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Sucking in Readers: Proven Ways to Increase Reader Interaction


You've probably heard this educational philosophy:

Tell me, and I'll forget.

Show me, and I may not remember.

Involve me, and I'll understand.

Almost the same could apply to newsletters, except interaction in a newsletter is more than just about teaching and learning. For newsletter publishers, it's a great way to take a pulse on readers' concerns and interests.

Often, the more successful college professors are those who interact with students rather than do all the talking. Students know the professor cares about their input and they help control the direction of the class.

Newsletters involving readers give them the chance to share problems and get answers, share expertise and get their name in lights and help give the newsletter direction based on the interests.

Three newsletter experts agree interaction is key

In explaining why Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management includes interaction in his newsletters, he says, "I enjoy it and it helps develop relationships with people who are potential clients and / or referral sources and / or purchasers of my for-sale materials."

Ken Farrish, president and bottle washer of BCBuilding.info, says, "As my hair gets grayer and thinner, I more fully realize that my readers know a lot better than I do on what they do and don't want. It is a very effective and low cost way for me to learn what items and issues I can cover in future newsletters, and also what improvements I can make to my offering and processes."

Christopher Knight, an email list marketing expert with Email Universe, says, "Reader interaction builds more reader interaction, just like the law of motion that states what is in motion stays in motion. What is not in motion is not in motion. If readers are interacting-more readers will interact with the hopes of having their interaction published. All readers (even if they don't admit it) have an emotional need to be 'heard' or recognized and acknowledged."

It is clear from these experts that interaction is valuable for keeping readers' attention and helping define newsletter content. Here are five ways to persuade reader involvement:

  • Open the door for readers to share a problem related to their every day work life through a Q&A column.
  • Allow readers to respond to a reader's problem.
  • Take a short poll, since some readers may not want to do more than click.
  • Offer contests related to the newsletter topic and award prizes.
  • Invite readers to submit articles in exchange for a byline, which is free publicity for their business.
Experiences with reader interaction

For this article, readers were invited to share their experiences with reader interaction in newsletters. Gotta walk the talk! Bernstein gives readers three ways to interact with his newsletter:

  • Invite comments on articles.
  • Conduct contests in which input becomes the basis for future stories.
  • Encourage submission of articles.
Bernstein says, "All three have worked well, although the responses to some contests have been better than others. The greatest compliment I get from readers is how accessible I am when they write to ask me questions or offer a comment."

He gives another great benefit of interaction: accessibility. When readers feel they can reach the company behind the newsletter, they believe people are behind the company; this helps build relationships.

Ken Farrish asks for content tips and improvement suggestions, publishes subscriber testimonials and invites readers to submit a personal story.

"Acknowledging people by name, publishing survey results, publishing their testimonials and personal stories that link to the issue's topic have worked well. The 'recommend it' form and business-related surveys have not worked well," says Ken.

Christopher Knight says, "What has worked well is selecting only the best of the submitted comments and giving a comment or analysis on each. This adds value to all readers. What has not worked well is posting every single reader comment. Readers are busy and don't have time to read every comment made."

Maintaining interaction action

Professional Services Journal and The Remediator Security Digest provide several ways for readers to get involved. Readers can submit and respond to the question of the month in the "Best Advice" column. Also included is a reader survey requesting feedback about the newsletter. The survey has a few questions where the reader quickly chooses a multiple-choice answer. A couple of them are open-ended questions to give readers a chance to share their thoughts. All questions are optional.

Most of the time, readers complete the quick-to-answer questions. However, many readers take the time to share their thoughts. To help encourage readers to respond to the survey and the "Best Advice" questions, the publisher entices them with a prize. When people complete the survey, their names are entered in a drawing for the prize. Two people win every month: one for the survey and one for the "Best Advice response."

Joan Stewart's The Publicity Hound, which covers getting publicity, also uses the "Best Advice" approach called "Help This Hound." Readers write in with publicity challenges and others respond. The questions have covered how to get media attention for: a honeymoon registry, a new free weekly Hispanic newspaper and a new high-rise condo targeting a specific market.

With a name like "Hound" in the newsletter name, it opens the door for a lot of creativity. Stewart adds a reader-submitted "Hound Joke of the Week" at the end of every issue. Who says a newsletter has to be dry? Not us! Woof!

When seeing a big fat zero

Publishers are happy to open the door for readers to speak their minds and get involved. Unfortunately, some have to shut the door after a few zilches. It's embarrassing for the publisher to find an empty box, no or low responses. What to do?

We've had to deal with this. It isn't an easy situation. After it happens the first time, take a look at the interaction and see if it can be improved. Try again. Maybe it is too specific. Too broad. Takes too much work.

Gauge the results from the second test and make a decision from there. A few issues ago, we had a column called "Copy Court" and people loved the creativity. We invited readers to find examples of poor copy on the Internet and submit them. Then, we presented it in the next issue for readers to comment on it.

After a few attempts, I nixed the column. What was the problem? It required too much work on the reader's part. I should've known this when I started writing the first article and went searching for an example of lousy copy. It took a lot of my time.

Make sure the interaction isn't a time zapper

Good interaction should take little of the reader's time. The "Best Advice" style columns work well because they're based on readers' experiences, something they can write right up. No research. No looking for anything.

This is not to say all contests and questions fail when readers have to expend more energy to get the answers. I've played in a few contests that have taken a few hours of my time simply for the challenge and the fun of it.

If there are few responses for a "Best Advice" column, I work them in, plus I contact experts on the topic and ask them a few questions, which I add to the column to give it more meat. On occasions when the experts aren't forthcoming, I quote articles on a similar topic giving full credit to the authors.

When it comes to low response rates on polls and feedback, share the results in percentages. That's what Ken Farrish does. This method is noticeable in many newsletters.

It's easy to let your ego deflate when the response rate is poor. Look at the data in a different light like Ken does. He says, "If I get very low response rates to specific items or requests, I now look at this as valuable data, rather than ego deflation. It shows that the issue / item is not really that important to my readers. I keep track of all response numbers to various surveys and questions to help me plan future ezine topics and / or content."

Reap the rewards of engaging your readers

Interacting with readers is rewarding. I've gotten to know a few and regularly communicate with them. I've also gotten to know the editors behind the newsletters. Occasionally, I get a note from a reader who expresses genuine surprise that I responded to her submission along with a thanks.

Even if you never gain business or referrals from a newsletter, the opportunity to meet persons is priceless. Who knows? Maybe one person will eventually introduce you to a future client. You can never meet too many people. Letting your readers know there is a real person behind the newsletter is a big step in cultivating the relationship.

Meryl K. Evans is the Content Maven behind meryl's notes, eNewsletter Journal, and The Remediator Security Digest. She is also a PC Today columnist and a tour guide at InformIT. She is geared to tackle your editing, writing, content, and process needs. The native Texan resides in Plano, Texas, a heartbeat north of Dallas, and doesn't wear a 10-gallon hat or cowboy boots.


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