EMailing, Used Responsibly, Can Be Fantastic

Used responsibly and cautiously, bulk e-mail can be a powerful addition to your marketing arsenal

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AS A COLLEGE SOPHOMORE, CHRIS PIRILLO OF Des Moines surfed the Web looking for cool Windows-related sites, sharing his finds with family via e-mail. As word spread that Pirillo was a resource, the care and feeding of his e-mail list grew into a full-time job.

Today, Pirillo’s free Windows newsletter, “Lockergnome,” goes out to more than 170,000 readers daily, and he’s written a book called Poor Richard’s E-Mail Publishing: Newsletters, Bulletins, Discussion Groups and Other Powerful Communications Tools (Top Floor Publishing).

“Everybody’s got a Web site,” Pirillo says, “but unless [yours is] collecting visitors’ names and e-mail addresses, you’re missing a great opportunity to e-mail news and reminders that keep your business in people’s minds. As long as you have quality content–something worth reading–people will be glad to see your message.”

This Isn’t Spare Results from focus groups conducted by the e-business consulting firm Cognitiative Inc. put spam “second only to telemarketing” on the company’s “Intrusometer,” a measurement tool for gauging consumer annoyance, according to Cognitiative president Laurie Windham.

How do you ensure your aboveboard e-mail marketing efforts aren’t taken for spam? There are several ways, but the key difference lies in your recipient list. As in Pirillo’s case, the people on your list must willingly submit their e-mail information and agree to receive messages from you.

But obtaining consent doesn’t give you carte blanche to bombard those mailboxes with advertising. To the recipient’s eye, impersonal messages or those broadcast to an untargeted audience look just like spam. Windhamnotes that 28 percent of consumers polled in an April 1999 focus group so disliked e-mail advertising that they had “taken steps to avoid that vendor.” What are the gripes?

om* Overmailing. Cognitiative found that recipients on average don’t want to hear from a business more than once every 30 days (many prefer every 60 days).

* Can’t Get off the List. It’s vital to give your recipients the power to remove themselves from your list, says Larry Kesslin, president of Let’s Talk Business Network Inc. (www.ltbn.com), a publisher of smallbusiness tools and products. Doing so “respects that your customer’s time is valuable.”

* Broken Promises. You’ve offered something in return for those names. Be prepared to hold up your end of the bargain, Kesslin says.

“Any list you don’t use is a dead list. What good are those names a year later?”

Making a List There are two ways to develop a willing recipient list: collect the information from your site visitors, or buy a ready-made e-mail list.

If you’re building a list from scratch, you may already have a method for collecting visitor information built into your pages. If you don’t, you should consider using a free service such as Response-O-Matic (www.response-o-matic.com) or Freedback (www.freedback.com) to create automatic online response forms. These sites ask you simple questions and offer lots of advice along the way.

The form you create can be simple or complex; you write questions into onscreen windows that the site turns into HTML code for an interactive questionnaire and that you paste into the source code for your Web site. When visitors fill out your form and click the Submit button, you’ll receive the response as an e-mail message.

“Lists don’t build overnight,” Kesslin warns. “It’s about building a brand name. Be patient.” Though building your own list is painstaking work, the result will be a rich resource of prequalified leads,

If you don’t have time to cultivate the perfect list, a shortcut alternative is to buy a ready-made list of consumers who’ve agreed to receive mail sorted according to interests, geography, education, and other criteria. (Do a search on “bulk e-marl” for a list of companies.)

If you go this route, be careful to buy a list that hasn’t been overmailed. “If you’re buying names for less than a penny a name, you’re buying a spare list,” Kesslin says. “Expect to pay between 20 and 30 cents a name for a quality list.”

Tempting Offers If you’re creating your list from scratch, how can you entice visitors into giving you their addresses and accepting your e-mail? By offering more than a boilerplate ad for your products and services. There’s no end to the creative content you can serve your audience, but here are three possibilities to help you get started while capturing valuable visitor information in the process:

* Publish a Newsletter. Whether sent daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly, a newsletter gives you an opportunity to collect names and stay in touch.

Pirillo points out that the newsletter should only be “tangentially connected” to your business: “A hardware store might send a newsletter about home handyman projects–and by the way, here’s a coupon for 10 percent off some of the tools you’ll need to do this job. What are the chances someone would find your sale coupons by just posting them at your Web site?”

* Sponsor a Contest. Even those typically leery of sharing their information can be lured by the chance to win something. Stores can offer product prizes; service-oriented businesses can provide free services for a limited time. Either way, you know that anyone who’d like to win that item is a potential purchaser; making every name you collect a highly qualified lead. When you announce the winners in a follow-up message, take the opportunity to remind visitors of your company’s products and services.

* Take a Poll. Everyone has an opinion, and poll-taking lets you do market research and collect names, as well as build a sense of community for your visitors. Once they’ve answered your questions, promise to e-mail the poll’s results to each respondent.

Manage the List Now that you have the basics of bulk e-mail etiquette and ideas for generating a mailing list and creating content, you’ll need to develop a strategy for managing the list.

What you’ll need depends on the size of your list. For mailings up to 200 or 250 recipients, your existing e-mail software should be sufficient–assuming it includes a blind carbon copy (BCC) feature to prevent recipients from viewing the other addressees.

Larger mailings typically require a bulk e-mail program such as E-Mail Workshop  and Aureate Group Mail . These programs make it easy to send e-mail to many users. You can individualize each message with the recipient’s name, giving each message a personal touch. E-mail Workshop even tests your return address before sending out a bulk mailing, ensuring that your mailing won’t be rejected as spam. And Group Mail can handle up to 32,000 separate distribution lists with an unlimited number of recipients in each.

Be a Moderator

Another way to interact with your visitors and collect names is to set up e-mail discussions in which subscribers discuss issues relating to the list’s topic.

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