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Email marketing etiquette

When email etiquette is unclear, how do you determine what is a justified follow-up email? Guest columnist Michael Katz sets out to find the answer.


As part of my consulting work, I offer an occasional article or collection of how-to tips for visitors of my Web site. I send these out via email, and typically follow up with offers for free stuff and product offerings.

A couple of weeks ago, however, one of those emails was sent back to me with the following message: "In my opinion, requesting your newsletter and even accepting whatever freebies you offer does not grant you permission to spam me. No, not the legal definition perhaps, but it's most certainly unwanted. One sales-only, no-immediate-value email or issue is one more than I will tolerate."

This response got me thinking. I sent what I believed to be useful, interesting, targeted follow-up information, and yet this person was offended. Sure, one of the messages was sales related, but we have a relationship -- the offer was on target, the product is high value -- and I offered an easy way to stop future messages.

Questions raced through my head: Did I cross some invisible line? Do other readers feel the same way? Had I spammed my own list? The short answer to these questions is, "No, yes and maybe."

The long answer is -- it depends. What I found over the next several weeks, as I put these and other questions to the readers of my newsletter, is there are few clear answers. Informed, reasonable and experienced businesspeople were all over the map when it came to determining the "appropriate" type, length and frequency of email follow-up messages. @9659

This lack of clearly defined email etiquette poses both a problem and an opportunity for all of us. On the one hand, there's not much historical precedent, so we're forced to make it up as we go along. Second, the intensely personal nature of email causes people to develop points of view about its use that they don't apply to other marketing tactics (direct mail and business-to-business telemarketing for example, are given much more leeway).

On the other hand, the lack of defined rules provides an opportunity for each of us to determine where the line should be drawn. Assuming you're over the bar on what's legal (follow this link for a refresher on the Can Spam Act of 2003. Hint: You may want to refill your coffee cup first), the rest is open to a great deal of interpretation.

With that in mind, I offer some specific recommendations:

  1. Figure out where your line is. Just because the "experts" say that a particular approach or tactic is fine, if you're not comfortable with it, don't use it. When the email comes in that takes you to task for doing something "wrong," you want to be able to respond knowing that you consciously arrived at an approach that works for you.
  2. Expect disagreement. I worked for many years at a large consumer services company. One thing I learned in marketing to hundreds of thousands of people at a time is that given a big enough group, there is literally nothing you can do that won't cause somebody to object. You could stuff five dollar bills in an envelope and send one to everybody on your house list and somebody would complain ("Hey, I wanted singles!"). Don't lose too much sleep over it.
  3. Let the filter do its work. If the approach that feels right to you doesn't sit right with others, that's fine -- those people wouldn't be good clients or business partners for you anyway. If they object to the way you market your business, they'll object to other things you do.

    By saying what you really believe and sending emails the way you want to send them, people will learn enough about you up front to know if they should walk on by, saving you both a lot of future frustration in the process. On the flip side, the people who think your approach is perfect (for them) will call and not be disappointed with what they bought.

If you rely on email to market or promote your business, be prepared to defend, fine-tune and fiddle with your approach. We're all new to this medium and, if my experience over the last month is any indication, we've still got a long way to go before there's consensus.

About the author
Michael J. Katz is founder and chief penguin of Hopkinton, Mass.-based Blue Penguin Development Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in the development of electronic newsletters and shows clients how to nurture their existing relationships to increase sales. He is the author of the book "E-Newsletters That Work."

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