Why does so much of the email marketing we see—particularly from smaller businesses—drive me crazy? It’s enough to put me in a padded room.
Third-party email services like Mail Chimp, Campaign Monitor, iContact and Constant Contact make it relatively easy and cost-effective for even the smallest of businesses to design a functional marketing email, manage the contact list, track responses and so on.
But even the prettiest email design and best technology won’t help if you don’t have a plan. A well-conceived and well-executed email marketing effort provides value to the recipient, delivers a concise message, and provides an obvious call to action. So before you start blasting out emails, consider these guidelines
First of all, get familiar with the CAN-SPAM Act—a federal law that sets the rules for commercial email, establishes requirements for commercial messages, gives recipients the right to have you stop emailing them, and spells out tough penalties for violations. (Read more from the Bureau of Consumer Protection: http://bit.ly/hqYPCT).
In a nutshell, be clear that the email is advertisement/marketing. Don’t use deceptive subject lines to trick someone into opening the email. Tell people where you’re located and how to contact you. And finally, make it easy to opt out of future email from you—and honor those opt-outs promptly. This is important. You don’t want to get blacklisted as a spammer.
The Frequency Balancing Act
We’ll assume that you already have a list of email addresses for clients and prospects. Frequency is the next question—not just how often you SHOULD but how often you CAN send them out. Send emails too often and you may create too much pressure on yourself in terms of creating new content every time. You also run the risk of recipients feeling overwhelmed and unsubscribing, deleting or flagging your emails as spam. Send them out too infrequently and you risk becoming irrelevant.
There’s no magic formula for frequency. It all comes down to internal bandwidth. If you can’t keep up with it, you’ll burn yourself out. And if it’s not relevant, timely, insightful, entertaining and/or valuable, your recipients will tune out. Slow and steady wins the race. Better to send out something once or twice a month to start with and increase frequency when you are able.
Make It Part of the Process
A sure recipe for failure: Waiting until the day you plan to send out your email to figure out what you are going to include. Like any process, producing an email newsletter must be habituated internally. Assign accountability, responsibility and authority. Help ensure success by developing an editorial plan.
So what’s in a good (read: sustainable) editorial plan? I call them buckets—clearly defined categories of content. Four buckets is a good start. One bucket might be a thought-leadership piece, where the CEO provides insight into the state of the market or a peek at the future of the industry. This content provides value to the reader and builds credibility for your company.
A second bucket could be company news—snippets of press releases or media hits that you’ve received (another credibility check). A third bucket could relate to upcoming events that you are sponsoring, attending or speaking at. A fourth bucket should inspire an immediate sort of action—a sales promotion (free shipping, buy-one-get-one) or a new product or white paper or demo.
Next, figure out what content you can create in advance—based on seasonality, trade shows, company milestones and so on. Set a word count limit so you know how much to write. All of this will help avoid the question, “What should I write about for the May issue?” two weeks into May.
Chunk Up the Content
These days, people tend to “graze” information rather than read top-to-bottom, start-to-finish. They look at images first, then move to “display” text—large headlines, subheads and captions. In this way readers decide which text blocks are worth reading in depth.
A best-practices email has a simple but attractive design template filled with bite-sized chunks of text that we call “teaser” copy—a punchy, clever headline and a compelling sentence or two for each item. Give the recipient just enough juicy information to decide whether to click the “read more” link. Good third-party email services provide prebuilt email templates and also allow you to create your own.
When a recipient does click, they should be taken to a page on your website to read the rest of the story. In some cases you may want to create special landing pages to receive people who click for more.
Study the Metrics
Pay attention to the response metrics every time you send out an email. Good third-party email services make it easy to find out who is opening your emails, who is clicking on links, who is unsubscribing and which emails are “bad.” Search Google for explanations of terms like bounce rate, unsubscribe rate, open rate and click-through rate—you’ll need to know how these apply to your email marketing. (Here’s a good place to start: www.email-marketing-reports.com, but there are many others.)
Successful email marketing is an evolution game. It requires willingness to learn a new vocabulary and modify your methods in response to what recipients are doing (or not doing) with your communications. It’s not rocket science, but it does require setting aside fear of the unknown—and you’ll be amazed at the results you can get.