How to launch an e-mail ad campaign

Customers will judge your company by how you manage the dialogue of e-mail marketing. So now that you're in their in-box, don't get in their face.

Customers will judge your company by how you manage the dialogue of e-mail marketing. So now that you're in their in-box, don't get in their face.

Problem: You need an inexpensive yet targeted way to reach qualified customers.

Solution: Use outsourced e-mail advertising to launch a cost-effective, targeted marketing campaign.

Amid the cacophony of Internet advertising, banner ads just aren't clicking in the cash. You need an inexpensive way to reach the right customers, and e-mail marketing is just the ticket. But a bad e-mail campaign can be worse than none at all. If customers smell spam, you're fried. Do it right, and you'll have them begging (or at least asking politely) to hear from you again.

YES

Pick your poison. If you manage your mailer software, you have ultimate control over presentation and delivery. But be prepared to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars for the software alone, and thousands more to buy and maintain hardware. Co-branded services like Mypoints.com, Cybergold, and Yesmail.com give you instant access to a wide array of prospects who love to read promotional offers, but these services ultimately own the branding and the customer.

Hosted systems offer the best mix of power and manageability for all but the smallest companies. Message Media's UnityMail Express ($3,000 setup fee, plus a per-mail charge of up to 2.5 cents) turns any Internet Explorer window into an e-marketing terminal. MessageMedia sets up an administrator account (you're free to add others) and provides a few hours of phone training to get you started. Ask, don't tell. Opt-in ads are the only way to go. Ask. Invite. Coax. Build a simple signup Web form in UnityMail's Form Wizard, and use the white space on your business cards, invoices, and product brochures to point readers in that direction. Ask current subscribers to refer their friends, and send a tentative invitation to those referred—you can set up a separate, one-mail-only list in UnityMail to handle fence- sitters. Of course, a little inducement never hurts—Palm devices (or the chance to win one) are a popular bribe currency, as are special discounts for subscribing customers.

According to Steve Reed, MessageMedia director of product strategy and marketing, click-through rates of up to 20 percent are possible for permission-based e-mail campaigns. Keep in mind that customers define opt-in advertising quite narrowly. Always ask them what types of information they want, and how often they want to receive it.

If you insist on uninvited solicitation, consider a targeted lead generation service like Zapdata.com, which will help you find the companies and contacts that fit your market niche for between 10 cents and $1.50 per lead. You specify the industry, region, and number of contacts, and Zapdata packages the report in seconds for immediate download.

Stuff the envelope. Smart e-mail marketers know the difference between what's real and what's possible. While many users can view their e-mail in HTML format, Reed says that only 36 percent of subscribers prefer HTML e-mail over plain text. While he expects that figure to increase dramatically thanks to America Online's recent software upgrade, plain text still has its place—it is, after all, universally readable. Some users also have (justified) concerns about privacy and security risks associated with HTML e-mail, and they may never lower their guard.

The bottom line is, you need a message that's attractive in HTML, but still informative in plain text. It's even possible to have your e-mail sense which format a user can accept and display only the relevant portion. Design your campaign in the HTML editor of your choice, but keep a constant eye on the plain text conversion, and be sure your last-minute changes are reflected in both before pasting into UnityMail.

Keep it short. Few people have the attention span to read a novella in e-mail. "[As with] any other ad, you have three to five seconds to get their attention," says Kevin Scott of AMR Research. Informative subject lines that identify you and your offer are important, so make liberal use of UnityMail's personalization tags, which can be embedded in the subject line as well as the body of the message.

Experts recommend keeping the scope of each mailing narrow unless customers are expecting a full-blown catalog. Present a few offers, summarize the benefits in a digestible form, and ask for the sale. Ideally, this should span no more than two screens of text—this is a marketing piece, not a ballot.

Be ready to reply. Hit or dud, your e-mail campaign is bound to generate a response from your customers. You need to be ready to answer, especially if it's not the tidy Web click-through you expected. In UnityMail, every list has a Reply Archive that stores every e-mail reply sent to the list, so you can quickly browse reactions and even remove users with a click, if that is their wish. All replies are also forwarded to the list administrator, who should promptly acknowledge more complex requests. If volume is high, share this e-mail account among several members of your customer support staff.

Ultimately, customers will judge your company by the way you manage the dialogue that you asked them to join.