Email Marketing Solutions for Small Business

Ok… so last week we covered managing the email coming in, but what do you do if you want to send a volume of email out to your customers?

Though some have tried, putting your entire list in the “To:” field of the message is not a good option. Essentially, to send regular email mailings to a list of recipients, you need software designed for that purpose. Fortunately, email marketing is white-hot right now, so there are a lot of options for a small business.

What do I want to send out?

Thinking about a company newsletter? Boring with a capital B. Remember, you’re running an e-commerce site, so you need something that will drive sales. At, we send out excerpts from the ebooks we are trying to push — the idea being to use good content as part of the sales pitch.

Will this list be strictly a promotional tool for our site? Or do we want to sell advertising in it?

It is possible to do both and realize a nice ancillary revenue stream if you can aggregate a valuable group of people. In either case, it is important to understand the eventual use of this list so that you can set the expectations of your subscribers up front.

How do I sign them up? Or to put it another way: What do I ask? What do I disclose? What happens to the data after I ask for it?

Let’s break this answer up into its three parts:

What do I ask?

My experience is that the more blanks you make people fill out, the less likely they are to fill them out. So the minimum amount of information you need from someone to begin the relationship is an email address. And, you should ask for that email address prominently on your front page. If you want to try to get more information, a good compromise I’ve seen is once people hit the “subscribe” button, they are taken to a page that says: “Thanks, we’ve added you to our list. If you have some time, please answer these other questions…”

What do I disclose?

Honesty is the best policy. It is trite, but true. Always tell people what to expect and how you will use their information.

What happens to the data after I ask for it?

This depends on the back-end. On the low end, you simply get their information in an email message and then you re-enter it into whatever software you are using to send out your mailings. If it is a list-hosting service, it should have tools to let you build a form on your site which will put the data directly into their system.

As a side note, I need to mention the whole “opt-in,”opt-out” debate raging in the industry right now. The essence of it is that the opt-in’ers believe people must specifically ask to be added. The opt-out’ers believe that it is OK to add people to a list by default — say, while they are placing an order with you, and tell them later how to get off of the list. There are pros and cons to both philosophies. Personally, I find that you get a better response from people who have chosen to add themselves to a list.

How, exactly, do I put the content of the mailing together?

Well, you want to try and combine the content production process for your web site with that of your newsletter. Ask yourself if there is content you already produce for your site that, with some modification, can be used as newsletter content.

Another consideration: Should the content be plain text or HTML email? My advice is to stay away from HTML email unless you plan to make full use of its advantages; these include the ability to embed order forms and customize the graphics and text for each subscriber. (That level of customization requires software that you typically don’t find in the off-the-shelf solutions. But I’m going to talk about a piece of software that is up to the challenge in upcoming paragraphs.) HTML email is much more complicated to produce. And there are still compatibility problems, since not all email clients can view HTML content.

What are my options for sending it?

There are basically three solutions, all with trade-offs:

  1. Free hosting services, like Topica, but they put advertising in your mailings.

  2. Paid hosting services, like SparkList, but they charge upwards of $150 per month for lists with 50,000 subscribers.

  3. Mailing list software run from the desktop, but you are limited by how fast your Internet connection is.

Many small online businesses are living with the advertising and using option one. But recently, I’ve been impressed with a desktop solution I discovered while putting together the ClickZ Guide to Email Marketing. It is called PostCast, and it is basically an email server attached to a Microsoft Access database. It lets you extract data from an email message, put that data in the right fields of a database, then lets you do mailings against that database including HTML email mailings.

Postcast, as with any desktop solution, has the following caveat: The software only can send about 300 messages per hour on a 33.6 modem. At that rate, it will take you about eight hours to send a mailing to 2,400 subscribers.

If you have a cable modem or DSL, numbers get better about eight to ten times faster. That means a cable modem or DSL connection makes it feasible to send email to 19,000 to 24,000 subscribers in a eight hour period. (The latest version just came out and is supposed to be faster.)

But despite this downside, I still like the product. It gives small online businesses the ability to do the sophisticated email marketing programs just like bigger companies who pay tens of thousands of dollars per month. And it is with those programs that you see the rumored, double-digit response rates email is supposed to deliver. That is not bad for a $300 piece of software. And you can try it for free before you buy.

It is a tough choice, since each option has a clear advantage the other two don’t provide. And option three is the only affordable, out-of-the-box solution for small businesses that want to do sophisticated email marketing programs.

The short-term answer, I think, is to do a hybrid solution: Use the free service to do your large mailings to drive web site traffic. Then, once they have bought, use a product like Postcast to do the complex email marketing programs aimed at repeat sales. After the greenbacks start rolling in and your subscriber base is huge, then it is time to seek the help of someone like SparkList.

So, if we shell out $300 for the Postcast software, that leaves us with a budget of $2,900. Going into next week: an order management system.

See you then!

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