Not long ago, we found ourselves on one of those Internet meta journeys in which you click on so many things inside so many other things that, at some point, you realize you have no idea where you are or how you got there. This time it was different because we somehow clicked our way into Blue Penguin Development, where we discovered Michael Katz, whom we call The E-Newsletter Guy.
Katz runs a successful business helping professional service providers launch and maintain their e-newsletters. We thought we might be able to pick up a pointer or two from him, so we subscribed to "Michael Katz's E-Newsletter on E-Newsletters: A Free Biweekly Guide to Creating, Writing and Managing Effective Newsletters," and boy, are we glad we did. Katz is a solo professional (he even has a book out called "It Sure Beats Working: Michael Katz's Sure-Fire Advice and Steadfast Encouragement for the First-Time, Mid-Life, Solo Professional"), and so are we (albeit a team of solo professionals). You may be one, too, or may be planning to become one (see "Editorializing 10: Hustle and Cash-Flow"). What you'll discover if you read Katz on an every-other-Friday basis is that, if you do it right, your e-newsletter is all the marketing muscle and business development you'll need. This is bolstered by the common-sense reasoning behind what he says, a degree in psychology, an MBA and years of experience as a corporate marketeer.
Katz recently graced us with 90 minutes of his time, during which we learned that authenticity attracts the clients you want and repels the ones you don't; that, trust him, you have more than enough to say; and that people tend to remember penguins, particularly blue ones.
Editorializing: Where are you from?
Michael Katz: I'm originally from Long Island. I went to college in Montreal, and now I live in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. It's about 26 miles west of Boston and famous for one thing: It's the starting point of the Boston Marathon.
E: Do you come from a background that prefigures the kind of clients you have today, i.e. were either of your parents people who could have benefited professionally from an e-newsletter?
MK: There is no entrepreneurial history in my family. I don't think my parents ever even had a garage sale. I'm sure my father never made a cent that wasn't part of his paycheck. He was a banker. He worked for the same company, in the same building, for 40 years, and I was on a very similar path. I went to college; I went to business school; I worked for the company that's now Comcast for 12 years. As it turns out, I'm much better suited to what I'm doing now than actually having a job.
E: Hmm ... so no Freudian through line in your story.
MK: The funny thing is, when I was in business school, I did a newsletter. I didn't realize what I was doing at the time, but it was a print newsletter for the people I'd gone to school with, to keep us all up to date after we graduated. I mailed it to around 75 people. It was "This person got married," and "This guy got a new job," and "This person's coming to town." I remember my wife saying, "I can't believe you're spending the time printing this thing out, folding it, stuffing envelopes, mailing it out ..., " and I did that for about five years.
E: How did you make the transition from working in marketing at Media One [now Comcast] to becoming the relationship marketing/e-newsletter guru?
MK: I was sitting at my desk working on my budget for the following year, and I was suddenly struck by how we behaved as if our customers were strangers. I was responsible for the cable modem Internet product in New England. We were spending a lot of money on TV, radio and direct mail trying to attract customers we had no previous relationship with. At the same time, we did have relationships with the two million customers who were buying cable TV from us, but we were doing nothing to leverage those relationships. I looked at what we were doing and thought, oh, man, this is really misguided. We have to do whatever we can to interact with our existing customers.
I sincerely believe that all you need to do is stay in front of the people you know and forget about the rest of the world.And thanks to e-mail, which was still this hot, new thing in 1998, you could communicate with people as often as you liked; it was no longer a matter of how much we could afford to spend on mail pieces. My current newsletter started out going to 30 people I worked with. I didn't try to get new people on so much as try to develop my relationship with those 30 people. Everyone who provides a service understands that if you stay in front of people, you'll have more business. The question was: What do you do to stay in front of them?
E: This newsletter you were doing for 30 people – what was it about?
MK: Well, I was very excited about the Internet, and I decided to start a company setting up websites for people. Unfortunately, it was a total failure. But I'd been doing this newsletter; it was an e-mail I'd send out to people I'd worked with at Media One about Internet stuff. Before I became a marketing director there, I was in business development for our Internet products. I was spending a lot of time in the Internet world in 1998 and '99, and during that time people at the company would take me aside and ask me stuff like, "What's a browser?" I was thinking, jeez, we're really going to get killed.
I approached our training company with the problem and started giving half-day classes about the Internet. And since I like to write, I'd send a follow-up e-mail to the 30 or 40 people taking the classes. I remember one of the first e-mails saying something like, "Hey, there's this new service called Amazon!" When I left the company to do my start-up, I just kept sending the e-mails to those people. Then this thing happened where people I'd never heard of would e-mail to ask if I'd add them to the list.
E: That must have been an eye-opener.
MK: It made me appreciate that I'm really good at writing in this casual, first-person style, which I still use with my clients, though, of course, I write in their voices. I'm sort of like a juicer; my clients are the oranges and I get the juice out of them. And I also started getting this sense that by sending out an e-mail every other week, I could have a constant conversation with these 30 or 40 people. It was a great way to keep in touch, and it led to things like, "Can you come speak to my group?" and "Can you do this work for us?" I realized pretty quickly that this newsletter would keep me in front of people over time in this no-pressure way. Not only was I top of mind when someone had a need, but the newsletter was establishing me as an expert in my field with very little effort.
Eventually my business model evolved as, okay, I've figured out how to grow my business with my newsletter, and now I'm going to show other people how to do it. And that's worked because I'm completely walking the talk; I can say to a potential client that I've never spent a cent on advertising because I have a newsletter and that's all the advertising I need. It was at least a year or two, though, before I started to really understand the vision behind the tactic. Because an e-newsletter is just a relationship-marketing tactic.
E: Beyond those 30 or 40 people, though, shouldn't we be trying to develop more relationships?
MK: I sincerely believe that all you need to do is stay in front of the people you know and forget about the rest of the world. With every client, I just say, "How many people do you have on your house list?" I have one client, an attorney, who has 150 people on his list – that's it. He's been doing his newsletter for four years and he's very successful. He stays in front of those 150 people and he's got all the business he can handle.
He's also a good example of why e-newsletters are so effective with service professionals, as opposed to people who sell stuff. Every attorney basically has the same thing to offer. The only difference among them in terms of marketing capital is the list; where you have the edge is in 10 years of cultivating relationships. Still, when you ask, "What are you doing to work those relationships?" most attorneys will say, "We send them invoices and holiday cards."
E: Did you ever consider working with clients who sell stuff?
MK: No, because when you sell stuff, there isn't the same focus on the relationship with the customer, and the relationship is what interests me. When I first started working with that attorney, I would have told him, "The reason people hire you is not because you're a better attorney than the next guy. Even if you are a better attorney, no one on the outside looking in – prospective clients – knows that." Maybe it's a different story if you're on trial for murder. But, for the most part, you hire an attorney based on his voice, on how he presents himself and how you connect with him as a result. You connect with people by being as authentic as possible. Your authentic voice – the real you – has to be at the heart of your newsletter because the real you is why people hire you.
E: But what if by expressing the real you you're narrowing your prospects? Maybe seven out of 10 prospective clients like the real you. What about the ones who don't? Shouldn't you maybe play the real you a little closer to the vest so you don't alienate those other three?
MK: No, because you don't want to work for those other three. Expressing your authentic self is also a great way of weeding out clients you don't want to work with. Think about the clients you have that you don't enjoy working with. They're not bad people; you just don't see eye-to-eye with them. You want clients who are on the same page as you. To me, the way to find those clients is to be as authentic as possible so they hear that and say, "Hey, I can relate to this person; I want to work with him." At the same time, the people who don't "get" the real you will run screaming in the other direction, which, believe me, is best for all concerned. When I start working with a new client, I ask him a lot of questions to help him put his finger on who he is and what the culture of his business is so we can capture his authentic voice. And I try to be an example. I have a client who, after meeting me, said, "I'm so glad you're exactly like your newsletter." I couldn't ask for better feedback.
E: Okay, so you have to keep it real, and the real you has to go into your newsletter. What else? I'm sure there are people reading this thinking, I don't know if I have enough to say to send out a newsletter once a month.
MK: You do. What kinds of questions do people ask you about what you do? My brother-in-law is a carpenter. Every time he comes over, I start asking him stuff: Is this worth fixing? What do I need to make this work? Why does this thing stick? Where can I get this? Of course he has all the answers. You do, too, but you need to take note of what the questions are. The answers are what you put in your newsletter. People will continue to read it because they want those answers. If you had time to have lunch with all your clients every month, would you be worried about what you were going to talk about at lunch? No. Because you don't just talk about business at lunch; you have all kinds of things in common that you talk about. With my newsletter, for instance, I don't talk about newsletters in every single issue. A lot of times I talk about what it's like to be a solo professional. I think you have some leeway in terms of content as long as you make sure whatever you're writing about is important to your reader, and that you make sure to ring the bell of what you say you're offering often enough.
Expressing your authentic self is also a great way of weeding out clients you don't want to work with.And speaking of ringing that bell, you want to keep your content as narrow as possible. With my brother-in-law, if he were going to do a newsletter, I'd advise him to not only offer carpentry tips to homeowners but to offer carpentry tips to owners of Victorian homes, and even better, carpentry tips to owners of Victorian homes in New England. The narrower you get, the more relevant your content is to your audience. You may have made the pond smaller, but it's not about the size of the pond; it's about how many fish you're actually catching. The fish in that smaller pond are much more likely to get caught.
E: Don't you need to sneak your pitch – your "call to action" – in the newsletter somewhere?
MK: Go back to the taking-your-clients-to-lunch-every-month analogy. When the client has a need for your services, he's not going to call you because you pitched him at lunch; he's going to call you because you talked about your kids at lunch, or your vacations, or the TV shows you both watch or whatever, because during that conversation you revealed who you are and what you're like. Again, it's not about pitching, which we all know can be awkward and off-putting; it's about the relationship. If the client likes you and is comfortable with you, you're the one he's going to call when he needs someone who does what you do.
E: What's your feeling about newsletter design? You've said people can overcome their fear of writing their newsletter by essentially "talking" it, recording notes about what they want to say and working from the transcription. You can't really do that with design.
MK: When it comes to design, I think it's worth it to hire a professional graphic designer. Because if the look of your e-newsletter doesn't draw people in, the reader won't even access all that great, useful, authentic content you've put in there. The money you spend on design is a one-time event, and that single investment will pay off every time you send out your newsletter. A nicely done professional design, even if it's kind of invisible, will take you a long way. A cheesy design just blows the whole thing. If you work with a list management and e-newsletter publishing vendor like Constant Contact – which I recommend because for $20 a month, they can take the whole technical aspect of things off your plate – they can usually work with you on design.
E: How do you measure success?
MK: When one of my clients tells me the phone rang and someone said, "I've been reading your newsletter for a while and would really like to talk to you."
E: Before I let you go, I have to ask about the blue penguin.
MK: When I started my website-development company, I named it Blue Penguin Development to stand out from every other consultant whose company was named something like Michael Katz Associates. I've just always liked penguins. But I needed a modifier – flying penguin ... bald penguin ... blue penguin! The fact is, nobody has anything bad to say about a penguin. Penguins are pleasant. They're well dressed, the fathers carry the eggs ... Maybe I've been guilty of penguinsploitation but the fact is, people tend to remember the blue penguin.