Email Marketing Basics and Best Practices
If you’re new to email marketing, we should go over some basic principles before you start sending campaigns. We’ll talk about best practices, legal issues, and how to measure your overall performance.
What is spam?
If you get an unsolicited email from someone you don’t know, is that spam? Not necessarily. If you get an email that was obviously sent to a whole list of people, is that spam? Not necessarily. So what’s spam?
Spam is when you send an unsolicited email to a whole list of people. Let’s say you just bought a list of email addresses from some local business organization. These are great prospects for your business, right? You want to send them an email with a relevant offer they can’t refuse. It’s spam if you upload that list into MailChimp (or any other email service provider) and send that list an unsolicited email. It’s not spam if you take that list and write personal, one-to-one emails to each recipient, and the content is unique for each recipient. If your immediate reaction is, “but what if...” stop now, because you’ll probably get yourself reported for spamming. You simply cannot send unsolicited email to a list of people you don’t know.
The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003
The United States federal CAN-SPAM Act became law on January 1, 2004. According to their website, the FTC says that if you violate the law, you could be fined $11,000 for each offense (multiply $11,000 times the number of people on your recipient list). ISPs around the country have already successfully sued spammers for millions and millions of dollars under this law.
We can’t give you much legal advice, but if you send commercial email, you should read through the CAN- SPAM Act of 2003 and understand the rules. If you have a lawyer, consult with her. There are a couple of points we’d like to highlight. If you’re sending commercial email (where you’re selling or promoting stuff), here are a few rules you should know about:
- Never use deceptive headers, from-names, reply-tos, or subject lines.
- You must always provide an unsubscribe link.
- Remove recipients from your list within 10 business days.
- The unsubscribe link must work for at least 30 days after sending.
- You must include your physical mailing address in the email (PO Boxes are not sufficient).
Royal Screw-ups To Avoid
If you’ve downloaded this guide and have actually read this far, you’re obviously interested in doing the right thing. You’re probably not an evil spammer. But even the most well intentioned, legitimate email marketers get reported for spamming. Do you know how you get reported? All it takes is for one recipient to click a little button in his email program.
When he clicks his this is junk or report spam button, a little alert gets sent to his ISP. Then that ISP sends a warning to the sender (as long as the sender has responsibly signed up for that ISP’s feedback loop). If an ISP sends you up to 5 warnings, you’re in trouble. 5-10, and you can expect your emails to get throttled. More than that (some of them say less than 1% of your list), and your email server gets blocked. None of your emails will get through to that ISP anymore, unless you can provide proof of opt-in for those complainers.
And ISPs aren’t just blocking email servers anymore. They’re scanning reported spam for URLs and domain names. If they find your company’s domain name in reported spam, they’ll block any future emails they receive with that domain name in it (no matter where it was sent from, or who sent it).
So it’s easy to get blacklisted. When that happens, it can take months to get your name cleared—if ever. Usually, companies get blacklisted because they made one little mistake.
We’ve been in this business for years, and we’ve seen thousands of marketers send millions of emails. Needless to say, we’ve seen lots of screwups. Here are some of our most memorable examples. Learn from them. Some of the details have been changed to protect identities.
“But these are co-members of a local organization.”
Our first “abuse-desk situation” was from an alpaca farmer. He was a really nice guy. He was sending a beautiful email newsletter with alpaca breeding tips to members of an alpaca farming organization (yes, those exist). Problem was, those members never asked for his email newsletter. He got their email addresses from the head of the organization. Surely other Alpaca farmers would love hearing about this stuff, right? Not if one of his competitors is on the list. One of his recipients didn’t appreciate getting emails from a competitor, so he repeatedly reported the newsletter as spam to his ISP, and to us. Since our customer was sending emails to a third party list, which is strictly forbidden here at MailChimp, we had to shut his account down. (Remember the definition of spam?)
“But they dropped their business card in my fish bowl.”
We had a real-estate agency sending emails to a list of recipients about a brand new condo property that was opening up. As soon as they sent their campaign, we started getting complaints. When we asked them where they got their list, turns out they set up a fish bowl at local eateries, for a chance to win a free lunch. No mention of any email newsletters or opting in to any lists was placed on those fishbowls. We had to shut them down.
“But we swapped business cards five years ago,” or “But these are in my CRM.”
This is a recurring one. Sales guy sets up a booth at a tradeshow and swaps cards with someone. That someone is now a “prospect.” That prospect gets entered into their CRM. It sits and waits. A year later, the company decides to send an email newsletter. The prospect is added to the list and gets a huge, five-page HTML email newsletter with all kinds of promotional junk he never requested. The prospect clicks his report spam button. This is probably the second most popular reason we shut down accounts (next to fishbowls). If you’re a marketing director, and you’ve decided to add email marketing to your strategy, that’s smart. But don’t go to your sales team and say, “alright, gimme every prospect you’ve ever talked to, so I can blast our newsletter to them.”
“But this list was really, really expensive.”
A creative agency purchased a list of email addresses from a leading resource for advertising professionals. The people in that list were members who voluntarily submitted their contact information, just for networking purposes. Not for receiving emails from third parties. By the way, this is almost always the case when you buy email lists—those people never gave their permission to have their info resold to you. Buyer beware. Anyway, this creative agency used MailChimp to send a portfolio email to that list. But one of the email addresses on that list was a sales@ address, which means it got forwarded to every single sales employee at a pretty big, well-known company. A pretty big, well-known anti-spam company, to be exact. That customer was shut down immediately, and they got a very good lecture. Fortunately, the leader of the anti-spam group forgave that company, and we were able to reinstate their account. They learned their lesson: Never send mass, unsolicited emails to a whole list.
“But I’m sending for the government.”
We had an organization that basically published scientific research papers online, into a searchable database. Where’d they get the research papers? Apparently, from the U.S. government. So where’d they get their email addresses? Apparently they were taking author names and guessing at what their email addresses would be. They’d send emails like, “Congratulations, Professor John Smith! We’ve published your research paper at XYZ website!” Problem was, they sent to the wrong Professor John Smith. Professors from universities all over America were reporting them to us for spamming. Not sure how they did it, but we had to shut them down.
“They ordered something 10 years ago.”
One of our users sent a software update email to his list of about 20,000 customers. These were people who had downloaded and purchased his software. 10 years ago.
To his credit, he had a very good, “Hey, remember me, from 10 years ago?” introduction paragraph, and he even merged in each recipient’s order information: Full name, how much they paid, order ID#, etc. He really went all out with the details. Unfortunately, 10 years is a long time to wait to send email updates. Almost none of those emails were even valid anymore. And some had no doubt been converted into spam traps (Microsoft does that with old, expired email addresses sometimes). As soon as he sent his campaign, one of MailChimp’s IPs got blacklisted by Hotmail and MSN. We had to reroute outgoing emails from those IPs and work with Microsoft to explain the situation. Luckily, the sender had overwhelming evidence in his campaign that they were his customers, and we got delisted.
“It came from my Outlook Address Book.”
A nice woman from a small town in North Carolina sent out an email campaign for her local beauty salon. It invited women to “come in and get a manicure.” After she sent her campaign, we got an email from a very, very angry man about how “this woman is using MailChimp to spam me.” We investigated the man’s email domain, and noticed it was from an ISP located in the same small town as the sender. That’s too much of a coincidence for us. We asked him, “any chance your wife signed up for this newsletter?” Nope. No wife. No kids. And nobody who would ever have access to his computer. “She obviously purchased an email list from somewhere,” he said. Now, if some local business owner sends an email to 3,000,000 recipients, that idiot bought a list. But this woman sent to a couple dozen people, with no other complaints. Hmm. He also tells us that his email address has been dormant for years, and he was shocked to even be receiving any messages to it. After many hours of back-and-forth conversations with the sender and the complainer, we figured it out. She dumped her entire Outlook Address book into her email list. She figured the only people in her address book were her clients, since that was her business computer. So how did he end up in her address book? He used to be the tech-support admin for her ISP, before they were bought out by a bigger ISP. You really shouldn’t dump contacts from your address book into a newsletter list. Those people might be your friends or clients, but they haven’t necessarily opted-in to receive email newsletters from you.
“But my sponsor asked me to.”
One customer implemented a double opt-in list, and had a very nice, respectable looking email newsletter design. He even had a nice, well-branded welcome email. He sent a campaign one day and got reported as a spammer by over 60 of his subscribers (usually, up to 5 reports is enough to get blacklisted). What would compel so many people, who specifically requested emails from this man, to then report him for spamming? Turns out for this particular campaign, he removed his logo, and changed the design dramatically. Instead of a white background with his orange and blue logo at the top, he sent an all-black design, with white and red text. Why? A company was sponsoring his email campaign, and that company wanted him to follow their branding guidelines, not his. Sigh. If you’re sending to your list, make it look like you sent it (and tell your advertisers it’s for their own good too).
We highly recommend the double opt-in method when managing your email lists. In fact, it’s the only way MailChimp’s built-in list management system will work. Here’s a quick overview of the process:
- A customer signs up for your email newsletter through a form at your website.
- He receives an email with a confirmation link.
- If he clicks the link, he’s added to your list, and you store the IP address, date, and time of registration. Now you’ve got proof of opt-in, should you ever need it in the future (like if you receive a false or malicious abuse report).
If he doesn’t click the link, he’s not added to the list. Double opt-in is fast replacing the single opt-in method, where someone submits a form, and bam—they’re added to a list. There are too many chances for someone to get signed up to a list without his permission, either erroneously or maliciously. And there’s no need to even discuss the old opt-out method anymore. That’s getting phased out, due to all the spam complaints marketers get from people who never saw the opt-out check. Don’t be so desperate to grow your list that you put your company’s reputation on the line.
Pros & Cons
There was once a big concern about double opt-in, where marketers complained, “But nobody’s going to click the confirmation link! I’ll lose all my prospects!” This isn’t a huge issue anymore. People are used to the double opt-in method these days. Plus, it just looks more professional.
Sure, if you compare a double opt-in list to a single opt-in list side-by-side, the single opt-in list will be larger. It’s just too easy to subscribe (anyone) to a single opt-in list. But it will also have more accidental members, a higher bounce and unsubscribe rate, higher abuse complaint rate, and lower response rate. Double opt-in ensures that every single recipient truly wants to hear from you.