Battle of the Inbox

What’s the first, easiest piece of advice you can give an e-commerce start-up?

That’s right, start an email newsletter. If you don’t have any writing talent, start a discussion list. Better yet, start both.

A regular email correspondence will get you top-of-mind awareness with your prospects. It’s an opportunity to keep selling, and as your circulation grows, you could even sell ads on it.

That’s sound advice as far as it goes, but the result is predictable. A lot of inboxes are getting crowded.

The fact is that writing a good email newsletter is harder than it looks, and the cost of failure is higher than it seems.

You may be sold on the idea that email costs nothing to send. But your recipients pay dearly even for your double opt-in, totally spam-free letter.

They give it their time.

Now like most people, I get more email than I can read. I also use multiple email addresses, forwarding my emails to one box, which changes over time. I have tried to unsubscribe from some lists, but the order wasn’t taken when I left from the “wrong” ISP or email box. Instead of trying again with the “right” email box, it became easier to just delete the new letters as they came in.

I also use folders a lot. There are some letters that I like getting but don’t like reading. They go into a folder called “oldmail.” There are other letters I mean to get to but seldom have time for – these go into my “news” folder. Every other week, I spend a few hours clearing out the “news” folder, responding to some letters, passing on others, and saving sections for use in stories.

I’m telling you all this to remind you there’s a big distance between must-read email and spam. Most email newsletters fall somewhere in the middle. My guess is the same is true with you.

How can you get my rapt attention, or at least get your letter into my “news” folder?

  • Write about a problem I may have, not your latest product or service.
  • Make sure you have a passion for what you’re saying before you say it. Sports talk show host Jim Rome said it best: “Have a take and don’t suck.”
  • Spend time on the writing. Read the thing aloud before you send it out.
  • Most important, address your words to me, not to you. Don’t waste my time.

The competition among email newsletters is growing all the time, and my guess is that my movement of letters among folders is just an interim step. Sometime in the next year, someone is going to create a site that makes it easier to unsubscribe from any newsletter you don’t like, no matter where or how you subscribed to it. I’m going to dump a lot of your stuff in there. (If you’re searching this column for a powerful, actionable business idea you can implement right now, you just found one.)

Already click-through rates and attention spans on opt-in email are falling. Soon it will become very expensive to boost circulation. The best protection you have against these trends is quality.

Related reading