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Part Four: E-mail marketing

The right tools to get off on the right foot Add to ...

The best-written e-mail campaign won’t get far without the tools to get it from your desktop to your clients’ inboxes.

There’s a good deal of similarity between e-mail service providers, but following best practices is all the more important when sending e-mail: Not only is your brand at stake, but the eyes of the law are watching ever more keenly.

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Choosing the right tools can get you off on the right foot, from the get-go.

Go with a provider

The practical way to send bulk e-mail is through an e-mail service provider (uncannily abbreviated to ESP), which typically offer do-it-yourself services through a Web interface.

Don’t be tempted to use a desktop e-mail package: You’ll regret it when the list is long, you’re handling unsubscription requests by hand, and you’re finding e-mail isn’t reaching people because it’s getting snagged in spam filters.

Services like MailChimp, Aweber and Constant Contact provide suites of DIY options. What ESPs share is the ability not just to manage lists and automate functions like unsubscribing, but the status to send bulk e-mails without getting flagged as potential spam operations by automated Internet filters that will blacklist potential offenders.

Ezra Silverton, president of 9th Sphere, a Toronto-based Web and marketing consultancy, says that there’s not a world of difference between most e-mail products.

In fact, the most distinguishing feature – at least, from a Canadian perspective – is where the service itself is hosted.

Canadian and American laws are different when it comes to consumer privacy. The Patriot Act can see the American government accessing user data without permission, something Canada’s privacy laws take a dim view of. It’s less an issue for small business, but opting for a Canadian-based provider is a concern for governments and institutions.

Consider a consultancy

If the tools that you use to send off a bulk e-mail are easy-to-use and more or less interchangeable, then is there any point in paying someone to help with the operation? There might be.

Remember that e-mail marketing is as much of a marketing task as it is a technical challenge. Finding the right tone for your pitch, making sure the piece is visually ship-shape and determining the best way to drive traffic to your site are tricks that every businessperson has to learn.

Tapping a consultancy can help to accelerate the learning curve. Mr. Silverton suggests hiring professionals to help with setup and the initial mailouts, before bringing future mailings in-house.

“It might be a better approach, rather than trying it on your own, screwing up and doing damage control,” he says. “You have to be careful, because sometimes it only takes one e-mail to tick off a client – the delete key is one button away from the enter key.”

Keep an eye open for new anti-spam laws

The appearance of ever-tighter anti-spam laws indicates there are some tools you shouldn’t use – most especially, lists of e-mail addresses harvested from who-knows-where.

Late last year, Parliament passed Canada’s Anti-Spam Law (CASL), new legislation that will substantially tighten up the rules around sending mass e-mails in Canada.

The law hasn’t gone into effect yet (the precise date hasn’t been announced, but could come later this year), but it could have repercussions for small businesses and charities. Meant to crack down on spammers who send large quantities of unsolicited e-mail, CASL insists that e-mail senders have an existing relationship with their recipients.

Moreover, says David Canton, a business lawyer with Harrison Pensa in London, Ont., small operators can’t be complacent, because the bill doesn’t specify a metric for how much e-mail is sent before it runs afoul of the law.

“I could send you one e-mail, and it could be considered spam,” he says.

The e-mail marketing industry is watching the new law closely. In the meantime, it gives small businesses all the more incentive to be wary of e-mail lists that are purchased (or, as it’s sometimes phrased, “rented”), to collect e-mail addresses themselves on an opt-in basis, and to make sure that a link to unsubscribe goes out in every message.

In this case, the best practice for the law is the best practice for business, too. Providing real content to real customers with whom you’ve got a real relationship is the opposite of spam: It’s a real value.

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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