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Lists, Email Marketing and your Blog #LBB

Thursday, November 11, 2010

[This is the second article in the List Building for Bloggers #LBB series. Read the first one here]

Your Blog's List

The most effective marketing tool available to you is email marketing. In the previous #LBB article I compared email to other forms of social media and showed you that not only did it outperform other forms of social media, email subscribers are higher quality subscribers as well.

The Hub and Spoke

Not the bicycle store downtown, and not that cute British pub you visited on vacation last year. Instead, the "hub and spoke" system is a very effective way to market yourself across all types of media. I've seen different bloggers use this concept in multiple ways to explain how they use it for SEO or promotions. The basic idea, though, is the same regardless:
  • Your blog is the hub where you create and manage your core content.
  • All other (social) media channels are the spokes through which the content is redistributed.
In other words, you create your core content and value on the blog. The content then flows out from there along the spokes to the other venues: Facebook, Twitter, your email list etc. Conversations and inspiration then flow back. You're probably using a hub and spoke approach now.

Adopting (or formalizing) a hub and spoke approach doesn't mean that you shouldn't create content (Tweets, Wall posts etc.) out on the spokes – you should. It doesn't even mean that your largest audience will be on your blog; there are many consumer-oriented sites now whose largest audience is on Facebook.

But the prime content starts from the blog and works it way out, and when it does so via email you have become an email marketer.

Email Marketing and Your Blog

Now I know you probably don't think of yourself as being in marketing, still less this strange beast called email marketing.

Instead you want to write about your cause, your family, how to save money, how to make money, maybe even how to eat money (tip: don't). You blog about your passion: Travel, business, coding, model trains, antique flange sprockets, Egyptian butterflies, the mating habits of the South American ping pong ball. You're in this for self-expression, not to fall into this thing called email marketing.

Good news: There are third party services like FeedBlitz that will take care of this for you by automating the process. We live and breathe this stuff so you don't have to. We're here to help.

But you still have to choose a service, or manage the mailings yourself if you keep it in-house. So here are some common email marketing terms demystified (hopefully!) for you to bear in mind. If this gets to be too arcane after the first few, skip down to the mythology department to skewer a few well-known.

Email Marketing: Terms and Terminology

Here are the basic email marketing terms and what they mean for you and your blog, no matter how you set up your email subscription delivery.

The List

This is the basically the database of email subscribers you are mailing. It can be as simple as just an email address, or can contain other data (called demographic data) you collect along with email addresses such as subscriber names, gender, city, state, zip etc. Most bloggers start out with one list; over time you will probably end up with multiple lists. For example, David Garland has a daily, a weekly and an events list for his site The Rise to the Top.

Relevance

All of the subscribers on any one list should have a common interest which you serve with relevant content. Relevance is huge for managing deliverability and making sure that subscribers not only stay subscribed but help you recruit more visitors to your site. The good news is that it is easy to stay relevant as long as your blog stays on-topic and powers mailings to your list.

Mailings

A mailing is an email you send to your list. A mailing can be a one-off, such as a holiday sales offer, or today's email subscription from your blog. Mailings are sent to your list or a segment of your list.

Segments and Groups

A segment (sometimes known as a group) means a subset of your list, which you can define based on information you know about the subscriber. It allows you to target mailings to one or more specific subscribers, something that you can't do with, say, RSS subscribers.

Newsletters and Blog Subscriptions: Just the same, only different.

A newsletter is basically a regular mailing from you to your list. For most bloggers, blog to mail services like FeedBlitz automate this process, and these updates are their newsletter. It's great editorial content, nicely formatted, that goes out on a frequency determined by the blogger.

Some bloggers and publishers consider their newsletter to be something beyond the automatically mailed posts. When used this way, a newsletter contains additional editorial content which does not appear on the blog and can be sent instead of (or as well as) automatic mailings from the blog. Personally, I don't understand why a publisher's extra editorial wisdom should be restricted to just the email list and not shared with every visitor to the site; a great way to do this is to write a weekly wrap-up post on your blog and have that automatically mailed as part of your blog to mail service.

Email Blasts

Ethical professional corporate marketers really, really, REALLY dislike the term email blast, because it sounds spammy. But what is it? It's a one-off mailing to your list. That's all. So it's okay to "blast your list" as long as a few basic rules are followed:
  • The list is yours and properly opted-in.
  • Blasts are the exception, not the rule.
  • They're relevant to your list.
Break any of these rules, though, and your rewards will be unsubscribes, complaints and ISPs blocking your mail. So don't abuse it. Keep the ratio of blast to newsletter at six to one or better.

Autoresponders

Autoresponders are mailings sent in fixed sequence over a period of time to subscribers. A "thank you" note sent to a subscriber when they confirm their subscription is a very simple, one mailing long, autoresponder.

Autoresponders can (and often do) have multiple steps to them; they are therefore used for what is often called "drip marketing" where you send an email subscriber mail at regular intervals to incent them to do whatever it is you want them to do. They can be used to send special offers, send surveys a few days or months after a subscriber joins the list, and more. Darren Rowse has an excellent article on ProBlogger on how he uses autoresponders on his sites. Well worth a read.

If you're still not entirely clear on the difference between a regular mailing and an autoresponder, see this article in the FeedBlitz knowledge base.

Confirmed Dual Opt-In

The only way to make sure your list grows legitimately is to use confirmed dual-opt in. Confirmed dual opt-in proves that the email address given on your subscription form is (a) real, and (b) the email addresses' owner actually wants your mailings. The process requires the recipient to actively confirm they want your mailings by clicking on a link in a mail sent to them after the initial subscription form has been submitted.

Anything other than dual opt-in will lead to higher complaint rates and your mail not getting through. Don't do it (a reputable email service provider won't let you either).

Bounces

A "bounce" happens when an email can't be delivered. Email services like FeedBlitz typically define two classes of bounce: hard and soft.

A hard bounce is where the receiving system says "the account you're trying to mail does not exist" in which case you (or your service) should delete the subscriber from the list and not attempt to send mail to that address again. I'll cover why in the deliverability section below.

A soft bounce is where the email can't be delivered because of a temporary problem, like the receiving server being offline or too busy, the subscriber's mailbox being full, etc. Soft bounces are okay to try to send to later.

Complaints

When someone clicks the "spam" button in their ISP's webmail app the sending system should record that as a complaint. ISPs track complaint rates to help them determine whether you are being a well-behaved mailer. Do the right thing and you get to the inbox. If you have high complaint rates you're going to end up in junk. Not good. Complaint rates should be 0.3% or lower for any reasonably sized list. AOL takes a very dim view of mailers with complaint rates over 0.1%.

Complaints are typically delivered to email services like FeedBlitz by what are called "Feedback Loops" that link the mailer, such as FeedBlitz, to the ISP. They're only available to bulk emailers in good standing with the ISPs in the first place (and that includes FeedBlitz, I'm happy to say). See this topic in the knowledge base for more.

Deliverability

Narrowly defined, deliverability is the ability of your email system to get the email you send into the welcoming arms of the of the subscriber's email server. Any reputable email service provider should be getting deliverability rates in the high 97% or better range, because reputation is the prime factor in determining whether the email comes from a trusted source or not, and therefore whether it should go to the inbox or to junk. If you are unsure, set up some test accounts; mail them and see what happens.

Spam

Hereare the two golden rules about spam:
  1. Spam is the subscriber's call to make and theirs alone.
  2. If you think have permission to mail them and they make a spam complaint, see rule 1.
It doesn't matter if you think you got permission a year ago or yesterday. If the subscriber says "spam" it's spam; it isn't something to debate with them or your email service. Remove them from your list (your service should do tis for you automatically) and do not email them again.

Now, to be fair, there is some debate about whether you should email them one last time to confirm that they have been removed from your list (this applies to normal unsubscribes too), but as far as I'm concerned an unsubscribe or spam complaint means that they don't want to hear from your again, and writing them one last time is asking for your mail to be classed as spam again, which will affect your reputation and hence deliverability.  This is, in fact, generally good advice about email marketing in general: If you're not sure, don't.

Spam filters and Reputation

Spam filters determine whether an email should be routed to your subscriber's inbox (which is what you want), or transferred to junk or, worse, trash.

Most ISP filters work on reputation once the email has been received. Reputation is determined by the sender's past behavior, and includes typical complaint rates, bounce rates, spam traps and other proprietary techniques.

So, for example, if you (or your service) repeatedly emails addresses that respond with hard bounces, your mail will be routed to junk as it is clear that you're not paying any attention to what the receiving email systems it telling you.

Content filters (think Spam Assassin) used to be the only way to deal with spam. They are still used but increasingly play a secondary role to reputation for ISPs. It is extremely rare for email from an otherwise trusted sender to be routed to your subscriber's junk folder. If and when that happens you should contact your email provider to figure out why. (For example, in the one case where that consistently happened to a FeedBlitz client this year we narrowed the problem down to a single link in the email that was triggering the IPS's content filter. Remove the link, problem solved.).

Email from reputable senders should also pass commonly deployed filters (again, think Spam Assassin) because the emails will be properly structured and linked to external white lists. Unless you're doing something you shouldn't, you don't have to worry about content filters if you're using a reputable third party vendor for mailings from your blog.

White, Gray and Blacklists

A whitelist routes mail directly to the subscriber's inbox and bypasses most filtering.

A blacklist is a list that immediately routes your email to junk or trash; in some cases it a blacklist won't even let your email server connect to the subscriber's email server. Your mail doesn't get through. You don't want to be blacklisted.

Greylisting is a technique where the subscriber's email servers tells you that the server is busy right now, please come back later. It's not actually true, but it's an effective anti-spam technique because spambots typically won't bother to retry. Their mission is to shove a gazillion mails out the door as fast as possible; tracking and attempting retries gets in the way and they won't.

Reputable and corporate email systems, however, will retry later, at which point your mail will be accepted for delivery. Greylisting works extremely well for receivers. It may cause problems for senders, however, as it tends to delay messages and uses resources to track and manage the later retries.

Authentication

Authenticated mail is genuine mail – a receiver can tell whether the email is really from the system it says it's from.

Why is this necessary? Well, unfortunately, it's easy to fake who an email is from. Spammers, phishers, viruses and malware do this all the time. You've probably received those fake emails from someone pretending to be your bank.

Authentication enables a receiver to tell whether the email that says it is from megabank.com was actually sent by megabank.com. FeedBlitz, for example, uses two authentication techniques on every email we send: SPF and DKIM (they're very technical specs and beyond the scope of this post).We do this because we have a great reputation (and therefore great deliverability) and we don't want a spammer wrecking that for us. Only emails sent from our servers will authenticate.

It's important to understand, though, that authentication only says whether the email is really from the system that says it sent it. That email can still be spam, however, because spam is the subscriber's opinion of the quality of the content of your email, not whether it is genuinely from you.

Email Facts, Fear and Mythology

So now you understand some of the terminology, let's take a look at some of the common fears and myths surrounding email marketing best practices:

My customers are technically unsophisticated and cannot use dual opt-in

Dual opt-in confirmations are required now for almost every service out there to validate email addresses. They're widely used and now expected. They can and do manage! Plus any other opt in technique is too easily abused and will affect your deliverability. So relax – focus on your content and building a reputable, high-quality list.

I can't email too often – my subscribers will freak out!

This isn't typically true for bloggers, because "freak outs" (i.e. mass unsubscribes and complaints) are caused by losing relevance or over-selling, i.e. spamming your list. Since your blog is, by definition, relevant to your subscribers this isn't a problem for bloggers. But, should you get lots of complaints and unsubscribes, pay attention to what your audience is telling you. If your readership is voting with its feet take action. Refocus and / or back off a bit.

For example, FeedBlitz recently had a new client with a weekly mailing. At my behest we switched to daily mailings. Unsubscribes picked up noticeably over the next few days; this blogger's audience had been used to weekly mailings from the previous service and they liked it that way, so we quickly switched back.

Finally, you can offer subscribers different mailings; they can then self-select into the daily or weekly versions and you can avoid the problem altogether.

Now, subscribers will freak out when email marketers (usually not bloggers) "blast" the list with nothing but sales pitches. Once the pitch to post ratio gets too high (and the unsubscribe rate will clearly tell you when that is) relevance is lost and subscribers will flee. Again, blog-powered mails are typically very relevant and this isn't a concern.

In fact, if you're a traditional corporate email marketer who writes a custom email newsletter once a month or once a quarter you are not mailing your list enough; every email you send will actually generate more unsubscribes and complaints than it should. Why? Because you're not top of mind in your subscriber's minds, and irregularly sent emails that arrive months after a subscription was confirmed will feel "out of the blue" and much more likely to be less relevant and more likely to be marked as spam. If this is you and you can't mail more often, consider using multi-step autoresponders to new subscribers to establish your presence in their mailbox between newsletter issues.

The core difference here is respect for your audience and readership. As bloggers we are all about respecting and growing our readership. As such, complaint rates are typically very low and engagement high.
Corporate email marketers risk treating their audience as low-cost resource they can sell to cheaply and at will. Bloggers don't. This core difference in attitude is what makes this myth false for bloggers and social media, but potentially true for corporations with little personally invested in their readership.

Shared servers are bad: I need a dedicated IP address for my mailings

Not true if you are using a reputable email service to power and deliver mailings from your blog. Why? Because email services like FeedBlitz care for and monitor our reputations and deliverability, so our servers and domain reputations will be excellent. It's what we do! You are not only outsourcing email production and delivery, your are also effectively outsourcing email reputation management as well.
Moreover, the email volume through reputable email services with well-known servers at fixed IPs is so large (for example, FeedBlitz sends well over one billion emails a year) that even a rogue list, should it even make it that far, can't affect the service's reputation as a whole because it will still be relatively insignificant to the entire day's mail sent from that IP.

It is true, however, that you should not send your blog's mailings from your shared web server using your shared web server hosting service. This is because the volume of mail from a shared web server is much smaller than from a dedicated email server run by a dedicated email service like FeedBlitz. As such, a spam web site on the same web server can easily ruin that machine's reputation, and take your email with it as the ISPs refuse to accept mail from that server.

Furthermore, many web hosts will limit the amount of email you can send per day, because it's much, much easier for them to throttle you than to take care of managing email reputation for the thousands of IPs they host. If you are even close to being successful you'll hit those limits very quickly. A dedicated email service won't limit you that way at all. There are lots more reasons why DIY isn't such a great idea for anything other than a trivially small list, but I'll cover that in a later article.

Next Up

Nitty gritty, actionable items to help you with getting started. How to set up and manage your list, scheduling, formatting, subscription forms and subscriber transfers.

About List Building for Bloggers #LBB

Written by Phil Hollows, the FeedBlitz Founder and CEO, List Building for Bloggers (#LBB) is a series of posts to help you make the most of your blogging by harnessing the power and capabilities of email, the universal social network, with your bog and social media communications. No matter whether you're a novice or a more advanced blogger, there will be something for you to learn, apply and benefit from in this series. Click here to read more about #LBB

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Linda Della Donna said...

Great resource article for technologically challenged--Me!

Thanks for the information.

Linda Dellla Donna
Founder, Director
Griefcase.net

8:13 AM, November 13, 2010  
Blogger Phil Hollows said...

Thank you Linda - glad you liked it. Don't forget to please retweet and share on Facebook if you haven't already!

12:12 PM, November 13, 2010  

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