Email Marketing (Is) For Dummies

How did the stupidest people in our industry all find their way into the same job?

Email marketing has become a game of cheap, underhanded tactics at best, and criminal at worst: a dangerous concoction of blatantly lying to customers, creating purposefully confusing checkout processes with permission for email marketing auto-checked, and then gracefully ignoring the customer preference and marketing to them anyway. This is then stirred to a raging boil by slimy marketers that harm the very customers they are supposed to build relationships with.

Consumer trust of email marketing is gone, and for good reason. They have been repeatedly screwed by an industry gladly willing to sacrifice integrity for a one-time sale.

Let's Start by Naming Names:
Lest this become a theoretical column, here are four examples of major companies that have violated consumer trust by ignoring email marketing preferences:

Crate and Barrel (CB2): I made a purchase from CB2 a month ago, and within a few days of selecting to not receive marketing emails, began receiving them at least once a week.



Dell: Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year with Dell through my company, and attempting to unsubscribe several times, they insist on sending me poorly targeted emails weekly.

Live Nation: I bought front-row tickets to a Kings of Leon concert a few months ago, and immediately began receiving emails about concerts in the city where it was held.

Saks Fifth Avenue: Of all the companies who should be guarding their reputation like the crown jewels, Saks took a few small purchases I made on its Web site, and granted themselves permission to send me constant emails. They don't even have the basic targeting ability to only send men's products.

These are big companies that should be examples of best practices. Instead, they are symbolic of the egregious abuse that goes on in the email marketing world.

I'm sure you have a hundred more examples of major companies that promised not to email you, and abused that trust. Call them out in the comments.

How Did We Get Here?
The root of this issue is that email marketers are tracking an incomplete view of their impact. They are measuring positive things, like the amount of views, clicks, and revenue they drive.

What email marketers should be looking at is the number of customers they drive away.

Wasting your customer's time and violating their trust will have two very painful downstream ramifications. First, it will cause them to vote with their feet and drive up your attrition. Second, it will create angry and vocal customers (consider this column Exhibit A). In a world where every customer can reach thousands of people through blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other tools, it has never been more costly to violate a customer's trust.

Four Simple Steps
Fortunately, the path to the promised land is a commonsensical one.

There are four very basic things that every email marketer can do to get in their customers' good graces:

1. Let the customer choose frequency: Your customers should be able to easily choose to receive email daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or no emails at all. End of story.

2. Entertain, then inform: Take a cue from Urban Daddy and hire a damn writer. If you are going to ask us to spend the time to read your email, your job is to make it a great read. Be funny, be charming, be captivating.

3. Never, ever, ever, violate trust: Ask customers explicitly for permission before you email them, and consolidate your email lists so a single unsubscribe takes them off EVERY list. I have heard countless excuses from marketers that their marketing is fragmented, and they have no control over list management.

4. Keep it personal: Once you have a relationship with a customer, don't trash it by sending them irrelevant emails. Contrary to popular opinion, sending nothing is a much, much better option. In 2010, it's better to be forgotten by a single customer, than hated by the masses.

Hitting Rock Bottom and Starting to Dig
I really hope that email marketers will heed this warning, and pull themselves out of the credibility abyss they willingly dove into headfirst. I'm not optimistic, though, as chasing short-term returns is a hard drug to wean yourself from.

Ultimately, success is not measured in how many subscribers you have -- but in how many subscribers welcome your message.

14 comments about "Email Marketing (Is) For Dummies".
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  1. Joshua Chasin from VideoAmp, August 12, 2010 at 1:52 p.m.

    My problem with all this email marketing is that the volume of unwanted email interferes with the comsumer's ability to effectively use the medium of email at all. There was a time when you'd look in your in-box, and having email meant that someone had actually written to you. Now, for example, I look ovvasionally at my wife's personal (as opposed to work) email in-box, and if she has 150 unread messages, literally 135 of them are unsolicited marketing emails. Which just ends up keeping her from checking her email at all.

    There has to be a way out of this penny-wise, dollar-foolish trap.

  2. Renee Mcgivern from Spark Plug Consulting, August 12, 2010 at 1:57 p.m.

    How refreshing - someone actually saying what needs to be said and quite forcefully. Thank you for being straight and naming names.

  3. Russell Cross from Prentke Romich, August 12, 2010 at 2:18 p.m.

    In my humble opinion, e-mail marketing has now become as welcome as pig roast at a Bar Mitzvah and makes one yearn for the days of cold-called telephone marketing. With in-boxes spam filters now having to deal with more spam than Ashton Kutcher has twitter followers, using e-mail as a marketing seems to me to be counterproductive. Even targeted mail gets lost in the tsunami of offers for things that even anatomically make no sense.

    Department stores such as Sears and Kohls are also guilty of helping clog my in-box with sometimes multiple daily posts. Keeping the frequency down would, indeed, help, but this still doesn't stop the automated, low-cost dross that finds its way to my virtual door. I guess if one person in 10 million responds and you send e-mail to everyone on the planet, there's still a return on investment!

    Somedays I just wish e-mail would go away. The ease with which e-mail can be used to "market" has resulted in it being diluted to the point of being useless. I'm afraid there really isn't a solution to this plague apart from mild inoculation via a spam filter. Other than changing our e-mail address weekly, it's just something we have to learn to live with.

  4. Malcolm Faulds from BzzAgent, August 12, 2010 at 2:35 p.m.

    Bravo - well done! The sooner folks realize they should market WITH consumers rather than AT them, the better off we'll all be.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 12, 2010 at 3:55 p.m.

    True, volume is a problem, not the media. One example to borrow from you: You are a Saks shopper. Outside of special promotions for which you checked boxes to receive notices, when you want to buy something at Saks, you will click on their site faster than speeding bullet. The business that sold you a lawnmower needs to kill more ads for the same product but may follow up with accuetrements a few times a year. A follow up after a sale is OK, too. This is not based on metrics, just common sense.

  6. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., August 12, 2010 at 4:30 p.m.

    @Joshua, I couldn't agree more! I'm the CEO of a hosted email provider that receives more than 4 Billion messages each month. We block more than 98% of all messages, and our customers still complain they get too much spam :)

  7. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, August 12, 2010 at 4:34 p.m.

    The points in your article are completely valid in terms of how email marketing should be done. Jump over to Mediapost's Email Insiders column and you will read article after article preaching the same thing you are. Yes, there are big companies doing dumb stuff, but in the end, you have said nothing original.

    Laying the problem at the feet of email marketers and calling all of them/us stupid shows an ignorance of the true root cause. You say "the root of this issue is that email marketers are tracking an incomplete view of their impact. They are measuring positive things, like the amount of views, clicks, and revenue they drive."

    Wrong, the problem is much bigger than this.

    The points you make in this article are made emphatically and articulately by email professionals within their organizations every day. There are too many reasons to list why those arguments are ineffective, but you have inspired my next Email Insider column.

    And for that, I thank you.

  8. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., August 12, 2010 at 5:21 p.m.

    @Morgan, give me a break.

    You can attempt to make the issue complex and layered, but it's incredibly simple:

    Email marketing should be explicitly opt-in and not violate customer trust.

    As an email marketer, you have zero right to blame internal pressures, technology, or anything/anyone else. If Wall Street bankers don't deserve a pass when they break the law, why do email marketers?

  9. Dj Waldow from Blue Sky Factory, August 12, 2010 at 5:47 p.m.


    I think we can all agree with your statement that "Email marketing should be explicitly opt-in and not violate customer trust." Any credible email marketer or email service provider will back you on that statement 100%.

    In my heart, I believe that most email marketers have good intentions. They are not out to spam you. They don't want to send you email that you don't want, that you'll delete, or that your (gasp) mark as spam. They want to do the right thing. The challenge is that their is constant pressure to squeeze more juice out of email marketing. It has proven ROI. The DMA says $43.62 in 2009. Not bad.

    So what do we do? Continue to educate. Continue to write blog posts that are constructive and help them become better email marketers. Continue to move them towards reputable Email Service Providers who have teams of client service managers that are willing to coach them on how to "do it better."

    I think your closing comments (Four Simple Steps) are a "step" in the right direction towards education.

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

  10. Elie Ashery from DEMY Media, August 12, 2010 at 8:43 p.m.

    Like any institution the quality of output is based on admission standards. Email marketing as an institution has bottom of the barrel admission standards. It's cheap and anyone with a pulse can call themselves an email marketer. Things have improved slowly over the number of years with more companies embracing best practices however there won't be a tectonic shift until price or some other force flushes the bad apples.

  11. Andrew Kordek from Trendline Interactive, August 12, 2010 at 11:32 p.m.


    My name is Andrew and I am an email marketer. I take offense to your generalization of email marketers and respectfully ask that you rethink your position.

    Your four simple steps are certainly nothing that I have not heard before. However, as an individual who has been doing email marketing for over 10 years now, I can tell you that there are internal pressures, IT resource constraints and just about anything you can imagine that can hinder a email marketer from doing what is right for the subscriber. Understand that as a professional, I strive everyday to become a better email marketer, but I sometimes fail. That in no way makes me makes me human.

    I also find it incredibly insensitive and unprofessional that you chastise me to "heed your warning" and again ask that you reconsider your generalization here.

    I notice that you are an accomplished President/CEO of an organization with a deep background in email. If I may ask: when was the last time you ran an email program? I mean really run an email program? I often find that people who are hyper-critics of email and want to dispel email advice are often those that have never run any large scale email program in their entire career. Therefore you are somewhat oblivious as to what goes on in organizations.

    Nevertheless, I believe you make some valid points here, but I certainly would never write an article generalizing all CEO/Presidents of organizations and lying, cheating, crooks because of a few bad experiences.

    Lastly, I would like to sign up for BlueTie's email program so that I can review your emails to ensure your organization is practicing what the CEO is preaching. However, I was unable to find such a sign up page. Can you direct me?


    Andrew Kordek

  12. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, August 13, 2010 at 1:16 a.m.

    @David - Just one of the many challenges (or "excuses" in your vernacular) is that we have too few experienced people in the email field that ‘get it’ (like Andrew and DJ).

    Compounding the problem is that many of the good one’s are looking elsewhere because they are tired of fighting spam all day long, having yet another conversation with management about why "sending JUST one more email" is a bad idea, and then being called "spammers" at cocktail receptions.

    Is the fact these people have stopped billions of emails from being sent enough? No! But there are good people out there fighting this fight every day. There just aren't enough of us. Unfounded articles like this only serve to make it more difficult to recruit top-tier talent.

    That's just ONE of the challenges.

  13. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., August 13, 2010 at 2:45 p.m.

    @Andrew, we are not an email marketing organization, we are a hosted email provider. We run the back-end email servers for 250,000 businesses around the world.

    There is a huge sign-up link right on our homepage if you would like to check it out.

    As for my generalization, it was definitely a generalization intended to provoke a reaction. It was obviously not indicative of the *entire industry*.

    That said, I take huge issue with you pointing at IT constraints or internal pressures as reasons you HAVE to spam your customers.

    There is a law in the US that prevents the sending of unsolicited commercial email.

    If you as an employee choose to knowingly break this law, you have no one to blame but yourself.

    Every company has internal pressures, but I would obviously recommend you don't work for a company whose management demands you to break the law.


  14. David Koretz from Adventive, Inc., August 13, 2010 at 2:53 p.m.

    @DJ and Morgan,

    I would love to believe that most have good intentions. I really would.

    But every day I'm faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    I just arrived on vacation in Argentina, and had to sift through more than 200 emails. About 50 of them were from companies I have bought products from that failed to honor my request not to email me.

    Every email marketer might not be bad, but as the expression goes, when you wrestle with a pig, you end up covered in shit, and the pig is happy.


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