September 2, 2011

Email Newsletters: Best Practices for Small Businesses

(by Stephanie Buck | | posted on American Express OPEN Forum)

E-mail Newsletters: Best Practices For Small Businesses

Does anyone actually look forward to e-mail newsletters? Debatable. But it doesn’t mean your business has to fall to the bottom of the e-mail heap.

Nor do those moans and groans over mean you should stop sending them. According to Exact Target data, 42 percent of subscribers are more likely to buy from a company after subscribing to their e-mails. So, it’s a safe bet for your business to continue sending out newsletters. However, it’s important to use common sense, strategic language and ethical practices in order to improve your subscription results.

Here are four best practices to help ensure your business and your customers benefit from newsletters.

1. Best time of day

Easy answer? There is none. However, we can advise you not to send e-mails on Monday mornings—human beings on average don’t crack our first smiles until 11:16 a.m. that day. An overstuffed inbox would further delay the process.

On the other hand, perform some basic analytics about your business’ customers or users. Does your blog or business target parents? Send an e-mail update on Sunday evenings when the family is relaxing with a movie. Do many of your purchases come from another country? Consider setting your updates to that time zone. Does your service list weekend events? Don’t wait until 4:55 p.m. on a Friday afternoon to send invites.

Sure, many of these tips seem to follow common sense. But as an avid online shopper, you’d be surprised how many e-mails from Urban Outfitters I delete while feeling the crunch of a Tuesday afternoon deadline. Perform basic demographic analysis: as a gamer, financial analyst, retiree, college student, etc., when would you be most likely to click through promotional e-mails?

2. Best wording

“Check this box if you’d like to receive our newsletter.” Let’s point out everything wrong with this all-too-common option: It’s vague, it’s boring and it lacks incentive.

First off, encourage customers to opt-in by advertising what your company’s e-mail newsletters will include. Maybe your company allows its customers to subscribe to specific lists, designated by interest or gender, for example. Can they expect promotions, deals and product updates? Make sure to emphasize the inherent value in receiving regular notifications from you.

Second, use punchy language to turn vague into enticing. Subject headings are key in this regard—weekly newsletters with identical subject lines lack click appeal. If customers get the feeling they’re about to read the same thing they read in a previous e-mail, they won’t open it in the first place. Instead, highlight the most important or eye-catching piece of news or product update in the subject line. After all, SEO is key these days.

Finally, customers love a good deal. When inviting customers to subscribe to or open an e-mail newsletter, be sure to emphasize savings. Not only do JetBlue’s $39 flight subject headings get me every time, they inspire me to daydream about travel in the first place.

3. Best unsubscribe etiquette

Consider that 91 percent of e-mail users who have subscribed to a company’s newsletter later decide they no longer want to receive the e-mails. Bleak, but useful data.

Even more telling, 54 percent of e-mail subscribers say they unsubscribe when they feel the e-mails come too frequently. It’s important to be upfront with subscribers about the frequency that newsletters will appear in their inbox. Depending on the customer’s interest level, even weekly may be too often. Consider offering several options for e-mail frequency. If a customer clicks the unsubscribe button, try to sell them on a lower frequency mailing.

Which brings me to my next point: Sooner or later, you are going to get dumped. But, you can go out the bigger person. My biggest pet peeve is having to search for or jump through hoops to unsubscribe. Etiquette, business integrity—and most importantly, the law—demand that you always give customers the right to opt out.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t ask that customer her reason for unsubscribing. A simple check-box survey can provide information as to why your audience is vacating: unsubscribe explanations can include e-mail frequency, irrelevance, repetition or product dissatisfaction, and they can help you improve the experience for remaining and potential subscribers.

4. Best ethics

One of the most controversial debates around e-mail involves a user’s opt-in confirmation. Users and security filters alike usually consider spam any users didn’t approve for delivery. Your business should steer a wide berth away from unethical e-mail solicitation practices as well.

According to Lisa Barone, co-founder and chief branding officer of Outspoken Media, Inc., the only acceptable time to add people to an e-mail list is after they have confirmed through a double opt-in. Any other means of populating an e-mail address book is invasive and unethical, such as using an e-mail address after a customer has registered for your site or entered a contest. Barone warns that it’s even bad practice to add peers or colleagues to an e-mail list after they gave you a business card, for instance.

Not only will the unethical use of e-mail addresses earn your business a bad reputation, but chances are those users will be part of the 91 percent who unsubscribe anyway.

Until e-mail evolves or disappears all together, I’m afraid we’re stuck with the sometimes intrusive inbox newsletter. The trick is making your newsletter’s content engaging and valuable while maintaining your integrity.

What experiences have you had w/email marketing? (good or bad)

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