Legal and Technical Issues of E-mail Marketing

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Legal and technical issues to address

Key Points
Benefits to using an e-mail marketing outsourcer

The Internet's tubes are chronically clogged with spam. When used properly, however, e-mail can be an effective way to carry out your promotional efforts to increase sales on your site.

Let's focus on some of the legal and technical underpinnings of setting up your e-mail marketing and advertising.

First let's get the legal stuff out of the way. I'm not a lawyer, and nothing here is legal advice. I bring that up because as of 2003 there is a law on the books known as the CAN-SPAM (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) Act that controls " commercial" e-mail. One area that is not regulated by the CAN-SPAM Act is e-mails for which the receiver has "opted in" — that is, the receiver has given explicit permission to the sender. Therefore, all I'm going to write about (and answer e-mails about) are what are known as "subscriptions."

The commonsense approach comes down to this: Don't send e-mails to people who haven't asked you to send them e-mails, and under no circumstances should you send e-mail to those who have asked you to stop. For more best practices on how to be a good Web citizen, check out the Email Sender & Provider Coalition (www.espcoalition.org).

You Need Help

How do you manage the task of e-mail marketing from a technical standpoint? As with most things Web-related, there are several options. First, unless you have only 10 people on your e-mail list, you're not going to be using Microsoft's Outlook Express! That would be like changing a tire with a tooth brush.

Instead, invest in a system to run the operation in-house, or use an outside service that will handle all the operational details of list management (subscribes and unsubscribes) as well as distribution and tracking. Any attempt to do it alone would be suicide for 99.9 percent of the people reading this column (myself included). I'm going to save you a lot of time and money and just tell you to partner with an outside service.

A good e-mail marketing partner will be up to date on all the best practices, have technical solutions for things like avoiding Internet Service Providers' blacklists and spam filters, and produce desirable HTML-based e-mails that will be visible to all but the most obscure e-mail clients. In fact, the latest versions of Outlook actually take a huge leap backward in terms of accurately rendering or displaying HTML e-mails. Your partner needs to be on top of the ball.

Being effective means getting people on your list when they want to hear from you and, just as important, off your list when they don't. To avoid getting the rep of a spammer, make sure your partner solidly performs these processes.

The final piece is the measurement and tracking abilities that a good partner provides. You need to track and monitor how many people open your e-mails, click on your offers, forward the e-mails and, (heaven forbid) choose to unsubscribe. Your partner should help you craft your e-mails so that all these measurements are in the green and getting greener.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of companies that handle e-mail marketing with a range of services and prices. I could spend six months' worth of articles on how to choose one, so I'm just going to direct you to the company I use: Inbox360 (www.inbox360.com). This is not a commercial, and I get nothing if you use them. You're more than welcome to Google "e-mail marketing" and wade through the 284 million results. But I've had no major issues, they are priced competitively, they have decent reporting tools, and they have several powersports customers, so they may be able to help you with issues endemic to our industry.

Next month: ideas on how to set up e-mail campaigns, and build a sense of community.