Electronic newsletters, or eNewsletters, are gaining ground in school public relations–and for good reason. Cheap, fast, and relatively easy to produce and distribute, eNewsletters can help school leaders get information out quickly to thousands of readers simultaneously.

“Relatively easy” are the operative words, however. Crafting effective electronic newsletters requires the same kind of attention to detail as any print publication. Crisp, clean, uncluttered design, compelling copy, and useful content can mean the difference between newsletters that are delivered and ones that are read.

While educators are known for their penchant for lengthy, jargon-laded prose, it’s better to fight temptation and use short, simple declarative sentences in active voice and write headlines that pull readers in.

“Keep it brief,” advises Katey Charles, who runs an eMail marketing firm based in St. Louis that works with schools and school districts nationwide.

“Research shows you only have seven seconds to get [stakeholders’] attention, so the first and most important part of that is to write a subject line that gets them to open the eMail,” notes Charles. “You have to use the subject line as a teaser that draws them in.”

For example, rather than write, “Memo from the principal or superintendent,” Charles recommends using a subject line that gives parents or other recipients a reason to care enough to keep reading.

“‘Superintendent calls for improving technology’ is more interesting to a parent,” says Charles, noting that readers also favor links to school calendars, lunch menus, and other practical, online resources.

Photographs and professional design that makes good use of color, white space, borders, headline styles, and type treatments enhance an eNewsletter’s readability and visual appeal.

Good design organizes the content for readers, subtly prioritizing topics while reinforcing the school or district brand.

“We all get newsletters that are very jumbled and confusing, and have so many starting points you don’t know where to look,” says Charles, the former communications manager for Mary Engelbreit Studios, also based in St. Louis.

While advanced planning and thoughtful organization will make eNewsletters more accessible to readers, the most important element isn’t design or content, but the distribution list.

Permission-based eMail marketing, where readers sign up for the newsletters or information they want via online subscriptions or by responding to an eMail sent with an eNewsletter’s debut issue, is far more effective than “pushing” content out to unwilling or uninterested eMail recipients.

“One of the first and foremost things to do is to make sure you have a good list,” says Charles. “Even if you take your list from the student information system, the first newsletter you send out needs to explain how you got their eMail address and how they can get off the distribution list if they want to.”

While text-only eMail newsletters might suffice, HTML versions pack more visual punch and could increase readership.

Whether you use text or HTML, make sure to embed the newsletter in the body of the eMail, rather than sending it as an attachment. Today’s time-pressed readers aren’t likely to take the extra step required to open an attachment.

eMail newsletters also should take advantage of the unique interactive features that HTML provides, including feedback options, online surveys, and links that promote your web site content.

“Unlike print, eMail offers a more immediate opportunity for interaction,” says Charles. “You can start a dialogue with your readers, send out surveys and get answers quickly, or drive people to your web site to take actions you want them to take.”

Feedback mechanisms only work if someone replies quickly, however. “It’s frustrating to readers if you can’t reach a person to provide feedback, suggest a story idea, or complain if you want to complain,” says Charles. “You really need to designate someone on staff to reply when someone does take the opportunity to reply to your newsletter.”

For communicators like Charles, however, the most powerful aspect of eMail newsletters and other online marketing tools is the ability to track what’s working–and what’s not–and adjust accordingly.

“It’s really fascinating to send something out and immediately know if anyone is reading it,” says Charles. “By checking open rates and click-through rates on each link, you get a sense over time what your audience is interested in and if you’re hitting the mark.”

Charles also recommends testing subject lines and other aspects of your eMail newsletter prior to mass distribution.

“You can send out the same newsletter with different subject lines to a test group of 100 people to see which one gets more attention, and then send the one with the most successful subject line to everyone,” says Charles. “It really gets down to the craft of choosing words carefully.”

For school districts that can’t afford a fully customized eMail newsletter, Charles offers a “back pack” service for $2,950 that includes an “express template” with your logo and brand colors that is created from 30 basic designs.

The service also includes consultation, eMarketing software training, and a free subscription to Charles’ “Good Thinking: Tips for Better E-Relations” newsletter. For more information, or to view Charles’ award-winning work (her clients garnered several awards recently at the National School Public Relations Association conference in Chicago), check out www.kateycharles.com or send an eMail to info@kateycharles.com.

Other resources include:

“National School Public Relations Association (www.nspra.org): See “Master E-Newsletters: Helping You Get the Most from Your E-Communication Efforts.”

“eMarketer.Com (www.emarketer.com), which offers marketing research on eBusiness and online marketing, analysis of online marketing trends and data culled from more than 2,000 worldwide sources. Sign up for the site’s free newsletter, “The eMarketer Daily.”

“Neilsen Norman Group (www.nn group.com), which has published its third study outlining 165 design guidelines for eMail newsletter usability, including subscription, content, account maintenance, and RSS news feeds.

“ReachCustomersOnline.com: Internet expert Tim Slavin publishes how-to information for businesses and designers.

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.

While advanced planning and thoughtful organization will make eNewsletters more accessible to readers, the most important element isn’t design or content, but the distribution list.

Permission-based eMail marketing, where readers sign up for the newsletters or information they want via online subscriptions or by responding to an eMail sent with an eNewsletter’s debut issue, is far more effective than “pushing” content out to unwilling or uninterested eMail recipients.

“One of the first and foremost things to do is to make sure you have a good list,” says Charles. “Even if you take your list from the student information system, the first newsletter you send out needs to explain how you got their eMail address and how they can get off the distribution list if they want to.”

While text-only eMail newsletters might suffice, HTML versions pack more visual punch and could increase readership.

Whether you use text or HTML, make sure to embed the newsletter in the body of the eMail, rather than sending it as an attachment. Today’s time-pressed readers aren’t likely to take the extra step required to open an attachment.

eMail newsletters also should take advantage of the unique interactive features that HTML provides, including feedback options, online surveys, and links that promote your web site content.

“Unlike print, eMail offers a more immediate opportunity for interaction,” says Charles. “You can start a dialogue with your readers, send out surveys and get answers quickly, or drive people to your web site to take actions you want them to take.”

Feedback mechanisms only work if someone replies quickly, however. “It’s frustrating to readers if you can’t reach a person to provide feedback, suggest a story idea, or complain if you want to complain,” says Charles. “You really need to designate someone on staff to reply when someone does take the opportunity to reply to your newsletter.”

For communicators like Charles, however, the most powerful aspect of eMail newsletters and other online marketing tools is the ability to track what’s working–and what’s not–and adjust accordingly.

“It’s really fascinating to send something out and immediately know if anyone is reading it,” says Charles. “By checking open rates and click-through rates on each link, you get a sense over time what your audience is interested in and if you’re hitting the mark.”

Charles also recommends testing subject lines and other aspects of your eMail newsletter prior to mass distribution.

“You can send out the same newsletter with different subject lines to a test group of 100 people to see which one gets more attention, and then send the one with the most successful subject line to everyone,” says Charles. “It really gets down to the craft of choosing words carefully.”

For school districts that can’t afford a fully customized eMail newsletter, Charles offers a “back pack” service for $2,950 that includes an “express template” with your logo and brand colors that is created from 30 basic designs.

The service also includes consultation, eMarketing software training, and a free subscription to Charles’ “Good Thinking: Tips for Better E-Relations” newsletter. For more information, or to view Charles’ award-winning work (her clients garnered several awards recently at the National School Public Relations Association conference in Chicago), check out www.kateycharles.com or send an eMail to info@kateycharles.com.

Other resources include:

“National School Public Relations Association (www.nspra.org): See “Master E-Newsletters: Helping You Get the Most from Your E-Communication Efforts.”

“eMarketer.Com (www.emarketer.com), which offers marketing research on eBusiness and online marketing, analysis of online marketing trends and data culled from more than 2,000 worldwide sources. Sign up for the site’s free newsletter, “The eMarketer Daily.”

“Neilsen Norman Group (www.nn group.com), which has published its third study outlining 165 design guidelines for eMail newsletter usability, including subscription, content, account maintenance, and RSS news feeds.

“ReachCustomersOnline.com: Internet expert Tim Slavin publishes how-to information for businesses and designers.

Nora Carr is chief communications officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.