Newsletter – What You Need to Know

Published on November 3, 2007


Rolf and Anita Nelson owners of Nelson Water Gardens share their thoughts on publishing a newsletter:

Have you been considering a newsletter? The following story may help you decide:

If there was any doubt whether or not Nelson Water Gardens’ newsletter was working, those doubts were dispelled this past spring. To celebrate our 10th anniversary of business, we published a “Create your own sale” coupon giving our customers 40% off any ONE item of their choice. This coupon was good for two weeks, ending on Mother’s Day. To say we were completely unprepared for the response would be an exaggeration, but not by much!

Responses started the day the newsletter hit the mailbox. The response was so overwhelming that we started honoring the coupon immediately. It was a good thing we did; little did we know the floodgates had just barely opened! When all was said and done from a mailing of 14,000 newsletters, 856 coupons came back to us. Those in the advertising trade dream of a 5% response (with 2% being the norm); however, our return rate was 6%! Our sales were double the same period in 2006 (and sales were up 30% in 2005). Interestingly, the week prior to the sale and the week after matched the weekly totals of our great 2006 spring. The icing on the cake was the phenomenal Mother’s Day Weekend total, which eclipsed our best Garden Party Weekend totals (historically this event has always been the “high water mark” in sale for us). Lots of full priced items sold to reach our totals. The last day of the coupon, Mother’s Day was so intense we recruited our nine-year old daughter, Emma, who wrote up 29 tickets!

This coupon worked unusually well, probably because of the unprecedented offer of a sale during spring, the amount of the discount (40%) and its proximity to Mother’s Day.

What it proved was that our customers really do read our newsletter. The coupon was inside the newsletter with just a brief mention on the cover.

Newsletter Pros


The newsletter accomplishes several goals all in one neat little package.

• Establishes a sense of community (we’re all in this together)

• Establishes a relationship between us and our customers

• Gives our key employees (“Mercedes The Plant Lady”, “Tips from Mike”, “On the Road with Justin”) an identity

• Allows us to control inventory to a certain extent

• Introduces new products

• Publishes a Calendar of Events

• Drives sales

• Keeps us at the forefront of our customers’ minds.

• Gives our customers something to look forward to.

• Promotes Special Events

• Seasonal Reminders

Newsletter Cons

• Takes Time

• Proofreading is painful

• Postage & Printing Costs

Rolf and I both come from a mail-order background where it is second nature to record the name and address of customers to send out direct mail pieces. When we entered retail, it never occurred to us to simply ring up a sale, a common practice at most nurseries. From the get-go we were building a mailing list. We started sending out a newsletter immediately, a simple letter size folded twice. Our early mailings were addressed and stamped as a family project around the dining room table. As our business grew, so did our newsletter, from two pages (one sheet front and back) to eight pages (front and back), from black and white to two colors to full color and from two folds to three folds. We started by mailing a newsletter five times a year, then dropped to four times and then to our current three times a year: spring, summer and fall. Experience has taught us not to waste valuable advertising dollars in the fall except for the newsletter.

We keep our customer database private by letting our customers know this immediately when we ask for their names and addresses. This reassures hesitant customers that they won’t end up on a junk mail list.

Since “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” we mix entertainment with information. However, the amount of information we pass on via the newsletter has been dwindling, thanks to our website. We can refer our customers to the web site for more detailed information. The website also keeps the information from getting redundant; how many different ways can you remind your customers to fertilize their lilies? Now I can mention it and then refer them to the Nelson Resource Center on our website for detailed directions. In short, over the years the amount of copy has gone down and the number of pictures has gone up.

It has taken several years but we’ve finally settled down into a set format or template. The same “columns” appear in every newsletter and in the same spot in the newsletter. A template takes time to establish and the only way I can think of to shorten the “settling in curve” is to subscribe to as many newsletters as you can to see how others do it.

I start working on the newsletter about two months ahead of time. The first thing I write is our “Hi Everybody” column, always published on the front of the newsletter. “Hi Everybody” is my love letter to our customers. Inspiration for it comes from everyday life, things that happen at our store, my personal garden efforts at home or industry news.

When I write my “Hi Everybody Column”, I envision my Sister-in law, Wendi Phelan. Wendi once told me she saves reading the newsletter until she can sit down with a cup of coffee and savor it. I think of her and many of our customers as I write and think of it as a letter to a dear friend. I always work in a bit of my own personal philosophy which is: in this modern world it is more important than ever to get outside!


Next I check a file where I toss any idea that occurs to me during the year to see if anything is pertinent. I read over previous newsletters to see what worked, what didn’t and what bears mentioning again. After that I consult with our staff and ask for input. I also check with our Propagation Department to see if there are any plants that we’d like to feature. Featuring a plant is dependent on the season and availability. If we have any extra stock of a certain plant, we’ll offer it in the newsletter.

Then I look for new products to feature. Ideally this would be a new pond product, but we frequently feature garden art, pottery etc. A new pond product usually gets the best response, but not always. The big hit this past spring was glass birdbaths.

Another regular column is “The Plant Lady Says…” by one of our long time employees, Mercedes Bennett. This column has turned Mercedes into a celebrity at our shop and customers are thrilled to meet her! Again, we’ve established a relationship here, plus Mercedes’ “celebrity status” has taken some of the pressure off Rolf and I to be the be-all and know-all of Nelson Water Gardens.

Also to be found in our newsletter are the standard and expected columns such as “Seasonal Tips”, “Calendar of Events” and “What’s New at Nelsons”. The phone number, address, directions and mini calendar are printed on the back. Always be sure your phone number is prominent; nothing makes customers more frustrated than to have to hunt down the phone number.

Strive to make each newsletter visibly different from the previous but still the same format. We do this by changing the color. If the same cover is printed for each mailing, the recipient will consider it just another piece of junk mail and toss it. Our goal is for our customers keep a binder with every newsletter. Many Nelson customers proudly bring their binders in to show us.

Once in a newsletter, when I was describing the best way to test for green water (since green water=high nutrient levels the test is to simply look at it and treat), I happened to mention the fact that we provide free water quality testing. I inadvertently touched off an avalanche of customers coming in for their free water quality test. We were all a bit irritated and exasperated with the folks coming in for their “freebie” until we realized the goal of any advertising/promotion program is to “get people in the door”. We achieved our goal of an increase of customer traffic, just not in the manner we were expecting.

Once a Customer Walks in the Door We Can

1. Strengthen our relationship with them (what better way than offering a free service)

2. Help them solve a problem

3. Sell the problem solving product(s), but only if necessary

4. Expose them to all our new wonderful temptations


After the copy of the newsletter is written, I start taking pictures and everything goes into a folder and is emailed to an advertising firm, TFG Marketing. The owner, Toni van Zant and her team, always “gets it” and work with us. I’ve worked with other firms and graphic artists in the past and they often “Madison Avenue” up the newsletter, making it too slick and glossy. I found it difficult to explain the earthier, friendlier look and tone for our newsletter to these graphic artists and it took time to “train” them. If you have Photoshop skills you can do the layout yourself. I don’t, and if I did, I wouldn’t have the time, not to mention all the time I would spend “tweaking it to death”. The money for a graphic artist is well spent in our case.

A good relationship with an advertising firm/graphic artist is a huge timesaver. Not only does Toni “get” what we are going for, there is no need to drive the 35 miles (in Houston traffic) to deliver or discuss the newsletter. All the proofing and editing is done via phone and email. My copy is always improved by Toni’s editing. After the newsletter is laid out, it’s emailed back to us for proofing. The newsletter goes through at least six staff members and can go through some considerable changes. I’ve discovered over time that inspiration for the newsletter from the staff comes after the layout, so we carve out lots of time for the proofing period. In short, I’ve become the idea generator and our staff embellishes and fleshes out the concepts. A month is best, but often we’re crunched for time and do it in two weeks. The newsletter goes back and forth via email and can have as many as 10 corrections before printing. The document is sent to the printer along with our customer list 10-14 days before the targeted “in home” date.

The most difficult part a newsletter is writing it! I’m always on the prowl for new ideas. My newest idea was born from attending the ANLA Management Clinic held each February in Louisville, Kentucky. Keynote speaker, Dan Heath, spoke on “Made to Stick”—why some ideas survive and others die. Dan co-authored a book by the same name with his brother Chip Heath. I highly recommend reading it. One of the examples Dan cited was a newspaper published in Dunn, North Carolina that has a 112% circulation rate. Hoover Adams, the founder of the Daily Record has a simple mission statement that drives the success of this paper: “names, names, names”. He told his staff; “if the Daily Record reprinted the entire Dunn telephone directory tonight, half the people would sit down and check it to be sure their name was included.” Isn’t this the truth? I know the first thing I do when I receive my copy of Pondkeeper Magazine is to see if Nelson Water Gardens is mentioned!

This inspired a new “column” for the Nelson Newsletter. I pick out two or three willing customers, take their picture and write their story. This coming spring the theme of our newsletter will be “Will water gardening save your marriage”. I plan to feature two of the many couples who happily water garden together.

I enjoy everything about our newsletter; I love writing it, I love seeing it in our mailbox and best of all I love the bump in sales we always receive after it lands in our customer’s homes!

Aqua Ultraviolet Made in USA

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