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Andy Gradel was having a bad day. The Internet marketing manager of Cooper University Hospital, a 550-physician medical system with locations throughout southern New Jersey and the Delaware Valley, was getting ready to submit his monthly email newsletter report to his supervisor when he noticed that his steady 25 percent open rate had plummeted to 12 percent. Something was very wrong.

"I was scrambling, trying to come up with some kind of reason why it happened," he said. "While everyone talks about social media and Twitter and the hip forms of Internet marketing right now, email marketing is still our bread and butter. For each click-through I might get on a social networking site, I'm getting 20 to 30 from our email. It's really important that it gets through."

Use authenti...what?

The problem, Gradel says, was that the domain server from which he was sending his email campaigns did not support Sender ID and sender policy framework (SPF)—authentication tools that help inbound-email servers classify which of the messages they receive are authentic and which aren't. Consequently, because Internet service providers (ISPs) and receiving networks could not verify that the email was truly coming from Cooper, his domain was blacklisted and emails he sent were not delivered.

By simply switching to a domain server that supported these authentication tools, Gradel was able to fix his delivery issue—for a mere $12.00.

Many organizations haven't been paying attention to emerging or even traditional best-practices in email marketing, says Jeff Wilbur, vice-president of marketing for Iconix, an email authentication company based in Santa Clara, California. As email marketing issues—including technology and legal concerns—evolve, there are several ways that these programs can go awry, he says.

If you're not paying attention to every aspect of your email marketing, you could make missteps that cost you opportunities to communicate with your customers or constituents and damage credibility.

In addition to improper authentication practices, here are eight other pitfalls that can put you out of business.

Ignore CAN-SPAM requirements

Business coach Maria Marsala has been receiving an unwanted email newsletter for more than two years, but can't find a way to get off the list. "Besides not wanting to be on their list, they have the most awful newsletter I've ever seen," she says. "There is no address, no removal instructions, and on their website there is no way to contact them."

In addition to being annoying, what the mystery mailer is doing is also illegal, says Scott Fox, author of eRiches 2.0 (AMACOM, 2009). The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and more recent Federal Trade Commission regulations require that email marketing messages have a true identity in the "From" line, an accurate subject line, a valid postal address, and instructions for unsubscribing somewhere in the email. Failure to abide by these rules could leave you writing a check for $11,000 per violation.

Opt-in, Schmopt-in!

Similarly, sending email without having the recipient's permission is one of the quickest ways to alienate prospects and customers, says email marketing consultant Simms Jenkins, author of The Truth about Email Marketing (FT Press, 2008). By having customers sign up for something of value—an email newsletter, whitepaper, or other offer—you engage customers and show them that you're not just sending them mindless sales pitches.

Be sure you're clear about what you're offering and feature your email collection form somewhere prominent on your website. Jenkins says many companies make the mistake of burying email collection mechanisms or require the subscriber to fill out too much information. That will hinder your email collection efforts, he says. He also recommends a double-opt-in system (the subscriber submits his/her email address and then has to respond to an email to reconfirm intent to subscribe).

Send them home

If your email links just send subscribers back to your homepage, you could be missing opportunities to reinforce the actions you want from your subscribers, says Jenkins. You need to determine the action you want your subscribers to take, whether that action is to have them come into your store to buy, to download a whitepaper that you're offering for prospecting purposes, or to click through to a landing page to get more information.

"Too often, companies just use their email list to broadcast and recycle information that's already on their home page or on their blog," he says. "The key to good email programs is treating your email subscriber list like a VIP list. You're giving them access to special offers or news in exchange for their permission for you to send this information."

Go big

Every bone in your marketing body may be yearning for graphically rich email messages with beautiful text treatments and photos; images, however, are suppressed by more than 50 percent of email subscribers' software, Jenkins estimates. The key to bypassing such software cops is to craft an effective offer and feature it prominently in both text and graphic treatments in the email. Jenkins says it drives him crazy when he gets email that essentially looks like a direct mail piece with a great offer or important information buried at the bottom. It's one of the worst things you can do, he says.

Write whatever

While conventional wisdom says that shorter copy is better for email marketing, Fox says each message needs to be examined individually to decide on the best approach. For example, simple sales offers or calls to action may require minimal copy, while email newsletters may work best with brief blocks of copy that link to longer-form pieces on a microsite. More involved messages may require longer-form copy. He says he has worked with companies that use long-form email because they have a more personal relationship with their customers, who prefer to receive more copy.

Whatever the copy length, however, careful proofreading is essential to maintain credibility and avoid potential ill will. Alison Garlough, the email marketing manager of Sitebrand, an online marketing company based in Quebec, cringes when she recalls one embarrassing oversight. Her client, a purveyor of groceries and produce, typically used a return address of "From the Pantry." However, a simple dropped "r" made one issue "From the Panty."

"The client was pretty upset because he received complaints," she says. But it was a good lesson in carefully reviewing every word.

Slap together a subject line

Simms says subject lines represent missed opportunities for many companies. He says a good subject line is the most important indicator of open rates. An April 2009 report from email marketing company Smith Harmon gives kudos to Systemax, which bought computer retailer CompUSA's domain name and other online assets. A dynamic email campaign included the subject line "All-New CompUSA...$10 Off until 1/30," combining notification of the new operations with a special offer within a concise message sent to previous customers of the company. (Fox says the sweet spot for subject line copy is typically three to five words, but can vary based on the offer.)

Let email stand alone

If you're treating your email campaigns as one-offs, or segregating them from the rest of your marketing—don't, says Jenkins. He advises that if you are looking for multimedia followers, you should give customers a reason to follow you on Twitter and read your website and join a fan page and subscribe to email... or else they'll tune you out.

His firm has successfully tested email messages that encourage the subscriber to click on a button and access a special offer on a Facebook page.

Integration with mobile marketing has also been successful. "We have some restaurant clients where day-parting messaging is producing really intriguing results. You send text message at 11:30 with a special lunch offer because the immediacy of SMS messaging, that's going to get a different kind of response and can work well with a broader email message."

Don't bother testing

Sending variations of an email campaign to small list segments and measuring results is so easy that Fox, Jenkins, and Wilbur get a bit exasperated that companies don't do more of it. "You should be testing everything," says Jenkins. "Subject lines, copy, offers should all be tested before you use them on a wider scale."

Testing can also alert you to delivery issues. Wilbur says that many of the larger email service providers provide feedback loops. These subscription services "tell you how much is rejected and why and give you great insight into preventing delivery problems," he says. Finding this out on a smaller scale can prevent large-scale delivery failures like the one Gradel faced.

* * *

Email marketing requires much more strategic thought than just repurposing existing materials and sending them to a list of email addresses. Being aware of and avoiding these common issues can give your organization a more successful and headache-free experience.

Check out SmartTools: Email Campaign Planner for additional help in building winning email campaigns. As a Premium Member, you have free access to this tool and hundreds of other Premium articles, case studies, templates, research, SmartTools and "how-to" guides to help you rapidly build effective marketing programs.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gwen Moran is a freelance writer. Reach her via gwenmoran@optonline.net.