By Mattias Durnik
Global Marketing Analyst,
Email has been around for more than three decades and has become one of the most ubiquitous tools on the Internet. Sending and receiving email messages has drastically improved the possibilities for individuals as well as companies and organizations to communicate with one another.
In the 1980s it became apparent that email was a great tool for group communication. Especially in the academic world, individuals started to compile lists of email addresses to disseminate the same message to groups of people. However, a major disadvantage with these early email-based lists was the manual labor required to maintain them. The resulting delays meant that it could take days or even weeks to subscribe to or unsubscribe from a list.
In 1986, an engineering student named Eric Thomas invented the first software program to automate the administration of email lists. He wanted to solve the problems and delays associated with the manually administered email lists that threatened the viability of email lists altogether. This email list management program was a huge success and became known as LISTSERV. Today, an entire industry exists around this concept, and hundreds of companies worldwide offer email list and email marketing communication solutions.
The advent of automated email list management software created new opportunities for companies and organizations that wanted and needed to communicate with their clients, prospects and members. Offering people the option of joining and leaving email lists when they wanted, in effect started what we label today as opt-in email marketing. Obtaining permission before sending marketing messages and allowing people to sign off when they no longer wish to receive email messages from the sender became industry standard.
With automation and more sophisticated database integration, new opportunities also arose for customizing email messages for each individual subscriber. Identical mass mailings are no longer viewed as particularly desirable. Instead, subscribers increasingly want their email messages to be tailored according to their preferences and interests. Mass email communication has undergone a complete transformation from an arduous, manual process where the sender held all the control to an automated delivery system that puts subscribers in charge.
Opt-in email communication under this new paradigm also entails new rules. The following are some of the major ones:
- Build a list of email addresses based on the principle of opt-in, allowing customers to stay in control of what they receive. Thanks to products like LISTSERV, customers can decide whether they want to subscribe to or unsubscribe from a newsletter, discussion list or promotional mailing. All professional vendors today offer opt-in functionality. You can try to impose the opposite, but it will ultimately lead to less effective communication.
- Remember, as with so many things, when it comes to email, perception is everything. In many places around the world, national and regional legislation is moving or has already moved toward an opt-in stance for commercial mass mailings. Even if existing opt-in legislation does not cover all aspects of mass email communication and email marketing, remember that all that matters is how you are perceived by your customers. Even if unsolicited email remains legal, it is not a viable business option since it will lead to tarnished brand reputation and even possible blacklistings that will block you from communicating with parts of your audience.
- Create content that is truly valuable to your subscribers. Allow subscribers to choose what type of content they prefer to receive. Offer added value to your email audience by offering exclusive information or special offers. To gain someone's trust to opt in to your email lists you must offer true value in return.
- Use the advantages of the email technology by integrating your existing customer data with your email messages. For example, you can create email content based on purchase history, demographics or other client data.
- Allow your subscribers to take control of how they receive your messages. In addition to self segmentation and content customization, offer your messages in the format that each individual subscriber prefers. In other words, allow subscribers to choose their format preferences at the time of opt-in and to modify preferences as needs change. If you send HTML only, do not forget to complement the delivery with a text part for those who cannot or do not want to receive HTML messages.
Opt-in is all about consumer empowerment. It is good for the recipient and just as good for the sender. Email messages that are sent to people who want them are more likely to be read and acted upon. Play by the rules and you will become a more successful email communicator.