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The Promise and Pitfalls of E-mail Newsletters

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It’s difficult to resist the economics of e-mail newsletters. Instead of spending about $6,000 for
printing and mailing an eight-page issue, small publishers can make a ten cent phone call through a
modem and broadcast author interviews, reviews, and excerpts. With just one click of a mouse.
Beyond that one click of a mouse, however, there are two major challenges. First, converting
e-mail correspondents to e-newsletter recipients is a gamble, because not all e-mail users are equally
receptive to all e-mail messages. First-time e-mail broadcasts must walk the line between traditional
direct mail (such as printed newsletters and catalogs) and the evil twins of modern direct-marketing:
unsolicited fax broadcasts and unsolicited e-mail (nicknamed “spam”). Unless we’ve allowed people to
opt out of e-mail announcements (by having a checkbox for that on order forms, for example), we risk
contacting someone who wants order-related correspondence only via electronic mail. That person may be
retrieving e-mail from a cell phone at international rates!
The second major challenge for book publishers is to approach e-newsletters with the decisiveness
of missile launchers, because there’s no retreat after clicking the “send” button.
My college buddy Paul, a senior editor at a small publisher of books on advanced mathematics,
recently suffered the effects of these problems after adapting his newsletter articles into an
e-newsletter format and broadcasting the inaugural edition.
The text itself was great. Unfortunately, it was buried under a full listing of all the e-mail
recipients. Paul told me that when he printed the message, the list of addresses alone was 12 pages
long. There were 1,100 customers on the list, all of them exposed in the header above the actual text
of the newsletter. Paul had the newsletter sent as regular e-mail, and the recipients were not set as”blind carbon copies” or BCCs, which would have omitted the e-mail addresses from the contents of the
Worse, though, was the way Paul apologized. His apology e-mail was well written and correctly set
as a BCC-none of the recipients were exposed. However, each customer received three copies of it. Paul
slapped his forehead when he told me. His name and rank were signed to a message-a customer service
apology-that was sent 3,300 times, three times to each customer.
Paul knows that I’ve had my share of doozies, so he didn’t mind digging through the chain of
events to find some lessons, a way to make the most of what went wrong. (Incidentally, I have
fictionalized some details of this story. He’s still my buddy, after all!)

A Last-Minute Mistake
Poor Freddie. He’s Paul’s 19-year-old editorial assistant, a college student who in most cases
works incredibly quickly and effectively. He helped Paul “go electronic” by pulling e-mail addresses
from the customer database and correspondence. In order to compile the e-mail address book and to edit
it for duplicates and bad addresses, Freddie decided to copy it into a spreadsheet and paste it back
into America Online (AOL) once it had been corrected.
This was their first e-mail broadcast. The company hadn’t invested in any fancy e-mail software or
listserv service from their Web site host. In fact, they were using old Mac versions of the
spreadsheet and AOL software. I mention this because working with old software and a zero-dollar
budget may be a reality for many publishers (myself included).
Everything was ready to go, and Freddie set all of the recipients as “blind carbon copies” in the
message header. Paul confirmed this. Freddie even signed on to send the message, but AOL stopped him.
There were undeliverable addresses on the list, as identified in a log report. So Freddie signed off
and returned to the spreadsheet to remove them.
When Freddie was finished, he pasted the edited list into the e-mail and Paul watched him log on
and send the message into the ether. Once it had transmitted, though, a shine came over Freddie’s
eyes. He had forgotten to set the addresses as blind copies when he pasted them back into the message.
It was too late to stop the messages. All 1,100 of them.
Some of Paul’s most frequent correspondents-including three of his authors, math
professors-empathized with the mistake. When they received the newsletter, they kindly suggested that
he set the recipients as BCCs. Because Paul works for a small independent publisher with a somewhat
bookish, paper-oriented culture, the authors figured he hadn’t learned the blind copy trick. Later,
when the apology note explained-three times-that he forgot to use blind copies by mistake, the authors
e-mailed again saying that he could get off his knees now and that the apology-especially in
triplicate-wasn’t necessary. A few Net-weary customers responded that he shouldn’t feel bad, and they
welcomed him to the world of Web and e-mail where everyone operates in permanent “high dudgeon” mode.

Saying Sorry Sorry Sorry
The apology described their mistake and explained how sincerely upset they were. Paul invited
recipients to phone or e-mail him personally, and he gave them his contact information.
As I mentioned earlier, Paul was about to apologize three times. First, when AOL seemed to
time-out while Freddie was sending the apology, Freddie hit “cancel.” He had his finger on the mouse,
and he was nervous. He tried to cancel the message transmission. It seemed to cancel.
So Freddie sent it again. This time, after a pause, AOL said that the system response was impaired
by processing too many requests. That seemed to stop the transmission. So good Freddie hit “send”
Even then, the gray progress bar seemed to stop short of confirmation. But as he signed off,
Freddie realized that he was successful-for a third time.
He called Paul over, and their hearts dropped. The shine came back. It was too late to stop the
messages. They checked one of their own e-mail addresses on the recipients’ list. All three apologies
were there.
The morning after, five or so recipients angrily demanded to be removed from their list. One angry
respondent considered their broadcast to be spam and said she had forwarded the message to her ISP for
review under FCC regulations. One from a university derided their e-newsletter as junk mail.
Paul and Freddie checked their database, terrified that they had actually spammed people by
sending the e-mail to complete strangers. It turned out that the woman with the FCC threat had
e-mailed them two years earlier with an address correction for their printed newsletter mailings.
Similarly, the university address was entered into their database from a professor’s request for a
complimentary exam copy. In fact, they’d sent him five exam copies over the years-free of charge.
Three of the flames, as they called them, using Internet parlance for hate mail, pointed out that
the privacy of the e-mail addresses had been compromised by their mistake. As one recipient noted, the
exposed addresses may be exploited by an unscrupulous marketer, perhaps lurking on their list. As the
flames asserted, sleazy junk mailers could now contact them, offering electronic products, Internet
auctions, travel packages, porno Web sites, and all other sorts of standard junk e-mail fare.

This aspect of their gaffe hurt the most. Since his company’s founding, it has foregone the extra
income offered by renting out its mailing list. It has always protected its database of customers as a
prized asset. Since the company sells most of its books by direct mail-there aren’t many advanced
tensor calculus texts at the mall bookstore-every customer relationship counts.

Going Electronic
When Paul decided to repurpose his printed newsletter into an electronic format that could be more
brief and more frequent, he and Freddie built a recipient list from his company’s database and from
three years’ worth of Web site and order-related e-mail. To Paul, an e-mail distribution was a short
step from the printed circulation. He presumed that their correspondents would not take offense at
hearing from them in a new medium.
Most of the 1,100 must not have been upset. Paul did receive some book proposals, exam copy
requests, address corrections, and requests for the print version of the newsletter. Then again, it’s
very likely that many people didn’t get past the headers. Paul said there were about 100 pure removal
requests (with just “remove” in the subject line) and about 100 automated notifications of bad
Paul wrote a personal e-mail note to each angry respondent and to each friendly supporter who had
sent special advice. Thankfully, those were only sent once. It was the apology broadcast to every
recipient that was mistakenly tripled.

Cracking Under Pressure
Shortly after Paul and Freddie sent the apology for the third time, the phone rang. It was about 8
pm and the office was dark. The sound of the phone startled their frazzled nerves. Paul answered and
spoke with a man who only identified himself by his e-mail address. The caller warned Paul that one
basic rule is never to apologize. He said they should have explained the mistake in the next edition.
Paul realized the caller was right. They should have continued to respond to each e-mail complaint or
advisory individually. They had only received a handful of messages teaching them about blind copies,
but out of embarrassment and pride, even that small number seemed like a barrage. Rather than trying
to stem the tide of responses, they should have fielded each message as individually as it was sent.

The next morning, Freddie thanked Paul for not getting angry. In fact, one correspondent
appreciated that the assistant wasn’t named or blamed in the apology message. Paul told Freddie that
he was going through the stages of grief-and that anger was next! But it never came. They both were
afraid to send any e-mail for a while.

The Lessons Learned
Eventually Paul and I e-mailed each other-successfully!-and pulled together some lessons from his
inaugural broadcast experience:

  • Delegation has its limits. Sending the final message was an unspoken reward for Freddie’s
    excellent performance in compiling the address book. But that was a mistake, twice. Although it was an
    investment in Freddie to let him make his own mistakes, in this case, they were gambling with a lot of
    customer relationships, people’s good will and trust and patience, and with the first impression of
    the newsletter’s debut. The losses they suffered on all counts outweigh the long-term
    character-building benefits. Paul should have sent the first one himself, especially since his name
    was on it.
  • E-mail is personal. The handful of flames cited the privacy of their address as a victim of the
    broadcast e-mail. That means their e-mail privacy is closely related to their sense of personal
    privacy. Receipt of junk mail into an address that they had protected was a violation. Paul probably
    should have sent a pre-newsletter announcement. But, then again, there’s no way to know now how the
    customers would have reacted to a successful, private, blind copy distribution.
  • E-mail is unforgiving. When Freddie looked up, both times, jaw-dropped, he knew that whatever
    had gone wrong was irreversible. No matter how long it took to edit and circulate a draft for review
    and approval, it is permanently produced within a blink of hitting the “send” button. There are no
    corrections in blues. There’s no time after delivering materials to a printer for last-minute
    insertions like a corrected index. With e-mail broadcasts, book publishers cross into the treacherous
    realm of broadcast journalism, and it requires perfect decisiveness. Like the missile launchers I
    mentioned earlier.
  • E-mail speaks for itself. Let the message stand on its own. If someone hates it, reply to that
    person. But don’t follow a goof with a blunder or-in their case-with a three-headed blunder. If you
    must explain or apologize, let people ask for it, or announce it at the next scheduled opportunity.
    E-mail comes with headers and footers and provides its own etymology and routing information. The
    recipients already knew what went wrong.
  • Be honest with your emotions. There’s no reason to cast blame when someone makes an
    unintentional error, particularly when doing something that’s new to the company. Recognize the fear
    that follows a mistake-it may suggest dangerous solutions. In Paul’s case, they nearly sent the
    newsletter a second time, with the addresses set as BCCs. But that solution was yet another quick fix,
    exactly what got them into trouble the first time.
  • Don’t grovel too soon. Their broadcast apology led to its transmission in triplicate, and
    although they wanted to explain to everyone that they were sorry and that they knew how to blind copy,
    their apology framed the first message as a mistake. Some recipients hadn’t even thought of it that
    way. They made sure that their customers’ memory of the newsletter is associated with an error.
  • Even mistakes can bring us together. Their newbie goof may have improved their relationships.
    Really! Acknowledging their e-mail error ingratiated them to their audience. Their truest friends came
    to their rescue with advice and forgiveness. In a perverse way, people may be watching for the next
    newsletter. If there is one. However much Paul learned from this, he may have trouble getting
    management approval for the next broadcast.

After lots of editing and lots of careful checking, Paul and Freddie did successfully send a
second edition of their e-mail newsletter. They’ve added links from the e-mail to specific pages on
their Web site, and new Web site visitors can request the e-newsletter on their Web site contact form.
Although they did receive some more removal requests-and they suspect that the text itself was too
long-they have not received any more flames. Instead, the broadcast helped them perk up a month that
otherwise lacked any direct-mailings and saved them the cost of printing and postage. Best of all,
they were spared the panic they endured after their first transmission.

David W. McClintock is president of Wordsupply.com, an editorial service
based in New York. In addition to developmental edits of technical
manuscripts, David does book design, production, direct mail, and online
marketing. He writes often and would love to hear about your marketing
experiences — on or off the record. E-mail david@wordsupply.com. Also see


This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor December, 1999, and is reprinted with
permission of Publishers Marketing Association.

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