E-blasts: Options, Experiences, and Benefits

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October 2014
by Linda Carlson

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Being able to e-mail newsletters, press releases, and direct response ads has significantly reduced the cost of getting news to the media, booksellers, librarians, prospective customers, potential hosts of appearances, and authors’ fan bases.

E-blasts give you better options than ordinary text-style direct e-mail. With templates offered by cloud-based e-mail blast vendors, even those of us with no HTML or web design experience (or aptitude) can create attractive messages. Because these templates make images integral, illustrated e-mails are more likely to be delivered, even to recipients who block messages that have attachments. You can use these templates through e-blast services to contact one person at a time, or thousands. Another plus: e-blast vendors offer detailed reports on readership—and at little or no cost.

The vendors provide services at monthly fees ranging from zero to thousands of dollars. Even if you pay for e-blasts, though, your costs are a fraction of what you’d spend on postage alone for traditional direct mail.

Email Filter And Technology ConceptWhile you can legally send postal mail to anyone, U.S. CAN-SPAM regulations require that you blast e-mail only to people who have chosen, or “opted in,” to receive it from you, and that you give recipients a way to be removed from your e-mail lists. That’s another advantage of e-blast services: They make sure that each message includes all required information regarding unsubscribing, and through their servers, they automatically block future messages to anyone who has opted out. (For more on regulations, see “CAN-SPAM Rules” at bottom; for a list of service providers, see “Selected Vendors” at bottom.)

Still more advantages:

  • E-blast services tell you which recipients actually opened your message, and whether they clicked through any links in the message, including links to any shopping cart. Each service also compiles open and click rates for its customers, and although categories are often very broad, they do give you some basis for comparisons.
  • Some e-blast services are integrated with shopping cart software that lets anyone in your database go from awareness of a book to purchase in seconds.

OPEN AND CLICK ACHIEVEMENTS

C.M. Mayo at Dancing Chiva in Palo Alto, CA, is one of the IBPA members whose approach to e-blasts is uncomplicated. “I post my newsletter on my website with all the text, images, and links,” she reports. “Then I just copy and paste that into the MailChimp template. If there’s anything special that’s only for subscribers, I add that.”

Mayo uses the free version of MailChimp, which allows contact with 1,000 e-mail addresses at a time, and she assumes that her high open rates (sometimes more than 50 percent) result from how infrequently she contacts people. She does not track whether people who click through to links eventually make purchases.

Deb Vanasse also uses the free MailChimp. Like Mayo, she finds it easy to use. “And we can accomplish all that we want at no cost!” At her Running Fox Books in Eagle River, AK, Vanasse does an e-blast about every six weeks, “only when we have real news,” and she contacts about 400 people at a time.

“We’re judicious about who goes on our list,” she notes, “so regardless of the message, our open rate is about 40 percent, and our click-through rate about 9 percent,” both well above the averages MailChimp reports for its “Media and Publishing” clients—23 percent for open rate and 5.14 percent for click rate. Open rates are about the same (22 percent) for companies with 10 or fewer employees sending at least 1,000 e-mails per e-blast, MailChimp says, with click rates about 3.5 percent. (For details, see here.)

A similar open rate—but a significantly different click rate—resulted from Peregrine Images’ trial run with MailChimp after BookExpo earlier this year. “We contacted 450 of the media people who attended BookExpo, offering a complimentary copy of Get Hired! Grow. Lead. Live.,” says Joanna Buster, executive assistant. The open rate was 21 percent, with a click-through rate of 0.2 percent generating four requests for review copies. None of the review requests led to publicity within the next two months.

Lion bookAt Bright Ring Publishing in Bellingham, WA, MaryAnn Kohl uses MailChimp to send 1,500 subscribers a monthly newsletter in which she shares children’s art ideas and book reviews and lists author appearances. Each newsletter has the same links to her books and she gives away a free book each month to a randomly selected subscriber.

Based on feedback from her newsletter subscribers, Kohl believes MailChimp underestimates open rates. “If a recipient opens the newsletter but does not click on anything, this is recorded as ‘not opened,’ she says, “so my open rate, which is reported as about 30 percent, is higher than that.”

“Because [our] open rate tracking relies on images, it isn’t 100 percent accurate,” MailChimp’s website explains. “If a subscriber’s e-mail client has images turned off, the tracking image won’t load, and their campaign won’t register as ‘opened.’ MailChimp reduces this margin of error by factoring in click-throughs with open rates.” Other services also use images for tracking. Bronto, which reports open and click rates for the most recent three-month period here, has a similar explanation: “An open requires a zero-pixel image in the message to be rendered in order to be counted. However, the click-through rates are more accurate since they are not subjected to the differences in how the message might be rendered.”

The service used by Savas Beatie in El Dorado Hills, CA, is Constant Contact, which is available at a special rate to IBPA members. Managing director Ted Savas reports that his company’s monthly e-letter has an open rate of about 45 percent and, like the company’s other messages, a good click rate.

This publisher uses e-blasts to contact retailers about new titles, offering signed books for them to resell, and also uses blasts to send individuals in its database of 5,000+ an e-mail offering signed and inscribed copies at full retail price with free shipping. Those messages to individuals have an open rate of about 60 percent, much higher than the average open rate Constant Contact reports for its publishing clients of 18.26 percent, with their average click rate almost 21 percent.

Savas Beatie also uses mid-month e-blasts to provide updates on authors’ blog posts and articles, and to inform media about awards and other specific news. “Otherwise, we contact media representatives with direct e-mails,” Savas says.

Because Savas Beatie publishes historical nonfiction, much of it with a military focus, along with two scholarly military history journals, it has “a very targeted audience for niche books. Our readers look forward to our notices, which are predictable and not overwhelming,” Savas says, attributing the high open and click rates to keeping messages simple and discussing a single title in each one.

Jack Carlson, at Clear Creek Publishing in Tempe, AZ, uses an e-blast vendor to get information from local cultural groups rather than to send messages, and he has noticed a Constant Contact glitch. His local Internet provider blocks Constant Contact messages, citing too much spam from that company. The workaround he recommends is using a Gmail address. “Our Gmail account accepts Constant Contact messages and forwards them to us through our local provider,” he reports.

This is not exclusively a Constant Contact or e-blast issue, Carlson points out. A few years ago, he realized one of his book printers was routing its e-mail through a node site that was flagged as a spam producer, so the mail was blocked. “Companies need to make sure their messages are not inadvertently blocked as spam by a server somewhere along the path,” he cautions, adding that addresses such as “info@ …” are sometimes blocked by servers programmed to filter out addresses that appear “harvested” from online directories. This can be a problem even when someone has opted in with such an address.

DEALING WITH SIZABLE DATABASES

Most e-blast vendors offer more than e-mail. At Warner Coaching and She Writes Press in Berkeley, CA, Brooke Warner says that its vendor, Infusionsoft, can be used for e-commerce, contact management, and marketing campaigns. “It is not a particularly intuitive system, which can be frustrating, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a pretty amazing tool,” she says. “I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who’s not at least a little tech-savvy and willing to go through some trial and error, however.”

Warner uses Infusionsoft to send two newsletters every week. “These are digests of the new blog posts on the business and craft of writing, and generally dedicated to driving traffic to the site and encouraging membership engagement. We occasionally use it to announce She Writes Press-related events as well.”

She Writes has built a database of about 25,000 in two years. Comprised mostly of newsletter subscribers, the database has an open rate that “hovers around 15 percent. The click rate for each newsletter is never less than two percent, and tends to be more in the three to five percent range,” Warner notes, adding that giveaways and contest announcements prompt spikes in both opens and clicks. One ad appears in each newsletter, “and some of these get many hits, especially if they’re offering something for free or at a huge discount.”

“We make a point of always including images,” Warner says. “We haven’t tested their value in any quantifiable terms, but people seem to respond better to more aesthetically pleasing blasts.”

starParentingAt Parenting Press in Seattle, about 25,000 of the database contacts have e-mail addresses. The company’s first e-blast vendor was Constant Contact, but using it required creating dozens of thousand-contact subsets to import, and Constant Contact’s staff was reluctant to use addresses that were not specific to individuals. Cooperative Extension offices with addresses that refer to county names (e.g., ada@uidaho.edu) are important contacts for this publisher of children’s and child-guidance books, so many addresses didn’t pass muster with Constant Contact.

The Press now uses Swiftpage, which is integrated with its ACT! database. Although Homer Henderson, operations manager, calls the $45-per-month Swiftpage “wonky,” it’s easy to set up an e-blast to any database group (e.g., teachers, librarians), easy to add filters (e.g., people not contacted since a certain date) and easy to import results to each contact’s history.

A publisher with an even larger database, Chelsea Green Publishing in White River Junction, VT, has e-mail addresses for about 80,000 trade and consumer contacts. For its messages to consumers, it has switched from Constant Contact to Bronto, which is marketed as an e-commerce platform rather than simply an e-blast vendor. Online marketing manager Gretchen Kruesi says that it offers better metrics as well as e-commerce integration. Design options, which were another factor in Chelsea Green’s choice, include the ability to preview and test e-mails for handhelds, laptops, and desktops and for different browsers. “We specifically chose Bronto for its tools: robust segmentation, conversion tracking, room for growth around an automation program, and easy reporting,” Kruesi says.

This year Chelsea Green has used Bronto for about 40 e-blasts. What’s typical is four or five annually to libraries, and as many as three a month to consumers and e-commerce contacts. “We typically send theme e-mails (perennial, food, new releases) with some news and content posts included,” Kruesi explains. “This year we’ve started experimenting by contacting certain segments of the database—based on previous purchases or category interest—to announce a single title.”

Chelsea Green also e-mails notices of author events as often as monthly. It may contact the entire consumer database about webinars; for in-person events, it segments by geography.

Bronto’s segmentation options include filters that can be tied to links, so that e-mail recipients who click on a certain link then have their files tagged for future messages on the same topic.

“The filters are very easy to set up, and can be used with multiple criteria and various combinations of the criteria, such as ‘meets all,’ ‘meets some,’ or ‘meets one,’” says Kruesi. Another option is “time optimization,” which tracks when recipients typically open e-mails, so that future messages can be sent in the best time windows, which means that each contact may receive the same message at a different time of day. Bronto clients can also see whether recipients have forwarded information from a message to their social media sites. “If someone has clicked on the ‘forward this message to a friend’ button, Bronto tracks that, too.”

Chelsea Green’s open rates have been steady for the last few years at 15 to 25 percent, Kruesi says, with click rates ranging from 12 to 15 percent. “Conversion (to sale) rates range dramatically depending on the type of e-mail, with the conversion rate for e-commerce customers around 5 percent. We’re also experimenting with ‘re-e-mails’—that is, if a contact doesn’t open or take action on an e-mail, we automatically re-send the e-mail, typically with a subject line change, three to seven days later. This has lower open/click/conversion rates but overall it can give sales a lift.”

Despite a database growth rate of 50 to 150 percent in each recent year, Chelsea Green has kept its bounce rate below .4 percent—note the decimal point; that’s less than four-tenths of 1 percent. Kruesi takes advantage of Bronto’s flexibility to either segregate contacts with three consecutive bounces or delete them from the database. By contrast, many other programs shut off e-mail to contacts with three bounces, whenever they occurred.

“Through Bronto,” Kruesi adds, “we also pay close attention to delivery rates with different e-mail providers—for example, Gmail and Yahoo—as well as overall deliverability, spam reports, and bounce rates,” With Bronto, Chelsea Green has had higher click and conversion rates, and lower spam and bounce reports.

Kruesi’s advice for consumer e-blasts:

  • Keep subject lines and calls to action both intriguing and descriptive. “The consumer should know exactly what he or she is clicking on.”
  • Include several options for clicks. “That will produce a higher click rate, and it will help you add contacts’ interests for segmenting down the road.”
  • Use well-designed landing pages; they create more engagement and they may encourage visitors to click through to second or third pages.
  • Integrate your e-mail program with other online platforms such as your blog and social media.

Like other members, Kruesi recommends images in e-blasts to increase clicks. In addition, she is among the marketers who advocate for patience and commitment to a detailed database. “It’s all about building a program,” she says. “Segments are important for long-term list health and consumer engagement, but it takes time to gather data from visitor behavior. Whether you can invest in this depends on available resources.”

If you’re contacting the media, which Chelsea Green now does through Vocus, a cloud-based marketing and public relations subscription service with fees starting at $300 per month, Kruesi advises recognizing that you’re competing with many other e-mails in a media person’s inbox. “We try our best to make the subject line and the first two sentences visible in a preview pane. The more focused a message and the more targeted the list, the better the response rate.”

Another more complex e-blast vendor is Benchmark, which Bethany Brown at The Cadence Group in suburban Chicago says provides excellent customer support. The Benchmark staff helps her book publishing and marketing consultancy team “adjust spacing and other small items just about every time we send out our newsletter or an announcement,” she explains.

The Cadence Group uses e-blasts for two purposes. “We try to get a newsletter out about six times a year to between 1,500 and 2,000 people, to share some of our content or blog material from that time period, showcase any new marketing clients with a link to their book pages on Amazon, and feature a book or industry news we find important.”

Open rates are about 30 percent, with click-through rates of about 20 percent. Although each newsletter has a “call to action” such as following the company on Twitter, liking it on Facebook or connecting with it on LinkedIn, Brown says “we have not seen that translate to actual engagement.” She does see opt-ins after sending each issue of the newsletter, which indicates that information is being forwarded to nonsubscribers, and she knows that open and click-through rates are highest and opt-outs lowest when content is newsworthy. But, she reports, “basic advertising or service marketing via newsletter has not, in my opinion, been particularly useful.”

Open rates are lower, about 18 percent, with click-throughs about 12 percent for e-blasts used to promote the company to groups of prospective clients such as writers, speakers, and printers, probably because most of these recipients are what Brown calls “cold” contacts who have not opted in. However, she notes, “We have had very low opt-out rates even in these ‘cold’ campaigns, an average of 1.4 percent.”

BOUNCING, BLOCKING, AND OTHER SNAFUS

First Box 300For companies with large databases, maintenance can be a huge task. Eliminating outdated addresses and correcting errors is important both to ensure that messages reach the intended recipients and to stay within the daily limit on number of addressees—1,000 for most free and economical plans. Bad addresses count against the total.

E-blast vendors typically block messages to anyone who has opted out as well as to any address that has “bounced” (been undeliverable) two or three times. Vendors distinguish between “hard” bounces (undeliverable because the address no longer exists) and “soft” bounces (the address still exists but messages are temporarily undeliverable because, for instance, the mailbox is full. As the Infusionsoft website explains, “Most of the time this is related to improper maintenance, but it could mean that the recipient no longer actively uses the e-mail account even though it still exists.” Soft bounces are also common when a message is too large for the receiving server).

Second BoxVendors report on all of the above and on which recipients were not contacted due to incomplete or duplicate addresses, and they list addresses that either are no longer valid or do not accept bulk mail. What they report, however, comes from the rejecting servers, not their own servers, so often all you see is “No such address in our directory,” which may be because a domain name or e-mail provider has changed.

The updates required by all this information, as well as by the information you get in automatic responses (“John Smith has retired,” for example, or “This e-mail box is no longer being monitored; send all mail to …”) must be handled manually by someone. That someone may be a part-time employee, a student intern, or, at the smallest firms, the publisher. In some cases, the solution is to filter for bounced e-mails and delete all those addresses. In others, it’s necessary to do an online search for new e-mail addresses.Third Box

THUMBS UP

Overall, publishers are enthusiastic about e-blasts. Many have discontinued all postal direct mail campaigns. Although studies show direct mail sometimes has a higher response rate than e-mail, the direct costs are dramatically higher and there are no formal reports on readership.

“E-mail is the winner, hands down,” says Gretchen Kruesi of Chelsea Green. “With direct mail, the scale has to be so much larger for an adequate return on investment. This is particularly true when you count investment in staff (or consultant) time for design and managing the mailing.”

Using attractive, well-written e-blasts, focusing most e-blasts on titles targeted to a market niche, and limiting the number of e-blasts to each recipient can generate almost immediate sales and/or author interview requests. Publishers who want to supplement e-mail with telemarketing or postal mail can use e-blast reports to identify those who did—or did not—respond to the e-mail outreach.

BUILDING YOUR DATABASE

To go from zero to thousands of database contacts with every contact an opt-in, use such techniques as the following:

  • Add subscription options to your shopping cart/order confirmation form.
  • Insert a message such as “Subscribe to our newsletter” in all your print and online materials, including ads, catalogs, press releases, invoices, and statements—even stationery, copyright pages of books, and such PDFs as teacher guides and worksheets.
  • Use “Forward to a friend” on all your web pages and in every promotional e-mail.
  • Include links to social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, in each e-mail.
  • Pass around sign-up sheets when you and your authors speak.
  • Offer “freemiums”—free premiums such as survey results, a book excerpt, or a white paper.
  • Ask everyone who calls for information to join your database.
  • Run contests at conferences, trade shows, and anywhere else you exhibit or speak, with entry forms that ask for e-mail addresses.
  • Run contests on your website, with entries to be e-mailed.

AVOIDING SPAM FILTERS

Your e-blasts can’t sell books if they don’t reach the intended recipients, so it’s vital to avoid words and type that would mark a message as possible spam.

E-mail consultants point out that a word or two typical of spam will seldom filter out your message. But the combination of too many suspect terms, too many images, and exaggerated punctuation will trigger a “spam” label.

It’s best to test your message by sending it to yourself, using the test option that most e-blast vendors offer. This will help you avoid such pitfalls as:

  • Too many or too large images
  • Too many type colors
  • Unusually large type
  • Excessive use of capital letters
  • Clusters of exclamation points or question marks.

CAN SPAM RULES

Here’s a look at the main requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business (see here for complete information).

  • Don’t use false or misleading header information. Your “From,” “To,” “Reply-To,” and routing information—including the originating domain name and e-mail address—must be accurate and identify the initiator of the message.
  • Don’t use deceptive subject lines. The subject line must accurately reflect the content of the message.
  • Identify the message as an ad. The law gives you a lot of leeway in how to do this, but you must disclose clearly and conspicuously that your message is an advertisement.
  • Tell recipients where you’re located. Your message must include your valid physical postal address. This can be your current street address, a post office box you’ve registered with the U.S. Postal Service, or a private mailbox you’ve registered with a commercial mail receiving agency established under Postal Service regulations.
  • Tell recipients how to opt out of receiving future e-mail from you. Craft the notice so that it’s easy for an ordinary person to recognize, read, and understand. Provide a return e-mail address or another easy Internet-based way to allow people to communicate their choice to you. You may create a menu to allow a recipient to opt out of only certain types of messages, but you must include the option to stop all commercial messages from you. Make sure your spam filter doesn’t block these opt-out requests.
  • Honor opt-out requests promptly. You must honor a recipient’s opt-out request within 10 business days. And any opt-out mechanism you offer must be able to process opt-out requests for at least 30 days after you send your message.
  • Monitor what others are doing on your behalf. The law makes clear that even if you hire another company to handle your e-mail marketing, you can’t contract away your legal responsibility to comply with the law.

SELECTED VENDORS

Benchmark: benchmarkemail.com; monthly plans from $9.95 (for 600 e-mails) to $4,000

Bronto: bronto.com; annual subscriptions start at $12,000, to be paid quarterly

Constant Contact: constantcontact.com; monthly plans from $20 to $395; discounts for IBPA members, for other nonprofits, and with six-month and annual prepayments. (See ibpa-online.org/constantcontact/)

Emma: myemma.com; billing is based on database size rather than number of e-mails; discounts for nonprofits and for prepayments

Infusionsoft: infusionsoft.com; $199 to $379 and more per month

MailChimp: mailchimp.com; a free option and monthly plans from $50 to $525

Swiftpage: act.com; monthly plans from $14.95 (250 e-mails per day) to $59.95 per month (additional charges for more than 1,000 e-mails per day)

For information on more vendors, see the E-mail Sender and Provider Coalition website, espcoalition.org/members.php.


Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is using both direct e-mail and MailChimp to promote her new Advertising with Small Budgets for Big Results.

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