I’m a little obsessed with birdwatching, or birding, which Wikipedia describes as the recreational observation of birds. It’s a favorite hobby of senior citizens, but I prefer to think of it as something I can do with my daughter to keep her connected to nature (and unplugged from technology) for as long as possible

As a relatively new birder, I look forward to the Backyard Bird Shop’s newsletter which arrives in my mailbox quarterly. The Backyard Bird Shop is a locally owned and operated shop with five locations in the Portland, Oregon metropolitan area. Its tri-folded, black-and-white printed newsletter might be considered old-fashioned by some. I think it is a brilliant piece of branded content and here’s why.

Shiny Social Media Objects

In the social media age, it’s easy to question the merits of a newsletter—printed or digital. In the time that it takes to produce quality written material, a new content platform might be born. Instagram and SnapChat are where it’s at today. Tomorrow it will be something new.

Should you run out and start ‘instagramming’ and ‘snapchatting’? Probably not. But inspiration for this blog post comes from a B2B business owner who questioned why his company wasn’t on SnapChat. I explained that it would be a better use of time and money to revive his company’s languishing e-newsletter which already had nearly 300 subscribers—subscribers who’d actively sought out the company online and at trade shows, and who had registered their interest by submitting their names and e-mail addresses.

So what happened? The company distributed a handful of e-newsletters before deciding to chase Facebook “likes” instead. Granted, it has amassed an impressive number of them. But now the company is in the same predicament as other businesses that are watching Facebook’s organic marketing reach drop to zero.

There is Content…and There is Relevant Content

Of course, the question is whether those Facebook “likes” ever benefited the bottom line.

We asked the 8,000+ Facebook fans of the aforementioned company to share their product testimonials and photos—and heard crickets. We asked the same question in an e-newsletter distributed to the company’s 269 subscribers and received six responses. More impressive than the 2% response rate was the quality of the quotes and photographs that people submitted. The company is using these testimonials and images as the basis of its content marketing efforts.

But let’s get back to birds.

Straightforward and simple, The Backyard Bird Shop’s newsletter is filled with bird feeding tips, new product news, employee recommendations, a calendar of upcoming events, and coupons for in-store savings. The company has a Facebook page, a blog, and a photostream, but the newsletter is designed to drive actual purchase behavior. (It certainly drives my behavior. After convincing me that I need to attract more birds, bees and bats into my yard, the newsletter shows me how—and gives me a $5 coupon to get going.)

The Backyard Bird Shop has figured out that it’s not enough to be where your customers hang out. You have to be where your customers make decisions. Personally, I like to make decisions while sitting on my back deck with a cup of coffee and reading something that educates and entertains. I’m guessing many of my fellow birders are the same. (According to the latest 2011 survey from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, birders are generally middle-aged, fairly well off, well educated and roughly gender-balanced.)

Sending a smartly written and well-edited newsletter on an information-rich subject to a group of people who’ve opted in? That’s brilliant branded content.

Newsletter Content Tips

Newsletters aren’t for everyone. But the point is this: Don’t let the latest and greatest social media platform distract you from producing content that influences action. If you decide to give a newsletter a try, keep a few tips in mind:

  • Be original. Don’t simply recycle material from your other platforms; your newsletter should contain pieces of original content that are relevant to your readers. (You may find that putting together a written newsletter provides a structural narrative that helps you decide which content goes where, e.g., images on Pinterest, promotions on Twitter, etc.)
  • Tell stories instead of selling services. That said, avoid multi-page essays. People want information delivered in digestible bits so use headlines, subheadings, and succinct paragraphs of text.
  • Set a schedule and stick to it. Whether it’s once a week, once a month, or once a quarter—stick to the publishing schedule that you’ve committed to. There is tremendous value in consistency (in the words of Woody Allen, “eighty percent of success is showing up”).
Case Example: For 12 years, The Galvanizing Group has distributed a monthly e-newsletter. Two years ago, one of our long-time subscribers referred us to a company that he advises. This company has since become one of our best clients. The person making the referral said that it was because our e-newsletter has arrived in his inbox month after month for the past eight years. He doesn’t always read our newsletters (in fact, he hardly ever opens them), but they serve as an important reminder of our services which was all that was necessary for him to make the referral.
  • Make it easy to subscribe. Don’t just rely on people to subscribe from your website. Ask people you meet in meetings, trade shows and networking events if they’d like to be added to your newsletter list. Then enter their information yourself.
  • Make it even easier to unsubscribe. Reassure people that they can unsubscribe with ease at any time—and then make sure that they can.

No doubt, writing and producing a quality newsletter takes more effort than posting a quick picture on a social media site and asking people to “join in the conversation.” The fact is, few of them will (if they even see your post in the first place). Social media is here to stay and it is a piece of the content marketing mix. But are you hanging out with your customers, or are you influencing their behavior? The answer should help guide your content strategy.