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The death of email marketing? Threats & future email strategies

Many webmasters and Internet users are getting rather sick of the amount of marketing material hitting their inbox these days. And who can really blame them? I get a plethora of non-related email offers in my inbox each day and it frustrates the hell out of me. In the last 10 minutes, I've received 20 emails peddling a prescription drug that I have no interest in and being based in Australia, I couldn't even buy it if I wanted it.

But I also recognize the importance of email marketing for my own online business. I don't even consider it to be a "necessary evil"; it's a valid and valuable strategy for any ecommerce oriented site. Since the dawn of commerce, business owners haven't succeeded by opening shop, then sitting back and waiting for customers. They've had to compete - initially by standing outside their stores and yelling in the marketplace - and from that point, active advertising was born.

Our email marketing software picks

Remotely hosted mailing list management software

Intellicontact Pro - (free trial) 

Server based autoresponder/mailing list software:

Send Studio

Desktop based autoresponder applications:

FollowUpXpert - (free trial) 

Read our autoresponder/mailing list manager
software reviews

Email marketing today - the challenge

The main problem or those of us who use ethical means of email promotion is that we become sitting ducks for those rightfully angry webmasters and surfers who cannot vent their anger on those spamming gangs that apparently cannot be caught. 

If you're involved in B2B (Business to Business) enterprises, you can no longer simply visit relevant sites, assess the site for compatibility with your offer and then contact the owner. This is considered spam by many now, as the real spammers who buy lists of millions of addresses for under a hundred bucks use that ploy in their approach - even though they have never visited the site. It's a shame.

I'm noticing more and more sites in the last few weeks using blocking and filtering software - the uptake of this technology has been pushed along by the recent spate of email viruses that brought many companies to their knees. We were one of the businesses affected by the garbage generated by the virus onslaught and while I really hate to do so, I'll probably start implementing filtering/blocking solutions myself very soon. 

Yahoo,  AOL and some similar services allow people to report supposed spam with a single click. Again, this doesn't stop the professional spammers, but it does affect legitimate companies. 

I know of many ethical operators whose subscribers no longer receive their newsletters etc. in their inboxes because a couple of idiots on their list have either forgotten that they subscribed or are just being plain malicious. The valid emails go straight to the bulk folders and few users really go through those folders. The mail is simply automatically deleted after a specified period.

The only people to really benefit from all these anti-spam solutions are the professional spammers and the lawyers who will make a bundle through prosecuting the little guys they manage to catch - and believe me, many truly innocent webmasters have suffered and will suffer. Regardless of whether a law suit is successful or not, a price cannot be put on the downtime and stress caused by threatened legal action.

Email marketing today and into the future

The strategies to be used in the email marketing of the future will boil down to one concept - caution. The way I see it, with so many countries now imposing massive penalties on spammers; and keen to make examples of companies - we'll all need to be very careful in our email based marketing communications.

In summary, the following strategies should be implemented as soon as possible by anyone with a mailing list:

Provide details of your list

Any subscription form should link to a details page where people can review information on what kinds of communication they will receive from you and what you will do with that information.

Double opt-in subscription

We began using double opt-in for our lists a couple of years ago when even then the legal ramifications for the future of email marketing became apparent to us - and we're very glad we did.

After subscribing to a double opt-in communication, prospective subscribers receive an email asking them to confirm their intent to subscribe. The confirmation note contains information about the nature of the list and how their details will be handled. 

As the confirmation email goes to the potential subscribers address, if someone has either accidentally or maliciously attempted to subscribe an email address other than their own, this prevents the real owner of the address from receiving what would be regarded as unsolicited email from you. The confirmation email should also explain why they are receiving the note and alert them to the fact that if the person doesn't confirm, they will not receive any further communication from you.

Double opt-in methods also provide a simple means for people to unsubscribe from your list. 

While double opt-in does require a little more effort on the part of the user; it greatly decreases the threat of spam accusations and also increases the dollar value of your mailing list as a part of your overall business assets should you choose to sell your business in the future.

Beware of red flag words

There are many spam filters available today and they are becoming increasingly popular. Amongst other methods, one of the major criteria these applications use to determine spam is body text. 

Words like 'free', 'bonus', 'special', 'discount' etc. if used too often in your email text can see it being relegated to spam folders. It's worthwhile testing your marketing email before sending out to your list. A simple way of doing this is to open an email account at Yahoo, send your marketing emails and newsletters to that address and see if your mail is shifted to the bulk mail folder when sent to that address. Yahoo and similar services have spam filters active by default when you open an account with them.

List security

Many webmasters keep their mailing lists unsecured on their systems, which is a very dangerous practice. At the very least, your subscriber list should be password protected. Better still, you should keep your lists on a system that is not connected to the network. This not only stops hackers getting hold of the list, but as many email viruses will scan your drive for email addresses, it reduces the risk of inadvertently sending infected mail without your knowledge.

Virus protection

I've said it a million times, but it is always worthwhile repeating - it is absolutely crucial to be running *up to date* anti-virus software at all times.

Co-registrations are dangerous

Recent years have seen an increase in popularity of co-registrations in order to boost mailing list numbers. How this works is that a user is presented with a form on a different site offering email communications from a variety of merchants relating to different interest areas. 

Most users don't realize when they subscribe via these forms who they will actually be receiving communications from - so when your email arrives, the likelihood of a spam accusation greatly increases. Be very, very wary of co-registration arrangements with other sites. If you must use them, the signup form should state whom the person will be receiving communications from and it should also trigger a double opt in note from *your* site once the person submits the form.

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Don't mix your lists

You may have a number of lists as we do. It's important that these names are not mixed together for marketing campaigns to broaden coverage. Your subscribers should only ever receive communications from the specific email list they subscribed to.

Record keeping

Finally, keep as detailed records as possible. Simply having a list of names for your list does not provide the details necessary to protect you if you should be accused for spamming - after all, you may be accused of having only switched to double opt in yesterday and if the complaint is based on a note from a week ago, you may have trouble proving your innocence. Keep subscription notification emails where you can and keep them secure.

It all sounds a little daunting, but once your systems are set up, it's pretty much well automatic. A little forethought and caution will help ensure that your email marketing strategies will serve you well in the years to come.

- Learn more about mailing list manager applications and autoresponder software

- Looking for an anti-spam solution for your own inbox? Read my review and guide to email filtering and blocking services

If you haven't ever been accused of spamming, the chances are you will some day. Review some useful information about dealing with spam complaints and how to track spammers. 

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
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