Create a Marketing "Profit Center" With an Effective Newsletter

If you knew you could increase sales up to 50 percent on a product promotion, you'd do just about anything to obtain the magic formula. Maybe the first or maybe the last place you'd expect those results would be your store newsletter. Fortunately, the key to such success is literally at our customers' fingertips.

Store newsletters are a top marketing tool for most retailers. They serve as the "brand" identity for your store, provide useful consumer information, and give focus and continuity to co-op-related events. A top-notch newsletter is invaluable, and putting resources into its content and design is money well spent.

Certainly a co-op's newsletter content is not strictly about raising sales, but also educating consumers and connecting to its community of readers. An effective newsletter can accomplish all of the above. We are in the business of helping people make choices that reflect the well-being of our planet.

"When it comes to sales and education, I try to balance that out," said Katherine Roseth, Marketing Communications Manager at Lakewinds Natural Foods in Minnetonka, MN, editor of a bimonthly magazine-style newsletter. "We don't do 500 word stories on a can of soup. But we will do something on juicers or maybe a product people don't know much about. We also run stories about GMOs or other larger topics, some without a direct connection with the store."

Chris Kilham of Cowboy Marketing has identified four simple truths about education and information-oriented marketing campaigns, fundamentals that are useful to natural food co-ops:

  • The natural foods industry is built on informed choice.
  • An educated consumer can make informed choices.
  • Customers and potential customers are educated by information.
  • If you educate and inform people, they will develop a loyalty to you.

Surveys with natural foods shoppers reveal that at least 54 percent of them make purchases based on information from store newsletters. In some cases that percentage is even higher.

"I can't believe how many people read it," says Liz Rog, editor of the bimonthly Scoop, an informative 16-page tabloid produced by the Oneota Community Food Co-op in Decorah, Iowa (pop. 10,000). Rog vouched for her newsletter's ability to promote sales. "We were ready to discontinue grapeseed oil, so I did a story on it. That product flies off the shelves now. We can't keep it in stock." Liz also noted that after she changed her "New Product Parade" to include comments from staff, rather than merely listing the new products, it has become the most-read section of the newsletter.

Although the newsletter is only one aspect of a store's marketing agenda, a co-op is wise to extend a significant part of its promotional budget to creating the kind of product that sustains its value to both the co-op and a wider readership.

One thing many stores overlook or could improve is distribution beyond the co-op's membership of already-converted shoppers. "The newsletter definitely connects the members to each other as well as the store," said Rog. However, Oneota Food Co-op doesn't stop there. The Scoop is distributed to people in a three-state area and liberally dispensed in the store to anyone passing through. "Our newsletter gets out there pretty far, it goes all over the country. It's not just for our co-op, but to promote the wider co-op idea."

The Outpost Exchange, a magazine-style publication in Milwaukee, WI does an excellent job of reaching out not only to co-op members but also the greater Milwaukee area. The co-op has around 7,000 members but distributes 30,000+ copies at drop points (cafes, stores, health practitioner offices, etc.) throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Newsletter Tips from the Pros

* Keep a point-and-shoot camera in your desk drawer always loaded with film. You never know when a good photo opportunity may arise -- at one store a celebrity came shopping and was willing to be photographed, but alas, no film in the camera! A camera on hand will get you in the habit of photographing store events.
* Read lots of other publications for ideas and/or high-quality articles. Many will do reprints for a nominal cost. Visit the CGIN website at www.cgin.org for information and articles specifically geared to the cooperative consumer.
* Don't limit your newsletter's vision to one thing. Continually seek to expand your audience and your editorial expertise. Think of all the issues that bring people into the co-op. Take on the challenge of being an alternative voice in your community.
* Recognize the power of consistent and professional design to imprint your store's image in the minds of consumers.
* An effective newsletter meets these basic requirements:
A catchy name that properly reflects the co-op in the community.
Clean, visually interesting layout.
Regular features: store news, health care, reports, specials, coupons, etc.
Firm production schedule that meets deadlines.
Distribution channels identified and carried out consistently.

"I think it extends and elaborates a community," said Malcolm McDowell Woods, Exchange editor, about the value of wide distribution. "We are reaching people who may not shop at the store yet. For instance, people can read about the benefits of soy somewhere outside the co-op's neighborhood. People need to be aware of more helpful choices. If you're not doing that, you're missing out."

Woods noted that in the case of the Exchange, this is accomplished through significant advertising revenue, certainly an option for cash-strapped operations. While advertising keeps the Exchange's finances at break-even, it also contributes to a greater sense of community. "Our advertisers are people who choose the magazine. You can tell a lot about a community through the ads. They are seeing something in the magazine, maybe an extension of the co-op. Their attraction also helps create community."

How does a newsletter attract that kind of attention from readers and/or advertisers? One route is through the benefits of excellent design. Even if your budget is tiny, it is worthwhile to consider professional editing and design for your newsletter.

Think about meaningful first impressions. Most of us wouldn't go to a job interview, or meet with a banker to ask for a loan, in less than professional attire. Likewise, each individual newsletter is an ambassador for the co-op. You are sending out hundreds or thousands of these "ambassadors." What kind of impression does your newsletter evoke? Beware of producing lackluster materials in order to cut corners. What a newsletter produced that way saves financially, it loses in compelling presentation.

One of the most important aspects of newsletter production is consistency and, even more important, its role in shaping coherence with the whole identity of your store. "I think it's important that your store's brand is reflected in the newsletter, and with consistency of design people will recognize it," said Katherine Roseth, at Lakewinds. "Elements from the newsletter should be used in the store."

For example, the look of flyers, product signs, posters, department headings, anything connected to the physical experience of the store, can originate from newsletter design and vice versa. "These things almost become icons, and the newsletter can set the standard for that. Inconsistency creates a disconnect. Your impact comes from consistency. This means something to people, whether they know it consciously or not."

Newsletters can also be your launching pad for other successful marketing campaigns. "Don't limit your vision," said Woods. The Exchange is currently producing the first annual Natural Choice Directory, a "Farmer's Almanac" for people interested in holistic choices in Southeastern Wisconsin. "Our inspiration was to carry the info we've been printing throughout the year, something for people to hang on to." Other indirect marketing campaigns, such as publishing community health practitioner guides, can also provide a service and generate revenue. Woods added, "I think it's obvious to create [a newsletter] to keep in touch with the membership. But be willing to think beyond that and the potential to reach people not in your store."

See other articles from this issue: #091 November - December - 2000