E-Mail List Building in the Spam-Control Era

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We live in interesting times for e-mail marketing. Spam is proliferating exponentially. Technological, social and legal responses such as content-based filters, changes in public acceptance and the CAN-SPAM Act can limit legitimate use of volume e-mail as an outreach tool.


It's clearly unacceptable to build your e-mail file by randomly e-mailing members of the public. However, plenty of ethical ways exist to maintain and expand an e-mail file.


Lifetime value of an e-mail address. Not all e-mail addresses have equal value. Each represents a person who may or may not be very interested in your group or cause and therefore has varying potential to donate, become a member, participate as an activist, foster awareness or provide other forms of support.


When acquiring e-mail addresses, focus on methods that implicitly target people likely to have a strong interest in your organization's mission.


Though a $99 CD with 10 million e-mail addresses from a spam list broker may seem like a good deal, it is not. Spamming random individuals simply doesn't work because the vast majority will not be interested and will not respond, and it will quickly cast your organization in an unfavorable light with the Internet community.


Collect addresses at every opportunity. Existing communication channels are the best sources for e-mail address acquisition and should be exploited fully. Every interaction provides a chance to obtain an e-mail address:


· Include an e-mail list opt-in box on all Web forms for online giving, advocacy, registration, e-commerce purchases and informational requests.


· Request e-mail addresses on all paper forms, direct mail response cards and event sign-in sheets.


· Publish your URL on all letterhead, stationery, brochures, print newsletters and magazines and advertisements, encouraging people to visit your Web site. Ensure there is a prominent opportunity to opt in for e-mail communications on the home page.


Mining your offline house file. There are vendors who can match postal addresses to consumer databases and identify corresponding e-mail addresses. However, these have mixed results, because e-mail addresses are not as ubiquitous as telephone numbers, for example. It's worth experimenting with this type of e-mail appending, but it's vital to find a vendor that will charge based on the success rate and not the size of your file.


If you decide to do this, be aware that these people have not consented to receive online communications, and that some of the e-mail addresses will be wrong. Send people a one-time prospecting e-mail that gives them a chance to opt in, and be prepared for a high bounce rate and perhaps a few complaints.


Use viral marketing. Leveraging existing constituents to pull in new ones is an effective tactic for building a well-qualified e-mail list. Encourage constituents to forward electronic communications from your organization to like-minded relatives and friends, and make it easy to do so:


· Include a "forward to a friend" feature and ask constituents to do so in all e-mail messages.


· Highlight a "tell a friend" option on all Web pages.


· Provide online tools so volunteers participating in events such as walk-a-thons can easily enlist others to sign up to participate and/or donate and also opt in to receive online communications.


· Exploit current events with a connection to your mission as a vehicle for spreading the word by e-mail. Send out your perspective on breaking news and encourage constituents to forward it. Ideally, it will be a concise statement of views they share, and it will help them advocate your cause with their friends.


Lifetime e-mail. If people use a lifetime e-mail address day-to-day, it is typically one from their alma mater or professional affiliation, but many people like to have multiple online personas reflecting their various interests. Consider offering constituents an e-mail address with your organization's brand. Not only is it an implicit way to spread your message, but constituents also will have an incentive to keep their e-mail address current in your e-mail file.


Providing value in return. An organization must provide people a reason to want to be in its e-mail file. Since e-mail is so economical, it is practical to send regular communiques to people who are merely interested in your mission and not (yet) active constituents.


Providing an engaging, informative newsletter not only gives these people a reason to sign up and provide their e-mail addresses, but also creates a vehicle to engage them in your mission before making a direct "ask" for more involvement.


List hygiene. Presently, e-mail addresses are far more temporary than postal ones; this is a fact of life for e-mail marketers. Ensure your e-mail provider has tools to automatically clean your list of addresses that no longer are valid and that every e-mail has a link to let subscribers easily update their information via your Web site.


Respecting people's wishes. It can be tempting to de-emphasize opportunities that let constituents unsubscribe from e-mail in an effort to preserve e-mail file numbers. This is a false economy: If someone no longer wants your mailings, their lifetime value is very low. The only thing you'll achieve by making it difficult to unsubscribe is to undermine your reputation and drive up spam complaints.


A unified approach. It's not unusual for a different department in your organization to have a different e-mail file that contains people who aren't in your file. This is a valuable source of extremely well-qualified potential constituents. People participating with your organization in one manner should be solicited to get involved in other ways, using a carefully measured, permission-based approach.


There is a flip side: If several departments are sending e-mails on different topics to different segments of your constituency, ensure there is coordination. Without a coordinated e-mailing strategy, it's easy to unwittingly over-mail some constituents and drive up opt-out rates.


Most importantly, ensure that opt outs from one e-mail system get appropriately propagated to all others if you are using multiple e-mail systems -- failure to do so is spamming, and lack of a coherent IT strategy will not excuse you.


Cultural, technical and legal responses to spam are setting limits on what is considered acceptable behavior in the ethical acquisition of e-mail addresses. This does not prevent a creative direct marketer from using various techniques to grow an e-mail file, and moreover, the quality of the resulting list will be much higher than one built with less care.


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