Despite the hype and anticipation 20 years or so back, the “paperless office” is not yet ubiquitous. In fact, the ability to quickly print off a personal or file copy means that sales of copy paper are at an all-time high!


Many non-profit organisations have abandoned printed newsletters in favour of email delivery, but is this the best way of keeping in touch with one’s constituents?  Which is best, the printed newsletter or the E-news? Is one better than the other? In this digital age, is there still a place for paper copies?


This article argues that the printed newsletter should not yet be consigned to the waste bin and that in keeping one’s membership informed and, importantly, engaged there is room for both.


You cannot rely on people happening across your website or even on members regularly heading to it to keep themselves updated. To be effective and to keep your membership informed, you have to deliver content to them.  Along with other Social Media avenues, newsletters of one form or another are essential tools to reach your target audience. There are, however, a number of factors to be considered in determining your communications methodology.


In regard to newsletters, it essentially comes down to the question of delivery in printed form or digitally through email.


Whichever medium is utilised, “content is king” and design and appearance are crucial features. Articles must be written, a designer needs to be involved and a distribution list needs to be created and maintained. Assuming that the costs of these activities will be similar, the costs of a printed newsletter (‘print’) will be much greater than the electronic equivalent (‘E-news’). However, the opportunity for more frequent E-news distribution may negate some of this advantage, the additional costs of staffing or outsourcing the writing and design possibly offsetting to some degree the costs of printing and postage.


Once the initial E-news distribution or mailing list is generated (from various sources including donor records, email address books etc.) then upkeep – subscriptions and unsubscriptions –  is generally a function of the newsletter management software. Note, however that you must ensure the email owner’s agreement before they are subscribed or risk being blacklisted as a spammer and it is crucially important to faithfully honour un-subscriptions. Maintenance of a mailing list for print is more often a manual function using your donor or membership system – a database or spreadsheet program or a CRM software package. For large organisations, a commercial mailing company may be engaged.


E-news is easier than print to distribute once you have set up the software and distribution list. Generally, a cloud-based package such as MailChimp will be used. These may be free (up to a certain number of emails per month) or paid on a subscription or per-email basis. Programs such as SendBlaster may also be used to good effect. These have the advantage of a one-time cost for the software and may be seen as giving you total control however they do require a degree of computer knowledge to successfully manage. The commercial programs have excellent analytical systems (though it can be somewhat demoralising to see how many of your emails are ignored!)


E-news is cheaper to distribute, and you may decide to issue more frequent editions. However the personnel effort in producing each edition – sourcing and writing fresh content, designing the layout, and independent editing – must not be underestimated.


Unlike print where the production process can be reasonably lengthy, E-news can be topical and it will be fairly easy to issue a special edition if there is breaking news (for example if you are a charity operating medical facilities in developing countries and the country suffers a catastrophe, you have a ready target audience to whom to take a special appeal).


As there are a variety of delivery platforms for digital content, from smartphones to PCs to laptops and tablets, your E-news will need to be ‘responsive’ and you will need to take into account its appearance on the various devices and design it accordingly. Merely attaching a pdf version of the printed newsletter to an email is most unlikely to be a satisfactory method of delivering your E-news.


E-news has many advantages but it is, however, easy to ignore and experience suggests that considerably less than half of all emails sent out will remain unopened. Many subscribers will delete them unseen, or may even set up a ‘rule’ to delete them before they even reach their inbox. The E-news may be sensed as spam and the sending email address consequently blocked. Various advice exists about how to make your E-news standout, but an opening rate of 30% would be seen as “very successful”.


You can also aim separate E-news versions at different parts of your membership with specially selected content, though to do this effectively you will need to understand your people. Those who subscribe to your E-news will at least have some sympathy for your cause, and to keep them you will need to serve them with interesting and pertinent content. You will need to make your E-news ‘standout’ from the other email clutter by ensuring that the subject line is relevant and indicative of your organisation.


Likewise, as the volume of posted mail decreases, so a printed newsletter will stand out and a significant number of them will at least be opened and skim-read. You also have the opportunity to include additional items such as calendars and other promotional material should you chose. Significantly, there is also the opportunity to include reply-paid or Freepost envelopes with (for example) credit card donations slips to encourage response. Many non-profits have their largest support base in the older age bracket for whom printed newsletters are essential. This is something no-one yet has figured out how to change, but while that remains the fact, print newsletters are essential.


Unlike E-news which will, in the vast majority of cases, only be read by one person – if at all –  print can be handed on and read by a number of people.  It can be browsed on the bus or during meal or coffee breaks (for example) though the same is becoming true for those who use their mobile devices.  Print is a more readily available promotional tool – I know of one charity which encourages its members once they have read it to take their magazine with them to their appointment with their dentist or doctor and leave it in the waiting room!


Print can even be sent to non-subscribers (through purchasing a mailing list) without incurring the same reputational problems as spam email.


Newsletters then, whether print or E-news are essential tools to reach your constituents, but you need make a careful analysis before deciding upon whether a printed copy or an email newsletter is the best way to get your audience to stay engaged.


In addition to the more general considerations outlined above, you will need to consider:

Your budget and general resources. If your organisation has a tight budget and limited resources but a dedicated and interested, computer-literate audience, then E-news (only)  may be the way to go.

Do you feel that your audience is computer literate? A younger membership will probably spend a lot of time on their digital devices (smartphones and tablets) whereas (generally speaking) an older group may prefer printed material.

It is much harder to encourage donations from E-news than print. Your E-news should always have a ‘call to action’ button for donations


So the answer is not simple, and it will depend to a great extent on your organisation, resources, and constituents. You may decide to survey your subscribers to ascertain their preferences, an on-line survey or test mailings with specific response devices – a prize draw for returned surveys for example – for the printed versions.


For many non-profit organisations, especially those seeking funding through donations, the answer is almost certainly a mixture of both – along with competent use of Social Media, a subject which is not considered here.  As shown, there are advantages and disadvantages in each delivery method but a mixed approach can leverage the best of both. You need to work them both in tandem to ensure a common message. Retail marketers often use the mechanism of promoting, via email or E-news, a special offer which is to come in the next print newsletter and similar techniques can be used to good effect by non-profits.


There is no single right answer but careful analysis and knowledge of your target audience will significantly help you to finely tune your communications practices.