Want to lose weight? Get insider investor tips? Find out about natural, ahem, physical enhancements? All such services and infinitely more are but a click away, found simply by opening your inbox and sorting through the mass of overt email advertisements that accumulated overnight. Sadly, and generally because of the prevalence of these less-than-savvy marketing campaigns, legitimate email marketing has become synonymous with SPAM.
The catch? If SPAM didn’t work, it would go away. What the multiplying messages in your junk email folder indicate is that someone somewhere is actually buying the stuff. While most SPAMmers rely on the rule of quantity, strategic marketing—that is, an email marketing plan that involves tracking and takes audience and intent into account—can utilize the communication tool that is email to its maximum potential. But first, it’s important to understand the regulations that exist to ensure your strategic marketing is also legal marketing.
There is a common misconception associated with the lesser-publicized CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 that the law enacted by the 108th Congress made SPAM illegal. The exact opposite is true: This federal law actually protects so-called SPAMmers, so long as the email transmissions are being sent under its set legal guidelines. (Earlier laws, including a plethora of confusing and contradictory state laws were all superseded by this Act.) Such guidelines are formally outlined in the 15 sections of the very wordy Act but, for our purposes, I sat down with Shelly Sherman, who manages the logistics of email marketing for Printwear’s parent company National Business Media, to get the broad strokes.
Sherman cites some of the more universal rules, translated by NBM’s legal representation. First and foremost on this list is the guideline stating that all promotional emails, solicited or not, must follow the Federal Trade Commission’s truth-in-advertising standards. Other specifics demand that senders of unsolicited emails must:
- have a physical address (not a PO Box);
- provide a valid email return address and/or an online opt-out mechanism that is active for at least 30 days after message is sent;
- must not use misleading subject lines/headers; and
- must not sell or exchange email lists.
While the entire body of the CAN-SPAM Act is important to follow (see legalarchiver.org/cs.htm), these basic comprehensive interpretations offer a glimpse of its bulk. Sherman stresses that those intending to start an email campaign first consult with a legal advisor to ensure protection. Good advice, considering penalties for violating the Act can be as harsh as jail time and fines ranging in the millions of dollars.
(Of course, all of this begs the question: Then why is my inbox full of such unsolicited, clearly-in-violation type SPAM? The short answer is that most of the dirty SPAM originates in other countries, where our federal laws are without jurisdiction. And then there’s a longer answer that brings up the issue of enforcing the prosecution of domestic offenders, but that’s a whole other story. Suffice it to say that Printwear readers are all assumed to be law-abiding citizens. . . .)
All these rules apply to what we call “opt-out” emails. The email addresses that fall under this category are those obtained without the recipient’s explicit consent to receive mail from the sender. So, if a customer provides you with an email address on, for example, an order form, and you did not ask him verbally—or better yet, to check a box that gives you written permission to send emails—you must follow all guidelines of the CAN-SPAM Act. (Note that customers must check these options themselves; if you print a form with that box asking for permission already checked, communications will fall under the opt-out category of email.) The alternative and, in Sherman’s opinion, more favorable option to opt-out is opt-in.
Opt-in emails are simply solicited messages. If customers have indicated that they want to receive mail—be it verbally, a la Borders bookstores method, “would you like to receive coupons and other messages,” or written—then the rules are very different. Once you’ve obtained permission, all’s fair in email and promotion, but now begins the game of how to manage your email lists and how to best get your message across.
For those with a love-love relationship with email programs such as Outlook, or even those with a love-like relationship with electronic communication, it may be tempting to take on the project of sending mass emails personally (manually), especially when suffering the sticker shock when shopping for automated-program licenses. But the options offered by third-party contractors and specialized software can be worth their weight, especially when your email messages really start to make the return you seek. You may well be able to handle the email list to begin with, but even tracking the response on 20 to 50 clients and potential clients could get complicated. (A note on etiquette: If you do decide to manually email your opt-in list, it’s important to email each recipient individually, or at least use the “blind copy” option. In this age of electronic identity theft, people don’t like others to have their email addresses, and your marketing attempts will no doubt suffer an adverse effect if you fail to respect this privacy.)
There are literally thousands of companies (a Google search for “Broadcast Email Companies” yielded 28.5 million results) that specialize in sending and tracking broadcast emails, also called “hosting.” Third-party companies circumvent the expense of costly licenses, and most are very efficient at the task. A word of caution from Sherman: Get references from any and all vendors you look to do business with. Opt-in email addresses are priceless, but it’s been known to happen that some vendors like to hang a tag on them anyway . . . and sell them to other companies. But there are also many reputable corporations with large IT departments that have purchased broadcast email software for its own purposes and decided to make the task its own profit center to boot.
Then there are companies that exist exclusively as third-party contractors that can offer great sending and tracking solutions, and may even consult on general marketing materials.
And, finally, it may be worth the investment in licenses and software programs such as Lyris and others for your mass email-sending needs. Note that the tracking process is just as important as sending, as you need to know who is and who is not reading and responding to your message, and adjust your list accordingly.
The eye of the beholder
Your email content should be tailored not only to audience, but to the medium as well. It makes no sense to present the identical message in radio and print ads, and the same goes for email. The most popular and, dare I say, most effective technique is the e-letter format—promotion disguised in the ruse of a tips-and-tricks newsletter. The catch with this approach is that the content has to be engaging, and producing it is far from automatic. Not a writer? Ask around to see if there’s a writer hobbyist around the office who’d like to take on the project. Or seek a freelance writer to compose the content, under your direction of course.
If you feel you’ve a knack for words, give it a shot, but first and foremost keep your audience in mind as you write. If your email list consists of team coaches, provide information on their industry to pique their interest, then tie in information on, say, performance athletic apparel. Include a link to your website to continue the article, or for readers to print out coupons . . . which brings up another primary rule of email marketing: Sound an unmistakable call to action.
Decide if your goal is, for example, to drive more clients to your website, get more folks in your store, or enhance sales of a particular product. This should be reflected in your email. In the first case, consider including a link (track those links); in the second, provide a coupon; and in the third example, track sales for the product you’ve been publicizing. If your goals are not being met, it’s time to redirect your content. It’s imperative to assess the outcome of your email marketing plan by quantifying measures.
And finally, know what not to do. Words that are commonly filtered by SPAM or junk-email sensors include “free,” “incentive,” and anything that can be interpreted in an inappropriate context (words such as “performance”). NBM’s Sherman tells us that SPAM filters use a scoring system that assigns point values to certain words. The more of those words in your email, the higher the score and the less likely the message is to make it to the intended receiver. Do a word search and see if you can rephrase some of the “bad” words so your message will have a lower SPAM score.
The moral of the story is to get as much information as possible on writing techniques, available resources, and the governing laws of email before you jump into this marketing hotbed. Understanding the strengths of such a powerful, omnipresent communication tool is the key to maximizing its potential in your business.