Provide E-Mail Recipients Lots of Opt-Out Chances

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The other day I got a call from a friend who was interviewing for a job at a major software company with a popular product on the Internet.

"This could be big," he said. "The company has a list of 37 million e-mail addresses -- and they've never mailed to it."

Every list manager's dream come true? Hardly.

While a list like this could be a gold mine, it also could be a minefield. Because the company hadn't mailed to the list in the two years since it began collecting addresses, there probably would be millions of bad addresses that would bounce when they failed to reach their destinations -- enough bounces to crash any company's server.

More importantly, the recipients had never consented to receive third-party solicitations. They simply had filled out a form containing a prechecked box allowing the company to send them updates about its software and related sites. If the company were to market a list like this to other mailers -- or even use it to promote its own products, it could well be flamed off the Net, its million-dollar reputation ruined.

My recommendation: Go slow. I suggested to my friend that we do a test mailing to a random group of 10,000 recipients reminding them that they had signed up to receive the company's announcements, then encourage them to return to the company's Web site to opt in to receive e-mail promotions from the company and other marketers.

Assuming that all went well, we would test another 10,000 addresses, then roll out to another 250,000 addresses at a time. Each recipient who returned to the site and opted in would get an automated message confirming his or her list subscription and be required to reply to that message in order to stay on the lists that he selected.

After that, any message that went out to those recipients would contain a header at the top identifying the source of the mailing and giving them the chance to opt out and remove themselves from the list.

If you think this is overkill, think again., the Web-based bookseller, got into hot water last fall when it started mailing to its list of customer e-mail addresses. neither sends random e-mail nor sells its lists, but it does send e-mail updates to people who voluntarily supply their e-mail addresses to the company when they buy books, enter contests or sign up for e-mail newsletters.

And because Amazon used to send out these updates without first telling people that they would be receiving them, some customers complained, triggering a boycott by anti-spam activists and a rash of negative publicity.

Here are four steps to building an e-mail house file that wins friends, not flames:

<B>Ask customers to opt in to your list.<B> Just because an Internet user bought a book, CD or computer from your online store, don't assume that he or she wants to get your e-mail solicitations.

On the Internet, even an e-mail message from a merchant with whom the user has a business relationship may be considered spam if the customer hasn't specifically requested it. That's why it's important to put a check box underneath your order form asking customers to opt in to receive promotional mailings from your site. If you intend to rent your list to third parties, you'll need to disclose that as well. (Don't cheat by prechecking the box -- it will come back to haunt you.)

<B>Send out a confirmation message.<B> Because Internet users like to surf from site to site, signing up for electronic newsletters and mailing lists as they go, they sometimes forget that they dropped by your site and signed up for your list.

That's why it's important to send them a confirmation message reminding them that they joined your list and letting them know what kind of promotional offers to expect from you. Your confirmation message should also offer recipients a quick and easy way to opt out from your lists if they have changed their minds about getting mail from you.

If you want to be squeaky clean, you may want to take the extra step of requiring recipients to reply affirmatively to the confirmation message in order to stay on the list. This cleans your list of anyone who may have been signed up by another Internet user as a prank.

<B>Give recipients a chance to opt out with every mailing.<B> Just because a customer voluntarily joins your e-mail list today doesn't mean that he wants to remain on your list forever. So, while you may continue to send your customers catalogs or pitch letters by postal mail without a problem, you're sure to get barraged with hostile e-mail messages, or flamed, if you don't give them a chance to opt out of your e-mail list with every mailing.

You could attach a header to the top of every message you mail that identifies the source of the list and provides instructions on how to unsubscribe from it.

<B>Employ a Net-savvy lettershop that can handle unsubscription requests.<B> Manually processing requests to get off an e-mail list can be tedious and time-consuming. So can cleaning the list of undeliverable e-mail addresses.

That's why it's essential to use a Net-savvy lettershop that can automate that process, handling bad addresses and unsubscribe requests automatically. Understand, too, that, if you fail to remove recipients before you send out another mailing, they may think that you are spamming them and report you to your Internet service provider.

The bottom line: E-mail marketing can be a marketer's dream come true when used in a Net-friendly manner. Abused as a mass broadcasting tool, it can be a nightmare -- for marketers and Netizens alike.

Rosalind Resnick is president of NetCreations Inc., New York, an Internet marketing company.

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