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The number is no coincidence. The allusion is, of course, to addiction recovery programs. E-mail is abused by “innocent” people, just as alcohol, drugs and food are. Obviously, e-mail abuse does not bear the same dire consequences.

Steps #1-5 refer specifically to e-mail used for prospecting only; Steps 6-12 apply to e-mails going to both prospects and customers (current, inactive, and about to become inactive)

The temptation – especially for b-t-c marketers – is to use e-mail as a mass medium. Why not? It's SO inexpensive? You just do a blast and it doesn't matter how many people respond. Your cost per response is still close to zero. Why not? Because you are polluting the stream – dumping gunk which makes breathing in cyberspace impossible. E-mail list selection for prospecting purposes should be compatible with your snail mail list selection strategy. RELEVANCE should always be your guide.

This is a corollary of Step #1. Prospecting to both businesses and consumers has relied heavily on double opt-in lists. Double opt-in was the methodology that was going to stop spam and leverage Seth Godin's concept of permission-based marketing. However, many of these lists were developed through sweepstakes and other highly promotional offers.

Respondents who said that they were interested in receiving specific types of offers really weren't. They were being bribed to say they were interested. Many of those who opted-in don't remember why; now they're receiving offers that confuse them. Finally, many of these same people would opt-out, only they're smart enough to know that the act of opting-out many indeed land them on another list.

Just as traditional mailers know that response lists normally outpull compiled lists significantly, smart marketers use true response lists in their e-mail campaigns. That's why the cost of the mass opt-in files has dropped precipitously – they are just not performing. In the b-t-b arena, controlled circ publication e-mail files (not just traditional files with e-mail appends) are working very well. Obviously, as a consumer marketer, if you can rent online respondents to magazine or catalog offers, or even to insurance and financial lead-generation offers, you'll want to test them.

You want response, sure. But what's the offer? How will you let prospects respond to that offer?

Example: we recently completed writing an e-mail series for a company trying to recruit new franchisees. The entire thrust of the series was to get prospects to register for a free seminar in their region, certainly a common and acceptable strategy in the world of franchising. We raised the question: “What if the prospect is either not the seminar-going type, or, in fact, is such a hot prospect that he/she wants an immediate one-on-one with your sales director”?

Unless you're selling product right from your e-mail, make provisions for different levels of interest. Keep in mind that perhaps your primary goal is to open a dialogue. You want to get the initial response in a way (ethically and relevantly) that enables you to use e-mail for one of its best applications: romancing the qualified prospect.

You know enough not to put deceptive offers out there for everyone to see, but what about copy? Getting e-mail opened is getting tougher. You have considerably less time to get your prospect to read the subject line than to read traditional envelope teaser copy. Because the sole function of both is to move the reader inside the message, some mailers will resort to anything to accomplish that.

DON'T resort to “anything.” Deception will backfire on you fast. With e-mail, you'll not lose potential responses, orders and customers, but get complaints and even be subject to negative viral campaigns. There are subject lines that are intriguing, intrusive, challenging without being deceptive.

I hear this far too often: “We invested trillions in our gorgeous web site. We want everyone to click onto our Home Page.” That can be an extremely dangerous path for a number of reasons.

  1. It may stymie sudden impulse responders. Maybe they are willing to simply hit “Reply” to say “Yes” to your offer. Maybe they're willing to click immediately onto a secure response form directly and actually refuse to look at anything else.
  2. Your Home Page may not make your e-mail offer evident, and your prospect or customer will certainly not take the time to go looking for it.
  3. Further information about the particular offer is not crystallized anywhere on the site. You may be far better off having interested e-mail readers click on to a highly-focused jump page or to a PDF first… then link to particular areas of your web site from there to drill more deeply.

STEP #7: MONITOR FREQUENCY FREQUENTLY How much is too much? Many e-mailers never ask this question because “E-mail doesn't cost anything.” Ah, but it can. Prospects who place their first order online and are then bombarded with e-mails from you two or three times a week may be reluctant to order again even if they liked the product. Will they go into your bricks-and-mortar store? Perhaps… but why take the chance?

Similarly, if you're trying to get a prospect to enroll in a seminar on a particular date, how many e-mails should you send before that prospect is turned off forever? Are you better off limiting the series and then doing another flight the next time the same seminar is running? Or are you depending on the prospect to use opt-out to tell you he/she is sick of seeing your e-mail?

STEP #8: CALIBRATE TIMING As a corollary of the step above, you should be testing timing as well as frequency. What's the difference? As in the case above, suppose you've decided to send prospects a flight of six different e-mails to get them to enroll in your seminar. In traditional mail, the first effort might mail 120 days before the seminar; the second, 90 days before; and the third, 60 days before – 30 days apart. The fourth mail effort might drop 15 days later, and the last two efforts each a week apart. What should the e-mail concomitant be? Should the final three e-mails be released within 24 hours of each other, just a few days before the seminar?

STEP #9: NEVER STOP TESTING E-mail is far more testable than even traditional mail, and yet too few users are conducting head-to-head testing the way it should be done. Subject line testing is most prevalent – and the results others have achieved in this arena may be most readily applied to your particular marketing situation. However, in addition to frequency and timing mentioned above, you also need to test other copy elements, graphics, offers, number and placement of “click here” links, and what that link should be. Don't rely on what works for other people without doing some testing on your own.

STEP #10: ANALYZE BOTTOM LINE RESULTS PROPERLY Ultimately, no one cares how many recipients open your e-mail or even click on a particular link. Counting visitors to sites became passé even before the great burn out. The relevant measurements begin with… • How many people who respond become immediate prospects • How many people register with real names on your site, and give you explicit permission to send additional e-mails • How many people wind up becoming customers… and what their lifetime value is to you • How the three measurements from particular efforts vary from other e-mail efforts and from results you achieve in other media.

STEP #11: BE HUMAN IN YOUR RESPONSE MECHANISMS Particularly in dealing with customers, program in the fact that you may indeed make mistakes in your communications. Here's an example from Amazon. It's one of the reasons why the company is so admired by marketers.

I had placed an order just three weeks before. Yet I opened an e-mail asking me, in well-written copy, why I hadn't placed an order in the past six months. Clearly this was a screw-up on their part. Replying back immediately, I protested and asked them to check their records. Within TWO HOURS came an apology – no excuses, just a “we really goofed and we're sorry.” Admitting fallibility – how human! (even if the response was automated).

STEP #12: USE A PRO It's bad enough when non direct response copywriters (editors for example) insist on writing traditional mail packages. That medium has been around long enough for amateurs to absorb at least a few of the guiding principles. But e-mail is too new. Users are just beginning to understand that writing copy for it requires skill. Too many think “It's short; we can do it here.” Or they'll pick the wrong kind of writer. Many PR people and image advertising creatives are hanging up their “E-Mail Marketing” shingles. It's just not the same as hiring direct response copywriters. The truth is that even though e-mails are typically one quarter to one half the length of a traditional direct mail letter, they require even more skill and knowledge of direct response principles.

Just as with snail mail, many who bring in pros to writing their e-mail prospecting efforts try to do activation and retention, up-sell and cross-sell campaigns themselves. What erosion of ROI potential!

If you think this step is self-serving, you are partially right. However, if you want the names of other direct response copywriters who understand the gestalt of e-mail marketing, just contact me at

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Lee Marc Stein is an internationally known direct marketing consultant and copywriter. He has extensive experience in circulation, insurance and financial services, high tech, and B2B marketing.