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Hit Send: Smart Email Marketing

Whether you love or loathe it, email ranks highly among the most transformative technologies. It changed how we communicate well before Facebook or Twitter, you can access it from practically any device, and now - forty-plus years after it’s invention - the biggest social destinations are integrating email systems into their platform. But even with its rich history and ability to display any content you choose, many companies and individuals still ignore or misunderstand it. Why?

I think they’re afraid. It’s no wonder: email programs that mangle your design, spam folders that eat your message whole, and a host of other technical hurdles can distort your perception of this powerful marketing tool. Thankfully for you, I’ve worked on a plethora of email campaigns, and possess years of valuable experience that I’m willing to share. Below, you’ll find several best practices that will turbocharge response rates, and grow your reputation as a sender. Email is a powerful weapon, and after this brief read you’ll understand how to wield it with precision and grace.

Choose Your Contacts Wisely

This may be elementary to some, but I assure you, for many it is not. Over the years, I’ve heard many different senders (often with less-than-reputable backgrounds) tout their sizable lists, hoping to lure in potential advertisers. It makes perfect sense to me: numbers are impressive, but as an intellegent sender, you should understand a large list doesn’t necessarily guarantee a response. Often, you’re mailing to old, possibly defunct email addresses or contacts with no memory of you. Even if your message arrives, most will mark it as spam and further degrade your reputation with their ISP. For this reason, stay away from any contacts that haven’t been engaged outside of 18 months - anything else virtually guarantees failure. I’m not against growing your list, but know that doing so will require intense care.

Please understand, I don’t intend to frighten you unnecessarily. The timeline above is a cautionary tale, and can be easily avoided by implementing a few simple practices. First, any direct subscription requests (perhaps via a webform) should be treated initially as invalid. Once the form submission is complete, send a response to the address they submitted asking them to confirm. This is known as Confirmed Opt-In, and is a standard service offered by most email service providers (ESPs). Even meticlously-kept lists can contain erroneous addresses, but this ensures your list is always clean by consulting the most reliable source: your subscriber.

To my knowledge, e-commerce communication is the largest legimate use of email, even if many shoppers don’t expressly opt-in. In this case, you may choose to import addresses from your shopping cart software, provided that the transactions are within the 18 month boundary. In some cases, you may need a checkbox to seperate your promotional mailing list from transactional email related to a specific order, but often it only adds unnecessary complexity. Often, a simple unsubscribe link will do.

Before we move on, I need to discuss practices that aren’t acceptable under any circumstance. Using addresses from business cards without the recipient’s consent, or collecting publicly listed addresses will doom you as a sender. Of course, attending networking events or listing your address publicly increases your risk for unsolicited email - and many businesspeople know this - but you, as a sender, should have enough moral backbone to understand their intention. It was to remain in direct contact with you or their visitors, and nothing more. This happens to me on a regular basis, and I ensure they’re blocklisted (for stupidity, if nothing else).

Provide Simple Options

Your subscription form is important, that much is obvious. However, you shouldn’t forget to add other simple controls for the subscriber; first, a basic textual unsubscribe link, where clicking immediately removes them from your list. It’s clean, efficient, and frankly, mandantory. Forcing them to sign in to your application and edit their profile is a huge mistake, and highlights another simpler path to unsubscribing: the mark as spam button. Allowing them to easily update their email address, city, state, or other field they may have entered without too much hassle is a definite plus, too.

Track Everything

I have a fascination with analytics. Some might deem it an unhealthy obsession, but they offer valuable insight and drive almost every business decision. As a sender, I’m often concerned about several different metrics; where each datapoint offers focused guidance on content, titles, and how frequently I should send.

We start with several key events: when a user subscribes or opens an email, it’s logged. Everything else is built upon data collected during these two important events. With this data, you’re able to pinpoint a recipient’s location, reading habits, and if your system allows, any subscribers they referred. Many platforms even allow you to measure aggregate statistics, enabling you to discern geographic hot-spots and time-series data such as the average new subscriber count per month. However, that’s not all; as I mentioned above, much like a garden, list growth requires careful pruning. Without analytics, accurately deciding which subscribers to keep is nearly impossible.

Content is King

If your work, prose or otherwise, has ever been published, I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase. It elevates your creation above any measurable factor, and celebrates craftsmanship in every form. In email, where the predominant form of communication is text, this phrase is especially true.

According to a 2012 study by internet statistics company Pingdom, <a href=“http://royal.pingdom.com/2012/01/17/internet-2011-in-numbers/”>71% of all email is spam, a marked decrease from <a href=“http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-10249172-83.html”>previous years. Spam is everywhere, your inbox is the battlefield, and content is the only dowsing rod, used to determine acceptable messages from unwanted solicitation. How can we pass the test?

First, avoid excessive symbols or punctuation, and certainly don’t replace letters with their visually-similar counterparts. This signature of illegimate communication has existed since the dawn of email itself. Teenagers the world over may mourn their loss of trendy letter replacements, but your subscribers will thank you.

Next up, I think we all agree: using caps-lock is a crime against humanity. Conveniently, it’s also a bad practice in email marketing, and will send your message to the spam folder quicker than you can press send. Often, words like free creep into subject lines without much thought, and wreak havoc on delivery later on, adding extra work for you.

Everyone loves hypertext markup language (HTML), this I know, and thankfully it plays a large role in delivery. As the internet grows, so does misinformation about HTML and how to correctly author it, but there is an ultimate authority: the <a href=“http://www.w3.org”>World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C maintains extensive resources on HTML standards, and a <a href=“http://validator.w3.org/”>validator that checks your markup for errors. If you’re authoring custom templates for your newsletter, use it.

Know the Pros

If anything I’ve said above startles you, take comfort now; as a sender, no longer do you send messages into the abyss without information or guidance.

In recent years, several companies appeared on my radar, each driven to simplify creation of bulk email. My current email marketing partner is <a href=“https://madmimi.com/r/d800149d2f947ad4d64f34668f8b20f6”>Mad Mimi. They provide an elegantly designed suite of tools that remove the drudgery, and make sending a pure joy. But the undying question is why choose a provider, when you can send for yourself?

In a word: time. If you have an excess of it, you’re among a lucky few, and deciding to send your own email will gobble up most, if not all of what you have. Open-source email servers like Postfix and scripts like PHPMailer make software development a breeze, and can be acceptable for simple use cases, but as you grow, again, maintenance increases too.

Stepping beyond maintenance, we encounter reputation, the second reason why you should consider using a provider. Any time an email is sent, the server’s<a href=“http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_address” target="_blank"> IP address is exposed, and spam filters keep records on how reputable your messages are. If you have sufficient records, your message is allowed to pass, but if not, it’s cordoned off and never reaches the destination. Service providers, like <a href=“http://madmimi.com/r/d800149d2f947ad4d64f34668f8b20f6”>Mad Mimi, constantly monitor their infrastructure to ensure that outbound messages aren’t spam, and minimize corrective actions demanded by spam filters.

In addition to the conveniences above, quality service providers also gather statistics on how many emails bounced and who unsubscribed, two vital services you won’t get from using Outlook.

That’s a Wrap

Hopefully, the knowledge above empowers you to start using this wonderful medium, or to refine your current marketing practices. If you have questions or wish to offer further commentary, please use the comments section below.

Published 20 Dec 2012