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The Magestic Splendor of Online Advertising! or some damn thing like that.

Tool Box: Email marketing
by Jon Huntress, Contributing Editor

Jim Sterne was featured in a morning seminar on advanced e-marketing strategies a few days ago in Houston that I was lucky enough to attend. Despite the name this was a general interest seminar geared to businesses that wanted to find out more about e-marketing. Sterne, author of World Wide Web Marketing, Customer Service on the Web and What Makes People Click? covered numerous topics regarding Online Marketing issues. One of the most appealing subjects was his discussion of the effectiveness of online newsletters.

Sterne made a point that from a price/performance perspective, email is the best marketing tool that has ever been made, but it is relatively easy to alienate potential customers. Unsolicited email is the root of all online evil as everyone hates spam. The bottom line is that spam makes no sense from a marketing point of view: It is not a solid business practice to infuriate potential customers.

The most reasonable (and customer friendly) practice is an opt-in system, where the consumer chooses whether or not to receive your information. (Conversely, opt-out is a system where email users are added to a list and have the ability to be removed from the list, but most experts agree that since this is still unsolicited, it is essentially spam.) Whether opt-in or opt-out is spam depends on the eye of the beholder.

Sterne gave the example of something Sears is doing. They have a free reminder service that will send you an email a couple of weeks before major events in your life, such as birthdays and anniversaries. Along with the reminder comes a notice that Sears is having a sale in one of their departments. It is blatant advertising, but the customer requests the reminder. Is this spam? Opinions are mixed. Some companies are a little more hard sell than this. In some opt-in situations, you are asked for information, then there are several options you can elect to receive such as, do you want to read new product reviews, do you want this or that and you can click if you want them.

Opt-in email marketing has been very successful in the two years it has been used. Sterne used statistics from Forrester Research that showed over 70 percent of marketing respondents see opt-in permission marketing as "important" or "very important" to their success. And newsletters are one of the best uses of opt-in marketing. They are easy to create and find potential customers at a lower cost than any other medium.

For newsletters, it is helpful to place a reminder at the top of the email as to why the person is getting the information. With so much material available, it is easy to forget what you signed up for and a reminder confirms each time that the person actually asked for it. Also there should be a note explaining where the instructions are to unsubscribe if it takes instructions. The best thing, of course, is to have a link they can click on to automatically unsubscribe.

As to whether the newsletter should be in ASCII or HTML format, the jury is still out. People seem to be evenly divided as to which they prefer. I prefer ASCII myself, because I can scan it faster to see what interests me, and ASCII is easier to create.

The length of the newsletter can't be too long. We try to keep ours between nine and 15K. If it is going to be longer we will either send out a second newsletter several days later, or just print the first few paragraphs of articles and provide a link to the rest

The critical mass as a subscriber base seems to vary with each niche market. But there is a number that, when exceeded, growth becomes exponential and things really start happening. As newsletters become more popular and more common, the number of subscribers needed to reach this threshold will probably increase too.

Conventional wisdom says you should send newsletters out after Tuesday and before the weekend. Many people receive your newsletter at work and if it comes in late Friday or over the weekend it will end up in their in-box on Monday morning with all their other important business related mail. Your newsletter will be set aside for that day and there is a good chance it won't be read at all.

The main thing to remember is to make whole process of receiving and reading your newsletter as easy as possible for your subscribers. The more you consider their needs, the more successful your publication.

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