Writing a newsletter for your HOA doesn’t have to be a tiresome and fruitless effort. By knowing and applying the rules of design, concision, graphics and photos, audience, etc. of an effective newsletter, you can better reach your community, and bring association issues to the homeowners.
Newsletters in Community Associations
With an effective newsletter that reaches each member of an HOA, boards of directors and association managers have the opportunity to enhance the sense of “community” in their community association. Newsletters spark interest in the community, increasing member involvement and making management a bit easier. When everyone is aware of problems and concerns, there’s a better chance of everyone working together to fix them, which will in turn help the HOA achieve its primary function: to sustain and improve property values. This article looks at eight key elements of association newsletters that, when done correctly, will help achieve these results.
Creating a newsletter that HOA residents will read can be a challenge to both the writer and editor. These eight rules will help you master the art of newsletters:
- Know your readership.
- Attract that readership.
- Write well, simply, accurately, and avoid jargon.
- Be direct. Use strong and simple verbs, avoid the passive voice, and be specific.
- Be informative. Give readers information that that will be useful to them.
- Don’t hassle homeowners.
- Remember, names make news.
- Add to readability with graphics and photos.
Know the Readership of Your HOA Newsletter
Dick Williams, an award-winning public relations and marketing professional based in Berkeley, states that the “first hurdle” that must be crossed for public relations and advertising to work is identifying your readership. The second, directing your efforts primarily to them. This challenge applies to HOA newsletters as well, whether the aim is providing information for the 90% of cooperative residents, or supplying notices of rules and potential sanctions for the 10% who make problems for the community.
An HOA newsletter is one of the most useful voices of the board and association management, but only if the members can connect to the information. To develop readable stories, the newsletter writer must consider the four elements of readership: the demographics of the association membership, the configuration of the community, the overall location, and the history of governance.
To better understand these elements (and understand the particulars of a specific association), newsletter writers should equip the perspectives of the board of directors, the HOA manager, or of both. Successful boards and managers know their communities and will be of critical importance in developing a newsletter relevant to the HOA’s members. This doesn’t mean, however, that boards or managers must oversee the entire production of the newsletter; a list of ideas for stories or subject matter for paragraphs should be a sufficient contribution.
The effective writer of HOA newsletter stories must be knowledgeable about homeowners associations: life in an HOA, typical problems faced by managers and boards of directors, and the common concerns homeowners deal with. Research the subtleties of maintenance responsibilities, the nuances of noise complaints, and other unique features of homeowners associations to avoid writing misleading statements. Remember, every HOA is different.
In a typical HOA, the newsletter is a hardcopy that arrives in the members’ mail or is left on the doorstep by a volunteer deliverer. But everyone gets a lot of mail, and most of it’s “junk.” Before the stories and articles you’ve worked hard to prepare for a HOA can take effect, you have to make sure the newsletter is actually read (and not thrown into the junk pile).
Whether an item is thrown away or even opened at all depends first on the envelope or newsletter fold. If the newsletter arrives from a source familiar to the resident (like the HOA or management company; not an unknown third-party), the envelope will more likely be opened. And once it’s opened, the proper application of design and style will entice readers to engage with the document.
Elements of Style
By implementing a specific look, feel, and familiarity with the newsletter’s style, writers and editors can draw more readership to their publication. In her book, The Non-Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams discusses the four basic principles of style that are applicable to any written publication
Contrast – Avoid using the same elements everywhere on the page: the same typeface, color, size, line thickness, shape, and spacing. Instead, choose elements that contrast each other and stand out to catch your reader’s attention. Some examples of contrast are large versus small font, blue against red, etc.
Repetition – Repeat visual elements to develop the organization and strengthen the unity of a publication. For instance, try using the same logo and font family, and stick to the same color scheme.
Alignment – Nothing should be arbitrarily placed on a page. Every element should have some visual connection with another to create a clean, sophisticated, and fresh look.
Proximity – Place several items close to one another to make them into one visual unit rather than several separate units. This helps organize information and reduce clutter on the page.
Short and to the Point
How much will the typical HOA reader be willing to stop and read? This could depend on the demographics of the HOA: how old the members are, if they primarily work or are retired, etc. Some residents may be put off by more than one page of text; others may find the newsletter’s information useful but are too busy to read more than a couple of pages.
Brenda Townsend-Hall, a communications consultant, trainer, and course designer, urges that newsletter writers and editors pay attention to the appearance of the newsletter by keeping it at an acceptable length and employing style for easier reading.
Often, a newsletter contains necessary forms or inserts regarding special events or association rules. Although still a page, an insert may be viewed as less daunting than two or more pages of dense text on general association matters. Residents may choose not to read the newsletter at all but keep the reminder and notice inserts. By mixing up the method of information delivery, you can work to attract different types of readers with different interests, and increase your overall readership.
For boards willing to spend the extra money, a newsletter printed in color on high-quality paper can be very attractive to readers. This provides opportunity for colorful strokes, interestingly boxed text, and strong photos. But even black-only printing can be enhanced with strokes, boxes, and other layout features on pre-printed color stock. Use of photos that show well in tints of black can also strengthen a newsletter’s appeal.
Write Well and Without Jargon
Topic sentences should break up the columns of copy. The text that follows should illustrate and help the reader understand almost immediately the subject of the paragraph. Sentences should be kept on the shorter side, but the writer should not be afraid to expand and illustrate points if necessary.
Townsend-Hall raises an interesting objection to the use of clichés. She writes that clichés “… are usually a sign that you haven’t clarified what the message is.” Dick Williams points out, though, that a cheeky simile or metaphor joined with a graphic can be very helpful in getting a point across. While most HOA newsletters would likely never use it, the slogan “Park in the Red and You’re Dead” with a graphic of a ticking bomb, shotgun, or a stern policeman placed below the slogan is a vivid example. Williams refers to “retina time,” the “mere seconds” that people will usually devote to a message. “People only ‘snap to attention’ when the right …strategies and tactics are used.” For a newsletter to command its fair share of resident attention, it had better stand out from the crowd of mail and media notices that most receive daily.
A newsletter article must also contain accurate information. Checking facts with a board member or the association manager is critical. For instance, when including an email address or URL, the writer and editor must always test the addresses before printing.
Association managers are notorious for using indirect and passive construction when they write, so that they can avoid liability and pointing fingers at particular violators of association rules. But in an HOA newsletter, the writer must keep in mind that he or she is working to support the board and the association manager. Direct language should and can be used in most cases to give both the board and the manager stronger voices. This balance can be achieved with careful writing.
Use indirect passive voice sentence construction only where absolutely necessary. In all other cases, be direct. “The board knows that visitors are parking in red zones” is preferable to “It has come to the board’s attention that visitors have been parking in red zones.” And stating a board’s intentions and potential sanctions after introducing a problem makes newsletter content more likely to get a reader’s attention, as long as it reflects board policy and not one member’s opinion.
People like to know what’s going on in their community, even if they don’t participate themselves. A readable newsletter, Townsend-Hall says, should be informative. In an HOA, information useful to residents can include the topic, dates, and times of upcoming events including board meetings. A story can also include links to websites to expand its scope for authoritative information on recycling, water conservation, Neighborhood Watch, or the other topics most HOA boards and association managers deal with regularly.
One management company owner puts it this way:
If a newsletter is solely an extension of the minutes of board meetings, it loses its long-term potential for informing residents. Business items need to be balanced with general community items of interest.
In other words, the HOA newsletter should provide information that brings association and community issues home to the reader.
Don’t Hassle Homeowners
A newsletter that contains a long list of rules, warnings, and potential sanctions for violators will not build readership. Worse, it can undermine the development of a sense of community that the newsletter is trying to achieve and negatively affect the livability (and maybe property values!) in an HOA. Indeed, a newsletter has the responsibility to point out association problems and the board’s options for solutions, but the overall impression of community affairs should be positive and encouraging. If your want your newsletter to be a positive force in the HOA community, praising and explaining (and not pointing fingers and nagging) should be the motto and objective of any newsletter.
Remember, Names Make News
An old rule of journalism states: “Names make news.” An HOA newsletter offers plenty of opportunities to apply this principle. Articles thanking committee volunteers by name, noting the names of event organizers and then thanking and praising them for their contributions, giving by-lines to residents who write a column or article for the newsletter are all examples of utilizing this rule to the newsletter’s advantage.
At the same time, the names of rules violators must be kept out of the newsletter, and those of chronic complainers are probably best not put into print. There’s little or no value in giving their negativity any prominence by printing their names and inappropriate complaints.
In all newsletter issues, the names and positions of board members should be included to lend credibility to the publication, add substance to the governance of the association, and identify the areas of accountability of members of the board. The name and full contact information for the association manager should also be included in each issue as well as appropriate and emergency contact information.
Add Readability with Graphics and Photos
Most people like to look at photos of their community, neighbors and themselves. Graphics attract the reader’s eye and help illustrate the main point of a story, while photos bring human interest into play to enliven text. They also help when news is short for a particular issue and space needs filling.
Where appropriate, Townsend-Hall suggests use of charts, graphs, and diagrams to convey information more effectively than may be possible with words. A newsletter in a plus 55 homeowners association, for instance, may benefit from a highly-visual community calendar of events or a social column. Charts and diagrams are useful, especially in presenting financial information. They must be readily understandable and captioned with text large enough to read easily. Pasting the typical spreadsheet table converted to a chart is not adequate. Preparing charts with professional desktop publishing software such as Adobe Creative Suite’s Illustrator may be necessary to make people want to look at and able to understand a pie, bar, or line chart.
Whether legally taken from an internet search or photos from an HOA event, graphics and photos must have sufficient contrast to show well in a newsletter printed in black. And as noted earlier in this article, don’t forget the impact that a slogan joined with a graphic can have in increasing interest, understanding, and readability.
Again, color is especially helpful for graphics and photos but they can still be very effective printed in black and white.
To be read and to enhance sense of community, an HOA newsletter needs to be more than plain text in a conventional business letter. It requires informative stories that interest the readership and speak to the typical resident in clear, direct language about people and events of community importance. It requires pages that catch the eye, photos to spike interest, and graphics that explain points that are difficult to articulate through text. It requires content that is encouraging, explanatory and upbeat rather than stories that are little more than a list of complaints and reports of violations.
Boards and association managers know their communities. The newsletter writer and editor’s job is to absorb as much of that knowledge as possible and then to reach out to the HOA reader by using all the principles, tools and techniques for good writing and successful desktop publishing.
Adapted from an article by Larry Mesplé, president of the Sonoma Greens Condominium Association. He works at Management4HOAs, LLC as newsletter editor for more than 30 homeowner associations.