Reach Your Audience with Newsletters

AnnMarie French

On any given day, dozens of newsworthy events and announcements are generated in cities and towns across the state. Perhaps there are new hours at the transfer station, the deadline for dog licenses is approaching, a master plan update is underway and citizen participation is desired, or an annual event is on the horizon and volunteers are in short supply. You probably post such news to your website and various bulletin boards. And, of course, you alert the media to the news, too. Unfortunately, your target audience needs to come to town hall, visit your website or browse a newspaper to find it.

Newsletters enable you share information, invite participation and establish a direct connection with an audience. Fortunately, you have a very well-defined audience with an interest in the news you have to share. Newsletters provide you with an opportunity to help your residents (and taxpayers) stay informed and remind them of the many ways their local government works to improve their quality of life.

In the March 9 issue of LGC's NewsLink e-newsletter, we invited readers to share their newsletters. Following are five different approaches to newsletter communication and tips to help you develop a newsletter that meets your needs and goals.

Durham Friday Updates
In 2001, Durham Administrator Todd Selig launched Durham Friday Updates as a simple, weekly wrap-up email to keep town councilors informed of department progress, town projects and other news. The following year, Selig added department heads to the distribution list and, soon, all town staff received the weekly message. "It's my style to keep people informed," says Selig. So, when a citizen would call with a question already addressed in the newsletter, he would forward the email along to them, too. The email distribution list continued to grow steadily and, in 2003, Durham Friday Updates went public.

Each issue contains a series of one-paragraph articles covering town activities and events, often with photographs for added interest and links to related documents, web pages and other online resources to learn more. Public service announcements from state agencies educate readers on health and safety topics such as the prevention of West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis. Each newsletter contains links to the public meeting schedule and the town's news-on-demand video archive, and concludes with a brief excerpt highlighting a historical town event. "We see a lot of engagement from the community," says Selig, who regularly receives submissions from volunteers serving on various boards and committees.

The weekly newsletter has become an important communication tool for the town. Through a recent citizen survey, Durham learned that most respondents rely on the Durham Friday Updates for their town news—and they turn to it more often than the local paper. Armed with this news in hand, department head goals now include submitting meaningful content for publication.

Durham uses an e-newsletter service to design the newsletter, manage the subscriber list and distribute the messages. The most recent newsletter is posted to the homepage of the town website, and previous issues are archived online. A signup form on the homepage and within the newsletter makes it easy for anyone to subscribe. Currently there are more than 1,800 email addresses on the distribution list, which also serves as the town's emergency broadcast list. With this system in place, when the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning on Wednesday, June 1, Selig was able to quickly relay the alert to all subscribers.

View the most recent issue. To learn more, contact Todd Selig at 603.868.5571.

School Notes, Board Talk
School Notes, Board Talk is published monthly for Keene School District staff. The two-page PDF newsletter links staff from the district's eight schools, which include five elementary schools, one middle school, one high school and a career center. Throughout the month, Public Information Coordinator Christine Weeks gathers information on events, awards and achievements as well as important scheduling details for the front page School Notes section.

Board Talk is pulled together within hours of sending the newsletter. Weeks attends the school board's monthly evening meeting, then drafts a summary highlighting key decisions and the date and time of the next board meeting. The following morning, Weeks adds the final section to the layout and, after enlisting several colleagues for a critical proofreading step, distributes the newsletter to all staff via email.

"The staff look for it to see what happened at the board meeting," says Weeks, noting the flurry of read receipts that confirm success. The message contains the PDF attachment as well as the full newsletter text pasted directly in the body of the email. This system offers options for all preferences: a quick scroll, onscreen viewing of the PDF and the ability to print copies for reading at a later date. The newsletter is also posted to the school website and on various bulletin boards.

View the newsletter. To learn more, contact Chris Weeks at 603.357.9002, ext. 7.

News and Information from the Town of Hill
Town Clerk Desiree Mahurin is perhaps the most public face in the tiny town of Hill. With limited office hours and few staff, communicating with residents is a challenge. "We just can't seem to get everybody," says Mahurin. "There's no perfect way to do it." Seeking a way to share information, in February 2011, she began producing a monthly town newsletter titled, simply, News and Information from the Town of Hill.

As town clerk, Mahurin is the recipient of a wide array of questions. "If five people come in and ask the same question, chances are there are 30 or more people wondering the very same thing," she notes. In addition to answering common questions, she'll often explain an RSA in "layman's terms" to help citizens better understand the meaning of the law and how it applies to them. The news provided is primarily municipal and state agency information, but some community civic events are included as well.

Throughout the month, she gathers information and compiles the content into a text document. Newsletters are photocopied, and stacks are placed at the town clerk's office, selectmen's office, public library, post office and general store. While there's no hard data or citizen feedback yet to rely on, copies disappear fairly quickly, indicating that there is an audience eager for town news.

Mahurin emails the newsletter to town officials, staff and a small but growing distribution list. Although the newsletter is not presently available online, website access is a goal for the future. To learn more, contact Desiree Mahurin at 603.934.3951.

The Rural Hitch
The Rural Hitch is the quarterly newsletter of the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association, which provides fire, EMS and dispatch services for 36 member municipalities. Generally 16 pages in length, The Rural Hitch is published in full-color print format and posted online at the association website. Copies are mailed to the board of selectmen and fire department in each member municipality and to county commissioners, state representatives, the governor, state fire marshal and other interested regional fire departments throughout the country.

Editor Debbie Kardaseski researches and writes many of the articles, designs the newsletter and works with the printer to produce and mail the final product. Each issue includes articles covering new technologies, success stories, a feature spotlight on a member fire department and a list of calls responded to during the quarter. "It's been a wonderful benefit," says Association Fire Chief Douglas Aiken of the newsletter. "The selectmen get a regular snapshot during the year to see what they funded, and they learn what's happening with other departments, too."

The Rural Hitch contains some sponsorship advertising, limited to agencies, organizations and business that serve association members; sponsorships help to cover the costs of printing and mailing the newsletter.

Read current and archive issues of The Rural Hitch. To learn more, contact Debbie Kardaseski at 603.528.9111.

LebCity News and More
The City of Lebanon has published newsletters for many years to inform residents about department news, city events and other information. "A newsletter is a proactive approach to getting information to the community, making them aware of things they may not know about and prompting them to do a little research to learn more," says Paula Mayville, Executive Assistant to the City Manager.

The City of Lebanon Quarterly Newsletter provides city council messages and departmental updates. It was launched several years ago as a print publication distributed via bulk mail four times per year to every mailbox in the city—including residences and businesses. In 2009, budget cuts reduced the print publication to twice a year, and city officials sought new tools to fill the void. Less than two years later, Lebanon now offers three unique e-newsletters and one digital "e-minder," all available for online subscription via the city website. The Quarterly Newsletter is now published four times per year as an e-newsletter, and the summer and winter editions are also printed and distributed by mail. Officials have continued to fund the mailed publication in order to reach the city's sizable senior population, but budget pressures may lead to a search for new options in the future.

The monthly Recreation and Parks Newsletter, produced by Recreation Department staff, features department programs, initiatives and events, such as concerts, festivals, community clean ups and other city-sponsored activities. With a dynamic and engaging format, this newsletter receives several new subscriptions each week, making it the city's most popular publication.

Launched in early 2011, LebCity News is a weekly e-newsletter featuring brief highlights of city news, events and resources. A sidebar on the right-hand side provides quick links to articles and department web pages. A recent issue included the farmers' market schedule, a bear warning from the police department, product recalls from the fire department, employment news, an announcement of the upcoming 250th Anniversary Celebration, with a call for volunteers, and links to the most recent city manager report. Webmaster Melanie Cooper compiles LebCity News each week based on recent updates to the city website, news announcements and frequent searches on the website. "If we see trends in numbers of people looking for answers to specific questions, we include information in the newsletter," says Cooper, who recently added a Top Searches section to the city website with links to frequently visited pages.

The city uses an e-newsletter service, which provides tools to manage the growing email database and enable individuals to update subscriptions through a simple online form located on the city website. Cooper is continually looking for new ways to use the technology. A Dog License e-Minder subscription list was launched in March 2011. Now, instead of collecting and updating email addresses, the city clerk simply sends dog owners to the website to sign up, with no added work to do. Plans are underway for a new LebCity Alert subscription list to announce time-sensitive news, such as road closures and other safety messages.

Access to multiple newsletters enables the city to benefit from cross-marketing to those who subscribe to two or more. The city's May Community Clean Up was touted in the spring quarterly newsletter, the April and May Recreation Newsletter and LebCity News. On event day, 84 volunteers turned out, in spite of threatening rain clouds. Cross marketing for the 250th Anniversary Celebration is currently underway.

Cooper offers the following advice for approaching municipal e-newsletters: Think like a citizen. What would you want to know? What would you like to read? Answer those questions, and keep it simple.

Preview recent newsletters. To learn more, contact Melanie Cooper at 603.448.0673.

Final Thoughts on E-Newsletters
E-newsletter services offer a way to efficiently create and deliver eye-catching communications via email. These products feature colorful design templates and tools to help you manage your distribution list and invite new subscribers. E-newsletters are ideal for sharing a series of brief messages that link out to your website for full details. This format also enables you to launch a dialogue or inspire an action. For example, you might ask a question and provide an email address for direct communication or survey link to collect a response.

These tools can be surprisingly affordable when you consider the cost savings in reduced staff time for manually updating and managing multiple email lists. These products take care of this step for you, and allow new subscribers to be added automatically. And while the learning curve varies for individual products, once you've completed the initial set up, the publishing process can be quite easy. Many companies offer free trials, allowing you to test the product to determine its ability to meet your needs and goals.

In addition to design and email list management, many services provide tools to help you track the number of recipients that open your message and number of readers that click links. While these statistics can be helpful to show interest in topics or programs, remember that these reports don't tell the full story. Recipients can view the message in a preview window without actually opening the message. And a well-written news brief may provide sufficient detail, or the reader may seek more information on your website at a later date.

As budgets are squeezed ever tighter, it becomes increasingly difficult to find resources for such projects. Yet consider the potential rewards to be found as you connect with your citizens and your citizens reconnect to their community.

AnnMarie French is a Communications Specialist for the New Hampshire Local Government Center. She can be reached at 603.224.7447, ext. 133.

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