E-mail newsletters extend the message

By Steve Hirano

Marketers cannot jump on the social media bandwagon fast enough. Set up a Twitter account and start tweeting. Create a fan page on Facebook. Dust off the corporate blog and this time give it some real energy.

This siren song of low-cost social media marketing has ensnared a growing number of transit systems and tour and charter bus companies after finding they can launch a Twitter account in a matter of minutes and rush a Facebook page into production in only a few hours.

It is critical to ask how effective such campaigns are going to be a year from now; or five years from now when very likely new social media platforms will have supplanted today’s favorite applications.

Invest in the inbox

There is nothing wrong with investing time and energy in social media marketing. The benefits are obvious. Transit systems can communicate instantaneously with riders using Twitter. Tour and charter operators can effectively promote an upcoming trip on their Facebook page.

Nonetheless in the business world e-mail remains the most reliable and stable online communication tool. It has the advantage of being swift and versatile, and most importantly, it is the most widely used. In addition, e-mail marketing reaches both the broad prospects and highly targeted audiences, and provides the means to measure the results.

Using a third-party e-mail service provider operator can track the number of e-newsletters delivered and opened, as well as the percentage of clicked through links. These metrics help improve the performance of the newsletter with each successive issue.

Transit systems push e-mail

Of course e-mail newsletters are nothing new, and perhaps have even lost much of their allure through the proliferation of spam. However a well-produced e-mail newsletter is in fact the very antithesis of spam. A strong e-mail newsletter generates enthusiasm and demand because of its relevant and useful information.

Not coincidentally, many transit systems are discovering their e-newsletters can accomplish what other social media fail to do — grab the undivided attention of the recipient.

Brooke Kochanski, marketing coordinator for the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation (PART), Greensboro, NC, says her recently launched e-newsletter, What’s Happening at PART shares all the news about recent developments and is especially effective with the agency expanding and always looking to do something new and exciting.

Kochanski launched the e-newsletter in June 2009 and has since signed up 682 subscribers.

“We mail it out once a month through our e-mail service provider Constant Contact and so far are very happy with the results,” says Kochanski. “It seems to be a better campaign than Twitter, Facebook and YouTube because everyone has an e-mail address.”

Link Transit, Wenatchee, WA, began its e-mail marketing in June 2008 in conjunction with the launch of the revamped agency Web site. Marketing coordinator Eric West says the e-mail program pushes information to the community in the form of news updates, promotions and special offers.

West sends e-mail updates to a list of approximately 500 people, including riders, board members, advisory council members and media representatives. He says the newsletter is an effective and inexpensive way to communicate with riders and stakeholders.

Private operations slow to follow

Unlike their counterparts on the public transit side, independent tour and charter operators have been slow to embrace e-mail marketing and social media.

Although most have created websites to disseminate information and provide price quotes online to customers, most private charter marketing programs still rely heavily on direct mail and telemarketing.

Fox Tours, Millbury, MA, hired an e-mail marketing consultant and took the plunge last spring, sending out announcements about upcoming tours and last-minute deals to nearly 1,500 subscribers.

“We actually started our e-mail marketing program in 2008,” says consultant Holly Clavell. “But it took us quite a while to build the e-mail database for the monthly mailings.”

She says it is difficult to estimate the number of charter bookings actually credited to the e-newsletter, but adds that more than half of the e-newsletter recipients click on a link that takes them to the Fox Tours Web site. She says this high click-through rate in turn is leading to sales.

Clavell says Fox Tours has plans to broaden its e-mail marketing campaign through segmented newsletters that separate and target school tour and charter clientele. She says the trick is in building the subscriber lists.

“The toughest challenge has been getting customers to sign up for the e-newsletter from our Web site,” says Clavell. “We only send out the newsletter to subscribers who have signed up on their own. We do not buy or rent e-mail addresses.”

How to begin

Initiating an e-mail newsletter marketing campaign is not difficult — at least not technically. It is necessary to follow these five steps:

  1. Before attempting any foray into newsletter design or content development, make sure management has bought in on the concept and the program. Like any effective marketing program, e-newsletters require an investment of time and effort, especially in the early stages. Bus and coach company owners and managers must fully support the initiative, understanding the newsletter will likely not produce the expected dividends for several months.
  2. Consider the targeted subscribers and what type of information and news items they want to read. Customer service representatives and the sales teams can provide the questions they field most often. The most successful e-mail newsletters respond directly to questions that begin with such common phrases as Why does …?  How do I …?  Can you explain …?

    In general, keep announcements and news items short, roughly 100 words each, and try to include photos and graphics. Where it makes sense, provide links for readers to follow to receive pertinent and related information, such as newspaper articles and blogs or wiki entries and videos. The successful e-newsletter is much more than simply the reproduction of a printed newsletter.

  3. Begin collecting e-mail addresses of subscribers. Put a sign-up form on the company Web site and by all means promote the e-mail newsletter in all marketing materials. Have customer service and sales representatives ask their contacts if they would like to receive the newsletter.

    Remember: There are anti-spam laws that prevent a company from sending newsletters and other e-mail material to anyone without their permission.

  4. Sign up with e-mail service providers such as Constant Contact, ExactTarget or ReachMail. Generally speaking these vendors will not only provide list management and delivery services, but will also have easily adaptable newsletter templates.

    Costs vary depending on the size of your contact list or the number of e-mails that you send each month. For example, Constant Contact charges $30 per month to send unlimited e-mails to as many as 2,500 subscribers.

  5. The e-mail newsletter needs a separate identity, so give it a catchy name. It does not have to be fancy or clever, but do not call it something as generic as the ABC Transit Authority Newsletter, or the ACME Tour and Charter Newsletter. For example, Link Transit calls its newsletter TransitLines but maintains the overall branding perfectly by including the agency logo in the header.

Be patient

An e-newsletter marketing campaign can take several months to generate results. It takes time to build a subscriber list and determine what type of content works best, and to understand how to read and interpret the open and click-through metrics. Over time, however, the newsletter can help an agency or company build a deep and lasting relationship with existing customers and bring new ones into the fold.

Steve Hirano is president of TransitTalent.com, an online resource for the bus and passenger rail industries. He also provides e-mail newsletter consulting services through Transit Talent Marketing Communications. Reach him at Steve.Hirano@TransitTalent.com.