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THE MAGAZINE      September 2002
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12 Tips for Publishing Client Newsletters

David M. Freedman

Distributing a newsletter free of charge to clients, prospects and referral sources can help your firm achieve key goals: building namerecognition, demonstrating your expertise, establishing a reputation for professionalism, and showing that you are able to explain complex legal concepts in a language that clients understand. First, though, you must plot the proper approach.

 

Publishing a successful client newsletter requires a serious commitment. The worst mistake you can make is to publish a newsletter without thoughtful planning and the resources to do it well. There are an awful lot of hastily written, nearly useless newsletters being sent to law firm clients and prospects. Yours will stand out if it’s carefully planned, clearly written and targeted to client needs.

Here are a dozen ways to ensure that your newsletter gets opened, read, underlined, highlighted, photocopied, passed around, quoted from, responded to and appreciated.

1. Keep the marketing objective narrow. One newsletter can accomplish one—and just one—marketing objective. For example, if your goal is to make readers aware of a new practice area, keep the editorial content tightly focused on that area. Don’t try to demonstrate the breadth of your firm’s expertise at the same time. You’ll only dilute the effectiveness of your newsletter.

2. Make sure the editor understands the marketing objective. The editor of a commercial newsletter (distributed only to paying subscribers) is accountable primarily to the readers. They will not buy a subscription unless they find the content valuable. The editor of a promotional newsletter, in contrast, is accountable to both the readers and the law firm itself. If the publication doesn’t help attract and retain clients, the firm will not get marketing bang for its bucks.

3. Pretend that it’s a commercial newsletter. Since readers haven’t paid for it, they may feel less inclined to read it because they don’t have an investment to protect. You must compel them to read your newsletter. Every article must be written and edited as though you’re selling the publication. The writing must be excellent and the information extremely valuable. Don’t assume people will read it just because it lands in their mailboxes.

4. Keep news about your firm and its members to a minimum. Provide information that readers can use to make more money and stay out of trouble.

5. Cover your topics in depth. Some firms want to demonstrate how broad their expertise is, so they try to make their newsletter articles broad in scope. Broad topics make for superficial coverage, resulting in frustrated readers. Worse, readers may assume that the author doesn’t know enough about the topic to be specific.

Take the example of an article on estate planning that covers wills, trusts, powers of attorney, life insurance, charitable donations and gifting strategies in 700 words. It will be practically useless to a sophisticated audience. Narrow it down to irrevocable trusts, health-care powers of attorney or estate planning for blended families.

6. Be specific. Provide definitions, examples, hypothetical cases, anecdotes, analogies and the like, so that all concepts are crystal clear. Today’s consumers of professional services want their advisers to be able to explain technical concepts plainly and clearly. They want to understand documents before they sign on the dotted line, and they want to know if they’re getting a good deal. And they are less apt than their parents were to have confidence in a lawyer who confuses them with jargon. If you don’t have enough space for specifics, it’s a sign that you need to narrow your topic further.

7. Respond to your readers’ changing needs. Give your audience plenty of opportunities to tell you what they need. Some firms use fax-back polls or e-mail to solicit readers’ comments and suggestions. But many people don’t respond well to such impersonal contacts. There’s nothing like calling them on the phone and having a good old conversation. Ask them for feedback and story ideas concerning problems that need solving or legal services that have helped in their success.

A great method of drawing reader’s participation is to run a regular Q&A column in the newsletter, with a title such as "Ask the Expert." Then every week, call a reader and say, "Our firm publishes XYZ Newsletter. I just want to make sure that you’re aware we have a column called ‘Ask the Expert,’ in which our lawyers answer questions from readers. I’d like to encourage you to send us your questions. In fact, I’d be happy to save you time and give you a chance to ask questions over the phone, and I’ll get them answered for you." As an added touch, instead of requiring the respondent to wait for the next issue, offer to fax the answer right away. Four out of five times, in my experience, you’ll get at least one good question, and sometimes two, and occasionally an excellent story idea.

Other ways to keep abreast of your readers’ needs include reading what they read, listening to what they listen to and watching what they watch. Also, attend the seminars that your readers attend. This is more than a good way to get to know their needs—it also gives you, and your newsletter, visibility.

8. Give the reader many points of entry. Along with full-length features, include short features, news briefs, regular columns and sidebars in each issue. Give every item a compelling headline. The more headlines you have, the greater the chance that readers will see something that appeals to them and get involved in the newsletter.

9. Include a response mechanism. For readers who want more information about a specific topic covered in the newsletter, offer to mail or fax free literature that the firm has prepared in advance. Feature a column called "My Biggest Mistake and What I Learned From It," and offer a reward to each reader whose submission is published. Get readers accustomed to dialing your phone number.

10. Be punctilious. Dot every i and cross every t. Use a dictionary and a style manual. Proofread the newsletter several times before you release it. Clients want to know that you sweat the details. Good grammar, punctuation and style show that you care about the quality of work that leaves your office. If you don’t have someone on staff who can proofread and copyedit skillfully, hire a freelancer.

11. No gratuitous graphics. White space is much nicer than clip art.

12. Send the newsletter to "thought leaders." To increase circulation and put the newsletter into the hands of people who influence your audience, add the following to your circulation list: colleagues, professional and trade associations, libraries, college departments, regulatory agencies and reporters who cover your practice area. Ask for their feedback whenever possible.

Above all, remember that a newsletter is no substitute for providing high-quality service and making face-to-face contact with prospective clients. But it can reinforce your reputation as a source of useful information and valuable advice.

David M. Freedman (dave@dmfreedman.com) is a Chicago-based legal writer and newsletter developer. He received a Your Honor Award (Legal Marketing Association) in 2001 for excellence in public relations.