Commercial e-mail: Heaven is in the details

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We use e-mail so extensively in our personal lives that we’re tempted to believe commercial e-mail, used as part of a cross-media or integrated marketing campaign, isn’t much different. But commercial e-mail is substantially different, requiring more sophisticated tools and an awareness of a strict regulatory environment. Moreover, commercial e-mail recipients are far less forgiving of errors than our friends, neighbors or colleagues.

Managers with direct marketing responsibilities likely will rely on technology more than ever before in the months ahead. Cross-media marketing—the combination of direct mail, e-mail and personal URLs (PURLs)—will demand familiarity with all the tools. So even if you’re outsourcing these functions, the process will go easier if you have a working familiarity with them.

Here are some essential musts relating to e-mail message headers, the message body and e-mail lists:

Don’t neglect plain text. Yes, HTML e-mails have higher response rates and are more measurable than plain text e-mail, although textlike HTML formats can perform better for certain messages and can also perform well as variants in a longer campaign. But don’t neglect using plain-text e-mails for those recipients who cannot open HTML-based messages.

Above and below the fold. Your most important content should be viewable without scrolling. You should consider this as the area beginning just below your subject line and then continuing 400 pixels down. Here, your recipients see at a glance your content , offers, calls to action, urgency indicators and brandmarks.

Content is king. When authoring e-mail, ask yourself: Who are your audience members and what are their needs? Do you have content to fill these needs? And when you deliver that content, what do you expect to receive in return? When is it most relevant to provide the information and how does it fit into your overall communications strategy?

Every message should be pertinent, and timely and provide a self-contained answer to these content questions.

Legislative environment. Be aware of your legal obligations as a sender of mass e-mail. Among other provisions, federal CAN-SPAM legislation segments transactional and relationship e-mail from commercial e-mail. In the U.S., you can legally send commercial e-mail to anyone, as often as you wish and without asking permission, provided that you offer the opportunity to opt out of future e-mail communications.

(This doesn’t mean you should e-mail everyone, of course. After all, more than ever before direct marketing is about building relationships, an objective that should underlie all outreach.)

Further, after an opt-out message is received by a recipient, legislation prohibits sending additional commercial e-mail after 10 business days from the receipt of that opt out. Fines for violations can be substantial, so you must ensure that the design and maintenance of your e-mails and their attendant lists are properly performed.

Integrate. An old saying goes like this: When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But you have other equipment in your marketing toolbox than e-mail. Remember to emphasize all aspects of your marketing solutions in well-conceived cross-media campaigns.

Crystal Uppercue is marketing manager at EU Services, a 400-employee direct marketing production facility in Rockville, Md. She can be reached at [email protected]

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