Saturday, March 31, 2012

Before There Was the Blog, There Was the Newsletter

Some years back, in a fit of ecology, we ditched L.A. (and a good job) to go and live near Yosemite National Park.  We’d visited friends there a number of times and finally succumbed to the beauty of the place.  The plan was to produce handmade gift products and flog them by mailorder. I had some expertise in mailorder, and the other three partners had talent, so – we were in business. Why shouldn’t we succeed? 

The full answer would take too long. In fact I wrote a post-mortem (which becomes a cautionary tale by the time you reach page 30, nearly  7,000 words in, and has been suggested for a case study in failure at Harvard B School). For one thing, you can’t make it commercially in handcrafting without a lot more  hands than we could deploy or a machine that makes it look like handcrafting. And if you want to talk “underfunded” -- we re-invented the concept. However, the addition of a plant nursery gave us a shot in the arm, and we hung on for seven years.   

Seven long years. You have to understand that this was before the popularity of  the home computer (although computers might not have made a lot of difference where we were living – electricity wasn’t reliable, and the locals would have burned the infernal machines). But it was a kind of isolation you don’t run into any more.  I think seven is the magic number in some cultures, and it worked for us. We fled to L.A. and started over.   

If anything useful came of it, it was a series of newsletters we sent customers and prospects over the first four years. I’m usually pigeonholed as a technical and business-to-business writer, and I am, and that’s good for most situations I find myself in. But there are whole other worlds in the writing business, and I need to make my bones in those, too. The newsletters are my entree to the b2c market.  

You don’t sell handcrafted giftwares with spec sheets and application stories. But mailorder is selling at a distance. The assignment, then, is to give customers the nitty-gritty while maintaining a light touch; keep it conversational while telling them the doll’s innards are 100% new Kapok stuffing. So that’s what I did. Before it was over I had written ad copy for sunbonnets, patchwork aprons, caftans, sock dolls, cast iron pillows, enchanted frogs, boxed stationery, persimmon puddings, pinecone wreathes, wildflower seed, physocarpus capitatus, and our signature product, “Sierra Overleaves.”  You may have heard of them.  

If you haven’t, but you sell consumer products and need to advertise them, you might be interested. I’ve scanned the newsletters into jpeg files which, if I can avoid past uploading mistakes, I may be able to send you. Disclaimer if you get them: The products shown are no longer available, and sure as hell not at the prices we were asking back in 1968 and ‘71.   

Next: What we need is more iconoclasm