Foundations: How Email Works
A lot of marketers think that getting into email marketing is a quick and easy process. While things are easier now than ever before, there are still fundamentals that you need to understand before you even consider sending your first campaign.
This section of the Foundations series will look at what is really being sent with an email campaign, what you need to understand about permissions and growing your audience, and how to ensure that your email campaigns comply with anti-spam laws and get delivered to your readers.
How Email is Sent
Most people are familiar with email. They send it every day. But sending a casual email to a friend or colleague is a far cry from successfully engaging in email marketing. Understanding how and why sending an HTML email is unique is one of the first steps to becoming an effective email marketer.
The first thing to know is that when sending a campaign you are, in reality, sending two messages - the HTML message and a plain text version of that message. These two messages are packaged as a “multipart-alternative” message by your email software or email service provider before being delivered to any recipients.
You may think that this is merely a technical issue but, as an email designer, you have a responsibility to make both the HTML and plain text versions of your email exceptional. The percentage of subscribers that prefer plain text emails is usually low, but it’s still your job to make sure they can easily digest your messages.
From properly packaging your message contents to handling IP addresses, deliverability issues, and spam complaints — there are many technical hurdles associated with sending an email campaign. Fortunately, dozens of companies exist to make managing this stuff easy. They are collectively referred to as email service providers (ESPs). On top of handling the logistics of email marketing, most ESPs provide solutions for building campaigns, testing and tracking campaigns, and managing lists.
This last point is one of the most important aspects of email marketing. Growing and managing a healthy subscriber list is vital to any email marketing program.
Growing Your Audience
You can’t send a campaign until you have someone to send to. Setting aside actually finding people to sign up to your lists, the most important thing to know is that you must have a subscriber’s permission to email them.
In some cases, this permission is indirectly given if the subscriber has a transactional relationship with you. You are legally allowed to email users who have taken some action on your site e.g. signing up for an account, purchasing a product, or registering for an event. These actions constitute a transaction and allow you to email them regarding that transaction. Naturally, these emails are called transactional emails.
In all other cases, you need a subscriber’s express permission in order to send them an email campaign. This permission is usually gathered through a form on a website or in-person (think networking events or in-store email signups).
When gathering permission, there are two accepted methods: the single opt-in and double opt-in processes. In the single opt-in process, once someone has given you their email address, you can immediately begin sending them campaigns. Double opt-in, on the other hand, requires an additional step before you can start emailing a subscriber. This usually takes the form of a confirmation email with a link for the subscriber to visit to confirm their interest in your campaigns.
There are advantages and drawbacks to both methods.
With single opt-in, lists generally grow more quickly since there isn’t any friction to prevent people from signing up. That being said, single opt-in lists tend to have a higher number of invalid email addresses, which can adversely affect your sending reputation and deliverability.
Double opt-in lists, however, tend to be healthier. Even though they are usually smaller, by confirming their email address and intention to receive campaigns, the lists usually consist of people that are more likely to receive, open, and interact with your campaigns.
Different companies use different strategies, and some ESPs dictate which method you can use. Ultimately, like so much in email marketing, the decision is up to you and should be informed by the audience that will be subscribing to your campaigns.
The final thing to remember before engaging in any email marketing is that you do not your campaigns to be misconstrued as spam. Legally, spam has a very specific definition outlined in the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 in the United States and the EU Opt-in Directive of 2003 for the European Union. While both acts have details you’ll likely want to familiarize yourself with, the main points are as follows:
Do not use false header information. Most ESPs handle building the headers for your email campaigns, so this is usually a non-issue. But you also can’t mislead subscribers in the “From”, “Reply-To”, and “To” fields of any campaign you are sending. Be specific about who is sending the campaign, where it’s going, and how subscribers can reply if they encounter issues.
Don’t use misleading subject lines. While you can get a bit creative (and are encouraged to do so!), your subject lines must be related to the content of your email or they will be seen as spammy.
Make it clear that your email is either transactional or for marketing purposes. Don’t make your emails look like a quick note from a friend. Instead, make your intentions clear. Confusion is likely to force some subscribers to mark your message as spam.
Give out your address. You need to include a physical business address in your email in case a subscriber needs to contact you about unsubscribing. If you’re sending as an individual, you can always use a P.O. box.
Allow people to opt-out of your campaigns. You need to include some method for unsubscribing from your list. Usually this takes the form of an “unsubscribe” link somewhere in the email. More importantly, you need to honor a subscriber’s request to be removed. The quicker the better. Make the process painless.
You are responsible for your reputation. Even if you contract with an outside agency to handle your email marketing, both you and they are responsible for any legal ramifications from sending those campaigns. Don’t think that you won’t be held accountable for spamming just because you didn’t hit “send”.
Even though the CAN-SPAM act isn’t widely enforced, you should do everything you can to ensure that you are in compliance. Violations typically carry with them a substantial monetary fine. Fortunately, most ESPs have checks built into the design and sending process to ensure that emails comply with spam rules.
Aside from specific spam laws, many ESPs, ISPs and email clients have their own rules for determining what is and is not spam. While some of these rules involve gauging the reputation of a sender through technical means, some of them deal with the content of the email campaign itself.
The next section in the Foundations series will go over developing content for email campaigns and how to ensure that you deliver relevant, interesting messages that won’t be seen as spam by subscribers or spam filters.