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Ken Magill

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Ask an Expert: Biggest Boneheaded Moves


This week’s Ask-an-Expert question is: What are the worst boneheaded plans or actions by clients and/or management concerning email marketing that you most commonly find yourself fending off?

Once again, we turn to the experts on the Only Influencers discussion list, an invitation-only list of online marketing experts:

Christopher Donald, vice president of marketing, Inbox Group:

They want to buy a list of email addresses, a million email addresses for just $99—what a deal—and send them all a marketing message.

Not only is buying an email list a bad idea (You can't buy permission) it'll most likely cause significant abuse/spam complaints and your deliverability will take a hit for future mailings as well as possibly damage your brand.

While many companies rent lists, the main difference is the company who owns the list does the email sending. It's from them and to their list which hopefully understand what they've subscribed for. List rental is a much better way to go, though I'm not a big fan as it doesn't work for everyone.

Loren McDonald, vice president, industry relations, Silverpop:

I would say the worst and most common boneheaded plans/actions are not those of a tactical nature, but rather around the non-strategic use of email.

Companies that continue to view email primarily as an inexpensive means to reach a large audience are leaving serious money on the table. By not seeing email as a strategic channel, management often under resources email which in turn leads to poor decisions and unsophisticated programs that significantly underperform competitors.

Rory Carlyle, director of marketing, BombBomb:

The channel doesn't receive the authority and respect that it deserves across industries. Email can be a low-cost, high ROI channel when put in the right hands or approached with the appropriate outlook. Email is too often looked at as a subsidy or boost to direct mail in regard to budget or reach—which is the wrong approach.

Another is the "quick-n-easy" approach to list acquisition. Organic list growth costs far more than purchasing or renting the data, but has been proven to provide a more responsive channel. In many instances, the company wastes time and effort on that approach before even considering a consultant or going to a resource to properly generate recipient data.

Bill Kaplan, CEO, FreshAddress:

1) List swapping. While this seems like a free way to build your email database, it often results in alienating your existing customer database as well as generating an excessive number of spam complaints from marketing to a new file that did not opt in to your emails.  Angry customers/donors and blocking and blacklisting issues make this a very expensive proposition.

2) Trying to find ECOA [email-change-of-address] updates for one’s opt-out file. Again, while this might not be illegal, reaching out to former customers who opted out of your communications will only result in excessive spam complaints, which can lead to blocking and blacklisting issues.  Respect your customers’ wishes.

3) Running incentive programs to gain more email addresses at POS systems without requiring that only valid, deliverable email addresses will count.

4) Messaging a file of email addresses collected months or years ago but never messaged. This will result in excessive bounces, excessive spam complaints, and the hitting of spam traps, the three critical factors ISPs use to block and/or blacklist senders.

Glenn Edley, owner, campaign director, Spikemail:

I'm with Christopher Donald. The Number One bonehead plan/action I continue to fend off is clients wanting to buy a list.

Number Two is the client wanting to let a company/sponsor send a solus [one-off] email to their list without any thought to the Anti-Spam Act or their customers.

And Number Three is clients wanting to add anyone to their list they can without proper permission. In my opinion the Real Estate industry is the worst at that.

Travis Wetherbee, senior email deliverability manager, WhatCounts:

1) Clients want to start "blasting" to their list as soon as possible without any regard for building reputation over time.  Plan for and take the time to do things right the first time and there won't need to be a second time.

2) Has to be Purchasing lists, just a horrible idea. 

3) Sidestepping permission.  Good email marketing is born of permission.

Tami Monahan Forman, senior director, global corporate communications, Return Path:

The craziest thing I ever heard was a client who's boss wanted her to "re-market" to the unsubscribes. Seriously. The worst part was the boss truly, truly did not understand what was so bad.

Luckily, smarter heads prevailed and this little scheme never got off the ground. But it always reminds me that there are definitely people who still don't understand pretty basic concepts around email best practices. (And heck, *marketing* best practices. If someone says "hey, don't send me anymore emails/catalogs/whatever" it's probably best to stop sending, right?)

Andy Thorpe, deliverability and compliance manager, Pure360:

Number one bonehead problem is list purchase. The people above marketing who hold the purse strings are still thinking quantity over quality and just want to throw as much mud at the wall as they can like they used to with postal marketing. Then they get awfully inconvenienced when inbox placement vanishes.

The next most common is avoiding complaints and subsequent blocks, not just caused by list purchase alone but also old lists, bad content, creating new lists for new products, etc.

Again so many are in denial about the changes in email over the last three years (since the credit crunch) they are so inconvenienced by it and then they just blame the ESP because: "That’s what we pay you for isn't it?".

Not enough marketers are inclined to actually find the valuable and revenue-generating segments of their list and aim to delight it whilst working on providing rapport building content and achievable calls to action to the less engaged in order to make them move up to the revenue generating segment.

Commonly, it is about time and resource, if the ESP or database software can't do it in a couple of clicks, it doesn't get done, the blasting continues and inbox placement fades away.

The solution needs to be provided by everyone: marketers to want to do it, technology to make it easy and obvious and then people to write countless case studies to prove the point and make it common practice.



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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Greg M
Date: 2011-05-02 03:17:46
Subject: the opposite problem

One thing I see too often is the exact opposite of not adhereing to spam laws, which is being over cautious and offering unsubscribe links on one-off transactional responses or even worse, send-to-a-friend emails. Having an unsubscribe link in these cases is worse than ever because it implies that the recipient was on the list in the first place. Time and time again I ask my clients WHICH of their mailing lists is a recipient being unsubscribed from if they do click? The (lack of) intelligent answers to this question heightens my despair at marketers understanding the spam laws they are subject to, although to be fair it is often their legal teams who dictate to the marketers what they should be doing.
Posted by: Andy T
Date: 2011-04-27 04:43:34
Subject: I think I can see a pattern here

Correct me if I'm wrong but I think that all of the email marketing experts are saying "don't buy lists" :-)
Posted by: Anne Holland
Date: 2011-04-26 15:13:51
Subject: 68% of email marketers do ZERO testing

A/B testing in email marketing is stupendously easy. Even most cheap email service providers offer tools for it. And it's a do-it-yourself dream. Subject line tests, template tests, even opt-in form tests...can add double digit percent response rises to your campaigns. Open admission - I'm a journalist following testing, not a service firm! :-)