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Don't be a sneak: Make sure your e-mail subscribers really want to hear from you

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With so much being written about unsolicited commercial e-mail, and so many different opinions and definitions, I am asked on a regular basis for advice on what is and isn't appropriate e-mail marketing.

For example, it's surprising how many different definitions you can get for the term "opt-in" e-mail, and how wrong so many of them are. It's not the concept itself that's hard for marketers to grasp. The trouble comes in two areas: Collection and feedback.

'Harvesting' way too easy

Unfortunately, collecting e-mail addresses, also called "harvesting," is remarkably easy on the Internet. For just $20, you can purchase software that will automatically fetch e-mail addresses from everything from Usenet groups to Web pages.

This technique, of course, is the polar opposite of opt-in e-mail, and it irritates people daily.

Opt-in e-mail means the recipient asked you to receive it, right? Sounds simple enough.

But sadly, it isn't that simple at all, and that definition leaves a surprising number of loopholes that many marketers use, inappropriately, to gather e-mail addresses for company mailing lists.

The last couple of months have seen several public "apologies" from supposedly net-savvy companies that were accused, rightly so, of sending spam.

Opt-in e-mail is not simply when someone asks to receive mail on a certain subject. Marketers also have a responsibility to make it clear the request is being made by the recipient in the first place.

One widely used technique is, in my opinion, 100% inappropriate. Many company Web sites offer their visitors some type of e-mail-based communication back and forth, maybe alerting them of a sale, telling of changes to the site, offering a monthly e-zine or whatever. This is excellent.

The trouble is that many times end users don't even realize they signed up for such e-mail alerts. This happens because the Web site used a harvesting technique known as default pre-checked subscribe boxes.

Hidden agendas

These boxes are often so small, buried among forms, banners, animations and frames, that users have no clue they just signed up to receive weekly e-mail.

This technique has another sneaky component: The sites don't verify the subscription with a "Did you really mean to do that?" message to the subscriber.

I see these types of sites all day long. Big-name companies and big-name sites. But widespread use doesn't make an irritated customer any happier.

As companies have caught on that e-mail is the single most powerful Internet marketing medium, they have also gotten sneakier. This is evident with search engines and directories, too.

Go through the submission process using a new e-mail address as the contact, and over the next few weeks watch that inbox fill with e-mail offers for which you didn't ask.

But guess what? You did ask for them. Somewhere on that submission form, buried among 25 other fields, was either a pre-checked subscribe box or a disclaimer stating that you would be signed up. Or maybe nothing at all. Since you have to give them an e-mail address to complete the submission, bingo, you're their newest subscriber.

Some practical advice

But enough carping. Here's some practical opt-in e-mail marketing advice:

First, never put a pre-checked box for e-mail subscription requests on your site. Let the users click that box themselves. And never hide what you're doing in some disclaimer nobody reads.

Second, when initiating the e-mail subscription request, you are doing your users a disservice if you do not also provide a subscription verification and feedback loop.

If you are using a subscription check box, whenever you get a request, you should verify it immediately. Do this by sending an e-mail back to the subscriber at the e-mail address he or she just gave you. In that e-mail, ask if the person truly meant to subscribe to your offer, and even restate that offer.

If the subscriber does not reply to that e-mail within a defined time period (say, 24 hours), then do not sign the person up.

Always provide an easy way out

Third, with each and every e-mail message you send to subscribers, remind them that they subscribed and provide directions on how to cancel that subscription. Subscribers need to be able to cancel via e-mail, not by being forced to go to a Web site to do it.

Fourth, if you have any plans to give or sell your subscribers' e-mail addresses to another marketer, let your subscribers know up front you plan to do that, or ask their permission before you do it, giving them a way out if they want it.

If your company is following these four steps, you're running a 100% clean opt-in e-mail marketing program. If you aren't following these steps, you may not be spamming, but you aren't being honest either, and you might want to prepare those apology letters. You might need them some day.

Eric Ward began the Internet's first third-party Web site awareness-building service in 1994. He also publishes the URLwire, a private e-mail-based news service for new-media editors, writers, reporters and reviewers who cover the Web.

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