Making sense of e-mail marketing

An idea straight out of traditional direct-mail marketing, e-mail can be a great marketing tool. However, to draw eyes to your e-mail among all the others, you need to make them stand out.

You want to reach your customers. You need to reach your customers. But how?

One of the most effective ways, according to Forrester Research, is e-mail marketing. The idea's straight out of traditional direct-mail marketing, a tactic small business has used for decades, but with an e-twist: rather than ship expensive paper-based packages through the U.S. Postal Service, you use your own customer list to send targeted e-mail pitches, newsletters, and highlights of your biz's Web site.

Other businesses recognize the power of e-mail, of course, making it mandatory that you rise to meet the higher bar of electronic marketing. Jupiter Communications, another Internet research firm, estimates that by 2005, the average American consumer will receive over 1,600 commercial e-mail messages. To draw eyes to your e-mail amongst this glut -- and get them to give up their dollars -- you need to make your marketing mail stand out.

I've put together a three-step guide to e-mail marketing, starting out with the most basic (text) then graduating to HTML mail using tools most small businesses have at the ready.

Text works

The simplest, and ultimately most reliable e-mail marketing messages are those built with plain text. Text may not be sexy, but it works: it downloads quickly, something many customers, especially those using slower dial-up connections to the Web, will appreciate.

That's because some people you send mail to will have e-mail software only capable of handling text. Until the introduction of AOL 6.0, for instance, America Online members weren't able to view graphical e-mail based on the Web-standard HTML.

If you choose to assemble text-only marketing e-mails, there are a few tips you can apply to spice up the message"

Link to your Web site, quickly and prominently. Have a Web site? Make sure a link to it is prominent in the message, certainly in its first few lines. By directing potential customers to a Web site, you can circumvent the plain-Jane appearance of text e-mail and/or keep the e-mail brief. This site doesn't have to be for selling; think hard about creating a marketing-type page that displays your message in color and style. The downside, of course, is that you must convince recipients that it's worth their time to click the link.

Use ALL CAPS sparingly. Although this typographical trick is one of the few available in an all-text message, the switch to uppercase can be jarring to readers. I'd keep it to a minimum, perhaps as the headline of the message and any section-dividing subheads. Remember, many recipients will only skim the headline and subheads.

Insert eye-catching characters and symbols. Other Some typographical gimmicks that you can use to punch up the design of an all-text e-mail include bullets (use the asterisk character (*) for this), lines (either the dash (-) or the underline (_) works), and best of all, white space.

But even though text e-mail is guaranteed to reach customers intact (and thus readable), it just may not be enough in the cutthroat world of electronic marketing. To get your message noticed, you should explore graphical mail, the kind that blends in Web-like elements. I have a simple first step for you in my next section.

Stationary doesn't mean standing still

In the beginning, there was text, and it was good. But soon it became passé as everyone used it to broadcast marketing messages. Then came graphical e-mail, and it was better, or at least brighter. It stood out from the crowd, since it was able to Graphical e-mail's higher on the marketing food chain. Using graphical messages -- typically composed of HTML code -- you can display everything from images and colors to distinctive fonts and logos.

Using graphical e-mail for marketing carries a risk. Many of your recipients won't be able to view the message because a) they're not using an e-mail client which supports HyperText Markup Language (HTML), the standard for composing Web pages, or b) they are using such a client, but they haven't set it up so that it will read HTML.

But it's increasingly likely that customers will see your graphical message. The reasons: the spread of HTML-enabled clients, such as Eudora, Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express, Netscape Messenger, and now, AOL 6.0. Add that to the wide availability of graphical, Web-like newsletters, which have made HTML mail familiar, sometimes even expected, and you have some solid grounds for shifting to graphical marketing messages.

The easiest way to get started with graphical mail is with Microsoft Outlook's stationary (which also works with Outlook Express), which provides minimalist graphics, essentially pre-packaged HTML backgrounds and sometimes including audio. Outlook includes several stationary styles, and you can download others from a host of sites, including Microsoft's and a place called CloudEight. Unfortunately, few stationary styles are appropriate for business -- most lean toward the cute -- and none, naturally, focus on your firm. You'll want to build your own.

That's not a tough task if you're comfortable coding in HTML (for a few tips, check out this Outlook Stationary how-to from Internet Tips & Secrets). But for those of us who think HTML stands for "Hard To Make Lovely," there are programs like Paper Maker 7, a stationary creation tool. You can download Paper Maker, then try it for 30 days before you must fork over the $24 registration fee.

Stationary is, however, just a stop-gap. For really interactive marketing messages with Web page-like links to your e-store, you need to move up to a more sophisticated messaging format: HTML. I'll spot you some starting points in the next step.

Graduate to HTML

The ultimate in graphical e-mail is a full-blown, Web-style message which includes, among other things, live links that take customers to your e-store (or even to a specific product you're spiffing).

You need to create a Web page, essentially. HTML hand-crafting skills come in very handy here, but if you're a klutz at coding, there are other ways to build a page which you can e-mail to customers. In fact, you probably have the necessary tools already in hand: Microsoft Word 2000 and/or FrontPage 2000. The former comes with every edition of Office 2000, while the latter only appears in the highest-priced Premium version. If you don't have FrontPage, you can try it for 45 days by ordering a trial CD from Microsoft; you pay $6.95 for shipping and handling.

I've found these step-by-step instructions have found one that works for me on the Web. Take a look at Web Marketing Today's guide, "Formatting Dual Text and HTML Newsletters" for a how-to on creating and mailing HTML marketing messages. (Although the article highlights e-newsletters, the process is the same for smaller, simpler messages.)

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