Summer 1991 // Volume 29 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA4

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An "Interactive" Newsletter

An "interactive" newsletter series is an effective method of meeting the needs of many adults who can't or won't attend a public meeting or series of classes. Initiating the series as a pilot project in one county enabled the authors to make significant changes i t he content of the series before offering it statewide. The evaluation revealed that respondents were "Getting It Together" and had improved their resource management skills in the areas of estate planning, household, and financial management.

Marsha A. Goetting
Extension Family Economics Specialist
Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics
Montana State University-Bozeman

Raeann Pourroy
Extension Agent
Pondera County Extension Office, Conrad, Montana

Young families in Pondera County, Montana, improved their resource management skills by "Getting It Together" via an "interactive" newsletter series. Previous efforts to reach these families with public meetings had been frustrated by unpredictable winter weather, long distances between towns, conflicts with family or school activities, family illnesses, and time commitments to other groups.

Confronted by these challenges, the MSU Extension agent and family economics specialist brainstormed ideas for new educational methods. The concept of a series of "interactive" newsletters was born. This approach would permit families to learn in their own homes while maintaining contact with the instructors via the mail or telephone. The series differed from the typical newsletter approach in which all issues were sent to each subscriber. "Getting It Together" participants selected from among 16 possible educational topics those they perceived were most needed. They could then get follow-up help.

Program Procedure

"Getting It Together" newsletters were mailed once a week from January to June 1989. Participants were given a list of topics and dates on which each newsletter would be mailed so they'd know when to expect the ones they'd requested.

An "interactive" sheet was enclosed with each newsletter. This sheet allowed participants to: (1) ask questions, (2) request additional materials, (3) make suggestions about information they wished had been included, (4) recommend whether the topic should be included if the series were to be offered statewide, and (5) indicate any estate, financial, or household management actions they'd taken as a result of reading the information in the newsletter.

Promotional Methods

The first challenge was getting people to register for the interactive newsletter approach. Different promotional methods were evaluated to find out which were effective. Personal "selling" by the agent at group meetings worked best, but was also the most time-consuming. Out of 54 registration forms distributed during several group meetings, 20 were returned for a response rate of 37%. In contrast, only nine registrations (8%) were returned out of 110 enclosed with an issue of the county employees' newsletter.

Of the 80 registrants, almost half enrolled on a form included in the home economics newsletter. Twenty-five percent enrolled on the three-fold flier distributed during meetings. Slightly more (11%) registered on a newspaper form. Only two percent responded to two paid ads. The remaining three percent were office drop-ins who had heard of the series by word of mouth.

Half of the registrants indicated they wanted all 16 newsletters. The other half were quite selective in their educational choices. For example, three percent of the registrants requested two of the topics, while four percent requested four topics. The percentage of newsletters selected ranged from a low of 61% for the one describing a check register tracking system, to a high of 91% for the one explaining which household papers to keep and where (see Table 1-Requested column).

Table 1. Newspaper topics and recommendations for statewide series.
Newsletter topics RequestedInclusion
What papers to discard 91% 74%
Ingenious ways to save 90 73
Credit card safety record 90 100
Household inventory 89 63
Letter of last instructions 86 67
Wills 84 81
Family finance center 84 67
Valuable papers inventory 81 63
Goals and financial planning 80 100
Debt-to-income ratio 80 57
Values and money 78 67
Financial decisions 75 75
Power of attorney 74 82
Prorating debt payments 70 33
Living will 69 68
Using a check register 61 63

Evaluating the Interactive Newsletter Model

Since "Getting It Together" was a pilot project, two evaluation approaches were used. The goals of the evaluations were to determine what actions were taken by participants as a result of the series, to learn if they thought the newsletter should be offered statewide, and, if so, what changes should be made.

The first evaluation was based on a section of the interaction sheet included with each newsletter. Return rates for the interaction sheets ranged from seven percent to 41% with an average of 30% for all 16. Responses dwindled as the weeks progressed. The interaction sheet with the highest percentage return was the first one mailed (41%). The sheet with the lowest percentage return was the last one mailed (7%).

The second evaluation was a five-page questionnaire sent to all 80 participants a month after the last lesson was mailed. Twenty-four participants (30%) returned the final evaluation. Self-addressed paid envelopes were provided for each form of evaluation.


The final evaluation showed "Getting It Together" was the first Extension program in which 65% of the respondents had participated. Participants were mostly female, married, well- educated, relatively young, and employed. When asked if the series should be offered to residents in other counties, 96% of the respondents said yes.

Two newsletters, financial goal-setting and establishing a credit card safety record, each received a 100% recommendation for inclusion in a statewide series. Estate planning topics of power of attorney and wills each received over 80% recommendation. Newsletters receiving the lowest percent concerned prorating debt payments (33%) and computing debt-to- income ratio (57%) (see Table 1-Inclusion Statewide column).

Management Actions Taken

Among the respondents returning the interaction sheets, the action taken by the highest percentage (90%) was establishing a credit card safety record (see Table 2). The second most frequently reported action was computing prorated debt payments (69%) followed by making a valuable papers' list (56%). Among the respondents returning the final evaluation form, the action done by the highest percentage was making a list of financial goals (100%). The second most frequently reported action was discussing values with family members (56%), followed by establishing a credit card safety record (42%).

Table 2. Management actions taken.
Financial management:
     Established credit card safety record 90% 42%
    Computed prorated debt payments 69 25
    Discussed values with family member 50 56
    Established check register tracking 47 21
    Established regular savings plan 40 7
    Figured debt-to-income ratio 40 33
    Made list of financial goals 38 100
Estate management:
    Rewrote existing will 25 8
    Wrote letter of last instructions 24 17
    Wrote power of attorney 19 17
    Wrote/revised living will 16 17
     Made changes-letter of last instructions 12 4
Household management:
    Made valuable papers' list 56 25
    Reviewed valuable papers' list 44 33
    Made household inventory 44 17
    Discarded papers not needed 30 33
    Reviewed and updated household inventory 25 21
    Established home filing system 17 33

In most cases, a higher percentage of actions was reported by the respondents who returned the weekly interaction sheets than by the respondents who returned the final evaluation. This result was surprising because Extension faculty are often encouraged to wait at least six months before conducting an evaluation to give participants time to "take action."

Comments from Participants

Almost every respondent wrote a comment on the interaction sheets and on the final evaluation. One said, "I thought I had a good filing system, but you have helped me really improve on it." Another wrote, "I consider this (household inventory) very important after losing everything in a propane explosion in 1970. I still come up with things I had that were not listed at the time we were trying to recall our losses."

Implications and Program Changes

Before offering "Getting It Together" statewide, several newsletters were revised and combined. Three topics-estate planning, retirement planning, and a computerized budget analysis -were added. Thus, 1990 participants have the same number (16) of newsletter topics from which to choose. Because 43% requested a total of 266 additional publications, a list of additional publications available from the Montana State University (MSU) Extension Service will be maintained on the interaction sheet.

Five dollars was charged for the statewide series based on a question about willingness to pay for the information. Over 70% of the respondents said they'd pay from $6-$10.

More "interactive" opportunities are available in the revised series. Since participants identified estate planning as the area they wanted more information about and felt was of most help, educational meetings are planned in several counties. A listing of videotapes available from the MSU Extension Service are featured on the interactive sheets accompanying each topic. Office conferences with the agent are available for those who want more help with financial management.

Contact with 1990 "Getting It Together" participants was continued for four months after the completion of the series to increase the response rate on the evaluation done in for September 1990. An additional 13% of participants in the pilot project returned their interaction sheets after they received the final evaluation. Several commented that the evaluation reminded them to complete some of the tasks.

Extension agents have been encouraged to mail the newsletters twice a month instead of weekly as respondents indicated a week is often not enough time to accomplish the task for that topic. Extension home economists were provided with a word processing diskette containing all 16 newsletter cover letters and interaction sheets. This enabled the agents to personalize the letters and save hours of secretarial time.


An "interactive" newsletter series is an effective method of meeting the needs of many adults who can't or won't attend a public meeting or series of classes. Initiating the series as a pilot project in one county enabled the authors to make significant changes in the content of the series before offering it statewide. The evaluations revealed that respondents were "Getting It Together" and had improved their resource management skills in the areas of estate planning, household, and financial management.