When was the last time you bought a car?

If, like me, you've always been far from satisfied with the car-buying experience, you probably have a sense for where I'm going with this.

It can be as difficult to figure out how much you'll pay for an e-mail campaign as it is to figure out the numbers on a new car lease.

Now, don't get me wrong. Rarely is this just a case of vendors trying to take advantage of you. Typically it's a result of a lack of benchmarks to help guide you through the pricing process.

So let me give you some guidelines that will help you better plan your budget. After all, you can't possibly figure out whether the campaign will be profitable unless you can forecast costs and probable results.

For the purposes of this exercise, let's assume you plan to work with outside vendors for everything from the creative development to message delivery. Let's also assume you have an e-mail list of existing customers but you also wish to acquire new leads using an external opt-in e-mail list.

Contemplating Content
First of all, you're going to need a compelling message to send. This requires well-written copy -- including a catchy subject line -- formatted in each of the different message types you plan to use.

Plain text requires the least effort, followed by AOL versions, which require some additional specialized text formatting. Versions in HTML probably need additional graphics, which you might already have available in-house or which you might need to license.

At the most expensive end of the content spectrum are rich media formats, including Macromedia Flash animations and streaming audio and video.

You'll pay more for movie-style content.

For example, a good Web designer can build a Flash animation from scratch in as little as a few hours in a format that can be directly incorporated into your HTML formatted e-mail message.

A streaming video file requires either the reformatting of an existing media asset, such as a TV ad, or the creation of an original production.

Costs so far? The following are typical.

  • Copywriting: $200-$500 (U.S.).
  • Licensing of images: $150-$500.
  • HTML design and file creation: $500-$2,000.
  • AOL-specific content creation: $250-$500.
  • Flash animation design and file creation: $1,000-$3,000.
  • Video and audio production: $10,000-$25,000.

If you don't already have a list and don't have the time or resources to build that list yourself, you can work with any of a number of reputable opt-in list companies.

Getting Listed
I should stress that none of the reputable players will ever sell you the list. They will allow you to send, using their delivery resources, a one-time e-mail message to a list or segment of your choosing.

You can use this message as you choose, for example, to present an offer and to obtain an e-mail address to which to send messages directly.

A couple of things to keep in mind when using these third parties:

First, it can be expensive, and they usually do not entertain requests for small list selections. Second, response rates, the number of people who click through on a link within the e-mail message, are falling precipitously on these opt-in lists. You should consider carefully whether they are a worthwhile investment.

For example, you can expect to see response rates of less than 1% in many cases, and rarely higher than 2% or 3%.