What is email marketing?
Basically, in plain English, email marketing is a targeted mass mailing done via email. The purpose of email marketing could be advertising in order to recruit new clients, introducing a new set of products or services to an existing client base, keeping your clients informed by means of a newsletter, etc. All of the before mentioned activities are very legitimate business efforts, as long as you respect some unwritten rules and as long as the list of emails you use is what is called 'targeted', in other words the names came from a database generated by your marketing division and represents your existing client base, a carefully selected list of potential prospects or a list of people who opted in to receive your messages.
If instead of the above you use a list that you bought (you know, "25 million guaranteed AOL email addresses for only 19.95 - plus shipping"), or are doing it without warning the people on your list, or using other shady methods, then you are considered a spammer and what you are sending is spam, bulk mail, unsolicited email, basically, the main enemy of all things virtue and life in general. Yes folks, it is that easy to be labeled as a spammer, and very hard to get out of it.
Once your message is considered unsolicited, you will immediately be put on zillions of black lists, side by side with those who promise inches and inches of extra extremities and hours and hours of ecstatic pleasures (for only 3 easy payments and some handling fees).
Sound pretty risky, so why bother?
Obviously, opt-in email advertising is far more cost effective than direct marketing via regular mail, door-to-door sales, or telemarketing. Paper, printing, envelopes, and postage can add up quickly. Door to door sales require paying out commissions. Telemarketing results in high long distance bills, often without great results, as people become more and more blood thirsty toward the people on the other end of the so called cold call.
So why not just use my personal email or my company's mail server and some mailing software?
In the early days of email marketing (that is, before the art of penile enlargement was crafted), that's exactly what people did. They would gather all their emails into some primitive version of a spreadsheet, fire up some mail merging program, hook it up to their corporate mail system and voila, thousands of emails were flying away.
Today, the scenario is certainly possible, but let me tell you in a simple set of scenarios what can happen:
One of the many not-for-profit groups that decided to police the internet will intercept that a large number of emails were generated and sent by a server near you (yep, they can do that). In order to protect the civilized world from those who spread spam, viruses and other vermin, they will put you on a list of threats to humanity. Those other nice corporate folks who were your indented recipients, have an IT department that gets constantly yelled at by angry users who get emails with naked people. Well - Mel, their IT guy decides to put up an anti-spam system that links to that not-for-profit's database of known spammers (oh yeah, did I mention you are now a 'known spammer'?) and block your emails. Your emails might actually be blocked so well that your company will have a real trouble communicating via email and your IT folks will all go nuts and/or get fired.
Basically, not so good. Other things that can happen are: you'll have to build some opt-in / opt-out system, in some states there are laws that require that you make it very easy for your audience to unsubscribe, you'll have a hard time formatting your emails in a decent, eye pleasing way, etc.
Lastly, the process of sending thousands of emails and managing lists, subscribing and unsubscribing people is tedious and just plain annoying. The only way to do it is with a maximum degree of automation, or, the better solution - to outsource to a company that does it professionally.
Folks, I am known for promoting the "do it in house" concept, and am not that big on outsourcing. But when it comes to mass mailing... I say stay away from it and let the professionals do what they do.
If you are worried about cost, know that the fee you pay for email marketing services, will still cost less than the continued overhead and expenses of the traditional options, not to mention the great possibilities of reaching a much larger audience, much faster (practically instantly).
What to look for in an email marketing company?
1. Automating Your Subscribe and Unsubscribe Requests
Many email marketing companies will provide you with exact HTML code you need to paste to your site to have a subscription form on your web site. The better services also provide a link at the bottom of each email that enables subscribers to update their information or unsubscribe from a list, automating everything for you.
2. Personalization of Emails
Another powerful feature of many email marketing services is the ability to use mail merge capabilities to personalize each email that you send. The better services allow to have custom fields, additional to the standard first name and last name.
3. Bounceback email handling
Bouncebacks are emails that are sent to email accounts that no longer exist or are full, blocked, etc. Essentially, you'll get a response stating that your message did not make it. All email list management software programs are able to manage subscribe and unsubscribe requests and send out messages, however without integrated bounceback email handling all the non-deliverable emails will be sent back to you, a rather big nuisance if your list is large. Ideally, the email software you use will be able to manage your bouncebacks for you. Whenever a bounceback is received, the software makes a note of the address and if another bounceback is received the email address will be sent to a list of dead addresses.
This remove capability is extremely important since if you continuously send out emails with many bouncebacks you may be blacklisted as a spammer. This is something you really want to avoid at all cost.
4. HTML email
The ability to send out HTML emails has been around for quite some time. Most email marketing companies support the ability to send out messages that include graphics and formatted text. This is surely something you'll want to look for.
However, not all of your users have the ability to view email messages in HTML format. This percentage is usually between 10-20%. Instead of seeing your aesthetically pleasing email they might see a string of meaningless code. Using most email list management programs, these 10-20% of users will open up emails from you and be very inclined to call you a spammer.
To avoid this, look for companies that use multi-part MIME to send out messages. When you send an HTML email in multi-part MIME, users who do not have the ability to view HTML messages will receive the email in the usual text format.