Adventures in e-mail marketing

Two weeks wrangling an e-mail service

A writer's group I belong to wants to put on a conference this summer. Since I've written about two of the leading e-mail marketing services, Constant Contact and VerticalResponse, I volunteered to manage the messaging process and send out the e-mails. It's been interesting, meaning there's both good and bad details to report, but mostly good in that the messaging part of my job was pretty easy. The non-technical parts got a bit wonky, however, and I have three lessons to pass on.

When I reported on Constant Contact and VerticalResponse in the past, both offered me evaluation accounts for testing. So I flipped a coin to decide which to use for this effort and VerticalResponse won. The company uses a per-mailing cost structure, and lets you keep as many names in your database as you want. Constant Contact charges a flat monthly fee based on the number of names you have on your list rather than per mailing. If you have a single list you mail to regularly, Constant Contact's pricing may better. If you have many names and send mail to subgroups of that list, VerticalResonse may be less expensive. I've also heard good things about iContact. There are many options, so you can certainly find one message service that makes you feel at home.

Names are the most critical part of every e-mail campaign. Getting the names into the service was my first job. VerticalResponse wants the names in CSV (spreadsheet) or comma delimited format. Of course, people sent me the name lists in Word files, some with names and e-mail addresses, and some with just e-mail addresses.

Retyping the 291 names into the list database is possible, so I tried with a couple of names. The first one took a while to save, which I hoped was because of initialization processes. I guessed right, because the next two names saved quickly. But typing a list of more than a handful of names is a giant waste of time, so I got to work organizing the names for mass upload.

I use OpenOffice as my office productivity suite. To move the names to Calc, the OpenOffice spreadsheet, I made tables in the Writer program to separate the first and last names from the e-mail address in one file, and organize the e-mail addresses in the second file. From there, cutting and pasting the names into the spreadsheet was a snap, as was exporting the lists into two CSV files. Click the "upload file" button in the name management screen, and I'm done, right?

Wrong. This wasn't a problem with VerticalResponse, but a feature. One person sent me the names surrounded by greater-than and less-than symbols (such as <>). I searched and replaced those out of the DOC file, copied them into the spreadsheet, and exported a new CSV file. Things went great then.

Take that as Lesson One: keep your name list clean. Make sure the program you pull names from can export the names in a format your mailing list program can use. Focus on CSV beczuse it appears everybody takes that format.

Creating the message wasn't a problem. I had several options for message creation, including a range of free templates. Someone else wrote the copy, so I cut and paste that and dropped in a logo. The message editor was just as easy as a word processor.

VerticalResponse forced me to do the right thing and fulfill the CAN-SPAM requirements by putting a name and physical address on the message. Before I could send the mailing out, I had to send at least one test message (it gave me room for 10 names). I sent out five to others in the group asking them to check for typos or any unclear statements. This is a writer's group, after all.

Lesson Two: check, recheck and double recheck your message, including the subject. Do not treat these as just another e-mail to dash off in a hurry. I had a mistake in the subject that I missed. None of my five helpers caught it until they read the real message.  

I understood VerticalResponse holding the message until it could be read by a person to verify I wasn't violating the terms of agreement. I appreciated the speed with which the messages arrived once cleared. I liked the "forward this message" button I added to the e-mails with a single click.

Mailing list services handle bounced messages better than your e-mail client and mail host. Sixty-seven of my 291 names bounced, meaning the addresses were no good. This from a list of past attendees, members of the writing groups involved, and those who asked to be included. That failure rate surprised me.

Even better are the details about your mail success provided by your mailing service. Of course, when I read how only about one-third of the mail messages were opened by the recipients, I got depressed. VerticalResponse told me exactly how many people opened the messages (not enough) and how few of those actually clicked on the links to check out the conference details on the Web site (way too few).

Lesson Three: quality results come from a quality list of names. In the quality vs. quantity argument, mailing list marketing demands quality.

Two more mailings saw the number of opens and click-throughs drop, as expected with the repetition of similar messages. Every mailing service offers multiple articles and tutorials to better hone your e-mail marketing skills.

Using VerticalResponse was easier than I expected (thanks, guys, for the free test account). The work of sending 2,000 messages is no more than sending 20. If you have regular customers and don't send them e-mails because you're afraid of the cost or the effort, let me tell you that both are minimal. Every service lets you test them out and send a small number of messages for free, so jump in. And get the best list of e-mail addresses possible for the best results.

P.S. I will be the featured expert on dealing with e-mail overload in a Webinar on Thursday, May 28, at 2 p.m. EST. Free to listen, free for the whitepaper, and you can ask me questions during the event. Go to:

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