How Not to Be a Spammer: The Truth About E-Mail Marketing

E-mail can be one of the most effective, cheapest marketing tools, when used correctly. Make sure you use best practices in your e-mail marketing efforts -- or risk having your customers treat you like Spam.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

March 21, 2008

4 Min Read

The end of your fiscal quarter is fast approaching, and just a few more sales could let your business reach or exceed revenue targets. Should you send some extra e-mail marketing blasts?

"You risk that customers will become annoyed and click the 'Report Spam' ['Junk'] button, and your next e-mail marketing campaign will be blocked," says Jim Campbell, assistant director, E-mail Senders and Providers Coalition (ESPC), an industry group focused on spam and e-mail deliverability. "Long-term losses can easily exceed the short-term revenue gains."

Best Practices Pay Off
Using best practices for e-mail marketing will reduce the chances of your business being tagged as a spammer. It's well worth the effort: E-mail provides the highest ROI of any direct marketing tool, according to George Bilbrey, vice president and a general manager at Return Path, Inc., which provides services to e-mail marketers. "E-mail is easy to personalize, inexpensive, measurable, and can strengthen customer relationships," he says.

"If it's done right, e-mail is actually the least expensive way to build the richest customer relationships," says Pat Peterson, vice president of technology for IronPort, Inc., a Cisco business unit that provides e-mail and Web security products.

What Makes E-Mail Spam?
Spam filters generally identify offenders by the e-mail source or content, and block about 20 percent of e-mail marketing messages, notes Bilbrey. Customers have a big say on what is spam: If the ratio of complaints to messages exceeds a certain threshold, often 1 percent to 2 percent, most ISPs will tag the sender as a spammer.

E-mail can also be tagged as spam when it is sent to spam traps (unused addresses that ISPs maintain just for this purpose). Even legitimate senders can unwittingly send to a spam trap, for example, if customers opting in for an offer have mistyped their e-mail address.

Tips for Protecting your Reputation
E-mail marketing experts recommend best practices for preventing being tagged as a spammer, including the following:

  • Ensure that you only send your e-mail to people who asked for it. The gold standard is called double opt-in, or closed opt-in: When customers sign up for e-mail from you, reply with an e-mail that asks them to click a link to confirm their request.

  • Record where and when customers gave permission. This can be an automated process if customers sign up on your Website; keep a manual record if they sign up on paper or by phone. "If an ISP questions the validity of the e-mail, this type of record may help keep you from being blocked," says Campbell.

    Set customer expectations for the type and frequency of your e-mails. "Ultimately, it's the recipients who determine what is spam," says Campbell. "If they do not expect your e-mail, they will be more likely to complain."

    Send content that your customers want. "The best way to avoid complaints is to be a good marketer by sending relevant communications that the customer has actually asked for," says Bilbrey.

    Remind recipients why they are receiving your e-mail. An example: "You requested this monthly newsletter at the Garlic Festival." Also include a link to opt out.

    Sign up for an automated feedback loop from ISPs that offer them, such as AOL and Hotmail. If someone does complain to the ISP about your messages, the loop will notify you so you can immediately take that person off your list.

    Continually update your e-mail marketing list to reduce the number of unknown users. Just because someone visited your site two years ago does not mean they should still be on your list.

    Decide how to respond to recipients who do not open your e-mails. "Continuing to send e-mails to people who don't respond can backfire if the e-mail address has become inactive," says Campbell. Some ISPs retain inactive e-mail addresses to use as spam traps.

    Work with a specialized "e-mail deliverability consultant" to set up your e-mail server so that your marketing does not seem to be spam. ISPs look at dozens of characteristics of your e-mail. The consultant may also recommend spreading out your outbound e-mails over time and sending them from several servers.

    Remember that managing your e-mail reputation is an ongoing process rather than a one-time event.

Rhonda Raider writes about tech issues. She is president of Raider Communications, Inc.

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