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Report From the Field: Email Marketing Best Practices

  |  March 7, 2001   |  Comments

Reporting from the field can be perilous. Ask Debbie; she weathered an earthquake to bring you the scoop on the DMA net.Marketing conference in Seattle. Today’s dispatch: best practices and ground-level tactics in email marketing.

The buzz on last week’s DMA net.marketing conference in Seattle is that there was no buzz.

A record low number of registrants and exhibitors, prompted no doubt by the dot-com downturn, dampened whatever excitement there is about the continued growth -- and success -- of online marketing.

Well, there was the small matter of the earthquake to get the adrenaline going; the only metric causing excitement (forget click-throughs) was the 6.8 magnitude of the temblor.

Still, the small crowd that attended the email marketing workshops (prequake) was eager and knowledgeable.

It seems that everyone in the direct marketing business is a believer in permission email marketing, most are practitioners, and all are hungry for tips on best practices.

Herewith, a few notes on permission email best practices from the conference. Particularly informative was a day-long preconference workshop, "Maximizing Your E-mail Marketing ROI," presented by Jay Schwedelson, corporate vice president of WorldData/WebConnect and co-chair of the Association for Interactive Media’s (AIM’s) Council for Responsible Email (CRE).

What follows are ground-level, tactical tips that apply to business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) email marketing. The attendees at net.marketing were not looking so much for strategy as for the nitty-gritty of how to execute permission email. In upcoming weeks, I’ll touch on some of the other hot topics covered at the conference.

Real E-Marketers Ask

We all know what permission-based email marketing is -- at least we say we do. But lapsing into complacency about the cornerstone of email marketing can be ruinous.

The point was made several times to this audience of direct marketers that gaining permission is the key difference between direct mail and email marketing. No permission is required to compile or aggregate the snail-mailing lists that are so readily available.

In contrast, if you don’t get permission before sending prospecting email, you are instantly labeled a spammer, are open to legal recrimination in some states (a fine of $500 per message in the state of Washington), AND may fall into the dreaded Realtime Blackhole List (RBL).

The RBL is the creation of the nonprofit Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS). Put simply, it’s a system that intentionally creates network outages ("black holes") so that "unwanted" bulk email can’t be transmitted and delivered to the specified recipients.

In other words, getting permission is not just a courtesy, it’s obligatory.

Gaining Permission... Let’s Count the Ways

To get back to basics, let’s review the four different levels of "permission" and how you go about obtaining each from a sign-up page on a Web site.

When a user must uncheck a box asking if she wants to receive further information or special offers, this is the opt-out approach. It’s generally agreed that this is a less-than-straightforward way of asking permission and a less-than-desirable practice. It is, however, legal.

Next comes opt-in. This means a user actively checks a box on the sign-up page of a Web site, agreeing that he will receive further communication, including special offers from "partners." This is the minimum amount of permission considered appropriate.

By the way, if the word "partners" or something similar is included, it means that this site will most likely be swapping email addresses with other vendors or sites offering complementary services or content.

The third level of permission is confirmed opt-in. This means that the user receives a confirmation email after checking the box. Inside the confirmation message is an option allowing her to unsubscribe herself from the list she just signed up for. No reply is necessary.

And finally, there is double opt-in, about which there is some disagreement. Double opt-in requires that the user acknowledge and respond immediately to the confirmation message. If he doesn’t respond, he isn’t added to the list.

It is estimated that list owners are losing 40 to 60 percent of their database using this method. That is, up to 60 percent of those who register on a Web page and agree to further communication are neglecting to reconfirm, usually because they fail to open the confirmation message, thinking they already know what’s in it.

Keeping the Permission You Get

So what is best practice in gaining -- and retaining -- permission?

The consensus is that for third-party list owners such as yesmail.com and PostMasterDirect.com, double opt-in is the cornerstone of their credibility. That is, using a double opt-in sign-up process is what creates their value proposition of being high quality and highly targeted.

Note that even with a fall-off in numbers because of unconfirmed sign-ups, these list creators say they are accumulating tens of thousands of new sign-ups a day.

In contrast, it is considered best practice for house list builders to use confirmed rather than double opt-in. Building your own database is difficult enough. Losing up to 60 percent of your newly registered users because they fail to reconfirm is not acceptable to most email marketers.

Always Give Them a Way Out

Also a cornerstone of permission email is that a user must be able to opt out from whatever she signed up for in every message she receives.

Make opt-out language part of the template for your messages, whether you are sending a prospecting email or an e-newsletter to your house list.

The opt-out function can appear as concisely worded copy at the bottom of your message. It should include a link that automatically unsubscribes the user or at least takes him to an unsubscribe page. Or it can be simple instructions on how to paste "unsubscribe" into the subject line and hit "Reply."

I’ve run out of space for today, so here’s a preview of some other topics from the conference that I’ll talk about in upcoming weeks: ENCOA (email national change of address), merge/purge, rich media, comparing technology vendors, and more.

If there are other issues related to B2B email marketing that you want to hear about, please let me know.

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Debbie Weil

Debbie Weil is publisher of WordBiz Report, which focuses on the business of words online. It was awarded The Newsletter on Newsletters' Gold Award for Online Subscription Newsletter. A former newspaper reporter with an MBA and corporate marketing experience, Debbie is an expert on B2B online content and marketing at both the strategic and creative levels. She was Web content marketing manager for Network Solutions (now part of Verisign) before launching WordBiz.com.

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