The R word comes up a lot when talking about email marketing, and especially email newsletters. That's R for Relationships; customer, marketing, reader, prospect, partner etc.

Although the word is much overused, I'm still a huge proponent of email and e-newsletters as a cost-effective means of supporting and developing such relationships.

In an email context, the first time a recipient "meets" your list is your opportunity to make that all important first impression - an impression that colors the character and path of the subsequent reader relationship.

But this first meeting is not when they get their first issue or email from you. No. If you're going to get the relationship off on the right footing, then you need to be making a positive impression before they've even signed-up to your list.

You can start with the way you present the sign-up offer. We're not talking about "sales" copy and list promotion here - that's another topic. Instead, think about the way you facilitate this sign-up.

You need to make it easy and make it work. Most people go for the simple "enter your email address below" subscription form. If you do, make sure the instructions are clear and don't fall into default list jargon unless your audience are experienced email and Web users.

Will your potential subscribers understand the terminology you use? Do they know what a "mailing list", "e-newsletter" or "ezine" is? Do they understand the difference between "HTML" and "text-only" options? If not, then explain things in a language they will understand. They'll value you all the more for taking account of their needs.

Give people alternative sign-up methods. Forms and web scripts break down, so check them regularly. And consider offering a way to sign up by email, with an address which automatically adds the sender to a list, or through a catch-all email you can process by hand. Any mailing list hosting service worth its salt will offer both forms-based and email-based subscription automation.

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Mark Brownlow, Ph.D., is a writer, traveler, and footbal (soccer) fan (