Conning their way

to success

Email Marketing Lessons from
the Direct Mail Dark Ages

Part 1: The Bad


Part 1

We who do email marketing are heirs of an earlier profession known as “direct mail.” It is still practiced, profitably I might add, by holdouts. Perhaps you know some. Or perhaps you read about direct mail in a marketing history book.

Though the ubiquity of email is relatively new, its successful use grows largely out of techniques that direct mail marketers have been developing ever since Section 8 of the United States Constitution gave Congress the power to establish post offices and made Benjamin Franklin the nation’s first postmaster.

The national postal service was up and running by the early 19th Century. Marketers lost no time figuring out how to profit from it. Mail let them sell over vast distances without having to establish stores in every market. They could communicate with large audiences. When audiences responded, their actions were measurable.

That should sound familiar. It is essentially what we do today, albeit faster, with email.

Early direct mail merchants fast sorted techniques that generated results from those that fell flat. Today, it turns out that many of the resultant do’s and don’ts are as apt in zeros and ones as they were in envelopes.

Not that we should emulate everything early direct mail marketers did.

Here are a few things that you and I had better not do. I’ll save direct mail’s more positive legacy for Part 2.

Though plenty of early direct marketers had scruples, a fair share did not. One early mail-order marketer offered “a genuine, U.S. Government-approved engraving of Abraham Lincoln” for the low, low price of just five cents. For their nickel, dupes received a penny. Another scammer offered a sure-fire roach killer. What arrived in the mail were two blocks of wood with instructions to place the roach on Block A and smash it with Block B. Yet another offered unmarried women (in the days that “spinsterhood” was deemed a cause for concern) a guaranteed method for making “a good impression.” For their money, hopeful brides-to-be received printed instructions to sit on a pan of bread dough.

In time the U.S. Postal Service cracked down.

But since you’re reading this blog, I assume you’re a legit marketer, above lawbreaking. So let’s look at techniques that are perfectly legal by mail, but either illegal or at least inadvisable when it comes to email.

It’s legal for direct marketers to mass-mail “blind envelopes,” that is, with no return address. Since most people have difficulty discarding any envelope unopened, imagine the difficulty they have discarding an unidentifiable one. It’s also legal to make an envelope look like official mail from a government agency or other authority, provided you do not explicitly state that it is. I happen to think that misleading envelopes are underhanded and inappropriate. But they are legal and, unfortunately, effective.

Hiding or falsifying your identity in an email blast can be effective, too. In the U.S., however, it’s not just underhanded: it violates the CAN SPAM Act of 2003. That’s why you don’t see informed, legitimate, domestic companies try it, and you don’t see uninformed, legitimate, domestic companies try it more than once.

Direct mail has always been and still is an effective prospecting tool. A skilled analyst can overlay and process mailing lists to increase the odds of success of a cold mailing. There is nothing illegal, nor, I might add, underhanded about it. Showing up uninvited in a mailbox is not intrusive, whereas showing up uninvited on a smart phone, tablet, or computer is.

There’s nothing illegal about cold prospecting with an email blast, but it’s not advisable. For one thing, as I said, it’s intrusive. For another, email marketing tends not to be a terribly effective prospecting tool. Email works better on a permission basis, that is, when customers authorize you to ping them. That aside, cold email blasts can result in your being intercepted by spam filters, consigned to junk files, and, worst of all, blacklisted by email servers that will thenceforth block all of your emails, permission-based or not.

It’s generally better to use email for customer retention, growth, and cross-selling. For finding new customers, look to the likes of banners, referrals, social media ads, and pop-ups to secure permission to email. And, see above: Direct mail has always been and still is an effective prospecting tool. Many an online ball gets rolling by use of snail mail.

A final don’t. The only limit to how often you should pepper a customer by mail is determined by diminishing returns. You can send mail as often as it continues to pay. When it comes to email, people—and many servers—have a threshold. Ping too often, and you’ll be consigned to spam or junk. That is why services like Constant Contact won’t let you send blast after blast. And they won’t let you blast to the non-opted-in or to prospect lists, period. They like remaining in business.

Next week: The Good.

to success

Posted by Matt

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