E-mail marketing best practices

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If you believe what’s written in the media, e-mail marketers are the equivalent of public enemy No. 1, and what they send out should be promptly—and deservedly—placed in a virtual garbage can.
Legislators are convinced: California recently passed a bill banning unsolicited business e-mails and gave recipients the right to sue for $1,000 an e-mail, up to $1 million. Congress is mulling its own set of spam bills this fall.

But, as the adage goes, don’t believe everything you read. E-mail marketing doesn’t deserve its bad rap, according to both industry experts and b-to-b marketers. In fact, some b-to-b companies report conversion rates as high as 40% on e-mail marketing messages, said Joe Meyer, VP-marketing of Aprimo, a marketing management application provider.

There is a key to this success: Follow e-mail best practices. Most important, make sure that the only people who receive your messages are those who have opted in, or agreed to receive marketing-related e-mails from you or a third party. Here are a few others that no marketer should ignore.

• Use your own lists when possible.
The most receptive customers are those who have opted-in to your communications. Build your list by creating a form on your Web site designed for potential customers or by collecting business cards at the next trade show you attend, said Wendy Shay, practice director at design and marketing agency the Loomis Group.

If you must rent a list, you should know the source, experts say. Make sure the list’s owner uses the same best practices you do and is willing to acknowledge this in writing. For example, does the owner require double opt-in confirmation? How often does the owner update the lists? What is its bounce-back rate?

"We always try and have clients build their own lists," Shay said. "If they can’t, we try and get opt-in lists from publications or conferences that relate to our clients’ businesses. Those recipients are going to be most receptive, since they’ve expressed interest in related subject matter."

• Use a real name in the
"From" line. This might seem to be basic advice, but it’s extremely important, said Vanessa Baker-Simon, group manager of demand generation at Web conferencing company WebEx. Corporate spam filters will often delete messages without a sender’s name.

Choosing what name to put in the field depends on your list’s origin. If you have a previous relationship with the addressees, it’s best to use the full name of the sales or support contact they’re already familiar with. However, if you’re sending out messages to new prospects, your company’s name is more appropriate.

In addition, check both the subject line and ad text for words commonly used by spammers. For example, if your message contains the word "free," corporate spam filters might lump it in with Viagra come-ons and delete it. This is why more than 60% of marketers surveyed in a recent Jupiter Research study said spam filtering reduces the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns.

• Always give the recipient a way to opt out of your e-mail marketing campaigns.
Include a link or return address that will get them off your list in three days or less, said Helen Roberts, COO of e-mail marketer Responsys. Because some people are reluctant to respond to automatically generated e-mail, you may want to provide a phone number or postal address that will allow them to unsubscribe.

• Be conservative.
This means go the double opt-in route whenever possible, WebEx’s Baker-Simon said. "We’ve always tried to be less risky and get double opt in," Baker-Simon said. "Now, with the new legislation out there, we’re going to be even more conservative, if that’s possible."

It also means providing recipients with full disclosure about what they’ve signed up for, said Responsys’ Roberts. "Send a confirming e-mail telling them what they’ve opted in to, how frequently they can expect to hear from you and how they can stop receiving messages from you. The more conservative you are, the fewer spam complaints you’ll receive."

• Never share lists within your organization or with partners or customers.
It might not seem like a big deal to share your opt-in e-mail address with your R&D or sales department. After all, you all work at the same company. However, this is the easiest way to rile your potential customer. A better alternative: Act as the go-between for other departments.

"Send an e-mail on [another department’s] behalf, such as a request to participate in research, and ask them to opt in," said Aprimo’s Meyer.

• Don
’t check in too often or too infrequently. Unless your potential customer specifically signs up for daily or weekly e-mail check-ins, you’re likely to alienate them by contacting them too frequently. Experts suggest a monthly or quarterly check-in. But don’t be afraid to contact customers if you have valuable information to disseminate.

Customers prefer substance over style, said Phil Sanders, senior VP-director of interactive for marketing communications firm Wunderman, New York.

"Try and make your communications less promotional and they will be more relevant," he said. "And try not to change anyone’s behavior. You’re not going to make someone buy something with an e-mail, but e-mail can be used to give people a nudge."

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