The newsletter can be one of the most powerful tools in your kit for keeping your name in front of the customer. Yet, few businesses provide one. There's four reasons for this. First, people don't know what to write. Second, they don't feel confident in their ability to write well. Third, they feel the need to put out a newsletter that looks as slick as Newsweek. Fourth, they simply don't take the time.

Content Starts With A Community
The content of any newsletter should be items of interest your community. Your community may be the town you live in. It may be your industry. The "community," as I'm using the term, is a defining characteristic about your customer base. It's something that your customers have in common, other than doing business with you.

The exception is the product or services that develop a cult like following, where the only common denominator is the product. The most frequent example of customer cults occurs with technology products. Apple Computer is notable for the fierce devotion of its followers. The X10 home automation products benefit from a cult like following.

Though they're some of the most notable examples, technology products are alone in benefiting from a cult following. Consider collectables, such as Beenie Babies. The entertainment industry is also the beneficiary of cult like fans, though they call them "groupies." Jimmy Buffet's Parrotheads are the core base for a mini-industry developed by the investment tycoon Warren Buffet's singer/songwriter/author/merchant/entrepreneur nephew (maybe it's genetic in the case of the Buffets). Star Trek groupies are so zealous they identify themselves as "Trekkies."

It's The Community's Interest That Matters
Most of us aren't fortunate enough to benefit from customer cults. Our customers aren't obsessed with us and our products. Only we are. In our obsession, we need to remember that our customers are not obsessed. So our company cannot be the focus of the content.

How's that? What's the point? The point is to focus on what's of interest to the reader. You put out a newsletter because you want them to read it. So it better be focused on information they want. There are plenty of opportunities to slip in information about your company that is of interest. Take those opportunities, but remember that's not the focus.

Defining What's Of Interest
There's a tendency for owners to psyche themselves out in identifying content. My advice is to not put too much thought in it. You'll find content everywhere once you open yourself to it.

Let me give you a couple of examples. The town I live in borders a lake. On the north shore of the lake is a huge parcel of undeveloped land. It's located a few miles north of DFW Airport. This is lakefront property very close to one of the largest airports in the world. Everyone's curious why it's still sitting there vacant. The other day, I heard that one of the world's premier aerobics centers, complete with hotel and accompanying restaurant and retail projects is slated to break ground next year.
Perfect information for a newsletter focused on this "community." Everyone in the community would be interested in this information.

One night while I was driving home, I was listening to a radio talk show out of Austin. The talk show host mentioned that a particular stretch of interstate highway running through Austin had been declared the most dangerous in the country. Morbid, but interesting. It wouldn't be interesting to the people in my town, but it would be to the people of Austin.

You can't go wrong with statistics. As USA Today has aptly demonstrated, people love statistics. The census if full of them. Visit the census websites and you'll find information on an industry or a community.

People love tips and tidbits. I recently discovered that the local firefighters in most towns will come out and let you in your car as a free service if you lock yourself out. Locksmiths may not like it (and I'd be furious about it if I was a locksmith), but that's something that would be interesting and useful to most people if it applied to your town. People read newsletters with information like that.

Tying News Of Interest To Your Community To Your Product
The examples above cite general information that would be interesting to a community. You want some of that, however, you also want news that's related to your company.

Realtors are better than most businesspeople in the practice of sending out newsletters. Over the years, I've gotten dozens of newsletters from realtors. Most of them are filled with information that's barely passes the interest test. But one stands out. This realtor downloaded the sales for my neighborhood from MLS every month and reported it. Homeowners read her newsletter to track the value of their homes and the length of time most homes spent on the market. If you wanted a more precise measure, the realtor offered to prepare a free detailed market analysis. Because of her newsletter, she got more than her share of listing.

A plumbing contractor might report water usage statistics for a town, converting the data into something people can relate to (e.g., number of showers assuming an average shower length and water flow). Then, point out how much water could be saved if everyone in the community converted to low flow showers.

Sources
Some of the best sources of information I've found for newsletters are trade associations (they often publish consumer brochures), government sources (you would be amazed at what your local town offers, not to mention the state and federal government), utilities, trade publications, local community publications, and so on. The next time you attend a trade show, walk the floor with an eye towards picking up information that might become newsletter material. I guarantee you that a lot will be available, free of charge. The vendors are only too happy to give you their handouts and marketing material.

These are traditional sources. One of the best new sources is the Internet. Enter the name of a product or service and you'll be presented with thousands of websites. Many will be useless, but many will also contain a wealth of information. Remember, other businesses in your industry can be a great source of information. If you operate an HVAC company in Los Angeles, you might find some great tips or research from the website of a Seattle HVAC company.

When you borrow from another source, don't plagiarize. Either rewrite it or ask permission to reprint. Don't look down your nose at reprints. You might find the credibility of the message is higher when it comes from someone operating the same type of business a thousand miles away.

Start A File
Keep a file where you can store notes, brochures, webpage printouts, and tear outs from the newspaper and trade magazines whenever you stumble across items of interest. If you keep your eyes open, you'll find there's no lack of material. It's how I developed a database of marketing tactics that will keep these articles going for another three years even if I don't identify a single new idea. Content is not a problem, if you stay on the lookout for it.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com. You can contact him directly at matt.michel@serviceroundtable.com. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at letters@contractingbusiness.com.