The Second Commandment of Ezines: Tailor thy format

Last month, we talked about respecting your subscribers – protecting their privacy, talking “to” rather than “at” them, etc. This month, we’re exploring how best to match your ezine format to your subscribers’ needs.

Commandment #2:  Thou Shalt Tailor Thy Format to Thy Subscribers

One of the first considerations any prospective ezine publisher faces is format. HTML vs. text, whole articles vs. abstracts-plus-links – there’s a whole slew of choices to be made! Fortunately, making those choices is easier when you first answer the question, who’s my reader?

Think – hard – about the people your ezine is designed to appeal to. Would they print out your ezine and keep it for future reference? Do they get your ezine while they’re at work – or on their home computers? Do they feel comfortable clicking on a link for more information – or are they wary about going to an unknown website, even for a topic they’re interested in?

Armed with this kind of information, you can start making choices that fit your audience. (And if you find these questions hard to answer, ask your subscribers – clients, sales prospects, etc. You’ll find they’re delighted to tell you what they think!)

HTML vs. text – Generally, if your readers have lower-bandwidth Internet connections (at-home dial-up rather than DSL or an office network), text is a better choice for faster downloading and for hard-copy printing. Long stretches of unformatted text are hard on readers’ eyes, though. HTML (the code used to make ezines like this one, complete with graphics and formatting) is better for long text and for readers using broadband Internet connections.  If your email marketing software allows it, you can offer readers their choice between HTML-formatted and plain text.  Just make that choice clear on your sign-up screen.

Style guides – Professionals in journalism and academia use style guides to ensure consistency in their writing. Ezine publishers should, too. Making certain spelling (e-zine vs. ezine) and style (acronyms, names, etc.) decisions ahead of time will make your text more polished and professional. It will also make your newsletters more searchable if you use them on your website as content (a good strategy for search engine placement). Go to your local library or bookstore and check out the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, or the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage for ideas.

Text organization – There are all sorts of ways to organize the content of your ezine. While this is not an exhaustive list of formats, here are some typical ways ezine publishers organize their material. Borrowing from web copy expert Rachel McAlpine’s terminology, here are some formatting ideas:

  • One-Shot Read – Contains one medium-length article in its entirety (with perhaps a short ad or intro). Since the ezine has only one real subject, the subject line is much easier to write. Be sure to add subheadings to break up the text for easier scanning. One of my favorite examples is Fabienne Frederickson’s Client Attraction newsletter.
  • Mighty Meaty – Features several longer articles in their entirety. It’s usually best to list the headlines near the top of the ezine so readers don’t have to scroll all the way through to see what topics are covered. If you’re using HTML, you can make your headlines links to take readers directly to each article. These are good when you have lots of technical detail your readers will want to refer to later. See the Exchange Messaging Outlook (geared to techies who work with Microsoft’s email server product) for an example.
  • Capsules plus Links – Gives the reader an article abstract with a link to the complete article on the publisher’s website. This is a popular format for breaking industry news. Marketing Sherpa does a variation on this theme with a longer abstract and link for one article, plus shorter descriptions and links for other articles.
  • Hit-and-Run – Features several one- or two-sentence article descriptions with links to full articles on the website. Most of Computerworld Daily’s email newsletters stick closely to the classic hit-and-run format.

No matter what choices you make, remember: There’s no one right answer for you. Consider both your reader and your content carefully, then make your choice! 

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