Who's Hurting Email Marketing's Reputation?

The conversation has been fast and furious lately about email marketing's future in the Digital Age. I am a firm believer that email is the marketing channel most able to adapt to shifting modes of communication, even as we trade the desktop computer for the handheld and the inbox for the personal page on the hot new social network.

While we look to the future, however, we're still plagued with marketers bent on ruining email's good reputation by ignoring best practices and doing business like it's 1999 all over again.

So, we go over the same ground -- permission, email design, content, list management, deliverability, the customer experience -- to the point where some industry thinkers complain we need to get past the basics and tackle more strategic issues: like how to generate a higher ROI.

A wonderful thought that I fully support, having written more than my share of "Email Marketing 101" articles over the last five years. But I also must disagree. As long as we have marketers out there doing their darnedest to ruin email marketing's hard-won good reputation by failing to upgrade their programs to reflect generally accepted best practices, we need to keep having the conversation and insisting that all the players hold them.

These folks aren't spammers huddled in dingy apartments in Beijing or Boca Raton, either; they could even include you in your brightly lighted cubicle or cushy corner office of your Silicon Valley/Silicon Alley high-rise if you're the person whose email campaigns violate every best practice from opt-in to unsubscribe.

You're one of those marketers who are holding us back from keeping email as a trusted channel for consumers and on the front lines of communication innovation, if your email programs look like these examples from my hall-of-shame Stupid Email Tricks:

The Unsolicited Surprise Trick: Why, a decade after email has proved itself as a viable marketing channel, is this an issue? Because I still get emails sent to an address that clearly was scraped off my company Web site. Or take this token stab at transparency with this explanation about why the email's in my inbox: "Your subscription was initiated because you requested it, you've attended one of our seminars, we've had some professional contact, or someone you know forwarded it to you." Yeah, that will help instill the trust that's so key in our relationship with our customers.



The Pestering-Email Trick: Your CFO, who signs your paycheck, tells you to send more email because it's cheap and you're a long way from meeting your quarterly numbers. Your customers have said they only want to hear from you once a week. Who's gonna win? Probably not your customers -- who will get fed-up being bombarded and opt out in droves,

The Portable-Permission Trick: OK, so you actually get permission from subscribers for Newsletter A. But you then launch Email B and C and automatically add Newsletter A subscribers to these new lists. "Heck, why start from scratch or get permission from our existing subscribers when it's so easy to add them to a new list?" Well, because they didn't ask for your new newsletters. Don't be surprised if subscribers suddenly opt out of all of your emails and hit the spam complaint button -- causing an ISP to block all of your emails.

The Exclamation-Syndrome Trick: What's wrong with this subject line? "Save up to 50% & Get Free Shipping!" The exclamation point is not needed and makes the email look spammy. That's all it takes to prompt your recipient to click the spam button even on your permission email. Email is not direct mail - you don't need to shout to get people to open it. Email Marketing 101 lesson? Don't use "free" and "!" together in the subject line -- that double combo may get you filtered.

The Old Bait-and-Switch Trick: You entice people to download your white paper or a "partner's offer," or similar promotion. Then. after they complete the form to receive what you got them interested in, you tell them, "By the way, like it or not, you've now just agreed to receive emails from us or our partners." Ugh, hey folks, thanks for the gift, but guess what - I'll never visit your site again or trust anything you say. Say adios to your brand.

Email marketing has a brand, and a public perception of that brand. Are you doing your best to keep email the No.1 ROI marketing channel and the single digital communications channel most used by consumers? Or are you one of those whose actions keep email from moving firmly into its place in the digital conversation?

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