In the fifth of a multi-part series, Alexis Gutzman reviews four newsletter-mailing solutions and discusses the finer points of creating and sending a professional newsletter.
If you’re committed to publishing your own newsletter with your own software, then you’ll have to decide which software you’re going to use. You really can’t beat the price of sending newsletters yourself. All the products I list below are $60 or less. If you go with a service, you’ll likely pay $20 or more per month, depending on the size of your list and the frequency of the mailings. When you own the software, you can do as many mailings as you want, as frequently as you want, without any additional costs incurred.
E-mail is simply the cheapest way to communicate with customers, and if you do it right, they’ll look forward to receiving your messages. The important thing is to know that you’re sending out something of interest to your customers, and should not do so more often than they want to receive it.
For more information about publishing your own newsletter, check out these other articles from Alexis Gutzman’s ongoing weekly series: Publishing Your Own Newsletter Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 2 Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 3 Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 4 Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 5 Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 6 Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 7 Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 8
Publishing Your Own Newsletter
Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 2
Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 3
Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 4
Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 5
Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 6
Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 7
Publishing Your Own Newsletter: Part 8
Let My People Go
Just in case you’ve guessed wrong about their interest in your newsletter, you must include a way to unsubscribe in your messages. People are very skeptical of unsubscribe information on messages, so ensure that whatever instructions you give work, and work in a visible way. For example, if your instructions say to send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org, make sure that address works, and set it up in advance to send an automatic confirmation message stating that the unsubscribe request was successful. If you provide a Web form for readers to unsubscribe, don’t make them click more than once or twice to get off your list. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s being told to "click here to be removed," then when I click, I am taken to a page with twenty options. Your customers don’t want to have to read the fine print to get off your list. I suggest you embed a link in every message that includes the email address of the recipient so that one click removes it from your list.
Know What You Want
Do-it-yourself mailing software offers a variety of different features. As with any software acquisition, you’ll be happiest with what you purchase if you know which features are most important to you before you buy (see Preventing Project Failure parts 1 and 2). I tested out four packages for this series. They offer a variety of different features including built-in tools to design a basic HTML newsletter, choices of delivery methods, the ability to request receipts indicating messages were received or opened, and the ability to retrieve unsubscribe requests from a server. None of the packages offers every feature I find useful, so there is no slam-dunk when making a decision.
How to Send
There are three ways you can send email to a group of people in such a way that each recipient doesn’t see the addresses of the other recipients - absolutely essential for a reputable newsletter:
HTML Design Tool Built In?
Some tools offer newsletter design functionality. The alternative is to use an HTML design tool such as HomeSite, Dreamweaver, or FrontPage. If you are going to use the same design as your Web site, or planning to send plain text, then you probably don’t need the built-in tool.
If you’re going to be sending HTML email, make sure you understand how to make the tool you’re using set the MIME type to HTML/text, or else everyone will receive a copy of the HTML, rather than HTML that is rendered as your newsletter. This is where testing comes in.
Last week I told you about the multipart/alternative content type, which permits you to send one message to everyone in such a way that rich-mail capable email clients will get the good version, but text-only email clients will still be able to read the text. None of the software permits you to send multipart/alternative mail in a way that replaces the need to send two different versions. G-Lock Easy Mail automatically creates a plain text version, but if you use multiple columns in your message, you can’t really predict what will be in the plain text version, or how much of your original message will make it. It also doesn’t include any links in the plain-text version. If you’re going to do your own mailings, and you’d like to use HTML, plan to send out two different versions.
Remove Blocked Senders
Depending on how you maintain your list of subscribed addresses, you might need to keep a separate list of people who have unsubscribed. The alternative is to remove people from your subscribed list as they unsubscribe. Some of the tools permit you to mark some addresses as blocked or do-not-mail. Mail Them Pro even permits you to check your unsubscribe and bounced accounts and harvests addresses from those. If you’re willing to manage your mailing entirely with one software package, then this ability can help you avoid ever sending a message again to someone who has unsubscribed from your list.
Reply-to vs. From Addresses
I like being able to specify a different REPLY-TO address than the FROM address. The FROM address is automatically used to return failed mail to you. If you are sending to more than 100 addresses, and you haven’t verified addresses as mentioned in part two, then you probably want to set up a separate account to use as the FROM address, such as email@example.com. Bounced messages go to the FROM address, human replies go to the REPLY-TO address. You’ll want to check the bounced account before you do the next mailing so you can clean up your list.
Embedding Unique Codes or Addresses into Messages
All of the packages I tested permit you to embed uniquely identifiable codes into the messages so that you can create unsubscribe links or track who opened the messages. This is an important feature, which you’ll appreciate in two weeks...
The four packages I evaluated were: Mail Them Pro v5.2, G-Lock Easy Mail v3.22, Mail Bomber v5.0, and Dynamic Mailer v1.0. The chart below shows how they compare on the various features I’ve mentioned here. What it doesn’t capture is that they were all quite easy to use. My personal favorite was Mail Them Pro, which was the most intuitive. I also liked the ability to send either through my ISP’s SMTP server or via the built-in SMTP server. For some reason, some addresses on my list wouldn’t accept the messages from the built-in SMTP server, but would take them without bouncing if I sent them through my ISP’s mail server. Be sure to review your error logs - they all produce them - to see how many of your messages actually went out.
Before You Send ...
There’s an old adage that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. While I generally subscribe to that philosophy, in this one case, I urge you to contact your ISP or whoever manages your email server and/or domain before you do your first mailing, and explain what you’re doing. If someone who receives your message really has it in for you, he can raise a fuss and potentially get your domain-hosting services cancelled. Some ISPs deal very harshly with what they perceive as spam. If you contact them ahead of time and talk to someone in a position of authority about what you’re doing, how you got your list, your opt-out procedures, etc. before you mail, then any complaints from recipients will be seen in a more balanced light. Some recipients might be angry enough about having received an unsolicited message from you to really make trouble. Some might write to firstname.lastname@example.org, complaining of your message. Some might see who hosts your domain, which can be done via WHOIS on Network Solutions’ site, and contact them directly to complain.
Chances are, no one will get that angry at your mailing - surely they can’t waste this kind of outrage on every piece of spam they get. But the consequences of having your domain hosting cancelled are extremely severe. If you have a direct connection to the Web, you don’t have to worry about this. If, however, you rely on another company to host your site or your email, then by all means make them an ally before they hear about how unethical you are from someone who doesn’t want to be on your list.
Test Before You Send
I have sent out eight newsletters in the process of testing all the products for this series. You’d think by the eighth week in a row, I’d be able to skip testing. Wrong. I’m pleased with myself if I only have to send myself a test message three or four times. There are simply so many links to check - particularly subscribe and unsubscribe links - that it takes a few tests to get it right. Import your list into your tool at the end. Start by importing (or creating) the message, then send it to yourself on two different accounts: for example, one Yahoo or Hotmail and account one that you check using Outlook Express or another standard email client. Make sure they both look right and that all the links and graphics work. When you’re sure it’s perfect, send it off. While you wouldn’t be the first person ever to send a newsletter only to have to re-send because the links don’t work, you don’t want to make a habit of it.
In two weeks I’ll talk about what you can do to count how many people open your newsletter and even who opens your newsletter. Next week, I’ll talk about four services you can use to send your newsletter if you don’t have the time to do it yourself.
Alexis D. Gutzman is an author, speaker, and consultant on e-business and e-commerce topics. She’s the producer of The Online Marketing Report. Her most recent book, The E-commerce Arsenal: 12 Technologies You Need to Prevail in the Digital Arena, was named one of the 30 best business books of this year. For up-to-date information about her research and speaking engagements, visit The Alexis Gutzman Group’s Web site.
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