I know that you're wondering about the title of this article. Stick with me, we'll get to that soon. But first let's establish some guidelines to help you create messages that will work effectively. A message "works" when it generates the desired response from the reader. This response might be as simple as clicking through to an article referenced in the message, or it may be a more involved response, such as completing a customer satisfaction survey, forwarding the message to a friend (aka "viral marketing"), or even making an e-commerce purchase.

To Each His Own

Although this is not supposed to be a direct-marketing lesson, let me remind you that you need to make sure your message says something interesting and valuable to your readers and, ideally, that it provides them with a compelling incentive to make whatever response you are aiming for. This may be as simple as providing them with regular news and information about something of interest to them or creating a sweepstakes or special offer that has some tangible value.

That brings us to an important guideline - choose the right format for your message. In other words, decide in advance what kinds of messages you plan to send to your customers. Will they be regular e-mail newsletters that provide news and informative articles, tips and tricks, and other editorial content? Or will they be promotional campaigns that have a more direct sales approach -- for example, event registrations, trial product downloads, and inventory clearance specials? You might even have key groups of customers or partners who warrant a special communication of their own -- for example, your press contacts, investors, or channel partners. You might also use e-mail as a customer support tool for product registration, technical support, and satisfaction surveys.

Once you've chosen what kinds of messages you are going to send your customers, you need to consider what content you are going to send in each message. Here are some tips to help you get the content right.

  • Provide a self-explanatory and interesting subject line. Your aim is either to attract your readers' attention or to recognize a valued communication that they have subscribed to (or, ideally, both).
  • Avoid using spamlike words and symbols in your subject line. By this I mean the kind of words that are overused in unsolicited bulk e-mailings such as "FREE" (or any other inappropriate use of capitalization) or symbols such as "$$$." Not only do these words convey the wrong impression about your message, they are also quite likely to fall victim to the spam-filtering software at your recipients' Internet service provider and therefore not get delivered at all. If they actually do reach their destination, the "shady" connotation of these words are likely to elicit only one response from your readers -- hitting the Delete button!

Address Basics

  • Use a valid "From" address. We talked about this in last month's column. Not only is it common sense, but in some states it's a legal requirement.
  • Never list all your recipients' e-mail addresses in the "To" line. Not only is it very frustrating for the reader to have to scroll through a mass of names before reaching the real content, it also gives away potentially useful information to your competitors!

Looking Good, Reading Right

  • Try to limit the amount of content to no more than two full screens in a typical e-mail browser. Remember that your aim with each e-mail message is to provide an overview summary of the new content on your site (akin to an expanded table of contents) that helps your readers identify -- and easily click through to -- any topics that interest them. As a side note, I have seen e-mail newsletters that work effectively with more content than this, but you need good editorial skills to pull this off.
  • Personalize and customize your messages for each reader. This might not be something you can do initially, but your goal should be to gather information about your customers (for example, their product purchase history, their physical location, or subjects that are of interest to them) and deliver messages that speak to their individual interests. For example, you might provide an upgrade offer only to those customers who have already registered a product; news about events in their localities; or (if you have enough content on your site) the ability to select what interests them most.
  • Like any other text-based communications medium, e-mail quickly exposes poor grammar and bad writing. E-mail may be generally less expensive than print-based formats, but this is no excuse to cut corners on content creation. Pay particular attention to ensuring that your e-mail content is well written and, if you are also using an HTML format, attractively designed. As a rule, you should always run your message through an approval cycle. In the case of customized (and therefore database-driven) messages, you should also send a test delivery to a small group of recipients to ensure that the message looks right on all target platforms once the customized data fields have been merged.

Not all your subscribers will be able to (or will wish to) receive HTML-formatted e-mail messages. You have three simple choices:

1. Offer them a choice of plain text or HTML, and allow them to select the one they want. The downside is that some less advanced users (and those with "nonstandard" e-mail clients, such as AOL's) may become frustrated when they opt for HTML and find that their e-mail software is unable to display the message properly.

2. Deliver a multipart message (HTML and plain text in a single message). These messages will "autodetect" the recipient's e-mail software and display in the best possible format. The downside is that some users may have an HTML-capable e-mail browser but, because of slow connection speeds, may still prefer to receive messages in plain text format. You can also send a "domain-specific" e-mail format to those subscribers whose e-mail addresses end with certain domains -- e.g., user@aol.com or subscriber@juno.com. And finally, some service providers offer "browser sniffing" capabilities, but in essence they perform the same straightforward task of matching content type to e-mail software.

3. Ignore HTML altogether and stick with plain text. This might be appropriate in some instances, but before you take this route, you should at least consider testing with HTML.

If you do choose to use HTML as your message format, make sure that your message can be quickly downloaded even by users with 56KB and slower connections. This is the same rule you should use with any other Web-based content - keep the file size small (20KB or smaller is a good rule of thumb) and the download fast.

You Say Good-Bye, and I Say Hello...

Face it. Not everyone is going to be as excited about your message as you are. So make it as simple as a click-through for your readers to unsubscribe (opt out) from receiving future e-mail messages from you. The easiest way to do this is to include a customized link, whereby with a single click readers can unsubscribe and also receive immediate confirmation of being taken off the mailing list. If, however, your members must unsubscribe manually, make it easier for them by indicating in each message you send what the individual recipient's e-mail address is (even if it's only in the "To" line). Nothing is more frustrating than being unable to unsubscribe because you've forgotten which e-mail address you used when you signed up.

Avoid Bum Steers

Now to explain the title of this article. On behalf of one of our high-tech customers, we recently took the concept of richly formatted e-mail to its next logical step! Not only was the e-mail we designed for them resplendent bovine-themed HTML, but it also came complete with an accompanying mooing sound. Did it have a significant impact on response rates? No, but it certainly added an amusing spin to our response test efforts. One word of caution - don't try this too often with your customers, because the novelty wears off fast. As in any other form of marketing, don't be afraid to test different ways of attracting (and, more important, of retaining) your customers' interest. That's what this is all about: establishing an ongoing one-to-one dialogue.

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