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Email marketing - The Real Deal

October 17, 2011

To use an overly simple analogy, there are essentially two ways that you can approach email marketing: The right way and the wrong way. (The geek in me translates that as the light side and the dark side):

  • You can spam, or you can engage in actual public communications.
  • Email "marketing" is actually something of a misnomer: In general terms, marketing is the term used when broadcasting a message for all and sundry to hear and, if the message about your product or service is enticing enough, people will respond. (That's not the literal dictionary definition, but enough of the general public - and more importantly - people new to using email for commercial gain, tend to think of the term)

    Email communications is not broadcasting: It is direct, one-on-one personal communication: This holds true, for the most important person of all, the recipient, whether you've just sent a single mail or a million.

    There are several important steps to good, successful (and profitable) email marketing, but the very first one is the most important of all:

    It is all about consent.

    You must have the explicit consent of the person you are sending mail to.

    To be clear, here: This article deals in using mail to sell something to a second party; This is not about casual conversation or general business queries, although if the 'general business query' is a lead-up to selling something, then these rules apply.

    Consent is not just about someone sending you a single request to receive your email, but of you receiving the request and asking for confirmation of the request before any commercial content is sent out. Some people mistakenly call this "double opt-in", but that is not the case: You are not opting in to something twice: You are requesting communications and confirming the request for communications. This did not arise from an over-abundance of lawyers in the world, or a saturation of bureaucrats: This is a direct result from spam, itself. Without confirmed opt-in, it means that anyone can sign anyone up for commercial mailing lists. It is akin to ordering a pizza to your neighbours' house, but multiplied tens of thousands of times, for a single person - in the space of five minutes.

    The importance of confirmed consent cannot be stressed enough in commercial email communications: In addition to the ethics of it, in addition to the basic respect you are showing your potential (and existing) customers; It is also about avoiding the worst-possible label an Internet marketer could get stuck with: Spammer.

    Once the label of 'spammer' sticks to you, it is difficult and lengthy to remove. Unlike as little as forty years ago, you can't just pick up and move to another town and start again: The Internet is global and its memory - and records of your exploits - are, literally, forever.

    Being labelled a 'spammer' is not just about having a black mark against you that you can just brush off: Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can and will refuse to provide service to you: Not just web service, but basic connectivity to your home and office. The 'spammer' label is the digital equivalent of walking around with a plague marker on your forehead: It is not that the ISPs want to "punish" you for being a bad boy or girl: After all, your money is just as legal as the next persons', but if YOU are labelled a spammer, then THEY are labelled a spam supporter, which means THEY get isolated from the 'net from all the other providers that do not wish to touch that plague marker, either. No matter how good your money is, it will not make up for the tens of thousands of customers they will lose if they get cut off, so the reputable ones will not take the chance.

    Of course, the next logical thought for the unrepentant spammer is "I'll just use the unreputable ISPs!"- of course, using the unreputable ISPs means using an ISP that most of the rest of the world does not wish to receive content from (because most of it is spam and viruses), which means your content will not be received, simply by the fact that you're using an unreputable ISP.

    While the emphasis on the importance of acquiring consent could go on for pages and pages, those of you still reading should by now understand that the consequences for not acquiring it are not only disastrous, but expensive and potentially career-ending (Or, for those truly with zero ethics, a shift into the darker and questionably legal side of Internet business).

    The next question: How do you get consent ?

    The simple answer: You ask for it. The question you have to ask before that, though, is: What is it you are asking consent for ? These are several of the most common mass-mails with commercial gain in mind:

    (These all apply whether the frequency is Daily/weekly/bi-weekly/monthly or less)

    • Notification emails about sales and specials
    • Notification emails about new products or services
    • Newsletters about your company or its business
    • Advice newsletters ('credibility builders')

    Consent is usually asked for on a web page, but is by no means limited to that: Consent to email can be asked on:

    • your business card,
    • print newsletter,
    • word-of-mouth,
    • print advertisements,
    • radio and television ads
    and so on. In each of those cases, however, the reader should be made clearly aware of two things:

    1. What it is they're signing up for. Do not advertise that you are publishing an advice newsletter on a weekly basis and then bombard your subscribers with sales promotions.
    2. The fact that they will not be subscribed until they confirm their subscription after your system emails them back at the address they provided.

    One thing needs to be made very clear, here: If you do not receive that confirmation, you do not have permission to mail them again. No communication means no permission. Even though some jurisdictions allow in law the use of 'opt-out' systems (Where you can subscribe anyone you like, regardless of permission or not and they have to tell you to stop), you will very quickly learn that the Internet, as a whole, follows no one countries' rules or laws: Acquire confirmed consent or give up on using the Internet for legitimate business uses. Period.

    Newcomers to mail marketing are often tempted with shortcuts to acquiring lists of names and email addresses from list vendors, who sell thousands or millions of email addresses that are 'confirmed opt-in':

    Do not do this.

    Not only did you not get the consent, but the lists you are buying are full of addresses that have not only been unethically harvested from various sources around the web with absolutely no consent, but more often than not have "honey traps" - email addresses that serve no other purpose than to notify email blocklist operators that there is a new spammer on the block; Often, it will not be you that is notified, but your ISP: In many cases, your only notification will be starting up your computer at the beginning of the day to discover you have no Internet connection.

    If the recipient did not give you and specifically you their consent, you should not be mailing them.

    Giving a reason for people to give consent to email

    Of course, it is not so simple as to just putting up a page or an ad requesting the general public to sign up for your weekly words of wisdom or fantastic daily sales: You need to give them a reason to go to your subscription page in the first place and that reason must be good enough that they will choose to give you their email address and confirm this fact. (Yes, we're working backwards in the email communications evolution, here). There really is no better analogy for giving them this reason than "Try before you buy":

    If you run a weekly advice newsletter (Where you may make money by adverts within the newsletter or solicitation for personal consultation), you'd better have a website up showing many of your words of wisdom for people to read through in the first place.

    The same with weekly sales: Your website had better be showing at least some of your typical sales that people could be receiving, if only they were subscribed to your newsletter.

    If your mail is about your products or services, you should have content on your website, which is updated regularly, that shows people why they would want to read about your services in email, rather than just the single once-only of perusing your website.

    Ironically, the relationship between your website and your email publications is like an endless chicken-and-egg cycle; The usual case is that people buy from your website, so that is where you want them to end up. However, most people do not purchase on their first visit so you need a method to get them to keep coming back. One (of many) method is the regular email newsletter: So you use your website to drive people to your email newsletter which is used to drive people to your website to make a purchase.

    The magic number: 4% - Conversion ratio

    Remember, too, the 'magic number': Four percent. Four percent is the conversion rate of a visitor acting upon the call-to-action. This four percent number has proven consistent across at least a hundred years, if not more and holds true for radio, television, print and Internet advertising. This means that for every thousand people that see your ad, you can expect forty of them to visit your business or website. That doesn't mean all forty are going to purchase, because that four percent still holds true, or at least it does in Internet business (It's a fair bit higher in the bricks and mortar world, simply because of the effort and commitment the customer made to physically attend your store): Online, though, you can expect four percent of those that visit your site to actually make a purchase.

    This, of course, assumes that you are selling a decent, quality product or service, your website is professionally designed and the people who interact directly with your customers speak in a manner in which they are understood and are professional, polite and courteous.

    Just to be absolutely clear:

    • For every 1,000 people that see an ad for your website or call to click on your link, 40 of them will visit
    • For every 40 of those people that visit your website out of the thousand that saw the first ad, an average of 1.6 people will make a purchase.

    Some of you may be saying to yourself "But that's a 0.16 conversion rates from my ads! That's almost as bad as spam, itself!" (Actually, it's still a lot better, because the conversion rate for spam is somewhere around 0.01%) - That's not an accurate way of thinking: Your first ad is not for your product or service: Your first ad is to get people to come to your website. Your website is your next ad which will have two calls to action: The first - and most ideal, for you, the business operator - is the call to make a purchase. However, most visitors do not make a purchase on their first visit, so your second call to action is to entice them into a method to get them to come back for subsequent visits: Your email newsletter.

    Of course, this four percent is assuming you have attracted people to your website or purchase page legitimately and honestly: Many would-be spammers foolishly think that the four percent conversion rate applies to anything, so they simple-mindedly assume that more emails sent = more money rolling in.


    While a legitimate business using legitimate marketing methods can expect a four percent conversion ratio, spammers sending unsolicited mail can expect a zero point zero one (0.01%) conversion rate. While some may be tempted with the thoughts of the money rolling in from point oh one percent of a billion emails sent generating cash (which would never happen, as you would be shut down far before your run completed), the legal costs, including the very real possibility of imprisonment and fines means that the actual number of 'millionair spammers' is a lot smaller than you might think.

    In Summary, what you need for mail marketing success

    To sum it all up, you need:

    • A website that shows what you do, that is updated regularly and creates a desire and benefit to not only know more, but know more on a regular basis.
    • A request page for your newsletters/publications that clearly shows what they're signing up for and that their confirmation is required before content is sent.
    • Staff that answer your telephones and email who are knowledgeable, professional, polite and timely in their responses and follow-up.
    Marc Bissonnette, Ontario, Canada

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