In email marketing, advertisers either sponsor an existing email newsletter or acquire the use of an email list to send out an independent message. That message tries to entice readers to respond to an offer, either through a return email or — more often — through a Web site created especially for the occasion.
More and more, media buyers find themselves conducting email marketing campaigns alongside their online media campaigns. The two go hand in hand, as both frequently use direct-marketing tactics to inspire transactions that are subsequently measured and analyzed for campaign optimization.
When email messages are well targeted, and perhaps even customized to individuals based on database information, they often receive great response rates. When advertisers send out bulk emails to poorly targeted groups, they get poor response rates and can fall afoul of spam policies.
Responses typically diminish after three or four days, forcing email marketers to work frenetically to determine the results of the campaign.
The email marketing process has four stages:
- Target determination
- List acquisition (or creation)
- Offer determination
Before getting into the tactical email process, we first need to ensure we don’t violate the privacy expectations of the audience.
What Makes It Spam?
Consumers are very concerned about their privacy when the form of communication is an email. Targeted banners based on personal information remain a relatively indirect connection. But emails in their inboxes can make consumers touchy.
Additionally, most users experience a growing flow of emails over time and become even more sensitive to messages that waste their time. Poorly targeted marketing emails, or spam, will literally enrage some people, as they often feel that other people and organizations should not have the right to harvest their email address.
What makes a message spam?
- From the consumer’s viewpoint, spam is any message that is unsolicited and irrelevant.
- From the marketer’s perspective, spam is a message sent to an email address acquired through means other than a special process called “double opt-in.”
Even if your message isn’t spam under the marketer’s definition, consumers might still see it as such. Below are the different types of opt-in standards.
Non-Opt-In Email Lists
Companies can harvest many email addresses off the Web with relatively little effort, but the use of those addresses becomes problematic without permission from the people behind the email addresses.
Shady operators will employ “bots” to search Web pages for listed email addresses and churn through discussion groups like Usenet to steal email addresses from all the people posting comments. They then sell these lists to anyone who wants to send out spam offers. (My favorite was the one where I could buy a law degree for $40, which I forwarded to my wife during her second year in law school.)
Once people find themselves on one of these lists, they frequently can never get off. When they send an email back to the sender requesting to be taken off the list, they are only confirming the validity of the email address. Most of these list creators will make a “new” list each time they sell it to a different advertiser, so when the person takes herself off one list, she finds herself still on every subsequent list.
In many states, this type of spamming is illegal, but it hasn’t stopped some folks.
Opt-In Email Lists
When a company offers a person the option of joining an email list or newsletter, this suggests that the subsequent list of names is a voluntary list. These email addresses are more valuable because the opt-in process serves as a form of prequalification. The people behind the email addresses are expressly interested in some form of information and have indicated a desire to be contacted.
Fraud remains a major problem with opt-in lists, however, because dishonest list brokers can simply merge their spam-quality lists with an opt-in list. This, in effect, becomes a form of list laundering, giving the old spam list a fagade of credibility. There isn’t any real interactive element required between the addressee and the list to verify the addressee’s true intent.
Double-Opt-In Email Lists
The gold standard nowadays is requiring a user to submit his own email address and then verify that he wants to sign up. The process works like this:
- firstname.lastname@example.org wants to subscribe to my weekly email column on ClickZ.
- He clicks on the Subscribe button on top of the column’s Web page.
- He enters his name and email address into the form presented.
- Moments later, he receives an email message at that same account. The email asks him to respond to it to confirm the subscription.
This process prevents many people from mistakenly or fraudulently being placed on email lists and has become an industry standard.
The industry enforces this standard through an organization called Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS). It publishes a list of domain names called the Realtime Blackhole List (RBL), from which spam has come, allowing Internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down the email traffic from these domains. It works very well, as most ISPs cannot afford to have a spamming subscriber effectively shut down everyone’s email functionality. It very quickly sent all the newsletter and email-list people scurrying to set up proper double-opt-in procedures.
Third-Party Opt-In Email Lists
Another, even higher, standard exists but is rarely used. Sometimes, especially with very sensitive audiences like children, a list compiler will wish to get not only double-opt-in responses, but also permission from a third party. Nintendo, for instance, created a video-game-oriented list that required parents of children below a certain age to provide their permission as well.
Next week, a focus on acquiring lists and figuring out the appropriate direct-response offers.
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