Smarten Up Your E-Mail Marketing

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Let's face it, no one likes spam in their inbox. The trouble is - believe it or not - spam works. The ugly truth is that for every 10,000 e-mails you may send as a marketer, one person may buy your product.


Though this isn't a very effective way to move product, the simplicity of e-mail marketing and low cost of bulk e-mailing has made spam's cost/benefit ratio good enough to continue its existence. But things are changing, and now is the time for marketers to adopt a more effective e-mail marketing technique.


You might not do mass distributions of e-mail regularly, but every time you send any marketing information via e-mail you risk being seen as a spammer. If that e-mail falls into the inbox of someone who doesn't want that information, you are, in effect, sending spam. With the adoption of CAN-SPAM regulations and recent crackdowns, you also risk being fined.


In simple terms, the CAN-SPAM Act requires marketing e-mails to have an opt-out option. If someone wishes to opt out, they can respond and no longer will get e-mails from you. Though most legitimate businesses have worked hard to comply with CAN-SPAM, the more dubious marketers still fill our inboxes with junk.


Congress has granted the authority to levy fines against CAN-SPAM violators, and authorities have started to crack down. But because of the nature of e-mail and the Internet, the most flagrant violators seem to be ignoring the law.


Though I've worked with several companies to adapt their e-mail marketing systems to CAN-SPAM, I tell them that requiring recipients to take specific action to stop further e-mails is not the most effective way to market themselves. If you rely solely on people opting out of marketing e-mails, you still risk being considered a spammer.


Recipients of unsolicited e-mail campaigns see the e-mails as a bother. More companies are aware of the time lost when employees spend even a few minutes each day deleting spam. If you send spam, even spam that complies with the CAN-SPAM Act, you damage your company's brand and create a lasting negative image among consumers.


How can you continue to use e-mail for marketing but not build a reputation as a spammer? The key is creating campaigns targeting people who want to receive the e-mails. You do this by thinking in terms of "opt in" rather than "opt out."


When you send information to people who have opted in, you send information to people already inclined to buy your products in the future. Instead of distributing e-mail to tens of thousands of people hoping to find a pearl, send targeted e-mail to people who are already interested and waiting for information. More importantly, because you are sending information to a sympathetic audience, you won't be considered a spammer.


From both a logistical and technical standpoint, creating and maintaining an opt-in e-mail marketing list is much easier than working with an opt-out list.


Some companies literally have hundreds of thousands of e-mail names and routinely send e-mails that many could consider spam. These recipients have the option to opt out, either by replying to the e-mail or by visiting the company's Web site. Once a person opts out, it becomes the company's responsibility to ensure that the recipient gets no further spam e-mails.


The company needs a solid technical system in place to handle this. This sounds easy, but when you look at the scale at which the system must operate and then couple it with the fact that companies typically have a variety of departments, people, databases and partners involved in sending marketing e-mails, it becomes much more complex. A company need only make one mistake to leave itself open to fines under CAN-SPAM. Fines are levied on a per-e-mail basis, so imagine the damage potential in a campaign that sends to 500,000 blind e-mail addresses.


This is why I'm such a champion of opt-in e-mail lists. Though you still need to maintain a record of who wants to opt out of the list once it is created, the act of creating the list and adding names to it is much more controlled and leaves less room for errors. Also, creating an opt-in list is the perfect excuse for a marketing department to finally create a unified marketing database.


Marketers need to adopt a smarter way to get the message out, and opt-in e-mail is easier and, in the long run, cheaper to maintain. Opt-in marketing gets you ahead of the curve, as I see more stringent e-mail protections beyond the opt-out idea of CAN-SPAM coming in the future.


It's easy to find forward-thinking companies that are shifting their marketing to opt-in. If you've visited a Web site or purchased a product online and filled out a form, you may remember seeing checkboxes at the bottom of the form. These boxes ask whether you wish to receive future information from the company or its partners about product updates or other developments. Once you choose "yes," your name is added to their e-mail list and you will be targeted with future information.


However you look at it, the days of mass, bulk e-mail marketing are numbered, at least for reputable companies. Whether CAN-SPAM or future modifications are the final nail in the coffin or the end comes via diminishing returns from such campaigns remains to be seen. But smart marketers are taking the initiative to make the technological and management changes to create opt-in e-mail lists. It's a smarter, more effective way to sell your product, it protects you from fines and preserves the integrity of your company's branding.


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