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By Craig Goldwyn, Visibility.tv
Updated 12/2008

Email’s return on investment (ROI) in 2008 was $45.06 for every dollar spent according to a study by the Direct Marketing Association, down from $48.34 in 2007.

In other words, email is an unmatched marketing tool and a great way to build brands and maintain relationships and loyalty. And getting better.

I strongly recommend email newsletters for most of my clients. I produced my first email newsletter on AOL in 1990, before there was a world wide web, and I've produced more than I can count. I would be pleased to discuss your options with you. Here are some things to consider.

Why use a web-based email service provider?

Different types of lists

There are several types of mailing lists. With "public lists" anyone can subscribe. With "private lists" only the owner can add new subscribers. Private lists are great for businesses with internal communications or families or clubs. With "announcement lists" only the owner of the list can send email to all the subscribers. With "discussion lists" there can be interaction between the publisher and subscribers as well as between subscribers. All subscribers can post messages that are emailed to all the others on the list. Some discussion lists have a moderator who must approve all posts.

I strongly recommend that you use a web based email service provider (ESP) rather than try to do this entirely in-house.

It is just too complex and time consuming unless you are a large corporation with a sophisticated IT department. Even then, using a service makes a lot of sense, and a lot of Fortune 500 companies use outside ESPs, especially web-based ESPs.

The most important reason to use an ESP is because there are anti-spam laws that can cost you a bundle if you run afoul of them.

There are other distinct advantages to using web based ESPs. There is no software to purchase and update. They let you set up and manage your campaigns very easily, and produce some detailed reports on what is working. You can access the entire system from your computer with your web browser. Just log in, chose a template to create an elegant look and feel, copy your newletter from your favorite word processor into the template, click on some buttons to create headlines and pictures and links, and you're ready to mail.

Your mailing list is also managed online. You can upload your existing list, and new subscribers can join directly from your website without you having to do a thing. All of them use a "double opt-in" system. With double opt-in, subscribers type their email addresses into a form on a web page or in an email and click the submit button. They then instantly get an email welcoming them and confirming they actually did subscribe. They must click on a link in the email which activates their subscription. This guarantees that you have a clean list and that people are not entering other people's emails. Subscribers can change their email address and unsubscribe if they want.

Good ESPs have relationships with AOL, MSN, Yahoo!, Google, Hotmail, and others to help make sure your emails into their systems aren't classified as spam. Do it yourself, and you stand a good chance of being blocked.

ESPs usually have good systems for managing bounced emails. Was it returned because the box was full or because the address is not valid? ESPs will automatically remail to the full box, and remove the address from the list if it is no longer valid.

Emails are sent out addressed to the individual, one at a time. If you send them out with Outlook or your usual email program using the BCC feature, there is no personal address, and chances are the email will go directly into the spam bucket. In addition, your inhouse email program or your current email service will not likely let you send more than 50-100 emails with a click, so sending out a large list is a major pain frought with hazard (you do not want to send two emails to the same person).

Most ESPs offer tracking statistics telling you how many of your mails were opened, when, what links they clicked on, and more. This is very valuable info for fine tuning future mailings. Some even have a way to embed surveys and polls in your emails.

Finally, there is usually someone you can call for advice, feedback, and tech support.

There are some potential downsides.

1) Vendors charge a fee, either by the month, by the name, or by the mailing.

2) If your vendor's site goes down, or if your internet connectivity goes down, there's no way to get at your lists or send your emails.

3) All the services take steps to prevent list theft, and it is highly unlikely, but it is possible.

4) It is also possible they will go out of business and you could lose your list if you do not keep a copy.

5) If you use a free service, they will insert ads into your mailing.

How spam laws affect you

“Since the CAN-SPAM Act went into effect in January 2004, unsolicited junk e-mail on the Internet has come to total perhaps 80% or more of all e-mail sent, according to most measures.”

New York Times, 02/01/2005

The proliferation of spam has made it more difficult to get your message across. ESPs can help your deliverability significantly. And they can keep you on the right side of the law.

Many nations and states are attempting to control spam and if your email is incorrectly categorized as spam, you could find yourself in trouble with the law. There are many laws on the books already attempting (poorly) to control spam. Eventually we have to believe and hope the people who set internet standards will develop more effective methods for tracking and reducing spam.

The US CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 (Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing) requires unsolicited commercial email messages to be labeled and to include opt-out instructions as well as your snailmail address. It also prohibits the use of deceptive subject lines and false sending email addresses in such messages. It also requires that all unsubscribes are processed within 10 days of receipt. To see the other spam laws, click here.

There is a similar law in Europe, the European Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations of 2003.

You say you do not send unsolicited email? You may think you don't, but if you don't confirm every subscription with double opt-in, someone can submit another person's email address as a prank, and you're the one accused of spamming. If people subscribe to your email newsletter and forget they did, a more common occurrence that you might think, they might complain to the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department that you are a spammer. If you are accused of spamming you could come to work one day and find that your normal email has been disconnected, that you can no longer surf the web, and your website has been shut down.

But if you do it right, there is nothing to fear, and much to gain.


Your newsletters should offer the reader a choice of HTML (formatted with different fonts and graphics included) or plain text ASCII (nothing but typed words). Offer the choice because some email programs do not interpret HTML newsletters properly. Fonts are often garbled, font sizes vary widely, colors cannot be controlled, and curly quotes, some punctuation like em dashes, and foreign accents are often mangled. Some services offer "multipart" newsletters that are HTML newsletters with an alternative plain text ASCII part. Subscribers with a email program that cannot display HTML newsletter will see the ASCII part instead.

The only format guaranteed to go through is straight plain text ASCII. And that's OK. ASCII newsletters are easy to read, and with a little creativity can still look good. ASCII forces you to keep your email short with links to the site. We want them to come to your website which is better designed to tell your story and make the sale. For a good article on the subject, click here.

Do and don't do

  • Put your newsletter's name in the beginning of the subject line, and always mail from your domain name.
  • There should be no attachments to your email because many email programs strip attachments as an anti-virus precaution. You should not send PDF newsletters because they come as attachments.
  • If you must send an attachment, make sure it is virus-free.
  • When you are writing your email newsletter, be aware that many email software screens for spam by kicking out email with the word "FREE!" or "Special offer" or "money". There are other trip words to watch out for. Be especially careful in the wording of the subject line.
  • Some people have images, links, and attachments turned off by default. Be sure to include enough text so the reader will know whether to view your links or images.
  • Do not use IP addresses in your mailings. Use domain names. Some ISPs filter out emails with IP addresses in links.
  • Never send an email using the cc field so that subscribers can see the emails of other subscribers.
  • A LOT of your subscribers are probably on AOL, Earthlink, MSN, Yahoo!, and Hotmail. Make sure you adhere to their rules.
  • Even with double opt-in, it is common for only 20-30% of your emails to be opened. Churches enjoy some of the highest open rates, about 40%. That said, some emails with great relationships enjoy an open rate of 50-80% (Source: VerticalResponse.com).
  • You absolutely positively MUST have a prominently displayed and clearly worded statement of your privacy policies. Do you promise to never share your list with anyone? What about subsidiary companies? Spinoffs? Partners? Advertisers? You have to tell folks what you will do with their email address and other info or many will not subscribe. There should be a link to your privacy policy from every page in your website and in every newsletter.
  • You must have permission to send someone an email. Here is the kind of questions you must answer affirmatively in order to use a service such as Constant Contact. They say "Violation of these rules will make you subject to our Anti-Spam Policy and may result in the immediate termination of your account."

    1) My list is permission based - recipients have explicitly asked to receive communications from me or I have a relationship with the recipient

    2) My list is NOT a purchased list of email addresses from ANY source no matter what that source claims

    3) My list does NOT contain distribution lists or mailing lists, i.e. email addresses that mail to more than one email address

    4) My list does NOT contain captured email addresses obtained by surfing the Internet or "scraping" web pages

    Test, test, test. When you send an email, try different subject lines and offers to see which work best. Try different offers. Different colors. Different subject lines. Different time of the day. Different days of the week.
  • When soliciting subscribers and when confirming subscriptions, be specific and honest about what you plan to send them.
  • Tell subscribers what email address you will email from and ask them to add you to their address book so you will not end up in the spam can.
  • Don't ask for too much info from subscribers. Respect their privacy. Don't ask their age or income if you don't need it.
  • Include a "forward to a friend" option.
  • Keep the subject line short. No more than 40 characters, spaces included.
  • Edit your copy carefully. Have someone check it for menaing, spelling, and grammar. Look professional at all times.
  • Don't mail too often. How often is that? There is no answer, but once per week is probably the max in today's climate, and once per month is probably better.
  • If you purchase a list, you do not have permission to add them to your subscriber list. You can try to mail to them once, but be prepared to get a lot of complaints.
  • Pay attention to the statistics your ESP provides. Note how many cancellations, click-throughs, etc.
  • Make sure to include a snali mail address. It's the law.
  • Include a link that says "If you have problems viewing this newsletter, please click here for an online version."
  • Some of your subscribers use a "challenge" system for spam filtering. These systems ask you to enter a code to allow your mail through and add your address to their approved "white" list. Answer all these challenges.
  • If customers write to you about your email, respond promptly.
  • Include useful content in your emails. Don't make it all just sales oriented.
  • Study the reports your ESP supplies! They hold a wealth of info. But beware, they can be misleading. For example, many count an email as having been opened if it is viewed in an email's preview panel. Some consider it to have been read if it remains open for as little as five seconds.
  • Use a professional writer and or editor. The only thing worse than not doing email promotion is looking foolish in your email promotions or listing the wrong date for an event. Spelling and grammar errors are just not professional and people do notice.
  • Most ESPs have beautiful templates, so you may not need a designer, but if you really want to stand above the crowd, a designer can help.
  • Mail regularly so they don't forget who you are.

Features you need from your ESP

ESPs like Constant Contact provide you with vital statistics such as how many emails were sent, how many were undeliverable, how many were opened, what links they clicked on, etc.

Here are some questions you should ask about the bells and whistles offered by an ESP.

  • Does the ESP offer a free trial?
  • Does it have an easy subscription form that you can put on your website so it has the look and feel of your website?
  • Does it have double opt-in?
  • Is there a choice of single opt-in or double opt-in subscription? Single opt-in is useful if the subscription form is not public and the list is for club members, family, co-workers, etc.
  • Is there an easy to cancel system that can be inserted into your emails and on your website?
  • Can you add names manually to the subscriber database? This is important if you meet someone who hands you a business card and says "add me to your list."
  • Can you bulk upload names to the database? This is important if you already have a mailing list. You don't want to have to type them in one at a time.
  • How does their system handle duplicate addresses? Will it automatically de-dupe?
  • When you add email addresses, will it identify those that are not formatted properly such as those with spaces in them? Will the system tell you what is wrong with an invalid address?
  • Can you delete people or must they delete themselves? Is there a bulk delete feature?
  • Does the list management system remove duplicates? Flag invalid emails? Remove undeliverable emails?
  • Is there a farewell message for people who unsubscribe?
  • Is there a database to keep cancellations for future reference?
  • Is there a method for you to download your subscriber list for safekeeping?
  • Can you do split list tests? A split list test is when you send half the list an offer such as "half off on socks this month" and the other half of the list gets the offer "buy one get one free this month."
  • What are the ESP's policies insuring you that they will not sell or share your list?
  • What security system does the ESP use to insure your list cannot be stolen?
  • If advertising is inserted into your email (usually only true with free services), can you approve or reject it?
  • Can you insert your own ads such as Google AdSense?
  • What is the vendor's reputation?
  • AOL balks a a huge number of emails entering their system at once. Can your ESP "throttle" the flow to make AOL happy?
  • Does the vendor have a method for communicating with AOL, Earthlink, MSN, Yahoo!, Hotmail and others if your emails to their members are not being delivered? THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!
  • Can you setup a "trigger" mailing to go out, perhaps one day after someone subscribes, with a designated newsletter such as an intro message or a new customer offer?
  • Is there a "forward to a friend" option?
  • Is there an option for subscribers to specify if they want HTML or plain text ASCII formatting, and an easy method for them to change their account info, including their email address?
  • It should be easy for you to start a list and format your email. Many have demos. Check them out.
  • Most services have beautiful free templates you can use. Check them out.
  • If they offer online composition of the emailing, do you need to know HTML to make it look good?
  • Can you prepare your newsletter with Adobe GoLive, Dreamweaver, or another web design program and paste the HTML into their template?
  • Can you customize the look of the email to match your website colors and fonts?
  • Can they use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS are sophisticated ways to control the look and feel of HTML pages)?
  • Do they offer multiple permission levels so more than one person on your staff can access the account, but each has different abilities? This way your circulation manager can access the database but not the content, while your editor can access your content but not your database.
  • Is there prompt competent tech support? Is there a phone number or email only?
  • Will they provide you with a list of clients you can contact for references?
  • Do they offer both announcement lists as well as discussion lists?
  • Can you approve new members before they are added?
  • Test your html emails

    Here's a useful website if you create your own html emails. Go to Sitevista and they will tell you how to send them your email and they will show you how it looks in various email clients. For a fee, of course.

    If you use a discussion list, can you review and reject unacceptable posts before they are sent out?
  • If you have a discussion list, does the system show the email of people who post? This could open them up to spam.
  • Does the service create adequate reports? You need reports on how many subscribers, how many new subsribers, how many cancellations, how many undeliverable emails, how many open the emails, and how many click through on each link in your emails. Some vendors provide even more reports such as non-responder lists , people who did not open the email so you can follow up with a different subject line. Can you compare the reports from multiple campaigns?
  • How do they track click throughs? Do you have to tag links manually or is it done automatically?
  • Does the vendor have a tool to check your email's HTML, links, and flag words that might trip spam filters?
  • How do they handle soft-bounced emails (a temporary delivery problem such as the recipient's mailbox is full or their server is down)? Do they retry? How often? How many times?
  • How do they handle hard-bounced emails (the recipient does not exist or other permanent failure to deliver)? Do they automatically remove hard-bounced emails?
  • Are the emails be individually addressed? In other words will it appear to be addressed to an individual or will it be to "undisclosed recipients"? If not individually addressed, your emails are often sent to the spam can.
  • Can personalized "content merging" info be inserted in each email? In other words, can your email say something like "We hope you are enjoying your new red shoes, Mr. Bozo, and you might like to know we just got in some green ones in your size"?
  • Is it easy for you to change the options for your list?
  • Can you customize messages sent to new and departing subscribers?
  • Can you send attachments?
  • Can the ESP archive past newsletters and make them available to subscribers?
  • Is there deferred sending so you can compose an email today and have it sent next week when you are on vacation?
  • When people subscribe, can you get their real name, phone number, street address, and other info?
  • Will the system promote your list on their website or with ads?
  • If you use a Mac, is their system Mac friendly?
  • Can you break your list into segments and target segments of your list?
  • Can you send a test message to a small group to make sure it looks good on different browsers and operating systems and to make sure it works properly?
  • Do they have an HTML checker to make sure your email will display properly?
  • Is there a size limit to the email you wish to send?
  • Does the ESP require you to display their logo or other info at the bottom of your mailings?
  • Last, but not least, how do they charge? By the list size? By the month? By the mailing? By the pieces mailed? By the pieces delivered? Are there extra charges to customize the look of your mailer? For tech support? For image hosting?

Web-based ESPs

Constant ContactI have setup several successful email newsletters for clients with Consant Contact, a top-notch ESP that is very reasonably priced.

All these vendors offer a full range of features and services. Some are more sophisticated than others. The field is competitive and the feature lists change often. I have not been able to test or research all of them so I have more info on some ESPs that others. Because some of them do not publish their prices and some do, I have spent more time studying those that are more upfront about pricing. Some offer discount prices for not-for-profits.

CoolerEmail. A full-featured service with an impressive list of clients. Discounts for prepayment.

Coollist. Free. Discussion lists only. Can be moderated. Collects email addresses only. There is an advertisement banner attached with the email, located at the bottom of the email. Sends confirmation email to names added by manager.

Constant Contact. One of my favorite ESPs, CC offers a 60 day trial for up to 100 email addresses, free tech support via email or phone, and live demos and webinars to help get you started. More than 100 templates. They support coupons in the email. Constant Contact automatically formats your emails in both HTML and text and delivers it in a multi-part format so that your recipient will see the right format every time. Surveys through Zoomerang, a well-known survey service. Imports databases from .csv, .xls, .txt files. Billing is per month based on the number of subscribers, and you can do as many mailings as you want. Discounts for prepayment and for not-for-profits. Notable clients: Sams Wines, Aperture, Redmoon Theatre, Wetzel, and many more.

Emma. One of the few that offers "trigger" mailings. Notable clients: DHL, KOA, Kobrand, NYU, MIT, Car Talk, Vanderbuilt.

ExactTarget. This high-end service sells a lot of sizzle on their site, but there are no demos, samples of their templates, or pricing. They claim to be deliverability experts and offer deliverability consulting. They have a very impressive list of notable clients: ePrairie, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, The Home Depot, Scotts Miracle Gro, T-Mobile, Gannett, Delta Faucet, CareerBuilder.com, Wild Oats, Danskin, and Encyclopedia Britannica.

iContact. Claims their customer list includes AT&T, Vonage, Symantec, International Paper, ReMax, Centex Homes, and Viacom. Free 15 day trial. 300 templates. 20% discount to non-profits.

Listrak. There are an impressive list of features includes consultations. Each service level offers more services. Among the most interesting services is the ability to synchronize their list with your inhouse database using XML. No triggers in current version but they will be in the next version. Image hosting is extra. Multiple permission levels. Has an AOL throttle. Mac users must use Firefox. Dedicated IP in Enterprise level. Uses SpamAssassin to check your mail for spam rating. Notable clients: Wolfgang Puck, New York Botanical Garden, Pennsylvania Dept. of Health, and the Conference Board.

Listrocket. They claim their setup wizard is really easy and their system is easier to use than competitors. They also have an integrated calendar function, advanced list segmentation, social networking, and geo-mapping.

Reach Mail. 30 day free trial.

Responsys. Award winning high end email marketing specialists. A very large and impressive client list including Kendall-Jackson wines, Petco, Corel, Land's End, e-Loan, Liz Claiborne, Lego, John Deere, Dollar Rent-a-Car. They offer advanced services including strategizing, program design, and automation, analytics, segmentation, and contact optimization, testing and ROI optimization, data integration and management.

Sparklist. One of the largest services with a long list of major corporation clients. Discussion lists are available. There is a pricing calculatior on their site.

Streamsend. 30 day free trial. Client list includes UPS, Western Union, Barnes & Noble, Monster.com, Jelly Belly, Zingerman's and more.

Topica. 14 day free trial. There is a pricing calculator on their site or you can email or call them. Has a "co-registration" network where people can subscribe via other websites including Topica's. Notable clients: IBM, Consumer Guide Automotive, and Learning Resources.

Yahoo! Groups. This is a great system for discussion groups although it can be used for announcement lists. New users are required to be registered with Yahoo!, a painless process, but a barrier for some. No HTML templates or custom design. But there are some other great features including an integrated message board, photo albums, member profiles, a calendar, and more. Although there is a choice of discussion or announcement list, it is geared to discussion lists and messages to new subscribers can be confusing. They actively promote their lists and you can get new subscribers via their sites.

Your MailingList Provider. They offer free "light" or paid "premium" services. Free accounts have ads inserted at the bottom or each mailing. You cannot import subscribers and you can send only one newsletter per calendar day. Maximum message size: 40 kilobytes. Maximum number of subscribers: 1,000. For more info on their premium services, see the listing below.

VerticalResponse. Because pricing is based on the number of emails you send and there is no monthly fee, they are ideal for small lists or people who mail only occasionally. You can either pay as you go on a per campaign basis or buy in bulk and subtract from a total amount of credits as you mail. VerticalResponse provides a unique content screening tool that scans your email looking for potential spam terms and phrases. They also offer printed postcards to snailmail in coordination with your email campaigns. Notable clients: Copia, Hobby Lobby, Swiss Colony, Law.com.

Your MailingList Provider. Based in Belgium, they offer free "light" or paid "premium" services. The free service has advertising inserted. For more about their free services, see their listing above. You can choose between single opt-in and double opt-in. You can send "plain text", "HTML" or "multipart" newsletters. All past newsletters are kept in an archive which can be made available to your website visitors. Customize the subscription mailing to the design of your site. Because they are in Belgium, you may not want to use their phone support, so be prepared to use email when you need help.

Zinester. Zinester. Focused on ezine publishers. They offer both a free and premium paid service. See info about their paid service below. The free service includes: "Build & Manage Your Mailing List, Subscription Web Forms for your website to capture new subscribers, Import of Subscribers including personal data, Mailing List BackUp, Subscribers Managment allows to add and remove subscribers from your mailing list, One-click Unsubscription Link at the bottom of every message, Automated Bounce Handling assures that non-active email addresses are removed from the mailing list, Personalized Email (No bulk emailing), Plain Text & HTML Formats, Free HTML Templates, Detailed Statistics including active subscribers, gains, etc., Content Merging, Message Scheduling, Archives (the archiving process preserves the entire look of your newsletter, including all images and ads), Unlimited Email Support." The paid service has nice feature list, but not as robust as the more expensive ESPs. To compare the free and premium services, click here. There is a 14 day free trial. They have a lot of small ezine publishers.

Others: BetterMail, Bronto, Campaigner, GraphicMail, JangoMail, ListBox, MailChimp.

Email software for inhouse use

There are many options for maintaining your own list and mail system inhouse. I am not a big fan of this approach, so I have not made a thorough study of the options. Here are a few.

Listserv. The original mailing list system has been around so long it is often used as a generic term to refer to all list managment systems.

Majordomo. A very popular free UNIX based email newsletter system that has been around for many years. It is being rewritten to catch up with the times and other systems.

GNU Mailman. Free UNIX software.

Bigspender. He can make you rich!!!!!! Buy now!!!

Resources & references

Here are some links to articles, white papers, and software that expand on the info on this page.

SpamAssassin.com. Download a professional tool to see how spam filters will score your email.

thefreecountry. Free stuff for mailers.

BestPrac.org. Best practices for email and how to avoid being classified as spam.

SpamCon.org. Best practices links.

Abuse.net. Bulk e-mail how to.

ClickZ. White papers and links on how to do email marketing.

VerticalResponse. White papers and links on how to do email marketing.

MediaPost. White papers and links on how to do email marketing.

ConstantContact. White papers and links on how to do email marketing.

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