Need to get in touch with teachers quickly? Want to get parents more engaged in school decision-making? Try creating an electronic newsletter.

While print newsletters will probably always retain an honored position on most parents’ refrigerators, when speed and convenience matter, go electronic.

Unlike snail mail, electronic newsletters take just seconds to distribute. Parents and other key stakeholders can sign up online, selecting the news and information options that interest them.

Since subscribers “opt in,” you build your database and meet federal anti-spam requirements at the same time.

Not surprisingly, eNewsletter readership typically is higher than print. After all, parents choose to receive your news, and you don’t have to worry about it getting lost in the book bag equivalent of a black hole.

“We needed a communications tool that was fast, reliable, and easy to use,” says Terry Chance, external communications supervisor for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). “This tool allows us to provide information to a wide audience.”

Electronic newsletters are also easy to format and can be developed using simple tools like Microsoft Word, which can be converted to HTML.

If you want your newsletter to have a little more pizzazz, online services like IMN and Constant Contact provide easy-to-use templates and a plethora of “how-to” hints.

The best eNewletters are simple and clean in terms of design, using bars and other graphic elements to highlight topics and pull the reader through the copy.

Most have one to three columns and are arranged by topics, with navigation elements clustered either flush left or flush right. Color blocks and fonts are used judiciously to highlight information and add visual interest.

Just as in print, remember that active white space–that space you haven’t crammed something into already–is an important design element.

Allow your newsletter elements to breathe; don’t feel compelled to fill every blank space with cutesy clip art or poorly framed photographs.

In fact, we probably could boost the image of most schools dramatically simply by banning free clip art from our web sites, PowerPoint presentations, and other marketing materials.

While design matters, content is king. Unfortunately, this is where most novice eMarketers blow it. Writing for eNewsletters is very different than writing for print publications.

Less is more when it comes to electronic communications. If you use your well-honed expository writing skills, you’ll lose your audience. And if you write a powerful closing paragraph that neatly summarizes your most important points, you can rest assured that most readers will never see it.

Writing must be crisp, clear, and concise. Use active voice, start with the most important stuff first, and write for the “drill down” format unique to this new medium.

Writing for the web and online media is like stacking blocks. Each block can either stand alone, or the blocks can be arranged different ways to form different structures.

The difference, however, is that unlike building with blocks, reading digitally formatted newsletters isn’t necessarily a linear process. Readers can (and will) jump around the text and graphic elements at will, depending on what piques their interest.

It helps if you write with this phenomenon in mind. When you don’t know if your concluding paragraph will serve as your reader’s introduction or somewhere in between, you write differently–and better.

“Our audience is very large, with tremendously varied interests, so we chose to have many points of entry into the eNewsletters,” says Chance. Good advice, even if your target audience is very narrowly defined.

And, since e-based readers are notoriously impatient, you’ll want to use plenty of subheads, bullets, and other tools that make it easy to scan content quickly.

Again, keep it short. It’s better to come out with more editions more frequently than to cram everything in one eNewsletter.

Winston Churchill once said that he’d “write less if he had more time.” Since most of us are hardly in his league, we’d do well to follow his admonition and take the time we need to edit carefully.

Let’s face it. Most of us just want a sentence or two so we know what’s going on. If we’re really, really interested, we may “drill down” or click another paragraph’s worth of information. Only a persevering few are going to read an entire page on one topic.

“Web content has to be short and direct in order to retain an audience,” says Chance. “We work to make sure the headlines and hyperlinks in our eNewsletter are short and compelling in order to bring [stakeholders] into the web site.”

Just as in print media, jargon, long prepositional phrases, acronyms, and Faulknerian sentences probably aren’t going to endear you to your readers.

“Less is more” also applies to your eMail subject line, although it needs to be pithy enough to catch your recipients’ attention and compelling enough to make them want to open your eMail message.

According to a recent study by EmailLabs, subject lines with 0 to 49 characters had a 12.5 percent higher open rate than subject lines with 50 or more characters.

When it comes to distributing your news, it often pays to use either a local vendor or online service for database management.

You can do it yourself using a relational database, but you might find yourself spending as much time inputting and correcting data as you do crafting compelling messages to send.

Although pricing varies according to the size of the list, typically it costs only pennies per eMail to distribute an eNewsletter or eBlast. The service provider typically handles eMail address validation and “bounces,” or instances when the eMail message bounces back owing to full in-boxes, incorrect addresses, etc.

Typically, it’s better to build your database from scratch rather than buying or borrowing someone else’s list. It might take longer, but the results in terms of clean data and stronger readerships are often well worth the wait.

Professional database managers also know how to build your database so you can segment the list in various ways to target your messages more specifically and strategically. For example, say you wanted to send a meeting regarding a public hearing to active school volunteers who live on the north side of your district or school attendance zone.

If your database is coded appropriately, you should be able to sort lists by zip code or region, school, volunteer committee, phone numbers, contact preference, news preference, etc.

“For school groups, being able to segment by various attributes really has value,” says John Kirk, director of business development for nTarget, an eMail marketing firm based in Charlotte, N.C.

CMS uses the firm’s internet-based applications to sign up subscribers, manage its database, and distribute its eNewsletters. nTarget also tracks delivery and readership “click-through,” an effectiveness measure.

Why is this so valuable? Well, it’s one thing to know your target received the newsletter; it’s another thing to know the target opened it and clicked on three headlines, one pie graph, and four stories.

“We chose nTarget because of its robust application and the excellent tracking features,” says Chance. “The application is very easy to use and has a [programming] editor, so it’s not necessary to know HTML.”

CMS currently offers two eNewsletter subscriptions online: “Breaking News” and “District News.”

“Breaking News” covers school closings, activity cancellations, test score announcements, board decisions, district achievements, key dates, and crisis information. “District News” covers student achievement, construction updates, curriculum and instruction, safety tips, and parenting tips.

The district’s first permission-based eNewsletter had an open rate of 74 percent, a phenomenal accomplishment in today’s cluttered and fast-paced world.

According to Kirk, an eMail marketing open rate of 4 to 7 percent is considered acceptable for general consumer promotions, while business-to-business and affinity eMail marketing may secure open rates ranging from 20 to 40 percent.

If you’re not used to marketing numbers, these percentages might seem low. Yet both beat direct mail and telemarketing, long considered the most scientific and effective forms of marketing message delivery.

To increase open rates and readership, you need to market the newsletters’ availability using traditional print methods as well as eMail, the web, and other electronic means.

“It takes time to promote the availability of this vehicle in advance of its distribution,” says Chance, who also recruited a team of content contributors and reviewers to secure buy-in, serve as an editorial planning committee, and keep the project on track.

“This group will let us know what significant types of information should be shared throughout the year, so we can time the articles to coincide with parent-teacher conferences, testing, and other topics,” says Chance.

Chance recommends testing your eNewsletters with a small audience before going “live” so you can validate eMail addresses and work out any kinks in the system.

That’s one more reason why it’s important to build your database and eMarketing infrastructure before you need to use it. In today’s 24-7 world, if you can’t reach the people that matter most to your school or district within minutes, you can’t compete successfully with the media, elected officials, and other groups who might–or might not–have your best interests at heart.

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.