In Praise of E-Mail

The Internet’s simplest app is also its most effective.

Faster than a postal letter. More powerful than a banner ad. Able to leap tall organizational structures in a single bound. It’s … E-MAIL!

E-mail is so simple — and, at this point in the Internet’s evolution, so familiar — that you might be tempted to take it for granted. Don’t. When deployed correctly, E-mail remains one of the most effective weapons in the marketer’s arsenal. Yes, the Web is rich in color, texture, and multimedia effects of all kinds. But the Web is only the face of the Internet; E-mail is its voice.

What’s so great about E-mail? For one thing, it works. In December asked consumers to pinpoint what attracted them to retail sites on the Web. Sixty-three percent credited E-mail campaigns. In contrast, 38% mentioned banner ads, and only 29% cited traditional advertising. Then there’s the price/performance ratio. Drawing on studies from Forrester Research and the Direct Marketing Association, a recent issue of Internet marketing newsletter Iconocast reported that banner ads have an average cost per sale of about $100. For direct-mail pieces sent through the post, that cost declines to about $71. And for opt-in E-mail campaigns, in which consumers agree to accept messages, the figure plummets to $2.

But before I continue, let me just say two important words about spamming: Don’t. Ever. Thank you.

If you’re not going to spam, how are you going to tell the world about your water-filled, airplane-safe, doubles-as-a-wallet neck-support pillow? You’re not. But you are going to tell the people who are most likely to buy it, namely those interested in travel. How will you reach them? Not by posting banner ads on hundreds of travel Web sites. Not by rifling through thousands of newsgroup posts. And not by standing in front of the next Internet World conference dressed as an airplane seat.

Instead you’re going to go to a spot like, one of several well-established sites that stock fresh bunches of E-mail addresses of consumers with a variety of interests. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that’s vice-president of marketing is my coauthor on a recent book.)

At, potential purchasers of your neck pillow sign up to receive E-mail about one or more categories of interest (there are hundreds to choose from) such as adventure trips, airlines, business travel, cruises, tourist attractions, and vacation getaways. The company assigns you, the marketer, a “campaign manager” who helps you develop a winning missive and target the right audience. then posts your pitch. In order to protect its members from inundation and maintain the healthiest possible lists, validates your choice of categories and does the merge-purge thing just as direct-mail-list vendors do with traditional postal mailings. For somewhere between $200 and $300 per thousand, your message lands in the in-boxes of thousands of likely prospects. will even tell you how many of those prospects actually opened your message and whether the recipients decided to make a purchase.

I refer to the site’s E-mail addresses as “fresh” because the moment that recipients have had enough offers of low-priced airfares to Mogadishu or discount tours of the Great Cheese State of Wisconsin, they will pull the plug by unsubscribing. You don’t have to worry about sending the wrong message to the wrong person, because your recipients are 100% self-selecting. How long folks stay subscribed to any list will vary with the topic. For example, someone who is looking for a car will subscribe to the automotive list just until his garage is filled. Someone who collects turn-of-the-century glassware, however, might subscribe to the antiques list indefinitely. Since maintains a database of more than 9 million members, marketers can be sure that there’s always a critical mass out there.

Does this method work for marketers? How do you feel about response rates ranging from 5% to 15%? Has it been a successful business model for The company was acquired for $700 million by CMGI in December, just a few months after going public. Not too shabby. is not alone in this marketplace. NetCreations manages more than 6 million E-mail addresses collected from nearly 200 third-party E-mail lists. For information on other services, check Yahoo and drill down to the category Direct Email/Opt-In.

Of course, the best list of E-mail addresses is the one that you build yourself. People will often tell you “where they’re @” so you can send them something. Like a gift reminder à la Or a notification of a favorite author’s new book, à la Or a newsletter, such as the invaluable Full Sterne Ahead, à la yours truly. But remember: Be sure to get explicit permission before sending anyone E-mail. Everything else is spam. And you’ve already promised me you wouldn’t do that.

The Subject Line of My Affection

OK, so several thousand people have agreed to receive your message. Now you have to get them to open it. And the key to that door is a killer subject line. Do not resort to hyperbole: it sounds like spam. DO NOT WRITE IN CAPITAL LETTERS: it looks like spam. Do not use exclamation points, dollar signs, or smiley faces: they smell like spam. Do not say something deceptive that’s meant to disguise the commercial nature of your missive (lines like “In answer to your earlier question” and “Thanks for all your help”). That’s the most common trick in the spammer’s book. And it makes people hate you.

A good subject line shows recipients how to solve a problem (“Apply for new, lower interest rates”). A very good subject line shows them how to solve a problem cheaply (“$7.95 for a 45MB NT hosting plan”). And a great subject line does both those things and also manages to throw in a whiff of intrigue (“Win a $10,000-laptop spending spree”). Of course, you must do all this with as few ASCII characters as possible. Haiku classes may help.

Because subject lines are so short, every word counts. Ron Richards, president of Internet marketing specialist ResultsLab, actually lost sleep over a single word in a campaign for a major online publishing client. The word was past, and Richards had used it in a sentence that appeared both in the subject line of an E-mail campaign and on the client’s Web site: “Readers’ choice of 12 must-read articles from past issues.”

Now the word past may seem pretty innocuous. But tossing and turning in his bed, Richards realized it was not quite right. To some people, past could imply old hat. So the next morning, Richards changed the sentence on the Web site to “Readers’ choice of 12 must-read articles from recent issues.” (The stories in question had all appeared in the previous six months, so there was nothing dishonest about the new wording.) After that tweak, page views of the articles increased 17%, a big deal for the publisher, whose site was supported by advertising. Unfortunately, there was nothing Richards could do about the E-mail messages, which had already gone out. Presumably, the substitution of recent for past would have produced a comparable increase in traffic to the site.

Once you’ve persuaded people to open your E-mail message, how do you get them to read it? Writing a great marketing E-mail missive isn’t much different from writing a great marketing letter. And who knows more about letters than the good old U.S. Postal Service? USPS has devoted an entire Web site ( to the subject, with excellent advice on what it calls “Beginning Your Creative.” For example, the site advises marketers to answer eight questions right off the bat, including “What is the specific objective of this mailing?” and “What is the one most important benefit to my audience?” Directness and brevity are crucial in E-mail. Keep things short. Think Strunk and White.

I Know What You Did with My E-mail Last Summer

Another wonderful thing about E-mail campaigns is that you can evaluate the effectiveness of each element. That’s because everything on the Internet is so beautifully measurable. Seed your missive with a unique link to your Web site and count the click-throughs. That demonstrates the overall success of the E-mail message. From there you can track how deeply respondents dug into your site and what they did there. That will demonstrate how qualified they are. Are the results not what you’d hoped? Tinker with the message. Adjust the subject line. Try a different list.

You can also do practice runs, in which you pit several versions of an E-mail pitch against one another to see which one works best, before you launch a larger mailing. It’s not complicated. Send out 1,000 each of E-mail messages A, B, and C. The results might look like this:

&nbspA              &nbspB                 &nbspC

E-mail sent                      1000           1000           1000

E-mail opened                  300             400             500

Click-throughs                  30               45               40

Sales                                 5                4                 &nbsp3

E-mail C was the most frequently opened. B attracted the most site visitors. But A produced the most sales. When you send out your next block of 8,000 messages, shouldn’t you choose the one that brings home the biggest slab of bacon? After all, when it comes to marketing, bacon — not spam — is the meat of choice.