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E-Mail by the Blast: Options, Results, and Recommendations

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If you’re still using postal mail for most of your press releases and newsletters, you’re in a rapidly shrinking group of American businesses. More than a decade ago, many publishers started to use email blasts, and since the launch of bulk email services like Constant Contact, Silver Pop, Swiftpage, and MailChimp, many of us have explored ways to send full-color messages with images, links, and HTML formatting.


Making email look good is only part of the reason. Like people running other businesses, publishers want specifics on who opens email, who clicks through to which links, and which addresses are no longer valid.


Email services offer other advantages as well. They meet federal requirements for providing recipients with a way to opt out (the email equivalent of a “Do not call” list), and they can give you at least a general idea of what “open” rates are typical with their other customers in publishing and/or in the subject area(s) you serve.


Most offer several price tiers, making their services affordable whether your database has 100 names or 25,000. The least expensive services usually restrict the number of images and links in a message. Some companies limit the number of emails you can send in a single day, but they may allow you to schedule mailings around the clock and on weekends and holidays. And some make it easy to import email history into your database, so you will have names and dates for each promotion to each recipient, and a record of whether the messages were opened or bounced as undeliverable.


Issues to bear in mind:


  • Some services require written proof that the people in your database have asked to receive email from you, which means you may not be able to use your database of media contacts, since they almost never opt in.


  • Email services sometimes refuse to send to impersonal addresses such as info@ . . . or office@ . . .


  • Reports don’t always provide as much detail as you can use.


  • Some vendors don’t distinguish between “opens” and “forwards,” and may provide no record of the addresses that messages have been forwarded to.


  • Some text editors are clunky, with limited documentation and software that occasionally stalls.


  • With today’s most reasonably priced software or services, the only ways a small business can track sales from a specific email are by using a promotion code or providing different landing pages.


This may change soon, however, thanks to QR codes. As the email service Get Response points out on its Web site, “If you paste a QR code into an email, recipients can scan it with their smartphone, and they will instantly be able to perform the actions you intended using the encoded information. . . . Depending on the coding, they would also be able to contact you [or your source page/site] in real time with their camera phone without having to type numbers or text messages in those tiny screens.”


Content on the Get Response site goes on to say: “It’s smart to link the QR code to a specific landing page to make it easier to track all the links. . . . Furthermore, if you assign a reference number to a web form that is promoted by a QR code, you’ll be able to track the number of sign-ups captured. You can then compare it to other ways of directing traffic to web forms [e.g., PPC campaigns, social media, and surveys] and analyze the conversion rates.”


What Messages Get Through?


It’s important to recognize that every email program, whether designed for individual messages or for blasts, is subject to the filters built into recipients’ email software. Some recipients reject all bulk mail; others block certain domains, which means if someone’s been spammed by your domain or the domain of your email service, your message won’t get through.


E-blast software providers can provide no guarantees of delivery. Most make suggestions like one on the Constant Contact Web site: “If you believe your email campaigns are being blocked by an ISP or mail server as opposed to being filtered, we suggest you start by reaching out to your subscribers (contacts) or their ISP (Internet Service Provider) directly.”


The email that is most likely to get through the filters and be opened is a regular publication that customers and prospects perceive as informational, usually a newsletter or a tip. At Bucket Fillers in Brighton, MI, office and schedule manager Caryn Butzke reports that 30 percent is the typical open rate for its e-newsletter, which is distributed biweekly during the school year to 8,900 addresses via Constant Contact.


Of that 30 percent, about 60 percent of recipients (i.e., 18 percent of the database) click through to a Web page. About 30 people continue clicking through to the online store, but Butzke says the company doesn’t know how many leave the store without making a purchase.


Of course, the fact that people have asked to receive something doesn’t guarantee that they will open it. At Baltimore-based Renaissance Institute Press, Britt Minshall has been using Constant Contact for five years to reach about 1,400 subscribers to his newsletter, For God’s Sake. His open rate is about 7 percent. “I also get about 17 forwards—and at least one email from a forward recipient every time,” Minshall reports.


Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, managing director, editorial, for San Francisco-based Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., says that BK has been using Constant Contact for about four years for a biweekly newsletter that now circulates to about 20,000. Open rates run 15 to 20 percent, but that’s probably overstated, Sivasubramaniam points out, since many email programs automatically open messages as the recipient browses the mailbox.


Click-through rates for BK are always between 25 and 30 percent, or as many as 1,200 recipients. One of the newsletter’s most popular features is its free download, often an entire free book. On average, more than 10 percent of those who open the newsletter—so about 400—click through to get the book. “Hey, it’s free, right? Why not?” says Sivasubramaniam. This offer always appears at the end of the email.


BK also uses Constant Contact for lists as small as 50 (narrowly defined groups of prospects for a particular title) and for emails about foreign rights to publishers around the world.


Payoffs with Low Responses


Thanks to promotion codes, Craftsman Book Co. of America marketing manager Jennifer Johnson knows that open rates don’t have to be high to pay off. The Carlsbad, CA, publisher of technical and professional resources for the construction industry emails its entire database of 25,000 each week, and Johnson notes that opens range between 10 and 15 percent. Of those who open the email, between 6 and 13 percent (150 to 485 recipients) click through. And because so many of them place orders, sales revenue is 10 times what the email cost.


Another member reports that a recent email to its 119,000-customer list (people who purchased within the past three years) had a 12 percent open rate, and 6 percent of those who opened the email clicked through. Of the click-throughs, 15 percent purchased a $24.95 book, for total sales of almost $3,100.


If you run the numbers on this member’s campaign, you’ll see how an effective email campaign can be profitable with a far lower response rate than direct mail would need. In this case, the number of sales represents only one-tenth of one percent of the database, far less than would be considered acceptable with a mailed promotional piece.


Mailing costs would include at least 50 cents per address for printing, labeling, and postage, resulting in total costs of at least $50,000 and requiring a response rate of at least 2 percent to cover costs. And with first class postage at 32 cents for just a postcard, getting costs down to 50 cents per unit would be difficult without a huge bulk rate discount. Selling enough books to make a profit on the promotion would require an even higher, and more atypical, response rate.


Things Testing Can Tell You


Another advantage of email promotions is that they allow even small companies to test a variety of subject lines and offers, as Craig Wiesner of ReachAndTeach.com in San Mateo, CA, points out. Although marketers with budgets big enough for developing and printing several different mailers have always done this, those with limited resources and smaller mailing lists found it impractical until e-blasts became common.


To increase the conversion rate—the figure for sales as a percentage of responses—Wiesner is considering changes in his coupon offers, which are usually valid for a month. “I think we should try three days or even just 48 hours instead,” he explains, adding: “Our open rates on our monthly newsletter are pretty good—25 percent and higher—and so are our click-throughs, which are at least 7 percent. But our sales could be much, much better.”


Currently, a mention in the newsletter that goes to 800 may mean three or four additional sales for a product, which represents a return of as much as 1 percent of those contacted.


At Seattle’s Parenting Press, which uses Swiftpage with the Sage database ACT!, email reports show that book topic is one of the most important factors in open rates. Messages with subject lines such as “Librarians Praise SIDS Book/Free Freight This Week” have resulted in open rates as high as 33 percent for 14 Ways to Protect Your Baby from SIDS, written by two physicians. These emails often out-pull even a monthly newsletter sent on a double opt-in subscription basis.


For Better Results


Several bulk email services offer another advantage, the chance to create new dissemination lists using your historical data. You can pull together addresses for all contacts who have opened a given message—or opened any one email—for a follow-up message, and you can combine all the addresses that have bounced in an “Undelivered” file for corrections. At Parenting Press, this means that warehouseman Mark Mendez now can work with the entire list of “undeliverables” instead of having to click back and forth between the Eudora program used for receiving email and ACT!, to copy each bad email into the database “lookup” feature one at a time.


One of the most important aspects of any email promotion is where the link sends the prospect. The link that you ask someone to click should lead to a landing page specific to your offer, not to your site’s home page. This is likely to increase the time a prospect spends after landing, usually a key factor in making a purchase decision.


Linking to a general page and expecting prospects to search for your offer significantly increases the risk that they will exit your site without even seeing the offer. Like the variety of email offers that Wiesner points out are now affordable, the opportunity to test different landing pages is another advantage of cybermarketing.



Linda Carlson (info@lindacarlson.com) writes for the Independent from Seattle, where she is enthusiastic about email as a promotional tool.






How to Improve Deliverability


You can improve the chances that your email will be delivered by using the “spam scorers” that vendors provide.


For example, Constant Contact offers a “Spam Detector” and SilverPop has a “Spam Assassin.”


Other tips:


Silver Pop recommends that you use “subject lines of short, medium or long length but make sure to include key information within the first 40 to 50 characters—these are the characters most likely to be viewed in preview panes or on mobile devices.”


Constant Contact’s Web site also recommends that you avoid:


• words such as “free,” “guarantee,” and “spam”

• phrases such as “be amazed,” “your income,” “subject to credit approval,” “earn xxxx per week,” “check or money order,” “print out and fax,” “call now”

• using all caps

• excessive punctuation (!!!, ???)

• excessive use of “click here”

• $, and other symbols






Email Vendors: A Partial List


Constant Contact (constantcontact.com). Pricing, which depends on the size of the list, can be as low as $15 for 500 contacts and lower for pre-pay and nonprofits. Constant Contact offers a 60-day free trial.


Emma (myemma.com). Pricing, based on the number of emails sent per month, is as low as $30 for 1,000 emails and lower with a year’s contract or for nonprofits. Emma offers a 60-day free trial.


Get Response (getresponse.com). Pricing, based on the size of your list, is as low as $15 for 1,000 contacts, and lower with the discount for payment by year. There’s a 30-day free trial.


MailChimp (mailchimp.com). Free for small databases (2,000 maximum) with a limit of 12,000 emails per month. MailChimp prices for unlimited numbers of messages are based on the size of the list, as low as $10 for 500, and lower for nonprofits.


Swiftpage (swiftpage.com). Pricing is based on the number of emails sent daily—as low as $14.95 with a limit of 250. The company offers a 60-day free trial and its software integrates with three Sage ACT! Programs.


Other vendors to consider are listed by the Email Sender and Provider Coalition (espcoalition.org/members.php), which describes itself as working “to create solutions to the continued proliferation of spam and the emerging problem of deliverability.”








The U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s CAN-SPAM Act applies to all commercial email, whether sent in bulk or individually. As the online CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Business points out, “The law makes no exception for business-to-business email. That means all email—for example, a message to former customers announcing a new product line—must comply with the law.”


CAN-SPAM’s main requirements:


  • No false or misleading header information. Your “From,” “To,” “Reply-To,” and routing information—including the originating domain name and email address—must be accurate and identify the person or business that initiated the message.


  • No deceptive subject lines. The subject line must accurately reflect the content of the message.


  • Identify the message as an ad.


  • Specify current valid physical postal address: a street address, a post office box, or a private mailbox established under Postal Service regulations.


  • Tell recipients how to stop email from you. The FTC says, “You may create a menu to allow a recipient to opt out of 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 within 10 business days. “You can’t charge a fee, require the recipient to give you any . . . information beyond an email address, or make the recipient take any step other than sending a reply email or visiting a single page on an Internet website as a condition for honoring an opt-out request.”


For more information, see the Federal Trade Commission’s Web page on promotional email: business.ftc.gov/documents/bus61-can-spam-act-compliance-guide-business.


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