When it comes to marketing, there's nothing disposable about newsletters.

It may seem like just another piece of "junk" mail, but a newsletter can be an important communication tool between you and your customers.

According to the Direct Marketing Association, consumers read more than 52 percent of direct mail they receive and more than half make purchases from a direct-mail merchant. So it's no surprise an estimated 7 million people in the United States work in the direct-mail industry.

The so-called "80-20 rule" (80 percent of a company's sales come from 20 percent of its customer base) makes using a newsletter smart marketing for HVAC contractors. Regular newsletters can create a continuing, powerful and personal connection between contractors and their customers, and increase the chances of repeat business.

Newsletters are an example of highly targeted marketing, exclusive in their content and recipients. They go to whom the contractor dictates, without sharing any time or space with another advertisement or message. A newsletter allows a contractor to be totally narcissistic, yet helpful. They allow a contractor to tell about his or her company's attributes. Offering a money-off coupon on services or products, useful hints for keeping comfortable, and instruction on ways to save energy all aid readers and can make the contractor a trusted expert in readers' minds.

Information needs

A newsletter can include information about anything from preventive maintenance to filters. Your goal is to keep readers informed yet interested. You need enough technical information to show your company's professional knowledge, although use too much and your newsletter will go unread. Information on new products, studies and statistics can be used, but do so sparingly. Too much could overwhelm and bore the reader.

Putting in community information, seasonal facts, details about the company and the employees all contribute to a "family feel" that can make a newsletter a powerful selling tool. Including testimonials, thank-you notes and preventive-maintenance information also serve to influence homeowners that the sender is the one and only company to trust to their HVAC needs.

Another good idea is to include seasonal tips on saving energy. Not only do they help customers, it may be one less question your staff has to answer by phone during the heating or cooling season.

Brief reports on milestones such as your company's 25th year in business, an accident-free year, or notice of an employee's anniversary are also good ways to fill space in a newsletter.

Not everything in the newsletter has to relate to your business, however. Some contractors include family recipes, even trivia. This helps keep readers entertained so they won't see your newsletter as just another advertisement.

Judging results

You can measure your newsletter's results by including coupons, tracking neighbor referrals or how many customers take advantage of seasonal specials. Regularly coming up with new offers and keeping up with new products not only serves customers better, it can increase sales.

People partially make buying decisions based on how lasting they perceive the value, so a newsletter keeps your company in touch and assures readers you'll be there if they need you.

If you decide to launch a newsletter, make sure it only goes out to recent customers. Two years back with a mix of prospects (one-time sales) and repeat customers (maintenance-agreement holders or sales-and-service purchasers) is usually sufficient, depending on how many pieces are being mailed.

Computer software makes creating newsletter address labels easier. Addresses can also be printed directly onto the newsletter if a limited number are being mailed; otherwise, they must be labeled after returning from the printer.

Colored paper is popular for newsletters. Using black ink on colored paper with black and white photos is eye-catching and may be memorable. Another option is picking paper to match the season: light-green paper for the spring edition and orange for fall.

Fit to print

Photos are not necessary, but they can add a professional look to the publication. A digital camera, where pictures are captured on disc instead of traditional film, is a popular option. Inexpensive models now allow contractors to easily take pictures of jobsites, employees at work or spotlight customers. With a digital camera, you can see results immediately; there is no need to wait for film to be developed.

Since many customers only contact with an HVAC company is by phone, they may like to see the service area and the people they're talking to when they call. It's a good idea to show how your company is growing and ready to meet customers' needs, and a photo can be a good way to do it.

Newsletters can be produced as Microsoft Word document on computer, but better results will come from a desktop publishing program such as Microsoft Publisher XP. Since many contractors will have to produce a newsletter in between other tasks, and it generally takes eight to 12 hours to produce a newsletter, you may want to consider a professional printer.

A printing shop can compile articles, photos and lay out the complete newsletter, but that will substantially increase the cost.

There is a wide range in the type of newsletters contractors use. A three-page, four-color newsletter with glossy photos might work for one contractor and a two-page rustic flier might work for another, so compare the costs. No matter what type of newsletter you produce, compare the price with radio, television, newspapers or billboard ads. Newsletters are often a better value.

The U.S. Postal Service charges a $150 annual fee for a bulk-mail permit, which is the way many companies send their newsletters. The type of mail determines the actual cost per piece. A minimum number is necessary to qualify for certain postage discounts. The local post office will have the forms and information to help get started. An average mailing of 2,000 newsletters will cost around $500 for printing and postage, which is about 25 cents each.

After creating your newsletter and saving it to a computer disk, keep one copy for your records and one to take to your print shop. It usually takes a few days for them to print and fold your publication before they return it to you. At your request, they will produce a draft for you to review, though it may not be necessary if you have carefully proofread your words and scanned the layout. Label and sort the newsletters according to the instructions on the bulk-mail form and they're ready to go.