Newsletters: Now More Than Ever
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
The choice of communications tools is forever expanding, but for a propane retailer nothing beats the tried and true newsletter. New tools like Facebook and blogs are great for updating your image or expanding your reach. But when it comes to feeding the bottom line, the best choice is a newsletter - printed on paper and delivered by mail.
Newsletters have been a core communications tools for years in virtually every industry, both business-to-consumer and business-to-business. They don't generate buzz like social media does or satisfy green-minded consumers like paperless communications can. But what they lack in cachet, they more than make up for in delivering the goods.
Every marketing product is a tool, and every company should choose the best tools for the job. Newsletters are the right fit for propane because their strengths align so well with retailers' needs.
Small Money, Big Returns
Take customer retention. It's a top priority because existing accounts are like gold, particularly when new business is scarce. Every propane account is worth hundreds of dollars a year or more, and a newsletter reinforces loyalty effectively at a reasonable cost. For pennies a day, you can produce and deliver substantial, high-quality publications to every customer several times a year.
Newsletters provide essential visibility. Customers need to see more from you than just the heating bills, or their loyalty is at risk. They might be bombarded with discount offers from competing dealers and enticing come-ons from natural gas providers. If you're not reminding them how great your services are, they might forget about you and succumb to someone else's tempting proposition.
A positive newsletter gives your company a face and a purpose - the elements that consumers need to form strong loyalty. Companies that send newsletters on a short, predictable interval are inoculating themselves against excessive customer losses.
Newsletters also generate sales. Existing customers are the most likely to choose your products and services, but you need to prompt them. When you want to increase participation in your service plans or ramp up equipment sales, your newsletter is an ideal promotions forum.
For example, if you are reconfiguring your service plans, you can devote an entire edition of the company newsletter to the topic, approaching it from a variety of angles to help customers appreciate the value and feel comfortable with the choice. A special edition newsletter is a nice change of pace, and it signals the importance of the product or service. You can get back to promoting your full product range in the next edition.
You can also make your newsletter interactive by including a customer response mechanism. If an edition is promoting five separate products or services, it can include a response card with a checklist where customers indicate their interest in one or more of them, providing you with leads of the highest quality.
Support for New Services
When you are diversifying into new services, the company newsletter is your best friend. Existing customers are often your top prospects, and you can develop a narrative about the value of doing more business with a company they already trust. Take advantage of the newsletter's inherent flexibility to devote extra attention to any service you want to highlight, and be persistent. With every edition, include an article that delivers a new perspective.
The company newsletter also provides a great platform for updating your image. When you're trying to grow your AC sales, it helps to stop being a "propane dealer" and morph into a "heating and cooling specialist" or something similarly appealing. By simply focusing on the right topics, you can transform yourself in front of customers' eyes in just a few editions.
To get the most return on your newsletter investment, you need to follow a few simple rules.
Align your message with your goals. A newsletter is a tool for eliciting the responses you want from customers. View each edition as the vital opportunity that it is, and exploit it for all it's worth. Before a single word is written, review your goals and ask yourself how this edition of the newsletter can help. Keep in mind both short-term and long-term goals. If you have a high-priority short-term goal, address it a connected set of articles or even a single-topic special edition. Don't feel compelled to address everything in any one issue. You can always choose things to put off until the next issue.
Communicate effectively. Drivers deliver propane, technicians perform equipment service, and newsletters communicate. Insist on top-notch performance from your newsletter. Choose relevant, interesting articles. Make them fresh. Strike a balance between information and promotion. Package the stories attractively to achieve a professional look that truly enhances your company image.
Quality matters. When your newsletter looks professional, you look professional. If you want to impress your customers, send a newsletter that would impress you.
Stick with it. One of the strengths of newsletters is the repetition. Develop a publication schedule and stick to it like clockwork. Repetition works. For example, a given customer might read one article about the benefits of high-efficiency equipment and be interested but insufficiently motivated to buy. But after reading more about the topic in three successive editions, they pick up the phone and give you a call. Sending newsletters on a regular schedule also makes you look steady and reliable.
Integrate. Your newsletter should work hand in hand with your other outreach pieces, particularly your website. If your site has a lot to offer your customers, promote it aggressively throughout your newsletter. It is not unusual these days to see a newsletter where virtually every story includes a reference to the company website. For example, the site offers customers direct account access, and the newsletter promotes the ease of doing business with the company. Or the website has an informative section on energy conservation, and the newsletter has a short article promoting conservation and prompting customers to visit the site and learn more.
Print Extras. A great newsletter reflects well on your company for anyone who reads it. Keep extra copies around for drop-ins and phone inquiries, and be prepared to mail them out instantly to prospective customers. Post every edition on your website too.
Print vs. Electronic
There has been a lot of buzz in recent years about electronic newsletters as an alternative to print - and with good reason. E-newsletters require no printing or postage, so you eliminate most of the distribution costs. They also contribute to a pleasing, eco-friendly image.
The best strategy is to combine the two. Continue the print version and distribute as many copies as possible, because people like print products, and they read them. At the same time, offer customers the choice of opting out of the paper version and into the electronic one. Once you have developed a robust e-mail list, send electronic versions to customers who request them and paper versions to everyone else. Your image will benefit, and your newsletter will maintain its impact across your customer base.
Publishing an electronic-only version without a print version has proved impracticable thus far. Even with concerted e-mail harvest campaigns, companies don't gather every customer e-mail address, or even most of them. Also, it's practical and cost-effective to make an e-newsletter from a print newsletter, but not vice versa. This could change over time, but 10 years ago people were predicting an all-electronic paperless future, but we seem to print more, not less.
Eco-friendly is great for your image, but it doesn't sell furnaces. Make the electronic version available, but continue sending an impressive, attractive paper edition - and reaping the benefits.
Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., a full service marketing and communications firm with offices in New York City, Long Island and Boston. The company is now offering free marketing consultations to Oilheat retailers. Phone: 800-796-3342, or visit their Web sites at www.primediany.com and www.propane-advertising.com.