Newsletters, Mailing Lists & You

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Edit: This post was originally written in January 24, 2013 but I've updated it with new links and information about the CAN-SPAM Act law that makes it illegal to spam people with commercial messages. Its useful information, that I think every small business that uses email marketing should have an understanding of. I made a resolution for 2013 that has set me free: I'm unsubscribing from all newsletters I have not signed up for and deleting group emails veiled as newsletters or press releases. (If I am cranky enough I'll mark them as spam.)

Here’s the thing, I actually like newsletters. I think they’re a fantastic way of sharing information. I have a folder in my inbox, and I read the ones I've subscribed to in the morning with my coffee. Small, pockets of info at my discretion. So convenient!

However, the above emails, the ones I'm ditching, make me kind of crazy and leave me scratching my head. I know others feel this way as well. I honestly believe that many people have no idea that it's actually against many mailing lists Terms of Use to add people to your mailing list, or solicit them via email without their consent.

Unsolicited Email

Here's something that happens to everyone I know, all of the time: receiving newsletters we never signed up for.

Signing people up or more likely the case: importing your entire email address book into your mailing list program is not cool. It's also called spam. And spam makes people very angry, angry enough to report you to your mailing list provider. Not only does this practice hurt your credibility, and your business’ name it makes most people irrationally annoyed.

Not really a great opener to try to get your message across.

As a business or brand it's understandable that you want to get your product front and center. Totally natural. But the best practice, and right thing to do is to ask people to sign up. It’s surprising (and refreshing!) how receptive people are when you ask. Plus, you get genuine interest.

Building a following takes time and energy. It's hard work! A great place to start is by making sure you don’t abuse people’s trust by using their email without permission.

Newsletters and Press Releases Sent as Email

I’m slightly blown away by the amount of newsletters or press releases that are sent as personal emails. You know what I'm talking about, a wall of text with attachments you'll never open. And God forbid, they sometimes have hundreds of emails within the CC area for everyone to see, and yes, steal.

There are many reasons why you shouldn't send mass emails dressed as email marketing (or important announcements) from your mail client. The first being that it's quite possibly illegal (more on that below). Secondly, email clients are getting smarter. They'll put your thoughtful, well written newsletter right smack in the spam folder. Third, no one wants a group email, pretty much ever. Especially one they can not unsubscribe from (Again, if you are doing this you're wading into illegal territory — see below). Lastly, it's unprofessional.

You're a creative being. Spend the time to learn how to make a killer newsletter. It's worth all of your hard work in the end. Have fun with it! Creating the first one is the hardest, but you can save it...and reuse it over and over.

Don’t waste that hard work on people that don’t want it.

The CAN-SPam Act of 2003

In 2003 the CAN-SPAM Act was passed. It's a law that establishes rules for sending commercial messages electronically. Due to state to state laws it's hard to say if this law can actually be enforced, or affect you if you are partaking in shady spamming. But it's good business to make yourself aware of the law, and be safe that you are not breaking it.

Here is a breakdown of the main requirements via the Bureau of Consumer Protection. I've added a little more info in bold that may be more relevant to you:

  1. Don’t use false or misleading header information.
  2. Don’t use deceptive subject lines.
  3. Identify the message as an ad.
  4. Tell recipients where you’re located.
  5. Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future email from you: this is important, if you are emailing people about commercial endeavors they're must be a way for them to opt out in a clear and easy way. This means those group emails you are sending should most likely stop.
  6. Honor opt-out requests promptly.
  7. Monitor what others are doing on your behalf: if you have hired someone else to manage your mailing list or newsletter, make sure they are on the up and up.

The Bureau of Consumer Protection also offers an FAQ section. Below is one question asked and answered that may help you understand if your email content must comply with the CAN-SPAM Act:

Q. How do I know if the CAN-SPAM Act covers email my business is sending?

A. What matters is the “primary purpose” of the message. To determine the primary purpose, remember that an email can contain three different types of information:

  • Commercial content – which advertises or promotes a commercial product or service, including content on a website operated for a commercial purpose;
  • Transactional or relationship content – which facilitates an already agreed-upon transaction or updates a customer about an ongoing transaction; and
  • Other content – which is neither commercial nor transactional or relationship.

Take It Up a Notch

If you want people to take your business (and you) seriously, then it's important to use an email marketing company to get your message across.

Here’s the cool thing about many of the emailing software platforms out there: many of them are free or really inexpensive if your list is under a specific number. Which is convenient, because then you can figure out what works best for you, then decide which company to commit to. Many have free templates, drag and drop software, and how-to videos to make it easier too. [promo] Another great thing with email marketing software, there's built in ways for your readers to share your lovingly crafted prose and images with their community! Plus there's stats that supply valuable feedback on your readers and how well your content is doing.

I use Mailchimp for my business, and urge all of my clients to as well. Their drag and drop editor is fantastic and really easy.

We Know You Mean Well

Let’s be real. No one sends out unformatted emails or adds people to their list to be a jerk — although in the moment of receiving it, it may not feel that way.

I know how these emails happen. I do. You needed to just get the word out. Immediately, like yesterday. (I have been guilty of it too, but now I know the law and best practices) Perhaps you don’t know what email marketing companies to go with. I hear that. Who has time to research? Or maybe you think you’re not "big enough" to have a fancy newsletter. Untrue! You have to start somewhere!

Get Serious

Whether you're an artist, a retail shop, or a creative trying to spread the word about your endeavors — give your business that added level of professionalism with a sharp newsletter. If you are serious about what you do — design a newsletter and send it to people who request it. It really matters for your image and your business.

Are you already using a program for your newsletters? What do you like about it? Who are using? Share your experience with me below, I'd love to have your voice in this thread.