Using e-mail services to market effectively with less hassle

If e-mail is the killer app of the Internet, spam is the scourge of the same.

Small businesses that reach out via e-mail campaigns, trying to do the right thing after listening to marketing advice, often run into a buzzsaw of criticism from e-mail recipients. “Spammer scumbag” is a relatively polite response businesses see even when they carefully monitor the e-mail campaign they run themselves without help.

Those blazing new trails need a guide, and old fashioned bulk e-mail services have matured. When speaking to NetBooks CEO Ridgely Evers not long ago, he said he chose Vertical Response to be the e-mail service partner for NetBooks customers because of the company’s support. So I called Vertical Response CEO and founder Janine Popick and asked how Vertical Response helps small businesses learn e-mail marketing, and how his company differs from others in the field.

“I started with two co-founders and not much venture capital money because we started in 2001, not the easiest time to launch a business,” Popick said. “We focused on small businesses because they were mostly using Outlook.”

That’s typical for small businesses wanting to send e-mail to customers and prospects. Someone sets up an Outlook list, sends out some e-mails, and gets overwhelmed by the spam accusations, delivery failures and bounces. Worse, they never know if the messages that weren’t returned were opened or deleted.

Popick and her co-founders came from large companies that had lots of issues sending lots of e-mails. The plan for Vertical Response from the start was to be easy to use, easy to understand, and to help small businesses look like the big boys. The company offers wizards for easy use and help from real people.

“We appeal most to those with 200-400 names they mail every other week,” said Popick. “But some customers mail 20,000 names every week.” By comparison, Constant Contact, the largest company in the space that is a public company vs. privately-held Vertical Response, tends to focus on larger customers. Many services specialize in areas like ad agencies, and all the top players have many thousands of customers. E-mail marketing, despite spam, works for hundreds of thousands of companies each week (Compare antispam products).

Speaking of spam, that issue always pops to the surface as you might expect. Popick said the company works closely with Internet Service Providers to ensure mail campaigns don’t include too many addresses that bounce and fall into spam territory. Sometimes it sends just a portion of mail lists for testing. Spammers trying to con mail service companies don’t get far, and each company shares the names of suspect clients with their competitors.

Although Vertical Response can’t force customers to use tools like double opt-in to create their address collections (someone requests to be on the list, then get an e-mail asking them to repeat their request), the company strongly encourages such care. And it will ask customers questions if they see something suspicious like an uploaded file called “cheap CD address list.”

Mailing services generally follow one of two pricing models. One model allows customers to mail as much as they want, and the service charges by the number of names on the master list. Vertical Response allows you to keep as many names as you want in your database, and only charges for messages sent. You can easily pick and choose sublists for certain mailings.

Popick says Vertical Response is more flexible. “We don’t want to penalize people for increasing the number of names on their list, and we don’t charge for storing that information. But we’re also working on subscription pricing for customers who need that.”

Vertical Response offers marketing and training information for customers, and forces employees to watch the videos and read the material as well. But lucky for the customers, only the employees have to take written tests to make sure they understand their job in specific and mail marketing in general.

Unlike many services, Vertical Response also offers physical mail options with two sizes of postcards for mail campaigns. It is expanding into event management, with special tools to help launch retail sales and events at restaurants. The company works, often behind the scenes, with other partners besides NetBooks.

In an automated world, Vertical Response also uses the best filter mechanism of all to monitor for spam and help their customers: people. “One or more actual humans look at probably 80% of campaigns to ensure there’s no spam and to verify compliance.”

If you’re still sending mail campaigns from Outlook or some other do-it-yourself option, you might want to take a look at a service alternative. For the price of e-mail, you can get good marketing lessons and help from a company that does it for a living. Done right, you can send more mail, do more marketing, and suffer less hassle than you imagine. (Compare Messaging products)

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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