Last issue, we looked at Fatal Newsletter Flaw #1: Not using "news-like" language.
Now let's look at a second major reason why newsletters fail. Meet Fatal Newsletter Flaw #2: Writing a weak "browser level."
Why is the browser level so important?
Because when people first encounter a publication, they BROWSE, deciding what, if anything, is worth their time. They do NOT dive right in.
So what IS the "browser level"?
It consists of all the stuff that's easiest to spot and read. Pictures. Bigger, bolder type. Headlines and photos (or illustrations) are the most important, since they visually dominate a page. Also important: subheads, lead paragraphs, captions, pull quotes, and bullet lists. Not so important, alas: the articles beneath the headlines.
Being the third or subsequent paragraph in an article must be the loneliest job on the planet. Hardly anyone ever visits. Take this as gospel, please: at least 80% of the people who glance at a headline never read any deeper. They don't have the time. Or their interest remains unaroused.
Novice writers labor for hours to get a newsletter article "word perfect." Then they toss off a headline in a couple of minutes.
You would be far better off if you reversed that habit. Spend hours writing a great headline (and subhead; they're a unit). Spend a few minutes writing the article. Almost no one is going to read it, anyway (see the 80% estimate above). And they certainly won't read it without an efficient headline working to warm up their interest.
Consider these all-too-typical examples ripped from the front pages of nonprofit newsletters across the country:
>> Message from the Executive Director and Board President
>> Program Spotlight: School Age Mothers Program
>> East Side Initiates NRZ
>> An Inclusive Approach to Excellence
>> The Value of Volunteering
Have questions? Well, yes, actually: Why should I, as one of your donors, care about any of these things?
Headlines have a specific, technical purpose in journalism. They are supposed to summarize the news value of the story. After you read a headline, you should have no question what the story is about.
Oh, and one more thing: "Message from the Executive Director"? That's NOT a headline. It's a label. And it has no business dominating the front page of your newsletter, which is the real estate reserved for the organization's most important news.
OK, the preceding was the bad news. Here's the good news. Writing an effective headline is dirt simple.
You can use the guideline offered by Dr. Barbara G. Ellis, in her comprehensive text for journalism pros, The Copy-Editing and Headline Handbook: "The bedrock of masterly head writing is that you write a short sentence summing up the story and then delete the extra words - like a telegram."
Or try this approach, the one I use.
First, write down the key points of your story. Do this fast. Don’t try to polish.
For instance: "Our Boys & Girls Club is running out of room because (a) there are far more teenagers in the city than ever before and (b) our programs have great word of mouth among the kids and their parents, so kids bring their friends. We're ready to expand our teen center into this new building we bought but we're still short of money for fixing the place up and bringing in equipment."
Then tighten it up as much you can. Here's what we ended up with (for the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket, an inner-city youth development organization in Rhode Island).
First, the headline:
Feeling the pinch: Overcrowding becomes Club's #1 issue
Then two subheads:
Popular programs, sharp increase in city's youth population fill Club to overflowing
New Teen Center planned…but tight money slows renovations
Thousands of dollars flowed into the Club as a result of this urgent front-page story.
Final comment #1: It's almost impossible to write effective headlines without including a subhead. Subheads provide extra commentary and reveal twists in the story.
Final comment #2: Don't bother chasing ultra-brief headlines. Face it: unless your story is "Titanic sinks," you'll need more than a couple of words to tell your tale. And that's where the subheads come in: they allow you to expand.
SIDEBAR 101: Your newsletter is a news publication ... just like a newspaper ... just like a news magazine. The purpose of your newsletter is to bring fresh and interesting news to a specific, well-defined audience. What is "news"? Simple: anything that is NEW. Fascinating new programs. Promising new plans. Thought-provoking new trends. Troubling new problems. But donors are unique. They especially want to know about your organization's real accomplishments (i.e., "What did you do with the money I gave you?") and your vision ("What WOULD you do if I gave you even more money?").