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The Dilemma of E-mail Marketing for SMBs

  |  November 26, 2003   |  Comments

The fine line between what is considered legitimate e-mail marketing and spam is often vague enough to deter even the most honest businesses from engaging in a little self promotion.

A legitimate book site is consistently spamming me these days, pitching me a "$5 Coupon, up to 40% OFF, and FREE Shipping at Barnes & Noble.com."

I don’t really mind. I’m sure I must have bought a book there once and my name was placed on their mailing list. Of course, I don’t recall that. So is this spam or not? It’s clearly commercial, but it’s not nearly as bad as all the Viagra pitches I get. And I’m not upset about it.

I was thinking about this not in the context of another rant about spam (I’ve written plenty of those), but rather in the context of the dilemma I’m facing regarding an email campaign I’d like to do for my own e-commerce site, SunCoastOrchids.com, and for my eBay store operation, which is where we got started.

I decided from the get-go not to employ a mass marketing approach for my micro-business, sending commercial email to people whose addresses are on somebody’s list - even a legitimate opt-in list. That’s way too much of a shotgun approach for a niche business like mine.

But of course we have collected email addresses from the beginning on all our customers -- people who actually bought something from us.

So, is it wrong to send them a one-time email, advertising our holiday sales items and giving them the option to opt out of future emails? Technically and strictly speaking, I guess it is. Practically speaking, I think it’s OK.

I found that it all gets very confusing very quickly, however. Although I think a lot of our previous purchasers would like to hear about our sale, I sure don’t want our once and future customers to lump us into the same category as the Nigerian oil letter scamsters and the illicit software peddlers. I don’t think they would, but ...

The Direct Marketing Association, in an article by its president and CEO, H. Robert Wientzen, recommends marketers adhere to what he calls the "four pillars" of responsible email marketing:

  • Honest subject lines.
  • Accurate header information that has not been forged.
  • A physical street address for consumer redress.
  • An opt-out mechanism that truly works and is honored.

I think I can provide all of that without too much trouble.

eBay, however, in its privacy policy, says that "eBay and our users do not tolerate spam. Therefore ... you are not licensed to add an eBay user, even a user who has purchased an item from you, to your mail list (email or physical mail) without their express consent."

Of course, eBay is trying to make sure that it doesn’t lose out on any potential revenue. They would naturally prefer that ALL of my sales be through eBay.

Like a lot of small businesses that got their start primarily as eBay sellers, we did not seek "express consent" from everyone who ever bought anything from us.

Maybe we will start doing that, but it sure seems like a lot of needless work. We have a perfect feedback record and we are not selling get-rich quick schemes. We just want to advertise a little holiday sale to our customers.

Our new Web site even has a free "let everybody know you’re here" feature that we have yet to take advantage of -- mostly because almost everybody we have as an e-commerce customer came from eBay.

"The problem of spam filters and false accusations of spam (including from people who don’t remember they signed up for a newsletter) is really a major problem for the newsletter publishing industry, and eBay sellers have to deal with those same issues," said Ina Steiner at AuctionBytes.com.

"eBay has gotten so competitive for sellers, there are people who squeal on other sellers, right or wrong," Steiner said. "This really gets to a larger problem, which is if eBay were to suspend you unfairly, would you be able to contact someone and get it straightened out? eBay’s customer service is inconsistent and not always helpful."

However, another option for folks like me (who want to abide by the rules but not be unduly penalized for it) appears to be offered at AuctionContact.net, and apparently it has eBay’s blessing as they are using the eBay API.

"For auction merchants, customer loyalty was something unimaginable until now" it says on the site. They say it works like this: "You invite your customers/visitors to sign up for your newsletter. We send them weekly newsletters summarizing your current auctions. You manage your subscriber list."

Customers can unsubscribe anytime. It’s as simple as that. You can see a sample here.

Founder Alex Stankovic told me eBay recently approved their status as a certified developer. The trick was to set it up so that sellers ask for marketing permissions in their emails to customers, not in the listings themselves.

"No one else is doing this in quite the same way, as far as I know," Stankovic said. They use a double opt-in system, also known as a confirmed opt-in process.

The service from this small, family-owned start-up starts at $4.99 a month and I may try it.

But for now I have decided not to send ANY unsolicited emails, on the (sigh) grounds that we never asked permission in the first place.

In addition to AuctionContact, email publishing platform company Topica has a number of newsletters that feature eBayers, and no doubt so do a number of other online marketing companies, too numerous to mention. In fact, a quick Google search just overwhelms you with the number of email marketing companies out there.

Topica has partnered with eBay and allows its customers to add an eBay button into their HTML email newsletters. You can see an example here. If we were a little bigger, this would be a nice way to drive a general audience into our eBay sales.

If you have an SMB eBay business, I’d love to hear how you are dealing with this issue. Drop me a line; I promise I won’t view it as spam.

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