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a year or shorter period of absence for study, rest, or travel...

By Tim Young

From SIF SATTELITE issue 58, Summer 2000

In 1986, frustrated with how little my fellow Americans knew, or cared, about what was going on outside of the US, I began publishing a newsletter (first known as The Society of International Friendship Newsletter, and later Satellite) to represent my commitment to increasing cross-cultural communication. My aim was to have the newsletter serve as a way for individuals to communicate with others around the world by writing articles for the newsletter, and by becoming pen pals with those whose addresses appeared in the newsletter.

From the beginning, I have had trouble marketing the newsletter. Money for advertising was one big problem; finding an appropriate place to advertise SIF was another. Free ads in pen pal newsletters seemed to attract mostly people who wanted a free pen pal listing, rather than people who wanted to pay to subscribe to a newsletter dominated by articles rather than pen pal addresses. I've remained committed to the idea that only members can get their addresses listed in the newsletter, because I didn't want Satellite to become the same as all the other pen pal newsletters that exist. There have been times, though, when I thought that sticking to this policy might be shooting myself in the foot. But then, succeeding at making SIF into something I didn't want it to be wouldn't really be success.

Over time, other problems have surfaced. One big one has been lack of repeat customers-that is, most subscribers don't renew their subscriptions. For any kind of publication, this is a major problem. If the current readers can't be bothered to renew their subscriptions, it means that the publication simply isn't filling any particular need for them; many think Satellite is a "nice idea" but not nice enough for them to want to get involved in it. They don't care about it enough to make a point of taking the time to send in the money.

Similarly, members have not been interested enough, for the most part, to submit anything to the newsletter. There have been issues with good member participation, but in a lot of cases I seemed to be writing most of the newsletter.


Need a new plan

So it's become clear to me over the past year or two that the plan I've been following for the past 14 years is not working. Perhaps, even if the newsletter had been successful in terms of attracting more and more readers, it wouldn't necessarily have reached the people who need it most, those who don't know anything about the rest of the world and don't really care. A successful newsletter would mostly be preaching to the converted. If I want to get my message out, and show people why they SHOULD care about what's going on in the rest of the world, then I can't wait for them to come to me; I have to find a way to go to them.

I have considered other strategies, such as offering schools subscriptions to the newsletter for their students, but the attempts that I've made (such as I could with my busy work and family schedule) have not been successful. And, since starting a new job in May 1999, the amount of time I have available to devote to Satellite seems to have shrunk even further, so that simply having time to research and write anything for the newsletter seems nearly impossible.

Therefore, with this issue, Satellite is temporarily stopping publication. This is to allow me to devote what free time I have to considering other ways that I could try to help people of different cultures to understand each other, rather than putting hours of work into a newsletter that only about twenty people are reading. The Web site will continue to be updated, with articles from past newsletters, new articles if I have time to write them, and, most importantly, discussions of how SIF can be improved so as to both keep the interest of those who do recognize the importance of understanding other cultures, and to attract the attention of those who don't.


Selling asprin to those in pain

It's been suggested that, rather than simply offering a new idea, a successful business, particularly on the World Wide Web, needs to offer a solution to an existing problem. For me, the problem is ignorance of foreign cultures, but addressing that problem is clearly not drawing much interest. SIF must try to address some problem or fill some need felt by a large number of people. The newsletter (or Web site) must contain information that people are really interested in, which fills some need for them, and which they want to continue receiving.


What if I convince schools to use Satellite as a teaching tool?

In this scenario, we assume that teachers see the same problem that I see, and want to use Satellite to make their students more aware of the world.

But what would teachers want to have in an international newsletter to be used in their social studies classes? And how can I find out what they want?

Would schools pay for it?

How frequently would they expect it to come out? (Satellite has only been coming out four times a year; a school might expect it to be weekly.)

Won't it be hard to sell as a communication network in the beginning, when no other schools are signed up?


What if we combine it with language learning?

The problem being addressed here is, of course, the need to practice English. Users would come to Satellite to both study English and participate in an international community. But what makes Satellite a better way to study English than anything else? Isn't there too big a risk that it will come back down to people who want free pen pal listings?

For me, this requires making the English in the newsletter simpler for non-native speakers (perhaps a good idea anyway). It also requires finding a way to keep the newsletter interesting to native English speakers.


Other concerns

Maybe the newsletter shouldn't be all there is. How about English discussion through the Internet, or groups that actually meet in person? Perhaps a Web site that works as a way for people to coordinate meeting in person.

Is print passé? Should I give up the print version and concentrate on the Web site? If so, what can this Web site do that isn't already being done elsewhere on the Web? And how could SIF receive any income from the site?

I also have to point out that the newsletter as you see it has really not taken the form that I'd envisioned. More than simply being reading material, I'd like the readers to participate in the newsletter, submitting articles, letters, photos, etc., so that readers (students, perhaps) in various parts of the globe can learn about each other. So the product I'm showing you, be it the newsletter or the Web site, is not the product I'd really like to be selling you--membership and member participation have simply been too low for it to become that.

Is that dream practical? Or must the newsletter, if it exists at all, be only part of a larger plan to bring people together internationally? The Internet is useful, but still doesn't reach nearly as many people worldwide as traditional mail. Creating opportunities to meet in person will work in large cities with diverse populations, but in rural areas where the next foreigner is hundreds of miles away, it's not very practical. So I think the mail has to be a major component. But the nature of what, exactly, is sent to members is open to question.


Let's talk about it

I am starting a discussion group on the Internet to ponder how SIF could be more successful in its goals. To join, click here.


  This site contains articles from SIF's Satellite newsletter in the following sections:
The View From Japan
Travel & Culture
Global Sounds
Green Corner

Copyright 2003 timyoungonline.com This page last updated October 31, 2002 . E-mail Tim