E-newsletters have become the hottest craze in communications tools since the advent of the Internet. These turbo-charged critters are cost effective, build customer loyalty, drive Web site traffic and help companies market to millions of prospects in a matter of minutes.

But companies racing to leverage this emerging technology better pump the brakes before they overlook a critical component-their audience.

Today's most successful marketers have learned that the key to a successful e-newsletter program lies in providing readers with added value and benefit. Paradoxically, when it comes to selling products and services using e-newsletters there is one crucial rule-don't.

In Sarasota, Annabelle's Home and Kitchen, a kitchen appliance and accessories boutique that is part of the Epicurean Life Culinary Group, delivers an e-newsletter to your desktop that is a snapshot of news and upcoming events across the entire corporation. Yes, it provides information about new specials and sales promotions-for example, it gives readers a 25-percent-off coupon for their next purchase at Annabelle's, a promotion offered exclusively to e-newsletter subscribers. But Annabelle's e-newsletter is effective because it doesn't make selling products the center of attention. The promotion of the latest and hottest products takes a back seat to providing the reader with relevant, useful information. The company is following a key principle of e-newsletter marketing-push value, not advertising.

Remember, no one signs up for an e-newsletter so they can get a regular dose of your latest product offering. Provide useful and original information such as late-breaking news, original articles or a sneak peak at the newest fashions, and then include a small amount of product and service advertising. A good recipe to follow is 75-percent value and 25-percent promotion.

Also consider the frequency of your e-newsletters. They need to provide timely information. A large organization with dozens of monthly events might send out biweekly e-newsletters. For a smaller retail operation, once a month is plenty. Also factor in the season and holidays. A concert hall may want to send an e-newsletter right before the start of a new season; a flower shop prior to a major holiday such as Valentine's Day. One rule is constant: Think like a customer.

Once you have created an effective e-newsletter, it's time to create your mailing list. One option is to provide a sign-up form on your Web site; another is to market the e-newsletter in your promotional materials. You can compile e-mail addresses from your customer database, but make sure to ask permission before you send the e-newsletter.

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