March 10, 2013

Talking to the Tribe: Email

This week we begin a discussion of economical and potentially free ways to manage the conversation between you and the fans and customers of what you do. We will start with email. In another issue, we will talk about social media.

Email. We all use it. We all curse it. We can't imagine the world without it. And yet we tend to use it haphazardly and reactively. In some ways it is being replaced already by texting and social media, but it is still a remarkable way to communicate. And as a small time entrepreneur, working diligently to get your message out, you no doubt use it every day.

What I want to talk about here is managed mass mail, more commonly referred to as email marketing. There are too many companies out there offering email marketing services for us to review them all. What we will do here is discuss some of the issues, and provide some links to further info.

What's the Difference?

Managed mass mail is a bit different from regular email. It's subject to antispam laws (more on that below,) and can be presented either in plain text or in hypertext markup language (HTML) which is the standard markup language for websites. HTML allows you to present your message with formating, images, and other features that are available in web sites but not in plain email. There are some constraints in email that do not exist in websites, but the added flexibility and visual control that you have with HTML is a world of difference from what you can do with plain email.

In addition to HTML formatting, managed mass mail provides easy ways to control your mailing lists, ensure that the recipients actually want to recieve mail from you, and schedule and automate your mailing process. It's practically indispensible for anyone who has a tribe of followers to keep informed!

But Do I Really Need It?

To answer this question, you need to answer a few others.

  • Do you have a strategy for engaging your tribe and keeping them thinking about you?
  • Do you have a mailing list? More to the point, should you have a mailing list if you don't already? Do you have an effective way to manage who is in and out of your lists?
  • Would it be useful to be able to track the response of your followers to your note? Did they open it? How often do they open your notes? Do they click through on the links?
  • Do you have time and skills to generate visually effective outreach mailings on your own? If so, do you have a way to deliver them? (You cannot do it by pasting HTML into your regular email.)
  • Could you use coaching and tips on how to develop an effective email campaign? (The mail services all provide excellent info and coaching.)

You might not be sure about the answers to some of these questions, but if you are an artist, a writer, or any kind of creator who relies on the public to find, engage, and be enthusiastic about what you do, these are questions that you must address. All of the major email services are focused on these questions. Each has its own special features and benefits, but any of them can help you do these basic things. And some of them have free versions of their services.


One major reason you need to know about, and strongly consider using an email marketing service, is spam. Spam is defined as unwanted or unsolicited email. Over the past decade or so, laws have sprouted up to attempt to deal with the avalanche of spam that has accompanied the profound growth of the internet. It's illegal to send solicitations via email to anyone who has not expressly given you permission to do so. Express permission can be as simple as dropping a business card into your fish bowl at a trade show or exhibit, or verbally requesting to be added to your mailing list, or signing up on your web site for updates. What is not allowed, is buying, borrowing, or stealing email addresses for your list, or trolling the internet to pick them off of web sites. (Most mass mail companies automatically reject email addresses that have the word "info" as the username for this reason.) Even the addresses in your personal email address book are off limits unless the addressees have requested updates.

Mail Services

This is where mass mail services come into the picture. All the reputable mass mail services are obsessive about keeping you on the right side of the spam laws. Each has strict rules about how you add contacts to your mail lists. And you can get yourself banned from any of them by abusing the rules. But with a mail service, you get easy management of your mail lists, tracking of what you have sent, who has opened it, and more. The mail services also allow you to easily format your email in HTML with images, links, and extensive visual formatting, much of which is not available in everyday email. Most mass mail users use preformated templates provided by the mail service. you also have the option of coding your own HTML email or sending your notes as plain text, or both. I manually code our notes from my own templates, mostly because I have been writing HTML code in a plain text editor since the dawn of the modern internet back in the early 1990s. I've never met a website editor that I liked as much as the raw code.

One thing to consider in making the leap to HTML mail is that ALL of the email browsers, whether desktop apps like Eudora, Thunderbird, Apple Mail, and MS Outlook, or web mail apps like gmail, yahoo mail, or the web mail page for your internet service provider, are woefully behind the times when it comes to handling modern web page coding. They tend to be at least 10 years behind. For this reason, you cannot write your email in MS Word or in one of the many WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get) web site editors that prevent you from having to learn to code. These tools invariably introduce coding into your email that will be ignored by the email browsers that your readers use to view your notes. Thankfully, the mail services provide many templates that are pretested for email browsers, and by using them, you can get nice results while not having to learn to code HTML. They aso provide testing services to help you ensure that your email is readable and formating nicely in all the major email environments.

We use Mailchimp for our mailings, primarily because they have an integrated mechanism to take Amazon Payments. Most others do not, and unless your product is your email, as ours is, you would not need that feature. Other excellent providers that we are familiar with are Aweber and Constant Contact. We started out with Aweber but switched to Mailchimp early on for the Amazon Payments integration. Mailchimp also offers up to 2000 mailings per month free if you embed their logo in all of your notes. However, both Aweber and Constant Contact are excellent companies. There are many more that we have not explored. Here is a Google search for reviews and comparisons of the various email marketing services.

A Few Tips and Guidelines

When you launch a mail list and begin sending out notes, there are a few basic things to consider.

  • You can segment your lists easily to target subsets of your tribe for specific messages, or you can send messages to everyone. This is valuable, and deserves thought and planning. In our case, we have a free list, and a paid list. The paid list gets a lot more from us than does the free list. You might not have a paid list, but there might be other ways that make sense to segment your tribe. What you do not want is to send them notes that are not of interest to them.
  • Send out Goldilocks notes. You don't want to send your tribe so many notes that they stop paying attention. On the other hand, if you send too few, they will forget about you. What is Goldilocks for you will be unique to you. For some, a weekly note is about right. For some, monthly, or even daily works better. It all depends on your tribe's expectations. Our paid list gets a note every Sunday morning, come hell or high water. It's a promise from us, and if we have to type it out from our death beds, then so be it. For others this might be a bit crazy. Maybe your tribe just wants to know when you have an art show opening, or book signing, or performance, or a new product launch. Find your balance, and deliver what's just right.
  • Keep it personal and relevant. People are constantly bombarded with spam in spite of the laws against it, and have very little patience with email that doesn't meet them personally in their lives. Our friend, Jason Kelly, whom we interviewed several months back, is a master at this. His newsletter is about the stock market. It's one of the driest and potentially most stressful topics out there. But he is careful to close most of his notes with a personal anecdote or comment about real life outside the market—something that helps his readers to step back and keep their perspective about the things that really matter. This is refreshing, and much needed in the context of what he writes about, and he gets consistent positive comments about this aspect of his work as much as he does about the technical aspects of his market analysis.
  • Let the mail service manage your lists. Add in-person contacts manually, but set up sign-up forms on your web site, and above all, respect unsubscribes. One of the requirements of the law, and thus of all the mail services is that you include an active unsubscribe link in every email. As difficult as it is to see someone leave your list, it is absolutely imperative that you honor their freedom to do so.
  • Keep track of what works. You might not get this right at first, but that just means you've got some homework to do. A good email campaign is a remarkable thing, and there is a good email campaign out there just waiting for you to design and implement it. It will be unique to you and your tribe, and with persistence and a little work you can make it happen.

Contact Us
Have you got an idea for Outside the Lines, or question for us? Drop us a line!

Peggy Sonoda

Michael Reddell
PO Box 160
Cambria, CA 93428

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