Ray Braun Graphic Design Seattle
Graphic Design for Business and Non-Profits

Anatomy of a Newsletter

What makes a good newsletter? In this article, graphic designer Ray Braun and I offer some personal observations about what has worked well for us and our clients.

Genesis Of A Newsletter

This newsletter was born out of necessity — a need to stay in touch with a group of people that includes clients, prospective clients, colleagues and media folks.

These are people with whom I had made a connection — YOU! A newsletter would maintain the connection and build a relationship over time.

This is the common denominator of all newsletters, whether used for marketing, PR, sales support, associations or other reasons. They maintain a connection and build relationships between people
with common interests.

Publish Or Perish

My greatest fear about starting a newsletter was this: How would I keep it going? How would I come up with something worthwhile to say to a community of professionals six times a year?

Four years and 25 issues later, I still ask those questions. But realistically, all I have to do is write one issue at a time. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s how it’s done. The trick is to make the newsletter worthwhile to readers.

Where do our interests intersect? I’m a copywriter, you’re a (fill in the blank), and we’re both involved in communications in some fashion.

While the name of my newsletter has changed from The Copy News (sounding too much like something Kinkos might put out) to The Copywriter (who I am, what I do), the tagline has remained constant: Information and Tips for Effective Communication.

The tagline serves as a yardstick against which I can measure the value of each issue to readers.
A mission statement or set of objectives serves the same purpose, and will help keep your newsletter in focus.

Content And Style

Consistently providing editorial value is the key to a successful newsletter. As mentioned, measuring content against a tagline, mission statement or set of objectives is one way to accomplish this.

Another way is simply to remember what you’re publishing — a “news” letter. After all, “newsletter” is the marriage of two common words — “news” and “letter.”

If you make your newsletter newsy, providing readers the latest information on subjects they care about, you can’t go wrong. Does all content have to be cutting-edge news? No.

Editorial content can be a new slant on an old subject. It can be time-tested tips that are good reminders to an interested audience. Or sometimes it’s information that isn’t new, but useful to people in a new stage of their life — for instance, parenting.

Whatever the content, it should be relevant to readers. If unsure, just ask yourself: How can readers use this information? Is there take-away value?

The second word, “letter,” helps to establish a writing style and tone. I like to write this newsletter as if I’m writing to one person in a friendly, conversational tone. (Hi Russ L.! Hope you’re reading this.)

Newsletters are often a dialogue with customers, the lifeblood of your business, so the tone, while friendly, needs to be respectful. Just avoid writing newsletters that are stiff, formal and self-important.

Story Ideas

In the abstract, thinking “news” is great. However, a few concrete ideas can help kick start
a newsletter. Here is a partial list from The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert W. Bly:
• News
• Explanatory articles (how it works)
• Product stories
• Product tips
• Case histories
• Industry updates
• Do’s and don’ts
• Checklists
• Interviews and profiles
• Letters column
• Community relations
• Financial news

Start With A Strategy

Design is more than eye candy. Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to design than making your piece “look good.” Visual communication like all communication needs to tie in with some goals or objectives. Your overall marketing strategy provides the framework to begin building your newsletter.

Consider the audience, purpose and editorial content. Ray advises you to consider the identity you want to project. Should it be friendly? Technical? The voice of experience and authority? A combination?

Also, make sure your publication design isn’t at odds with your other communications to the same audience. By starting with a strategy, it won’t. Your design will have a purpose. And, by the way,
it can look good, too.

Design And Layout

Type, photos, illustrations, graphic elements (like boxes, lines and charts). These are the four basic building blocks you use to communicate your ideas. Your newsletter will come to life by thoughtfully gathering, creating, placing and manipulating these ingredients.

Since you’ll be publishing your newsletter on an ongoing basis, you’ll want to create a consistent look
to reinforce your identity. For newsletters it’s a good idea to create a design that’s simple, clean and directs the eye.

Do this by developing a template. Show margins, determine the number of columns and the amount of space between them. If you’re using standard size paper, one column forces the eye to travel long horizontal distances. Two columns are better to solve this problem. Three columns or more are best for combining readability with flexible use of visuals.

One of the most important elements is the nameplate. This is where the name of the newsletter appears, usually on the cover or first page. The nameplate is your unique signature for the newsletter. Visually, it’s the first place the eye goes. So it should be well designed to convey your identity and support your communication goals.

Thumbnails are a simple, fast way to generate design and layout ideas. Sketch layouts with photos, text and graphics to see how they might look on a page. (Trying to come up with ideas at the computer terminal can actually bog you down and thwart creativity, advises Ray.)

When doing layouts, consider entire spreads instead of one page at a time. (For instance, the inside of a four-page newsletter is a two-page spread.) This will help you determine how you want to direct eyes of readers.

Now let’s cover some of the basic elements in more detail. How you treat each element will have a significant impact on the final appearance.

Type

A quick discussion of type is basically about fonts and point sizes. Fonts are those myriad of typefaces for your text or copy. Don’t get carried away. Too many fonts will make your newsletter look like a circus, says Ray.

Choose a font family with a variety of weights, such as light, book (most commonly used for body copy), medium, bold, extra bold and various weights of italics. Stick to one font family for body copy and captions. This will give your newsletter a cohesive look. Studies show that serif fonts (type with little feet) are easier to read. It’s OK and even desirable to contrast body copy with headline copy using a different or sans serif font.

As a rule of thumb, body copy point size should be 10 or 11. A larger point size looks unprofessional; anything smaller is too hard to read. Be careful, though. Fonts are like shoes. You might wear a 9 in one brand and an 8 in another. Print out a sample of different fonts and point sizes to see how they will look on the printed page.

Photos

No matter how tempted, avoid using poor photos, says Ray. No budget for a photographer?
Then employ some of their secrets.

Secret number one: Take a lot of pictures. A pro has no problem shooting a lot of photos to get a couple of good shots.

Secret number two: Good lighting. Poor lighting is a problem for amateurs, so take a few shots with and without a flash. Also, beware of distracting backgrounds. You don’t want your photo subject overshadowed by something in the background.

Secret number three: Avoid grip and grin photos. These are shots of people shaking hands. That’s OK, but why are they staring at the camera with a cheesy smile? Try to make photo subjects look natural.
Secret number four: Tight cropping. Cropping is cutting away unwanted parts of the photo. Crop in on the subject matter.

Clip Art

If you don’t have custom photos, be creative with other elements to make your newsletter visually appealing. Yes, clip art (or a royalty-free photo) is handy. But don’t use clip art to fill space. Will it contribute to the actual content or visually draw readers in?

You want your newsletter to have balance. Cramming it with clip art is likely to cheapen the look.
If you must use clip art, try to use similar styles of illustration.

More Tidbits

Your newsletter doesn’t have to be full color, but to have impact it’s a good idea to at least use a second color. Remember, photos reproduce best in black, for instance printing a person's picture in only green ink can make them look sick.

Captions are one of the most read parts of a newsletter. Write brief, descriptive captions for each photo. It’s also a good idea to “jump” or continue cover stories to get readers to turn the page.

Select paper that fits your audience and budget. For that matter, most all design considerations are driven by budget. However, a limited budget doesn’t mean you can’t produce a professional-looking newsletter.

For every decision just ask yourself, “What will my audience think?” and “What contributes to, or complements, my main message?” The answers will help you design a newsletter that readers will value.

Neil Sagebiel is a freelance copywriter who has written promotional copy for dozens of national clients. Neil's specialty is B2B, including print and online advertising, marketing collateral, Web, email marketing, direct mail and PR materials. He can be contacted at 540-745-5472 or www.neilsagebiel.com.