary to ensure that the content is relevant, readable, and delivered in a consistent and timely way. In the case of Buckley Kolar, InfoBytes was an extension of what the firm was already doing internally. As part of the training process, attorneys were asked to regularly review legal and regulatory developments and circulate their findings inside the firm. “Because clients and potential clients were also interested in current industry issues, it made sense to distribute short news summaries weekly, not only to provide updates on industry issues, but also to highlight our expertise in these areas,” explains partner Joseph Kolar. One measure of its success has been the comment from clients that the e-newsletter is passed along to other readers. This type of marketing underscores the e-newsletter’s potential to expose the firm to a universe beyond its clients and business partners. Micah Buchdahl, an attorney and marketing consultant to the legal industry who administers the Internet Marketing Attorney Awards, subscribes to about 20 print newsletters and another 50 e-newsletters. Buchdahl says the quality of newsletters varies greatly and is not a function of the size or the quality of the firm. “I know one firm is a great firm, but I look at their newsletter, and I think, ‘Can’t they get it right?’ I look at another firm, one-tenth the size, and their newsletter looks great,” he says. When a firm is neglecting its newsletter, the material tends to be repetitive and stale, a recap of what has already appeared in widely read news sources. Buchdahl cites one daily news digest, published by one firm for a number of years, that cuts and pastes from a number of news sources. “There’s nothing in it that stands out,” he says. He receives another e-newsletter every other month from an intellectual property firm, but there’s seldom any new content. Although it’s not technically spam, “it takes only one or two bad newsletters for people to delete you upon arrival,” Buchdahl says. Often newsletters cease publication because the firm doesn’t have the resources to publish consistently. A monthly publication becomes bimonthly because deadlines can’t be met, and the material becomes dated. The value of keeping your firm consistently in front of clients is diminished. TIMELINESS Timeliness is crucial to the success of e-newsletters since research shows increasing intolerance toward content that is not relevant to the reader. According to a report released by the Nielsen Norman Group, “Having been relevant in the past is not enough. Newsletters must justify their space in the inbox on a daily basis.” To address the demand for immediacy, many firms supplement their existing newsletters with “alerts” to keep clients notified of breaking news, such as important court rulings and legislation. The challenge is to get the information to readers immediately. This isn’t always easy at some firms with bogged-down publishing processes that can slow approval time and undermine the timeliness of information. Other firms are known for being fast. “Whenever something major happens, it’s always Faegre & Benson and McGuireWoods that end up in my inbox first,” says Buchdahl. By the time the same information is released by other firms, it is no longer news. “I’d rather have a grammatical error or typo and get it right away rather than in 72 hours, after I’ve read about it a half dozen times,” he says. Timeliness is often a function of resources. In many cases, the newsletter is the job of the marketing department or a junior staffer. In other instances, it is outsourced to freelancers or a consultant. To be truly effective, there must be an in-house person responsible for maintaining the quality and timeliness of the newsletter. READABILITY Besides timeliness, it’s also important to make your e-newsletter as easy to scan as possible. If the client has the thought, “I’ll read it later,” chances are it won’t get read. The goal of the e-newsletter is to entice the reader to read it on the spot. The items should serve as a recap or brief analysis of current events. Dense prose is a turnoff. (You can direct the user to longer documents, such as briefs, by embedding a hot link to the document within the body of the newsletter.) The trick is to entice them to read with concise, attention-grabbing headlines, and short explanatory paragraphs. For example, if the Office of the Comptroller issues a consent order mandating ABC Bank to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act, a good headline might be, “OCC Raises the Bar for Bank Secrecy Compliance.” Make your e-newsletter more readable by making it easy to navigate. For example, it can be broken into section areas, such as practice areas. Readers can then scroll to the section that is most germane to them. If possible, keep items to one-paragraph bullet points. If there are documents related to a court decision, or a related article, link to that document. Increase the chances of getting your e-newsletter read by offering it in both HTML and text versions. One recipient’s e-mail client may be set to receive HTML files, while another’s may be set to send all HTML-based e-mail to the junk-mail folder. Text is often preferable to those who do much of their e-mail reading on their BlackBerry or other handheld device. You can also increase the shelf life of your newsletter by posting it on your Web site. The additional content could be useful for both clients and visitors who may be potential clients. KNOW THE AUDIENCE Another important element is knowing your audience. Be prepared to answer these questions: Is this news important to my clients and their business? How will this development impact them? Not all surveys are especially “newsworthy,” for example. But if you represent financial services firms, and PricewaterhouseCoopers finds that compliance with the USA Patriot Act is a top concern for boards of financial services firms, you can safely assume this will be important for your readers. Remember, too, that all e-newsletters must comply with the CAN-SPAM Act, which means that you must offer “unsubscribe” instructions and a postal address. This language is usually found in the footer of the newsletter, and can be a good place for other important information, including the firm’s boilerplate, contact information, disclaimer language, subscription information, and copyright. If you’re publishing an e-newsletter now, don’t overlook the value of publishing a traditional monthly or quarterly newsletter delivered via snail mail as well. These offer an opportunity to provide clients with more in-depth analysis and commentary on the issues. Just keep in mind the same standard applies to any medium you use: Be judicious, because readers will equate the quality of your product with the quality of your firm.
Kate Ennis is the principal of Ennis Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based marketing communications consulting firm.

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