Dennis Kennedy is a lawyer in the Intellectual Property and Information Technology Department of Thompson Coburn, LLP in St. Louis. Many of his articles on Internet and technology topics may be found at his web site.
The following articles about paper-based law firm newsletters contain some advice that translates readily into the electronic versions:
Chris Pirillo, Poor Richard’s E-Mail Publishing
Link to LLRX.com Marketing Resource Center for all previous issues of the Internet Roundtable
Jerry Lawson (JL) : Last month we considered some of the benefits and potential pitfalls of e-mail newsletters. Now let’s talk about how to implement this method of marketing. First, how would you go about finding potential subscribers and getting them to sign up?
Dennis Kennedy (DK): The answer is easy on the start-up of a new newsletter. Send it to everyone who might be interested with whom you have some plausible connection. Your existing clients, of course. The broader the audience the better, but it’s best to identify who the likely readers will be. Concentrate, of course, on potential buyers of your legal services – those with decision-making authority. As I said earlier, make subscribing to the newsletter an “opt-in” procedure. Do NOT be so presumptuous as to automatically subscribe anyone. If people you want to subscribe do not, send them another “sample” from time to time.
Brenda Howard (BH): Be sure to offer it as a part of your overall service. When a potential client comes in for an initial consultation, they should provide their e-mail address. This would be a good time to recommend the free newsletter and get their permission to be added to the distribution list.
JL: Of course, you can and should also offer people a way to subscribe from your Web site. The Fried, Frank and Nelson and Wolfe sites are good demonstrations. If you have the technical sophistication, you can have the information people provide you feed directly into a database. This form of “outsourcing to the customer” saves labor and increases accuracy.
One of the best methods I’ve found is letting people sign up at seminars where your lawyers are speaking. The audience will usually be “pre-qualified,” because they have chosen to hear a talk on that topic. My experience has been that when you pass around a sign-up list in this situation, everyone tends to sign up. If your newsletter is specialized, there is also a sort of synergy at work: the mere fact that your law firm has a newsletter on the topic tends to reinforce the idea that your lawyer is an expert on that topic.
List Hosting Alternatives
JL: The next implementation decision is how to host the list. Some law firms would be tempted to host it on their own law firm’s Internet account, using consumer-grade e-mail software like Eudora or Microsoft Outlook. They might have a secretary take care of requests to add and drop subscribers from the list. What do you think about this approach?
BH: It really depends on the number of subscribers to the newsletter. The use of the e-mail program is a good choice and extremely economical for a small list. Especially if you are just starting out and aren’t sure if this is a viable marketing tool for your firm. I would definitely start it with a minimum investment and make sure that the firm will be able to stick to a monthly, weekly or quarterly newsletter commitment. Once you are sure and/or your subscription list becomes large, using an e-mail program is no longer practical. Dennis, can you elaborate on the disadvantages of using an e-mail program?
DK: That can get unwieldy as the list grows. You also have the issue of making sure that subscriber names get “masked.” That is, you don’t want to simply “cc” all your subscribers and let each subscriber see the names and e-mail addresses of all the other subscribers. That will really irritate your subscribers. There are a number of techniques. Commonly, people will send to a “dummy” address with a “bcc” to the whole list. Overall, though, I don’t think that using standard e-mail tools is a good approach.
JL: An alternative to hosting the list yourself using consumer-grade e-mail software would be to use a business that hosts mailing lists. L-Soft, the company that holds the trademark for the term Listserv, is one such business. They are at http://www.lsoft.com. They are relatively expensive, but reliable, and have a high quality of service. Several other businesses offer free mailing list hosting services, usually supported by advertising inserted in the message. Some examples are Topica, http://www.topica.com, Yahoo Groups, http://www.yahoogroups.com and Your Mailing List Provider, http://www.yourmailinglistprovider.com. Advantages, disadvantages?
BH : Jerry, L-Soft does also has a low volume “free” version. However, the learning curve is a little bit higher than learning an e-mail program and you do have to install and set up the free version on your own server. This is another reason that I recommend using your own e-mail program – at least initially.
DK: The third party advertising might be seen as a problem and will not fit the image of larger firms. This approach is simply outsourcing to people who know how to do mailing lists. Check the costs and features. I’d use this approach in a heartbeat, but without third party advertising.
JL : If you are seriously into mailing lists, and have a strong IT department, you could consider setting up your own mail server and running a list in house. This gives you the branding effect of having the e-mails go out under your own domain name, but there is some additional overhead in setting up the list. What do you think about this method?
DK: This approach is great if you have the people and those people treat it as a priority. Combine this approach with a database-driven mailing list and you have a great tool. More expensive than the other choices, but if there are problems, you have no one to blame but yourself. I’d lean toward the outsourcing model.
BH: Dennis is right. That is the most costly and I’m not sure the result is worth the dollars that would have to be invested. The firm would have to have an extremely large subscriber list to justify the cost.
JL: One outsourcing alternative is eLawMarketing. They are a joint venture of the LawMarketing Portal and a mailing list company, Envoy Messaging. They appear to have a number of advantages for law firms. I’m familiar with another company, iMakeNews, because they do a good job with the law firm marketing newsletter put out for The Sugarcrest Report.
DK: I don’t have personal experience with the companies Jerry mentioned, but I’ll also say that The Sugarcrest Report is a great example of an e-mail newsletter done right.
BH: The best guide for making an outsourced decision is to judge the newsletters that are received as a consumer. Are the newsletters timely, was it difficult to subscribe, how easy is it to change account information, and how easy is it to act on the information contained in the newsletter. If you like a particular newsletter, find out what company provides their mailing list services. It pays to shop around for Web services; the same applies to your firm’s mailing list solution.
Formatting the Newsletter
JL : After deciding on a host, you need to make some other technical and strategic decisions. For example, is it better to format your letter as plain ASCII text, PDF or HTML?
BH: Even though I am a Web designer, I still vote for plain text for e-mail newsletters. That’s a personal choice, though. The majority of the people that I’ve asked say that it doesn’t matter. Connection speeds are faster, most computers have faster processors and e-mail programs can easily accommodate multiple formats.
DK: Pick the easiest way for you to present information and get it out to people in a timely fashion. You can also offer people choices of multiple formats. The best approach is still plain text with article summaries and tips and links back to full-version on your Web site. There are many benefits of that approach, not the least of which is that you can keep your e-mail newsletter short.
JL: I agree that keeping it short is important. People are busy. If the newsletter is too long, they will view it as a burden, not something to look forward to receiving. One effective approach is to consider the newsletter as merely a regular announcement of changes to your Web site. The approach you suggest is good: let the newsletter consist of short summaries of significant additions to your Web site, with hypertext links to them.
BH: A good guide is to subscribe to some of the larger newsletters provided by large organizations like the Washington Post and Computer World. Take advantage of their market research by using their newsletters as a guide for the law firm newsletter. These companies are experts in providing “teaser lines” within newsletters that entice the reader to follow the link to the Web site.
JL: Brenda, you did a great job of this with your firm’s newsletter.
DK: Most people still print out e-mail newsletters and read them at home. Or, at least I do. There are newsletters I really like, such as The Harrow Technology Report, that print out to be 12 to 16 pages of plain text. That makes them seem a little daunting and cumbersome when you start to think about glancing at the print out. You have to be a very good writer with strong content to pull that off on a regular basis.
JL: Most of the advice in our previous Roundtable on writing for the Web also applies to e-mail newsletters. Keep it short, use headings and blank lines between sections.
There are some other things that you can do to make the newsletter look more professional. The “From” address should normally not be a person, but an institution. Not “firstname.lastname@example.org,” but “email@example.com.” Also, put the subscribers’ names in the “BCC” block, not the “To” block. This will make it more convenient for recipients, and also make it more difficult for competitors to steal your names.
BH: Jerry, this could be the biggest reason to outsource the newsletter functionality. It is imperative that the subscriber’s privacy be protected. In addition, the law firm is also protecting a key asset – its client list. The addressees should NEVER be visible to any of the other recipients of the e-mail. A good newsletter contractor will do this automatically.
DK: Keeping the identity of your subscribers hidden from other subscribers is vital. The “subject” line should also clearly identify your newsletter. You are fighting to be seen in the subscriber’s e-mail box.
JL: This is very important. Unless you have a good subject line, recipients may mistake your message for spam and trash it without reading it.
Customer Relationship Management
JL: Unless your goals are very low, or you have a very small number of subscribers it’s probably a good idea to use a database to keep track of your mailing list. This will make it easier to customize your mailings, when you reach that point.
DK: A database approach is essential if you want to have a large subscriber base. And who doesn’t? As Jerry suggests, the database approach can assist you with other marketing initiatives and other data mining about your clients and the success of the newsletter. A buzzword these days is “customer relationship management” or CRM. Firms who are moving in that direction will see the benefits of integrating newsletter information into those systems. With a database, you can also handle some demographic or other information that you reasonably request from your subscribers and enhance the usefulness of the database. You’ll want to consider appropriate privacy policies any time you are collecting personally-identifiable information.
BH: There’s no question about this issue either. All of your client information should be maintained in a database and the e-mail address is simply one of record of client information. If these records are maintained in a proprietary database format, the hope would be that the e-mail addresses can be exported weekly, monthly or however often the newsletter is sent out. The newsletter provider can usually receive a flat file of new e-mail addresses that were not registered directly from the Web site. Conversely, you should be able to get a flat file of all subscribers from your newsletter provider.
JL: How often should you send out mailings–quarterly, monthly, weekly, “ad hoc”?
DK: My rule of thumb: with whatever regularity you are certain that you can comfortably meet. Realistically, you want to have several issues “in the can” before you launch and a workable method for getting content.
JL : That’s a really good idea. It’s a great reality check. If you can’t generate several issues to build a reserve, don’t expect to be able to publish a newsletter on a regular basis.
DK: You probably should have someone handling the newsletter who can, in a pinch, write whole issues. Many, many law firm newsletters are launched with great fanfare and a second issue never sees the light of day. Unless you are doing topical, headline material, a daily newsletter will not make sense for most law firms. Weekly or monthly newsletters will probably work best. Remember, if you have a lawyer as editor of a newsletter that is published on a frequent basis and then do not give credit for the hours spent, you can starting looking for a new editor after the first year and I wish you good luck in finding one.
BH: I agree. Whatever you decide to do, stick with it.
BH: This column and last month’s should be enough to get you started on your law firm’s e-mail newsletter. For more information, check out There are quite a few free resources on the Internet. The Sidebar contains links to some of the better ones.
JL: Another resource is an excellent book by Chris Pirillo called Poor Richard’s E-Mail Publishing. It has a lot of good nuts and bolts advice on formatting newsletters. I also like Kim MacPherson, Permission-Based E-Mail Marketing That Works! and the book Dennis mentioned, Seth Godin, Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends into Customers.
DK: As Brenda mentioned earlier, I’d suggest studying your favorite e-mail newsletters and learning what works best. There are many great newsletters out there. The New York Times daily headlines are a good model, as is Good Morning Silicon Valley, Anchordesk and others. Also, give some thought to blogs as an alternative to newsletters.
JL: Blogs probably appeal to a different sort of audience, but a newsletter can be a great way to announce when a blog has been updated.
BH: In conclusion, the marketing power of e-mail newsletters hasn’t diminished. They have long been, and remain, a successful way to impart information and build a client base.
DK: It’s that regular, helpful contact that is the key. You can capture some attention and create a positive impression and memory. When the time comes, you’ll be on the client’s mind when they think to pick up the phone.