Opt-in E-mail Lists
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How to Build an Opt-in Email List to Market Your Business, by Anne Holland

Written by Anne Holland, founder of MarketingSherpa.com exclusively for Bethesda List Center.

This is a truly practical guide to creating an opt-in e-mail list that can market your business. The following five steps, the accompanying list of resources, and BLC’s email list expertise can help you make the most of e-mail marketing.


Email marketing can be incredibly profitable

You’ve probably seen the news in the marketing trade press: companies around the globe are getting a higher response rate from their email marketing campaigns than from any other medium — online or off!

Harlequin romances, Omaha Steaks, Forrester’s reports, International Male clothing, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, Travelocity.com’s airline tickets … products of all shapes and sizes are being sold to consumers and business people via email marketing. In fact many companies are reporting far greater sales from their email campaigns — which can cost less than $ .25 cents per name — than they are from the corporate Web sites they spent so much money on.

Why can email marketing work so well?

According to research from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, email is now the primary reason people go online, and according to Roper Starch, email has now become the number one way to reach business people. In fact, most people spend more time visiting their email accounts than they do visiting other Web sites. No wonder email rated top in effectiveness — over television and PR — in a recent survey of Web site marketing managers.

Click-through rates on email promotions to highly targeted opt-in lists can be in the double digits. That’s a better average response rate than banner ads, direct mail and TV ads combined!

But only if it’s not spam!

By now most people know that spam is a supposed to be a bad thing. Then why does spam still account for 10 – 40% of all email sent in the world today? According to Shawn O’Connor, President of Msgto.com, a free email service that guarantees its members safety from spam, “Spammers generally fall into two categories:

1. Legitimate businesses who make the mistake of sending out bulk email because they can’t resist what appears to be a low cost method of reaching people. These companies eventually learn the errors of their ways when they’re inundated by complaints from angry customers, an angry Internet provider, etc. etc. Usually a lot of email sent in bulk to house lists, lists of emails they think might be interested, or any other method of obtaining email addresses that seems okay to someone used to sending unsolicited bulk snail mail.

2. Completely bogus enterprises taking advantage of the low cost and little authentication of email. These are the porn spammers, ponzi schemes, and crackpots that send out millions of email in the hopes of winnowing the suckers out. Usually these go to emails harvested off the net in every way imaginable (Usenet, web pages, AOL directories, etc.). A large proportion of these are sent in an underhanded way, forging headers and more actively stealing resources to send the mails. Often these people know they’re despised and make it deliberately difficult to track them down (throwaway AOL dialup accounts, servers in China, etc.).

It’s also not uncommon that (1) outsource a bulk email campaign to (2).”

Either way, the bottom line is the same. Spam isn’t profitable. Upside Magazine recently reported on the fate of one spammer, a Cajun spice company, who’d sent out millions of messages to a compiled list of email addresses in a single day. Turns out not only was the spammer deluged with angry messages from livid recipients, but in the end he only got orders totaling $27!

If I Send an Email to My Customer List, Is It Spam?

Brace yourself for the bad news — any mass or bulk email that you send to people who didn’t specifically request to receive it is spam. Even if they are your customers. Even if they said it was okay to email them about something else.

If they didn’t say it was okay to email them the specific type of mailing you are sending (such as a regular newsletter or a sales offer) then you really shouldn’t send it to them.
Not only that — you also probably shouldn’t send email messages to people who haven’t received anything from you for more than 60 days, even if they requested it. That’s because:

Spam is in the eye of the beholder

…And if you email someone for the first time months after they have you permission to do so, chances are they will have forgotten they gave you permission in the first place. So they may very well think you are spamming them.

No matter what, if somebody thinks you spammed them, then they aren’t likely to pay attention to your marketing message, much less react positively to it. If that person is a current customer of yours, you could easily lose their account. There goes lifetime value out the window!

Why risk losing customers… or key prospects? Don’t even think about emailing them anything they could ever consider spam.

The Opposite of spam: Opt-in lists

If you are like most marketers, you’ve probably heard of “opt-in” lists but you’re not completely sure what they are and how to get your hands on them.

Opt-in lists are so named because people “opted in” to get onto them. In other words, everyone on that list voluntarily and eagerly requested that his or her name be added. These are the best lists because recipients are looking forward to getting mail from them. (Can you imagine the response a direct mail campaign would get if its prospects were looking forward to receiving it?)

So, opt-in lists are kind of the Holy Grail of email marketing.

You can rent opt-in lists from companies such as Postmasterdirect.com and Bonusmail.com. These are selectable to a degree — you can choose selections such as mothers, Internet marketers or sports fans — but they don’t have the true niche selections that many marketing campaigns require. There are few opt-in lists for specific business-to-business industries, specific types of product buyers or other highly targeted demographics.

That’s why Bethesda List Center, Inc. is sponsoring this special report from MarketingSherpa.com. Bethesda List Center, Inc. knows that to be truly successful in email marketing, you need highly targeted opt-in lists. They hope that by helping you convert your customer file into a true opt-in list, the email marketing options will broaden for everyone. To learn more about Bethesda List Center, Inc. go to https://www.bethesda-list.com.

What’s the Difference Between Opt-In and Opt-Out?

There’s a big difference between opt-in and opt-out lists. The former is the goal every email marketer must strive toward to be profitable (and so they don’t annoy customers and wipe out customer lifetime value.) The latter, opt-out lists are a form of spam.

“Opt out” doesn’t sound as bad as “spam” does it? But that’s really what opt-out lists are. The idea of opt-out was invented by marketers who couldn’t bear to think that by converting to opt-in only marketing, they lose the use of all the email addresses they’d gathered on their customer and prospect databases without explicit opt-in permission.
They didn’t want to lose their database investment. Unfortunately, it meant they risked losing their customers instead.

Marketers using opt-out lists figure if they include a “how to unsubscribe” or opt-out option in the email messages they send, it’s ok to send them … even if nobody on their list asked to get email from them.

As you can imagine, opt-out lists don’t respond nearly as well as opt-in ones do. In terms of dollars and cents, an opt-out campaign doesn’t work as well as an opt-in one.

If you do an opt-out campaign and only a few people complain, is it successful? Nope. Remember, for every person who complains, there are 10 more who were equally annoyed but didn’t bother to contact you. And each time you email them again (because hey, they didn’t opt-out last time) they get a little more annoyed, until the mere sight of your name in their email in-box (or elsewhere) makes them angry.

Is that really the way you want to enhance your branding?

Some marketers at this point ask, “What are people getting so upset about? Why can’t they just delete the email they don’t want?” There are lots of answers to that question (see our resource guide at the end for guides to some of them) but it really doesn’t matter.

What matters is spam email annoys your customers. In fact, according to market research studies from reputable sources including Yankee Group, the “botheration” factor of unwanted email is rated second only to telemarketing.

That’s right, your opt-out email message can make people feel almost as annoyed as telemarketing calls interrupting their dinner!

So why risk it? Convert your customer list to an opt-in file today.


Making a corporate commitment against spam

Great, so you are an opt-in believer! Your first goal has to be to achieve consensus within your company, preferably by getting everyone to sign off on an official corporate spam policy.

Why deal with internal politics when you’d rather be out there making money?

Remember, not everyone is as educated as you are about the values of opt-in. If you build an opt-in list for your company without an official policy that everyone’s bought in on, chances are another marketer at your company could abuse the opt-in list you so carefully built up. They might send the list a type of email opt-in recipients weren’t expecting. For example, sending a separate sales message to a list of people who subscribed to your corporate emailed newsletter.

At companies which several products marketed by different divisions which serve the same customers, the battle over who gets to use the opt-in email list and when can be fierce. Plus, if no one watches list usage carefully, your customers can be besieged by far too many messages in a short time frame until they are sick of seeing your name in their email in-box.

To begin your corporate commitment, you might want to forward this special report to everyone at your organization who should be involved or interested. (It’s ok to forward this as long as you send it in its entirely.) You might also want to purchase a bulk order of Seth Godin’s famous (and easy to read) Permission Marketing book and ask that everyone read it before your first company opt-in conversion meeting.

Adding your corporate privacy policy to your site

Next, before you can start building an opt-in email list, you must have a corporate privacy policy in writing. A link to this privacy policy must appear everywhere on your site, in your email and every place else that you ask for email address information from people.

Privacy policies are becoming the 100% money-back guarantee of the Web — people don’t always read the fine print, but they feel MUCH safer doing business with you if they know you have one. You should also be aware that most reputable Web-related businesses — from “dot coms” to online advertising agencies — will not do business with (or partner with) companies that do not have a clearly posted privacy policy.

See links to useful privacy sites in the resources section at the end of this report.


The Tech Side

The biggest question in many organizations’ minds is, “should we outsource our email list hosting or do it internally?”

Generally the answer is to outsource. Email list technology is pretty complex and it’s evolving rapidly. Unless you want to set up an entire department and hire expensive experts to handle it, it’s not worth doing it yourself. You’ll risk missing out on new innovations and probably get slower turn-around time to boot.

Your next question will be if you should use one of the free list hosting services such as eGroups.com or Topica.com or if you should use one you have to pay for. The rule of thumb is, although many of these free services are remarkably good, if you expect to have more than 1,000 names sign up you should probably move to a for-fee service.

Unfortunately most of the for-fee services (such as Message Media) are really aimed at organizations that mail millions of emails a month. You have to guarantee huge mailings just to hit their minimums. So, it’s harder for an organization with 1,001-100,000 names to find a really good email list-hosting provider. They exist, often as subcontractors to the huge mailing houses, but you have to look hard to find them. Two you might try at Bethesda List Center, Inc. (https://www.bethesda-list.com) and SparkLIST (http://SparkLIST.com.)

When evaluating providers, make sure they can easily handle the following tasks:

– converting your current list into an opt-in list

– creating a database for all your online subscriber information

– sending your emailed messages and newsletters (while making sure it looks like it comes directly from you)

– detecting which of your subscribers can receive HTML messages vs. plain text

– detecting how many of your subscribers open their emailed newsletters from you (vs. deleting them)

– detecting those of your subscribers who pass along your messages to others and might be considered your publication’s best “evangelists.”

– handling emailed renewals for your subscription-based or renewable products

For more information about email list technology and hosting issues, please see the resource at the end of this report.


Can I convert my list by sending them email?

This will be one of your toughest decisions to make. Should you send an email to the addresses you have collected in your customer and prospect database to ask them to join as opt-in email recipients? It’s tricky. Here are some guidelines:

Never ask a non-opt-in list, you don’t already own email addresses for, to convert

First of all, if you do decide to send an email out to ask people to join your opt-in list you’d better have gotten their email addresses from those people themselves originally. No you can’t rent a list of compiled email names or any other list that’s not an opt-in list. (Then people will just be suspicious of where you heard of them.) No you can’t use an outside service to “append” email addresses to your house list. (It doesn’t work very well, and people are still suspicious of where you got their email address from.)

So, unless you are renting an opt-in list (which we’ll cover in more detail below) or you are sending an email to people who at some point freely and willingly gave you their email address via some form or other, you can’t “convert” them. It’s just spam.

Only ask names you’ve been in contact with (preferably email contact) during the past 60 days to convert

Remember, 60 days is the outer limit of time that can pass before most people forget they gave you their email address. Once they forget, anything you send them looks like spam.

Identify where you got their name in the first line of the message

If you are emailing a customer, say, “Dear Customer”, if a member then say, “Dear Member.” That way people know you have some basis on which to email them. Its not just a message out of the dark.

Make your conversion message polite, short and not too salesy

When emailing someone without permission, you want to exquisitely careful not to offend them. So make sure your message is politely worded. Be careful of blasting terms such as “New!” and “Free!” which many spammers use. Instead word your message as though you were respectfully writing a favorite uncle or aunt.

Part of respect is respect for recipient’s file space and reading time. Email marketing is the direct opposite of direct mail copywriting. Instead of gaining more orders from long copy, you’ll gain more from short copy.

Don’t bother with long-winded introductions. Politely cut straight to the point. Make your offer right away, including a link if needed for response. Then elaborate a little bit (no more than 4-5 lines) add another link and a signature. At the bottom, it’s considered very good form to note in a P.S. that you will never email the recipient again unless they request it. Including a link to your privacy statement and a way they can remove their email address from your database entirely is also a good idea.

Don’t even consider sending an HTML message to a house list — the file size of the message will be too big to politely send to anyone’s email box without prior permission to do so. Conversion messages should always be text-only even if they are for an HTML product. And of course it goes without saying that you should never send an attached document via email due to the fear of viruses these days.

Give people a reason to respond

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. What offer would be compelling? Is a free regular newsletter (ezine) offer compelling or are they already getting too much information via email? If you are in a niche amply served by ezines, you may not want to offer yet another one.

Perhaps a sweepstakes offer would work well. Be sure to offer something your audience likes (i.e. no palm pilots to grandmothers) make it clear what email they are opting into by responding and double check with your legal department before sending.

Sometimes a special report offer works. A special report (such as the one you are reading at this moment) can have a lot of value to the recipient but not impose the burden of an ongoing newsletter clogging people’s email inboxes. Again, be sure to explain clearly how else you would like to use recipient’s email addresses. You might want to give them the option to check boxes reading something like “send report only” vs. “also send me other news on this subject occasionally.”

Expect 10-15% response rate, higher if your offer is really compelling

Enough said.

And no, you can’t email people twice in order to raise response rates. You are taking a big enough chance with once. Now let’s move on to your other options to grow your opt-in list.


Online Tactics To Grow Your List

Luckily there are lots of great, often cost effective, methods to use the Internet itself to grow your opt-in list. Plan to use a combination of these, depending on your budget, but don’t rely on just one. The Internet is a big place so you have to cast a wide net to gather your super-targeted list!

Add opt-in sign up forms to your site

Sounds like a no-brainer, right? You’d be surprised how many people don’t do this. Or they just put a sign-up form on one page, perhaps their home page, and not anyplace else.

Take a minute to study your traffic logs. Chances are they’ll tell you that lots of people enter your site on pages that aren’t your home page. Perhaps they have bookmarked another page as a favorite, or they are clicking on a link to a special section. If you haven’t added your sign-up form to the pages most people enter your site on, then you are missing out on a major opportunity.

Chris Pirillo, publisher of Lockergnome, one of the largest email newsletters on the Internet today built his subscriber base by adding a subscription form to the bottom of every page of his site in addition to the prominently placed form near the top of his home page. That way, no matter where a visitor is surfing when they decide to act, they can find his form easily.

Also, remember if you are selling from your Web site or asking people to sign up for a site membership, using forms for those functions does NOT constitute an opt-in email request unless it’s included as a separate check box.

And, if you’d like to do several things with each opt-in name, such as send them a company newsletter, send sale notifications and send messages from “strategic partners” you’d better ask people to sign up for each one of these separately. Permission to send one does not imply permission to send all or any other of them! If you’re not sure now of everything you’d like to do with your opt-in list, never fear, you can always go back to the people on it and ask them. They’ll be more than happy to tell you exactly what they’d like to get from you as well as what they’d rather not.

Rent opt-in lists

Although there may not be enough good targeted lists out there for you to grow a viable business, it’s probably worth looking into which broader lists you could test investing in
to build your own opt-in file. To rent an opt-in list you’ll need to have your creative
ready because the list owner is the one who will send out your message for you. You’ll also need a privacy policy up on your site because most people won’t do business with you otherwise.

Be sure to triple check that your list broker is reputable. There’s too much at stake if your message goes out to even one unwilling recipient. In fact, most people insist on only renting “double opt-in” lists. This means the recipient not only signed up for the list online, but also then responded positively to a follow-up email. They effectively had to ask to be included on the list twice in a row — so it’s “double” opt-in.

In some cases, such as BonusMail, YahooMail and MyPoints lists, you can send HTML messages. Take advantage of this because these do respond at a substantially better rate than plain text messages and unlike your own non-opt-in files, they have already requested HTML.

You’ll find a list of reputable opt-in list sources in the Resources section of this report. To make your job easier, you may want to contact a professional list broker to contact all list owners and purchase lists on your behalf. There is no extra cost to you for this service. One such broker is Bethesda List Center, Inc.. Go to https://www.bethesda-list.com for more information.

This email mailing will cost you about $ .25 cents per name including list, mailing and creative. Minimums are usually 2,500-5,000 names depending on the list.

If you outsource creative, be sure to use a copywriter who has done lots of these before. Never use a direct mail or offline advertising copywriter who is trying to break into the medium. Many writers from non-email backgrounds underestimate how different the art of writing email really is.

Run ads in emailed newsletters (ezines)

More than 60,000 ezines are being published on a professional or semi-professional basis today and more are launched all the time. These are emailed newsletters, usually in text format, which go to an opt-in list of highly targeted readers. They can be as broad as “Joke a Day” to the targeted “Retired Airline President’s News.”

Many of the most highly read and regarded ezines are produced by publishers who don’t come from big traditional media companies. Don’t be snobby. All that matters is that readers love them. Just look at a sample of the newsletter itself, triple check it’s strictly opt-in, and ask about circulation.

More and more of these newsletters accept advertising at rates ranging from $5 per thousand (for big broad topic newsletters) to $60 per thousand for small, high-targeted newsletters. The most popular can sell out their advertising spaces for months in advance, so book early.

Your ad should offer a good reason why someone should visit your site or special bounce page and join your opt-in list. Special free report offers and sweepstakes are often compelling. Don’t be afraid to test offering an ezine yourself. After all these are proven ezine readers!

To learn more about ezine advertising see the resource list at the back.

Use online PR to get the word out

Did you know when you send a press release via Businesswire or PR Newswire (and your company probably already belongs to one or the other), your release is also automatically fed to hundreds of Web sites? That’s right, your release appears as part of a “news feed” on Web sites millions of visitors go to daily.

So, whenever you have a great offer to entice opt-in additions to your email list, be sure to put out a press release about it to either one of the wire services. Your release should contain lots of key words in its headline so people searching for news on that topic see it. Also be sure to put your URL in the very first sentence so people can click to your site or bouncepage easily.

In addition, be sure to send a note about your special offer to all the editors of ezines in your topic area. You’d be surprised how many of them pick it up as a story and give a link back to your site. The most effective offers to take advantage of this type of PR are special reports, studies or survey findings.

Add your opt-in offer to the emailed signatures of all employees

Every person in your organization should be adding an automated electronic signature to all his or her outbound email. That signature can include their title, contact information and a link to sign up for your opt-in email program. You would be astounded to learn how many outbound emails your organization sends every day to customers and prospects. Don’t waste this golden free opportunity to grow your opt-in list.


Offline Tactics To Grow Your List

Offline tactics are often the most obvious yet the most forgotten methods to grow opt-in lists. Here’s a quick list of some of them:

– Send a postcard to your customers and prospects asking them to go online to join your list for a special gift, report or other offer

– Add your opt-in offer to your company letterhead and all business cards

– Try running a radio ad for your opt-in list, especially if you have an easy-to-spell URL

– Use PR to get your opt-in offer mentioned by print press

– Include your opt-in offer in your space ads

– Include your offer on printed versions of all order forms

– Ask your customer service and telemarketing departments to include an opt-in offer in their scripts, letters and phone discussions with customers

– Hand out a printed opt-in form at trade shows

– Now it’s your turn. We bet you can brainstorm up at least three more ways to get your message out offline!

About MarketingSherpa.com:

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