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Part 6: The newsletter as the social content of corporations

A hypothesis about influence on the web and the workplace

by Tom Johnson on Feb 11, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

Despite the failure of these doc reports and meeting notes formats, I hardly fault myself. I was simply following the same conventions that nearly any group does inside the corporation — stuffing all updates into a long email and blasting it out. Different spaces have different communication mediums, and inside the corporation, this was the expected form and delivery.

Part of the reason I didn’t incorporate any blog techniques is because blogs inside corporations are practically nonexistent. But there is a format that is common, and it’s highly similar to blogs: newsletters. Just as blogs comprise much of the fabric of the web, newsletters are the staple of corporate communications.

Newsletter content contains a variety of info, from light and personal information such as employee spotlights, org announcements, and informational tidbits to more substantial information, product deep dives, strategic directions, tech tips, and explanations of initiatives to keep employees informed about what’s going on at a company.

Sending newsletters is a practice companies have followed not only in the last century, but apparently for the last 2,000 years. In An analysis of the corporate newsletter as a form of internal and external communication, Cole traces the first newsletter (“news and letters”) back to ancient China, specifically to the “Han Dynasty in 200 b.c. for fast communication between cities.”

Cole’s analysis is actually a 200-page master’s thesis on newsletters, which she published in 1993 (before the widespread emergence of the internet). I had no idea that newsletters had such a rich and dominant history in corporations. Cole analyzes both external newsletters and internal newsletters.

External newsletters

An external newsletter’s purpose is usually to raise awareness and interest in the company’s products and services. Cole says “a newsletter is effective if it can attract the reader’s eye towards certain advertised products or services.” The newsletter often “wins clients because the newsletters portrays its company as a leader in the field with a good reputation.” Even though the focus is on building relationships with customers, any org that sends out a newsletter might have similar goals of increasing the appeal of the org’s products and services.

Sponsored content

The approach in external newsletters isn’t entirely marketing collateral, though. Long before “content marketing strategies” became popular, companies that sent out newsletters realized that they needed to provide valuable content to customers, not just marketing collateral. Cole writes:

A frequent, cynical response when someone receives an external newsletter in the mail is most likely, “Oh, they’re just trying to sell me something.” Knowing the consumer’s aversion to the “hard sell,” most external newsletter editors hire design agencies which disguise the marketing content with pictures, distracting designs and “objective” writing. Their desire is to draw in the skimmer, invite him to read on. The key to pulling the skimmer into reading the copy is in convincing him that the content of the newsletter is full of information that is relevant and helpful to him. Anne Murphy advises this in the Inc. article “The Best Newsletters in America”: “To get read, a newsletter must add value by informing the reader. . . The moral: Let the sales literature tout the products” (72).

In other words, avoid the overt messaging in sales literature, and instead look to provide value to the readers. Recognize that through the newsletter, you are promoting an image, a brand, communicating with the audience, and remaining visible. The strategy behind content marketing is similar: provide valuable content to the reader to build a relationship; don’t just try to sell a product.

Internal newsletters

Internal newsletters might not be promoting products and services, but they are promoting something nonetheless: the company to the employees. In research about the purpose of corporate newsletters, Cole highlights these top 5 reasons for newsletters in companies:

  • Improving morale and fostering goodwill between employees and management.
  • Informing employees about internal changes;
  • Explaining compensation and benefit plans;
  • Changing employee behavior toward becoming more productive; and
  • Changing employee behavior toward becoming more quality oriented (Troy 6).

Company leaders use newsletters as a tool for internal communication, making the newsletter not just a recent way of sharing news but also for developing relationships with employees and others around them. The goal of newsletters is to make employees feel included, to build goodwill, to help them be more productive and informed.

Here’s the part that surprises me, though. Whereas on the web, most newsletters consist of individual website articles that bring readers back to websites, in the corporation, newsletters almost always live in email inboxes. The emails contain all the content – there aren’t usually any links taking readers out to internal websites. As such, it’s hard to track what employees are reading in these newsletters, and if you miss the newsletter, you simply miss the content.

You also can’t search for the newsletter content on corporate search engines. If you arrived at the company after the newsletter was sent, you usually can’t browse the newsletter archive. If there is an archive, it’s likely a list of PDFs that look about as appealing to read as yesterday’s news.

Following common patterns

Despite the shortcomings of the newsletter format, I think it’s important to leverage standard formats that are recognized as valid sources of information sharing in companies. Blogs aren’t common within companies, but newsletters are. Is there really a difference? I’d argue that a good newsletter, one that communicates substantial information in candid ways, could move beyond the corporate limitations of email inbox delivery and intransigence and be hosted on an internal site, highly similar to a blog.

The problem with the word “blog” is that many people interpret blogs as casual diaries about the mundane aspects of lives no one cares about. In reality, the web is full of all kinds of sites, from the mundane self-focused blogs to websites that seem more like online magazines or information centers.

The propaganda conundrum

One goal of Cole’s thesis is to determine whether newsletters are effective in achieving their goal. Just as external newsletters that overtly try to sell or promote products fall flat, internal newsletters that push company propaganda on employees also fail. Cole writes:

Newsletter readership is directly related to a reader’s belief that the publication is credible. Few people want to spend their time reading sales material (unless they are really interested in the product) or company propaganda (unless it is about them). To many readers, the fact that a newsletter article resembles a newspaper article also means it should be as factual and credible as a newspaper article.

The basics of journalistic writing should be used in a newsletter. These include trying to cover all sides of a controversial issue (if possible), writing articles using the five W’s formula (who, what, when, where, and why), and verification of facts and quotes. Also printing corrections or retractions when an error in content was published can add to credibility.

Most importantly, however, is the crucial area of maintaining balanced content. This is achieved by mixing employee feedback with management views, or marketing material with unbiased information. If the readers perceive the newsletter as being used for a “message boy” by an organization, the readership will drop off as credibility is lost.

In other words, if the newsletter is nothing more than a direct sales pitch for the company’s mission, chances are the readers will not consider it to be credible or of high value. Consider the modern corollary of corporate blogs. How many corporate blogs do you find engaging?

For the most part, corporate blogs are just repurposed press release rooms, where marketing teams make product announcements and also post tips and tutorials. There really aren’t independent, journalistic voices in a corporate blog. As a result, the corporate blog isn’t very engaging or trustworthy as a source of information. One always feels that the information is heavily slanted in favor of promoting the company.

Walking the tight rope of independent thinking versus propaganda

Where does this leave the efforts at an internal newsletter? Will you be forced into the same propaganda track as the rest of the company? Fortunately, you probably won’t run into this issue if the focus of the newsletter is on documentation. On my personal blog (idratherbewriting.com), I’ve been blogging for the past 15+ years without ever running into issues with the companies I work for. The reason? I don’t write about anything company-related in ways that would conflict with company propaganda. I write about documentation challenges, for sure, but not about larger company missions, products, or services.

As long as your newsletter stays in the realm of documentation, you have greater flexibility to express an independent voice. You can criticize an approach or aspect of documentation without coming across as undercutting the CEO’s vision and strategy. You can become embroiled in arguments about language usage and style, or the right information architecture, or the best workflow through a technical implementation without rattling the more sensitive corporate-political grounds that would pit you either as a “message boy [or girl]” for the company’s agenda, or as a rogue employee who is inciting a rebellion. Few people really care about the documentation realm. But that again is part of the problem — few people care about the documentation realm.

Works cited

Cole, Myra LaVenue. An analysis of the corporate newsletter as a form of internal and external communication. Diss. New York University, 1993.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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