Email marketing 101: 4 dos and don'ts

I first wrote this post a few years back; the topic is worth revisiting as the fresh produce and floral industry gears up for its largest gathering in North America.

I recently worked a large convention and trade show for a client, who registered me for the show so that I received an official event badge so that I could come and go as needed. In the weeks before after the show, my email in box was flooded with marketing emails from exhibitors who had accessed the event’s registrant list.

Kudos to these businesses for taking the initiative to get the most of their expo investment! After all, with apologies to Field of Dreams for the analogy, simply building a booth doesn’t mean that visitors will come – you’ve got to attract them. That said, the emails I received ran the gamut, from well done to a waste of their and my time, to illegal. Assuming you want to be in the former rather than the latter categories, here are my basic email dos and don’ts:

  1. DO know the law. Yes, there is a law governing bulk emailing. The oh-so-aptly named CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 lays out the basic do’s and don’ts that mass emailers must follow. Each violation can bring a hefty financial penalty if somebody decides to report you, so it behooves you to know the basics (read the Federal Trade Commission’s summary here). For example, your email must allow recipients to unsubscribe and to include a valid physical address, and to be truthful in subject lines and “from” fields.

  2. DO engage in permission marketing. Permission marketing is just that: your subscribers first give you express permission to email them. Building an email list this way requires considerably more work than (for example) simply dumping a conference registration list into your database, no doubt about it. But at the end of the day the list you build is of pre-qualified contacts who actually want to hear from you. Aren’t those the folks you’d rather be reaching anyway? At a trade show, this means having a sign-up sheet at your booth, or asking for business cards. Worst case, send ONE email to a downloaded list, with the option to opt in or out – which leads us to our next bullet.

  3. DON’T diss your recipients. Few things elicit the visceral reaction that unsolicited email does. It doesn’t matter whether you think what you have to say is CBI (critical business information) – that decision is up to the recipient. So, respect your addressees and make it easy for them to unsubscribe if they want to.

  4. DO learn from your unsubscribes. Every emailer experiences unsubscribes, so don’t beat yourself up when they happen – but do try to learn from them. Mass email services such as Constant Contact and MailChimp allow you to automatically survey unsubscribers to find out why they are leaving, so be sure to turn that feature on and tailor your survey when setting up your account.

Then pay attention to what unsubscribers are telling you. Are they leaving because you’re contacting them too often? Then reconsider your frequency to avoid fatigue; some email services even allow recipients to specify a lower frequency (think: weekly instead of daily, or monthly instead of weekly). Or more serious, are they leaving because they don’t find your information helpful? Then review your marketing communications plan to make sure you’re meeting your audience’s needs, not just pushing your company at them.

Now, let’s rate some of the emailers who contacted me after I worked that conference:

  • The inviter: One company contacted me once post-conference, inviting me to join their list; I give that company a B-. They would have earned an A+ from me had they built a qualified lead list, for example by signing up booth visitors, rather than list dumping for one-time use.

  • The what-a-waster: Another exhibitor contacted me multiple times to push a product that isn’t remotely relevant to my business. I give them an F for engaging in indiscriminate list dumping (I assume they contacted every registrant). Don’t! list! dump! But if you insist (hopefully just to send an opt-in invite), then at least segment the list to the type of registrant that’s most relevant to your business. For example, if you sell farm implements, don’t email retailers.

  • The outlaw: Another company emailed me several times without giving me the option to opt out – I can’t even write them because they don’t include an address (as if anyone has the time to do that). I give them a grade of I (for “illegal”). I’ve told my email software that they are junk mailers, so any emails they send me are forever relegated to my spam folder. They’ve permanently lost the ability to communicate with me.

Email can be a great and powerful tool for telling your business’ story and building rapport with clients and potential customers, but you must use it wisely. That will necessarily take more of your time, but the ROI will be worth it.


Julia Stewart