Don’t Try This At Home

16 Aug

A version of this ran on ClickZ.

I’m coming to the conclusion that some people shouldn’t be allowed to use email. Maybe they can fire off a message or two to family and friends. But we need to take away distribution lists and the insidious “blind CC” field.

It’s for their own good, seriously.

The imperative is even greater for companies that want email to generate revenue. I beg of you, view your email in the same vein as your advertising and direct marketing mail efforts. If you wouldn’t tackle those chores in-house, don’t even think about doing email in-house. There’s too much to go wrong.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve received no fewer than six messages where companies meant to blind carbon copy dozens, or even hundreds of people. Instead, the sender had brain-lock and dumped all those addresses into the “To:” field. Suddenly I had the email address of everyone on the list.

It’s always nice to know how many other people will be similarly annoyed at that very minute.

Of course these companies are not alone in their bungling. Since this spring, there’s been a string of high-profile email blunders:

  • Seagate Software exposed 1,500 email addresses in a sales pitch.
  • In April, Nissan put a whopping 24,000 email addresses in the To: field of a message about its new SUV. (It probably took 10 minutes to scroll past the headers to the actual message.)
  • A day later, AT&T did the same thing to 1,800 people while pushing a new service.

Predictably, privacy experts who are angry enough about Spam seize such incidents to drive home their point that email is far too powerful to leave in the hands of marketers. AT&T’s “You will” campaign was quickly turned on them.

“Have you ever received an email with 6,000 addresses in the header? You will,” quipped Jason Catlett, president of anti-Spam group Junkbusters.

And the problems aren’t limited to header fields a mile long. For months, was sending out weekly newsletters with links that were too long for the width of the message. As a result, most of the links broke over two lines and didn’t work.

Butterball’s web site exposed the information from hundreds of people who signed up for its online Turkey-Mail. By failing to use proper security, it allowed anyone to gather the email addresses and profile information of everyone who signed up.

Even online titans like Yahoo and Excite have blushed at revelations of exposing similar information from their on-line stores.

At the risk of stating the obvious, understand this: Sending email is hard work. Leave it to the pros. And you have lots of choices.

Of course there are lots of Spam shops anxious to blast your message to hundreds of thousands of people. The good news is that they won’t screw up the headers and tell you everyone they sent it to. Bad news is that hundreds of thousands of people will hate your company anonymously.

For the more ethical companies, there are service bureaus popping up out there that will take your message and send it to your list. And they’ll make sure the process works properly and that your message doesn’t come across as gibberish.

Why tie up your Exchange Server for a day or more when they’ve got the pipes to hit your entire mail list in just a few minutes? Ask the editors of this newsletter, they use just such a company.

Then there are those companies that see email as a key component of its marketing and communications program. (Your company is one of these, isn’t it?) For them, there’s a new resource: email agencies.

Scoff if you will at the concept, but why would you use an advertising agency or a marketing firm? Because they have the expertise you need. They have the talent to ensure your email communications are as effective and persuasive as your media advertising and direct marketing campaigns.

I could lay out a technical treatise here about the intricacies of email databases, data stores, campaign management systems, response tracking and profile development. Instead, I’ll pose a simple question to any company about to jump into email: You’re about to talk directly to hundreds, or even thousands, of your best customers. Are you going to impress them, or offend them?

The bottom line is that email should contribute to the bottom-line like no other tool. It should drive users to your web site, motivate them to buy, adjust to reflect their actions, and speak in a voice unavailable to other communications.

Is yours?