By Cathy Hearn, Newsletter Designer
Cathy has been the volunteer Newsletter Designer for NAMI Washtenaw County (WC) since December 2017. In this article she describes the reasons for moving from a print newsletter to a digital edition, plots the recent changes to the newsletter, and outlines possible future directions.
Looking Back at the Print Edition
When I joined NAMI WC as a volunteer, board members and staff were engaged in discussions around the need to change the format of the newsletter. At the time, the newsletter took the form of a quarterly print edition.
Staff and volunteers mailed this edition to between 250 and 300 NAMI WC annual members and distributed it by hand to local community organizations and medical practices. A group of staff and volunteers would participate in “mailing parties” that would gather every three months to fold, tape, and put address labels on newsletters in preparation for mailing.
The print newsletter format had some compelling benefits. Then editor of the newsletter, Lois Maharg, describes the mailing parties as fun events that helped build community and strengthen relationships among NAMI WC volunteers and staff. The print newsletter was also accessible to those members who have limited access to technology and the internet.
There were some significant downsides to the print newsletter. Mark Creekmore, who served as President of the Board at the time, described the assembly and distribution of the newsletter as a “distraction,” with various moving parts and logistical challenges. Challenges included contracting with a printer, assembling physical materials, and distributing the print edition to various locations. The process of printing and distributing the newsletter was costly and drained funds that could have been devoted to other NAMI WC programs and operations. The newsletter also had a relatively small circulation and was not reaching many potential beneficiaries or supporters of NAMI WC programs.
Informed by our interest in reaching a wider readership, lowering costs and complexity, and the possibilities for generating online discussion, Lois, Mark, and I decided to push forward with an online format for the newsletter. We decided that we would try out hosting the articles on a WordPress.com website and distributing a quarterly email campaign.
The new quarterly emails included article headlines, bylines, and summaries that linked to the full article on the WordPress.com site. They were now distributed to a mailing list of over 1,300 community members. In addition to these linked article summaries, the newsletter email advertised upcoming events and programs and publicized fundraising campaigns. One added benefit of the online format was that we were now able to see which kinds of articles and listings were most popular based on analytics data provided by the email design tool and WordPress.com.
Shortly after we launched the online newsletter, the NAMI WC board decided to redesign the NAMIWC.org website. The website had not been updated for some time; it looked outdated and was challenging to navigate. I proposed that we redesign the website around the new newsletter site because WordPress.com is an affordable, accessible platform that doesn’t require employing a software developer for design and maintenance. The board ended up moving forward with this proposal, and so, by the end of the Summer of 2018 the new NAMI WC newsletter was housed on the new NAMIWC.org website.
In recent months, we welcomed a new editor, Linda Koopmann. Linda and I have been working in partnership with Program Manager Maria Alfonso to make some more tweaks to the newsletter. We agreed on pairing down the newsletter design for a cleaner look. We decided to publish articles to the website on a rolling basis to ensure that there was always new content for readers to engage with. We also decided to send out a shorter monthly email roundup instead of a quarterly e-newsletter, so that readers would have more timely access to recent news and upcoming events.
Our small newsletter team will continue to work on improvements to the newsletter to make sure that we’re reaching as many readers as possible, that the newsletter is easily accessible, and that the information we’re providing is useful and engaging.
We have started testing out whether displaying the content in a different order changes the ways that people engage with the newsletter. We have started looking into whether analytic insights about which kinds of articles are most popular could inform future editorial decisions. We are also investigating ways to make it easier for readers to print articles from the website. Maria recently engaged a user experience expert who will conduct interviews with NAMI WC community members to inform changes that make it easier to navigate the namiwc.org website and locate content like our articles.
What are your reflections on the changes to the newsletter? Do you have any suggestions for how we could improve the newsletter for you? Leave a comment below!
Cathy Hearn has served as the volunteer newsletter designer for NAMI Washtenaw County since December 2017. She works as a Program Manager for the University of Michigan School of Education, where she also completed her Master’s in Education Leadership and Policy. Outside of work and volunteering, her interests include reading, art, food, politics, and travel.