Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012 at 9:32 AM
Once upon a time, geography and the surrounding community limited the customer base for small businesses. Today, our connected world offers an unprecedented opportunity for small businesses everywhere because we can live anywhere and work with clients on a global scale.
But what have we sacrificed? Sometimes we long for the days when an owner knew the name of every customer who entered the store. Communities foster customer loyalty and help keep a small business afloat during tough times.
Building meaningful relationships lies at the heart of social media marketing. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are not solely another avenue for advertising your products and services. They exist to form a community for your business.
To build a small town atmosphere of support online for your company, remember these four key points.
1. Be a Resource
Customers look for people and businesses that they can trust. Using your social media accounts, you can be a source of knowledge about your company’s area of expertise. Instead of just posting about sales and promotions, use these outlets to share information that you’ve been learning or reading about.
If you’re an accounting firm, this could mean posting easy-to-understand updates about changes in the tax code. Likewise, a natural foods store might post about a new study questioning the health benefits of a product like soy — even if it’s among the products that they sell. By being honest and providing real, objective content, customers realize they can trust you with their purchases.
2. Be in Touch
The ability to directly contact your customers is a valuable asset. First, you have to establish trust – people don’t want to give out their email or phone number in fear of receiving spam. If you can collect this information, however, you now have a direct line to your base. Offer a discount to compel people to sign up for a newsletter or coupons sent through text messages.
Once you collect the contact information, don’t abuse the trust. A monthly e-newsletter can go a long way in helping build on that trust. Shape the newsletter the same way that you do in social media. Balance objective content with information about your products and services. 80/20 works well here where 80 percent of the content is valuable information and 20 percent is self-serving. Likewise, a weekly text message about a great deal helps remind customers to visit your site or connect with you.
3. Say thank you … always.
Regardless the type of business you run, saying thanks never goes out of style. If all of your transactions go through an automated online system, you can send a follow-up email that says thank you and includes a link to a survey or a comment box where people can offer feedback. (Yes, you can automate this.)
If you’re a company that deals with fewer clients than a retail store, it may be feasible to send handwritten cards. Once you order the cards, it only takes one minute to write a line or two of thanks and drop it in the mail. The effect can be a long-term and fruitful business relationship.
4. Remember Special Occasions
Customers need reminded that they’re doing business with fellow human beings, especially in a time when much of our business and interaction occurs through the portal of a connected device. Holidays aren’t an excuse to have a sale. Depending on the size of your company, sending holiday cards or gifts to your most valued customers works wonders in building loyalty and strengthening relationships. If a competitor ever comes along, clients will remember that you sent them holiday wishes. It’s also okay to celebrate your company’s birthday. Remind your customers that you’re growing, and it’s thanks to their support.
In a business world where we’re increasingly separated from clients, it’s important to find ways to establish real connections through relevant content and direct outreach.
What other ways have you found to get to know your customers?
Christopher Wallace is Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Amsterdam Printing, a provider of personalized pens, imprinted apparel, mugs, customized calendars and other promotional products. He regularly contributes to Promo & Marketing Wall blog.
Tuesday, April 24th, 2012 at 3:38 PM
Image from sxc.hu user mmagallan
A 2011 MerchantCircle.com survey of over 8,000 US local business owners found email marketing cited by 35.8% as a “Top three most effective marketing or advertising method.” Likewise, the 9th Annual Merchant Survey (2010) conducted by The E-tailing Group asked merchants to list which initiatives they would be using to improve website performance. 79% chose “send more targeted email” as the top answer. No other marketing tool gives you direct interaction with clients in a platform that incorporates graphic design, valuable content, web links, and incentives like an email newsletter does.
Done right, email marketing can have a strong, positive impact on your business. Here are the strategies to ensure your email newsletter is as effective as possible.
Share great content. This is the bread and butter of effective email marketing because interesting, appealing, and humorous content compels your clients and prospects to read your e-newsletter and visit links. It takes time to produce good content, so don’t wait to pull it together at the last minute. Create a project folder for your newsletter so that you can add a new picture, feature story, or content idea whenever ideas come to you you.
Headlines and top stories don’t have to be related to your business. In fact, fun anecdotes, inspirational quotes, product reviews, pro-tips, and even editorial copy is more likely to engage your readers initially and keep them on the page. You can sell your product or service later, but try to make the first impression and subject line as intriguing as possible. Consider capitalizing key words, mentioning deals, or using friendly copy in the subject line to lure readers to open your email.
Many businesses will recycle content week after week for e-newsletters. Be wary of this, as sending emails too frequently with stale information or too many graphics will quickly lead to a rush of unsubscribes. If you must re-use content, take the time to paraphrase or rewrite your content so that it stays fresh.
Engage readers by asking for their help. This can be as simple as voting in an online poll, filling out a survey, or asking for product reviews or testimonials. You’ll e amazed how quickly your readers will offer up their time when prompted. Reader reviews and testimonials are invaluable for new businesses, and also make for great copy in subsequent newsletters. Getting readers to interact with your newsletter is the best way to make sure they open it every time.
Remember to provide links. One of the biggest assets of email marketing is the ability to dispatch web traffic. Offer links back to your website, specifically to new products or services, or to valuable areas of your site. This is your opportunity to directly stimulate web traffic. Include links to events, social media pages, and other sites if they will return the favor for you.
Sign up for other email newsletters. Any newsletter designer or graphic artist will tell you to always do your homework before designing. Sign up for competitors’ newsletters. Read them every week. Notice what works and what doesn’t. Check out graphic design styles, determine what you like, and then integrate that into your design. Pay attention to email marketing trends and consider how you can use them to your advantage.
Check your statistics from previous newsletters. Most email newsletter providers have reports and stats to allow you to see how many impressions and clicks your email received. This is important information. You can find out which headlines and links got more clicks, and apply that intelligence to upcoming emails. You may be surprised to see that a fun fact or product review got more attention than a coupon or featured deal.
Make sure you seek lots of feedback before pressing “send.” The preview button is there for a reason! Send a test email to associates, friends, and business partners to get their feedback on your design — then apply them. Your email is a reflection of your business, so make sure it’s just right. Avoid typos and grammatical errors costs and verify all data is correct to avoid ever sending a “corrections” blast.
If you take the time to create powerful and valuable newsletters, email marketing can be a winning tool for your business. When your clients and prospects look forward to your emails, your newsletter is a lot more likely to get the impressions you want, and stay out of the trash folder.
About the author: Industry veteran Anita Brady is the President of 123Print.com, a provider of high quality customizable items like business cards, letterhead and other materials for small businesses and solo practitioners.
Friday, November 18th, 2011 at 12:37 PM
I took child psychology in my sophomore year of college. The one thing I’ll never forget about that class is taking Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for the first time along with other personality and learning style tests. The result? ISTJ (Introversion, Sensing, Thinking, Judging). And I’ve tested ISTJ every time since then.
Even my daughter is into the personality test and came close with her guess that I was an ISFJ. She probably thought we were opposites since she’s an ENTP (Extroversion, iNtuition, Thinking, Perceiving). Introversion and extroversion don’t mean you’re shy or outgoing. Instead, they represent where you draw more energy from. Check out the 16 type descriptions. If you don’t know yours, this might give you a clue.
“The Secret to Helping Your Child Excel in School and in Life” at Lifehack introduces another test where you can learn more about yourself and multiple intelligences. This shows what areas we tend to easily understand and what areas are harder. The website explains, “For some of us it is relatively easy to understand how a flower grows but it is immensely difficult for us to understand and use a musical instrument. For others music might be easy but playing football is difficult.”
I test strong on intrapersonal and logical. Zilch on musical (no surprise). The only surprise is the linguistic score. These results reveal your stronger and weaker learning styles. For a good explanation of the intelligences, visit Family Education.
All of these assessments help us understand ourselves better and how you can better work with others once you figure out what they are. “The Secret to Helping Your Child Excel in School and in Life” gives an example of a teacher discussing the topic of “the law of supply and demand” and how the teacher can best reach a child from each of the different intelligences.
Fascinating stuff. Here’s another to check out: True Colors.
Have you ever taken a personality or style assessment? What was it? What did you learn?
And now for your weekly links …
Brain food …
For fun …
Friday, May 21st, 2010 at 1:44 PM
I wrote about field day 2009 and what it was like in my elementary school. Now I’ve experienced two different elementary school field days. (My younger two go to separate elementary schools — by choice.) One school sets up stations all over its big, long field. The kids wear a color shirt based on the grades they’re in while 5th grade wears its class shirt. (5th grade at both schools gets unique class shirts.)
The kids have laminated cards that volunteers check off when they complete the station. They are free to roam the field from station to station. That’s the nice thing about this school’s big yard — you can see it all in front of you.
The other school has a yard that wraps around the sides and back of the school with many blind spots. Three classes from the same grade rotate from station to station together. They do activities inside and outside. This year, for the first time, the grades will wear the same color shirts.
Unlike the other school, we order a new field day tee every year. It has “Field Day” and the current year on it. (See photo for this year’s quasi-Survivor logo.) The image changes every year. Some good years and some dull years. I’d say this year’s is in-between. Best field day shirt ever: red, white and blue tie dye that I still wear. I volunteered today and worked the Speed Stacks station. Yes, lucked with an indoor assignment away from the heat.
And for fun because we’re allowed…
What memories do you have of field day or other traditional school event?
Thursday, August 17th, 2006 at 9:10 AM
The last issue of eNewsletter Journal (eNJ) went out this week. We’re not quitting, but rather transitioning the newsletter to eFocus Journal (eFJ). eFJ has everything eNJ had and more. The more being customization and content.
One of the bigger themes of Web 2.0 is interactivity. Putting the control in the user’s hands. eFJ lets users choose what content they want to receive and we’ll continue expanding on this we’re still tweaking the newsletter and its functionality.
Help Potential Customers Remember You
Email newsletters offer an easy way to build relationships with clients and prospects while keeping your business in front of them. I’ve had people ask me, “Do you know someone who… ?” and I go blank. I’m sure I know someone who can do the job they’re asking about, but it doesn’t always come to me. Newsletters work the same way — they go to customers and prospects so they can think of the company when someone needs something.
Successful newsletters aim to provide valuable content that readers can use. Too many lousy newsletters have sales speak all over the page and readers struggle to find any content of value to them. A business isn’t going to make sales until its readers get to know the company and come to trust the company. Joan Stewart of Publicity Hound gets this. As a result, she’s making $10,000 a week (according to the August 15 issue of her newsletter).
The big number surprises me, but the fact it’s her… does not. I couldn’t do what she does — send out an email newsletter (ezine, enewsletter… ) packed solid with information readers can use to improve their publicity efforts. She works on each issue for about eight hours.
Every issue contains at least three original articles, “Help This Hound” advice column (readers write in with a problem or challenge, and readers and Stewart respond — the responses appear in the next issue), and a “Hound Joke of the Week.” Stewart’s newsletter is one of the few I recommend when people ask.
Introductions and Building the Relationship
Book Yourself Solid and marketing experts believe an email newsletter is the most effective tool for publicity, earning credibility and trust and building relationships. A newsletter goes out to many people at one time — so the few hours it takes to create one easily pays off with one client or project.
People don’t get married the first time they meet someone (except for a few rare instances). So why should businesses expect to land a client without getting to know each other first?
Start with a Small Offer
Having promotions and ads in a newsletter is OK as long as it takes up no more than 20 percent of the space. 80-20. 80 percent valuable content; 20 percent sales. A newsletter is also a good place to start with a small offer — could be free or low-priced. As a reader takes advantage of the offer and enjoys its benefits, the trust grows and he is willing to invest into a bigger product or service.
For example, a business leads a prospect to its web site where the prospect could sign up for a free newsletter (offer #1 — free). The business could set up an autoresponder that sends an email as soon as the prospect signs up and confirms a subscription. This email contains a surprise such as a a free report, white paper or some other beneficial document.
The newsletter begins building the relationship between publisher and reader. InternetVIZ offers a free (no obligation, no catch) prototype newsletter. This is the company’s way of demonstrating its expertise and what it can do while giving the prospect something in return. It could be a email course, report, ebook… anything your imagination might think of.
What about those who don’t want any more email newsletters? Simply provide the newsletter’s content with a feed and link to it from the web site.
My first issue as co-editor of Professional Service Journal went out this week, too. The feature talks about the ingredients found in a successful newsletter.
Monday, August 7th, 2006 at 10:32 AM
When I find my way to a Web site, I may have gotten there through a search engine or through a link from a colleague or Web site. After I’ve scanned the content and fiddled around in the pages, the site may impress me if the information proves valuable.
What do I do then? The possibilities: Bookmark it, Furl it, subscribe to the feed or subscribe to the email newsletter. The action I take depends on how much I need the information and what options the site offers by way of feeds, newsletters and what-have-you.
Let’s say I found the email newsletter link or subscription box. Would I subscribe? It depends on what’s available on the site surrounding the newsletter. I won’t subscribe if respecting my privacy isn’t mentioned. I also won’t subscribe without finding archives to review. The third reason I won’t subscribe is if the site asks for too much information.
Rather than causing your visitor to leave “empty handed,” you can do more to improve your chances of capturing a new reader. With so many sites competing for new subscribers, it’s amazing the readers found their way to your site, so do what you can to make them happy and stick with you.
How often do you read privacy policies, if at all? Sure, you care, but you don’t have time or patience to read through the legalese. Why use a lengthy policy on your site then, when you can simply put “We respect your privacy” next to the email address on the form? This applies to all forms requesting information, not just email newsletter subscriptions.
This approach is short and sweet. Yes, you can still have the long, dull policy for those who take policies seriously. This way you have both bases covered.
Forms: We must have your information!
How many fields are required to subscribe to an email newsletter? The only thing that should be required is the email address. Boy, it’d be lovely to get more information — a marketer’s dream — but would you rather have one piece of information than zip? Go ahead and add a couple of more fields — but watch it — too many, and the visitor is lost for good.
Identify which fields are required. Visitors get aggravated when they fill in a couple of fields, hit submit and see they didn’t fill in all the required fields. Weigh your priorities: a new subscriber with limited information versus a lost subscriber with no information.
Some newsletter subscription forms have “subscribe” and “unsubscribe” buttons. When someone becomes interested in your content, it’s about subscribing not unsubscribing. Yet be sure that those who get fed up with the email newsletter can look for unsubscribe information within the newsletter or on its Web pages rather than in the subscription box.
Archives and feeds: Show ’em what you got
A link to the current newsletter or archives should appear right by the subscription box. I’ve often opted not to subscribe when I don’t see an example. I don’t want to subscribe and wait to see if the newsletter is good or bad, and then go through unsubscribing and sacrificing my email address.
If you offer a feed for your content and newsletter, put the RSS/XML button or link next to the subscription box. Again, you’ll cover your bases, as some people don’t know XML from NFL, and others will scream if another email newsletter comes to their inboxes. If you provide multiple newsletters, put the RSS/XML icon next to each one — better yet, let the readers select the newsletters they want in the feed and get one feed for those selected. Organized folks love this.
Does the newsletter come in HTML (pretty pictures), text (plain Jane) or both? If you offer only one or the other, mention that somewhere. If both, provide the option to subscribe to one or the other. Either that, or get ready for emails asking about the text version. Save yourself trouble. Oh, and, don’t just have an HTML or text checkbox. Not everyone assumes if the text checkbox is left unchecked that the newsletter comes in HTML. Or some people think we’re idiots for offering one choice, since there appears to be no other choices.
Multiple newsletters: Simplify the subscribing
Many Web sites and companies provide multiple newsletters. Having the subscription page in one spot for all of them saves time. My publisher at InternetVIZ asked me to look at his subscription page draft. The thing was long! Every newsletter came with a detailed summary and other information.
Some people want to see everything you have to offer in the simplest format possible. That way during newsletter selection, they can see how many they’ve subscribed to and make sure they picked the right ones. Does that mean no summary? Of course not. Instead, write a one- or two-sentence overview of the newsletter and link to a page with more information. Next to the link, write “Opens in new window, so you won’t lose your data. If you have pop-up windows turned off, turn it on temporarily to see the information.”
How many times have you seen a link for more information, fearing you’ll lose all the data you just entered if you click on it? That’s why the message. Another option is to expand the section when the user clicks on the link. No pop-ups here, and the new information appears with a click and disappears with another click. These are just two ways to ensure the users know they won’t lose the information while providing them with more information.
Be careful when listing many newsletters on a page. My publisher’s draft page confused me. For example, the page had a box with events and tradeshows. My initial thought was this led to more information on events and tradeshows. The box turned out to be a category.
Learn from the good and the bad
Here are examples of newsletter subscription pages for inspiration and what’s good and bad about them:
U.S. News & World Report
I like this one listing frequency, but it’s missing archives.
This one’s crowded and hard to read. Frequency and HTML/text are shown. But why have a checkbox for HTML if HTML is the only option? The preview helps, but it’s not available for all items. Items in Tracks list a few links, and it’s not readily clear why they’re there.
The subscription checkboxes are at the bottom. Visitors might be better served if the checkboxes were on the left of each subscription’s summary.
Nice, clean look and even has personalized newsletters.
Well-organized by categories with summaries next to each. But where is the Subscribe or Submit button? Hard to find, but it’s there.
A better version of PC Magazine‘s subscription page. No links to examples or archives, however.
Build smart — then hold on tight
Once you’ve reeled in visitors, do what you can to hold on and encourage them to take action. The newsletter subscription page sounds like a minor thing, but a lot of factors make the difference between “just visiting” and “subscribed reader.”
Thursday, July 13th, 2006 at 10:46 AM
Many types of cuisine are award winners and require a variety of special ingredients to be flavorful. It would be easy if one award-winning recipe existed for all newsletters, but newsletters, too, are as different as Creole gumbo is from Korean dumplings. One recipe won’t do the trick.
Fortunately, two newsletters can be opposite in every way possible and yet both be well-savored. By figuring out how to combine the right ingredients, whether that’s by trial and error or through more traditional methods, your audience will be quite satisfied. Yes, even if your newsletter doesn’t have great original content …
How can that be? A superior newsletter without great content? While it doesn’t happen often, such newsletters usually point to great content instead of create their own. They’re treasure hunters. They sift the crowded Web for a certain spice amidst heaps of home-grown, organic or manufactured ingredients
This can be a great challenge. Let’s just say that it’s easier to find a single green peppercorn among many food groups than it is to find one within a gazillion pounds of other peppercorns. In the same way, the Web has endless pages of content and to find the best ones isn’t an easy task. That’s where the treasure hunters shine. They save time for their readers and get them the sharpest resources — not just picking out any ol’ resource, but by finding resources that represent the topic covered in the newsletter.
ResearchBuzz and Librarian’s Internet Index (LII) New This Week are super treasure hunters. Both newsletters are all about the sites they mention with a summary or commentary for each one. ResearchBuzz often focuses on Internet research and covers a handful of sites in every issue while LII lists over 25 Web sites with a paragraph on each. You could also say meryl’s notes newsletter falls here, too. Though it has an editorial and a sprinkling of humor, the bulk of its content contains links with commentary on each.
A tasty tidbit
Another quality newsletter “food group” is the tasty tidbit. Each issue typically provides one thing: one article; one editorial; one discussion. It doesn’t sound like much, but these newsletters usually have an interesting take on that one thing.
Furthermore, the audience appreciates having just a bite of something to think about. We’re an overloaded society and sometimes just one thing is all we need to be satisfied. Daily Candy is known for this. Each issue talks about one store and what makes it so special.
The Wizard of Ads sends a weekly memo that usually has one article about 500 to 600 words. Dallas TV reporter, Jeff Crilley, sends a publicity-related tip on an irregular basis and it’s worth waiting for.
These newsletters are workhorses because all of their content is homemade. Of course, the others work hard, but in a different type of way. “Homegrown” newsletters have multiple articles in every issue, covering a specific topic or industry.
Absolute Write does this on a weekly basis. Every issue contains an editorial, feature articles, columns, interviews and book reviews. The editor also points to interesting discussions in the newsletter’s forums — a great way to build and feed its community. The community is so successful that it published a book to help Hurricane Katrina evacuees with all profits going to charity. The result: Stories of Strength and over $3000 in two months.
Another homegrown newsletter comes from Publicity Hound. With each issue, readers get an editorial, a timely topic and story ideas, advice on public relations, “Help This Hound,” where a reader asks for help, and a dog-related joke.
eNewsletter Journal, Cincom Expert Access and Shavlik’s Remediator Security Digest fall in this category, and use a variety of food groups. Every issue brings an editorial, an original article, an advice question and answer, and six “peppercorns” from the world of spices. These six best of Web articles cover three topics related to email newsletters and marketing in some way.
The best advice question and answer is a way to involve readers and give them a chance to share their expertise. Readers provide wonderful gems and insight that publishers and writers don’t consider. Inviting readers to share shows them they’re appreciated. What better way to unite the publisher and the reader and acknowledge each other’s existence?
The right amount of spice
While these food groups are different, they have things in common: content and readability. The content — whether it’s their own or the links they point to — is of fantastic quality. Not only that, but it serves the readers exactly what they expect. They ask for a pot of java and get a steaming cup, not tea or soda.
Readability not only refers to language, but also making the content easy to scan by using headers, bolding, white space and the right size font. Two of the example newsletters given are not even HTML-based newsletters. They do an excellent job in making the most of the text, line breaks, paragraph breaks and symbols like **** to separate sections.
No one says you have to cook an email newsletter rare, if you don’t like it that way. Go for how you prefer it. Cook it well done or medium. These examples show newsletters of all kinds succeed by mixing the most important things: content, readability and topic.
Tuesday, November 29th, 2005 at 9:49 AM
Working overtime to get readers to open newsletters
Many newsletter publishers believe in “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” So they send their newsletters a second time and maybe even a third. Whether or not this is a good thing has yet to surface.
Spam has driven many publishers to take this step, as legitimate email newsletters get diverted to the trash bin without ever seeing their readers. Some publishers send an HTML newsletter and then follow a few days later with a text version or a link and message saying, “The newest issue of so ‘n so is out. Click on the link to read it.” A few publishers — like us at InternetVIZ — do a second send, but only to subscribers who didn’t open the email from the first delivery.
When I get two emails from the same publisher referring to the same issue, it annoys me. But I realize spam has pushed publishers to this point. If you do send your newsletter out a second time, use the following approaches for a better open rate and to keep your readers coming back.
Fiddling with spam filters
I think most of us can agree that we get enough waste in our email boxes without adding repeat emails. Even the best spam filters work about 95 percent of the time. Any tighter than that and the email you want to read gets junked. At least 300 emails find their way into my junk folder on a daily basis.
For the filtering to work properly, my spam filter must be loose enough so that “real emails” get through and stay in my inbox. In reading about various spam services and applications, I’ve learned that using a service like Cloudmark catches about 95 percent of the stuff. For the rest, I manually use the “block spam” button to get rid of it. This balance works for me and only takes me a few minutes per day to maintain.
When I started managing spam with a new application, I checked the spam folder to ensure nothing valuable got through. After a little time passed, I stopped looking because it was too much work. Any messages that make it into the filter folder get wiped for good. Without a doubt, I miss some messages and can only hope that nothing critical slipped through. Many people use this approach, as they’re tired of digging through garbage for a golden needle.
Watching out for bad keywords
Unlike most newsletter publishers, InternetVIZ‘s motivation to do second sends does not stem from avoiding spam filters, but to increase the open rate. That makes a subtle but powerful difference.
We dodge spam filters by not sending emails that aren’t relevant to our readers’ professional lives. Any time our newsletters are trapped in the garbage bin, they have too many HTML tags or the wrong color. However, we suspect that most emails aren’t filtered because of those reasons but because of key words like “free” or “click here,” buying questions in the subject line or weird “from” email addresses, which are good to avoid.
Sending seconds to everyone
At InternetVIZ, we dislike sending out the same newsletter twice to all readers. It’s better to resend only to the readers who haven’t opened your newsletter yet. So we focus primarily on the content and writing subject lines that don’t get confused with spam subject lines. We never send the “second send” to those who opened our newsletter the first time.
The person who opens it on the second send as opposed to the first hasn’t seen the email before. Thus, he or she has no idea this is a second send unless it’s sitting somewhere in the mailbox unopened — but that’s rarely the case. The beauty of this process is that second sends increase our open rates between 15 and 35 percent without aggravating anyone.
If it works for us, it can work for you. Know how the filters work, focus on content, send a second one to those who didn’t open the first one — and you can’t lose.
Updated December 15, 2005: MarketingSherpa posted a case study on this topic.
Meryl K. Evans is the Content Maven behind meryl.net, helping companies by massaging words into content that inspires action. Contact her to discuss how your business can boost its profits.
Friday, September 23rd, 2005 at 6:45 PM
Email newsletters could fail the “test”
by Meryl K. Evans
The buzz word “standards” may cause an eyeball-rolling response, but without standards, we would have to buy specific media to work with our DVD, VCR and music player. Remember the software buying days, when you had to look for compatibility in terms of Mac versus Windows? Imagine having to do that with Web pages. This Web page is for Macs only … this one is for Windows. Thanks to W3.org, a body that sets recommendations for HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and other markup languages, we don’t have that issue.
Some sites, however, do look better in Internet Explorer than in Mozilla or Firefox. That’s because such sites use an Internet Explorer-specific markup language that is not standard. Let me explain. Let’s say the dreaded <blink> element is proprietary to Internet Explorer only (it’s not, but this is just an example). If an HTML page has it, and you try to view it in a browser other than Internet Explorer, nothing blinks on the page (not that we would want it to). This is a very simple example of what happens when a browser maker creates proprietary elements that works only with its browser.
Playing well with others
Creating proprietary markup code is much like DVD makers producing hardware that works only with a specific brand of DVDs. On one hand, it may encourage people to buy their DVD products. On the other hand, customers refuse to buy something that has such limits. Which would you rather have? A customer buying your product because it works with everything, not just item A, or a customer not buying your product at all because it works only with item A, which is also your product?
That’s the kind of thing we’re seeing with those popular single-cup brewers. I have a Home Café, which I received so I could review the product. The instructions explicitly say to use only Folgers or Millstone pods with the machine because using other brands will damage it. Yet, if you look at pods from Coolbeans.com or Starbucks, companies that don’t produce a machine, they are compatible with Home Café and other brewers such as the Senseo and Melitta.
I don’t like Folgers, period. So would Black and Decker rather me not buy its product because I dislike its partners’ pod brands, or buy it because I can use it with other standard pods? That’s why standards play an important role. They benefit all companies.
Does this mean a company can’t get creative? Not at all. Home Café, Melitta and Senseo look different. Two only brew one cup at a time while one can do two cups. The set up and usage are also different. The look and feel are distinctive. I’ve heard comments from people who prefer one brewer over another. If all single pod brewers work with any pod brand, then we have a choice based on which best meets our needs, just like with the standard coffee machines. Some love their Bunn. Some love their Braun. Some love their Krups.
Cars are the same way. The distinctive features, look and style separate one car from the others. But most of them run on unleaded gasoline. Imagine if we still produced cars using leaded fuel.
Standards for newsletters
So what about newsletters? Before sending this newsletter to you, we test it. Not in terms of beating it up and throwing it around like in the gorilla and suitcase commercials. Or running it into the wall with crash test dummies to test its safety.
Instead, we check for spammability as well as readability. How clean (or not) is the newsletter? Will it pass through the filters? Such a check looks at the fonts used, words and the markup code you don’t see unless you do a “view source.”
Once while doing a test on a newsletter, we received a warning that it had “shouting markup.” Wow. Not only do we have people who shout by capitalizing their text in email messages or instant messages, but we also have markup that yells. And apparently, it’s a bad thing in terms of filters.
When I write about Web design, I encourage using XHTML markup standards with CSS for layout. XHTML requires all markup uses lower case, as in <a>, <h1> and <p>, as opposed to <A>, <H1> and <P>. HTML doesn’t care if both are used.
But we’re talking about a newsletter’s ability to make it pass the filter, not about clean markup code. A newsletter checker shouldn’t care about the markup language. It should focus on the content. Yet, we get a warning that shouting markup, the use of upper case in the tags, is a bad thing and sends the email to the junk bin.
Words that do not pass go
Who decides the standards for declaring content as junk or legit? The bad guys keep changing their content to make it pass through the filters while the good guys fail. This article could send the newsletter to the junk folder because I use the word “spam.” Guess what? The real spammers wouldn’t use that word because they aren’t going to admit their content is spam.
Another “bad” word is “free.” It’s understandable. But it’s also legit. For instance, in the blog, we give a “complimentary” report to those who buy the report. Many businesses do this. Buy this and get this for free. Yet, I use the word “complimentary” or the phrase “no cost” to avoid using “fr33” (that’s another one) and ending up in your garbage bin.
I get tired of seeing legitimate newsletters that I’ve requested using “fr.ee” or “spaham” to duck the filters. I want such newsletters to feel they can use normal words without getting creative. Yet I know spammers have gotten smart and now use periods and spaces in a word to sneak pass the filters, forcing the good guys to do the same.
What’s the solution?
If I had the solution to this problem, I’d be a millionaire. Phishers (bad guys who send you email leading you to believe it’s from a Web site with which you have an account) are getting smarter in tricking recipients into believing their email comes from a respected company, like eBay or PayPal, to get your personal information.
My email address has been blacklisted at Spamcop, a popular email filter, several times. Spammers find ways to use email addresses of people like you and me. Furthermore, they change their email and Web URLs as frequently as we change our clothes. My email server host provider offers the option of using a spam service like Spamcop, but I don’t use it. Too often, the newsletters I want have ended up in Never, Never Land.
Plus, on occasion, we forget we subscribed to so-n-so’s newsletter when we entered a contest or requested a free white paper. Some recipients report such newsletters to Spamcop, and a good guy gets jailed over a reader’s mistake.
Helpful applications, useless response systems
By using software on my computer, I put email management under my control. I’ve trained the program to recognize senders on my list. This product has done a good job and rarely sends a legitimate email to the junk folder. I always scan the junk folder before I empty it — this takes less than a minute.
Some people use the “response system.” You’ve seen these. You send an email to a friend and immediately get an email saying to click on this link and enter the code to prove you’re a real person. There’s a flaw with the system. Newsletters are managed electronically and will not catch these responses.
When I managed a list of over 100,000 readers, I watched for those response requests. However, it was easy to miss a request in the middle of all the “bad address” or “email box is full” messages. Some idiotic response systems require you to confirm you’re a human EVERY time you send a message to the individual. I gave up on several readers who had this in place.
I think the solution is to manage our emails at the host provider and local computer level. At least you have some control here. A good host provider gives you an option of using filtering services. If you do, it should store email messages in a junk folder you can access and review before they’re gone forever. If you don’t want to review them, simply empty the junk folder.
RSS enters the picture
Some online marketing experts are proclaiming the newsletter dead and all content should come through RSS feed readers (see RSS article for explanation on what it is). I’ve been using an RSS feed to make my content available for such readers before it hits the mainstream. I like this alternative, but I still like email newsletters coming to me.
Are you thinking I am promoting newsletters because I am in the newsletter biz? I wouldn’t do that. I believe in offering as many options as possible. My blogs and newsletters are available in RSS. Some people won’t read newsletters unless there is an RSS feed for them. Others don’t want to use RSS as they prefer content to “come to them” rather than having to open an RSS reader like FeedDemon or go to an online RSS reader like Bloglines.
I use both. The email newsletters I want to read regularly come to my email box. For those that aren’t as important, or that I want to access when I need information, I rely on their feeds and open my reader when I want to read them.
What about RSS readers that send content to your email box? NewsGator is one such application, and it’s excellent. I have so many feeds that when I run NewsGator, I get a ton of content in my email box in a folder set aside for feeds. The only way to get rid of the content is to delete the entries myself. That is the only pain.
RSS is not a replacement for email newsletters. It complements them. It provides readers with another option. Essentially, you’re getting the same coffee from the content, just using a different machine to get it. Some readers prefer one brand while others choose a different brand.
Applications that check your newsletter’s content for spam are useful. However, they should focus only on the content and make recommendations for changes to decrease a newsletter’s chances of being filtered. Reviewing markup should not fall to such applications. There are other validators that do that job.
So what ARE the rules? There are no set rules with email newsletters. However, we have published “our” rules in this newsletter and in the book. Every newsletter we produce follows this book. The rules are subjective, but they’re available to everyone who wishes to read them.
Everyone has a strong opinion on spam, but few experts explain what it is or how it is measured. We’re just as confused. Our experience has taught us that a publisher with a solid opt-in list is at risk from an overzealous “spam fighting” industry. The lack of instructions and support from companies who offer tools, especially the free ones as many use them, cause more problems for the good guys who don’t spam their lists.
The shouting markup. We obtained a lower score by changing the upper case HTML mark up to lower case. However, trying to find this rule and an explanation is fruitless. All the guidelines indicate are the message and the evaluation. The evaluation is meaningless as the one we received stated, “BODY: HTML has very strong ‘shouting’ markup.” Nothing more.
Someone pointed me to the source code of the spam checker, which hints that shouting markup refers to refers to B, I, U, STRONG, EM, BIG, CENTER and H1-H6 tags. How is the typical newsletter publisher going to know this? Most of them are not HTML experts and would not be able to read spam checker’s source code.
Where are the standards? Where is there a manual that accompanies this popular spam checker and the implemented rules? It’s not a standard found in any RFC (request for comments), but an organization’s arbitrary ruling. We need guidelines and basic standards.
Meryl K. Evans is the Content Maven behind meryl.net, helping companies get better results through simple words that make a big impact. Contact her to discuss how your business can boost its profits.
Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2010 Meryl Evans
Friday, August 26th, 2005 at 11:39 AM
How much content should it sport?
by Meryl K. Evans, editor, eNewsletter Journal
How we dress for the day depends on the season and our tastes. During hot days, most of us tend to wear short-sleeves and light-weight material — I’m partial to shorts and a t-shirt. A few daring folks wear less, and when you go to the beach or the pool, more skin appears than clothing.
With cold weather comes more laundry thanks to the layers of thick clothes. Yet the chill doesn’t stop a handful of people from wearing the kinds of clothes we wear during the dog days of summer.
What’s with all this silly weather talk? Email newsletters don’t have to worry about temperatures, as they’re born to handle weather of every kind. So the decision falls on newsletter publishers who have to decide how much content the newsletter should wear.
Newsletters that come fully dressed have the complete articles within their email. Others are clothed for spring and fall by having partial article contents, typically with a summary along with a link that takes you to the rest of the article. Some of these have one or two complete pieces (this includes editorials) while the bulk of the articles requires a drive to the Web site for the rest of the story. The ones hanging by a thread (think summer) come with nothing but a link to the Web page for the full content. (This is referencing the newsletter’s main version, regardless of whether the newsletter is HTML- or text-based.)
One link is a lonely link
As expected, all these formats have their good and bad sides as well as fans and critics. Considering the newsletters you currently subscribe to, do you lean toward one dress style over another? Of the ones with the format you dislike, what about them keeps you subscribed?
The dress style isn’t as important as the content or whether you offer HTML, text or both versions of the newsletter. However, I admit disliking the “link to the full newsletter” approach: No summary. No introduction. Only a brief note along the lines of, “The newsletter is now on-line.” It means taking action and opening the browser, if it’s not already opened. A little load time occurs between the click and landing on the page.
I’d like to get a taste of an article from the comfort of my email box before going to the site for the whole thing. If a newsletter is a keeper, I’d like to have more information in the email than a lonely link. Having more content helps when you can’t recall the name of the article, so you can use the email client’s search tool to find it. Newsletters with a single link and little text won’t get found.
One newsletter’s story
AbsoluteWrite.com produces one of my favorite newsletters. Every text-based issue comes packed with a list of articles from various categories including interviews, book reviews, freelancing, weekly columns and so on. In the issue, each article receives a title, a byline, roughly a three-line summary of the item and the link. This makes it easy to scan the summary and decide.
When the editor-in-chief was busier than normal, she temporarily switched to a different format. Every article was fully included within the newsletter instead of summaries and a links. The first time this occurred, the editor explained what was happening and why. About four or five issues came out in this format.
I preferred the old format. I didn’t read every article of every issue, so the ones I skipped over required scrolling through the entire article within the confines of the email body window. My email client was formatted like most: one column on the left with folders, the top half with the list of emails and the remainder for the currently selected email. So it was wearisome to read the whole thing in that little window. Why didn’t I open it and expand it? Habit. (Did you see that coming?)
Although I preferred to get this newsletter with summaries of articles, it may not work for another newsletter, especially one that publishes one article per issue. In this instance, the article appearing in its entirety is safe, since it doesn’t require scrolling through the article to get to the next item.
One little hint?
The nice thing about having a clue of what’s in the current issue is that if nothing appeals to you, you can delete it. When a newsletter contains only a link to get the whole thing on-line, you can’t decide whether or not to delete it. Sure, you can click on it right there and find out whether or not it’s worthy.
Some people want to address each email as they read it rather than get interrupted to go to the browser. Or maybe they don’t have time to read the newsletter, so they leave it in the email box. Have you ever decided to read an issue later because you weren’t in the mood for the topic? A newsletter with nothing but a link doesn’t give you an idea of what an article is about. When you do check it out, you discover you’d rather read it later — so when returning back to the email with the lonely link — do you remember the topic?
One fake Ms. Blackwell provides the final word
If a friend or colleague asks me what layout I recommend for an email newsletter, my answer is, “Depends.” It depends on how many articles you publish. It depends on how often you publish. It depends on your content, whether it’s original articles, links to others on a topic, both or something else. It depends on your target audience.
The target audience may not matter much. But some professions have shown a preference for one format over another. People in information technology (IT), where money and time are lacking, often prefer the summary version because they want to scan and decide. But, ask any IT person, and you might find out she has no preference. You can always conduct a poll and see what readers think.
I regularly open the door to readers to provide feedback for all newsletters in which I’m involved. Occasionally, I receive comments regarding the formatting. If there is a frequently appearing request, then I investigate it. So far, the comments have been too varied and too few to justify a change.
I guess when it comes right down to it, I don’t have a preference between a newsletter with the full articles and one with article summaries, but again it depends on whether or not I like the way the newsletter is presented. One recommendation is to shun mailing a newsletter with hardly any clothes on.
Remember those portraits with subjects wearing nothing but leaves? Unfortunately, when you receive links acting as leaves, they tend to have the opposite effect of the portraits — they leave a little too much to the imagination.
by Meryl K. Evans is the Content Maven behind the eNewsletter Journal and The Remediator Security Digest. She is also a PC Today columnist and a Web design tour guide at InformIT. The Content Maven is geared to tackle your editing, writing and content needs. The Texan has three children and a husband to keep her on her boots.
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