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How to run an ethical bulk-mail operation

To be sure, bulk e-mail is an excellent marketing tool that can extend the reach of any business’ marketing efforts, particularly those of small businesses. Yet, there is a wrong way and a right way to do bulk mail. You can see plenty of examples on this site of the wrong way (we call it spam); what, however, is the right way? On this page I offer my own suggestions for running an ethical and effective bulk e-mailing enterprise.

Is bulk e-mail right for you?

Yes, when properly done, bulk mail can be very cheap and effective. But will it be cheap or effective for you? Consider the following:

Are you in a position yet
to build an opt-in list of useful size?

Bulk mail will work best for you if you actually have (or can get) a list of people who want to get the mail. Otherwise, there’s probably no point to the enterprise.

If you’ve been in business awhile, and have a lot of customers who might sign up to hear from you, then a bulk-mail list might be a good thing to try. If you don’t quite have things up and running yet, but you do have a lot of business and social connections who might be interested enough to sign up for your list, then this could help you bootstrap your operations.

On the other hand, if nobody knows you or your business, then you really have no way to build a true opt-in mailing list that’s large enough to pay off. If you can’t build your own opt-in list, and you can’t use anyone else’s lists, then you probably should stay away from bulk-mail for the time being. Consider instead devoting your energies to doing some promotion and building your business to the point where bulk mailing would become more useful to you.

Do you frequently have new information
to pass along via bulk mail?

If you’re always getting in new and unusual products, then bulk-mail is a good way to clue in your customers. Likewise, if you frequently run special offers or sales promotions, then bulk mail will help you tell the world. On the other hand, if your inventory seldom changes, then it’s less clear that constantly mailing out messages with the “same-old same-old” in them will be of much help (and they could actually turn off a lot of your subscribers).

Is your business seasonal,
or otherwise tied to events?

Florists and candy-sellers do big business around Valentine’s day and Mothers’ day. Tax accountants have their busy season in the first third of the year. Sellers of camping gear, bicycles, and other outdoor recreaction products may catch a lot of interested buyers during the late winter or early spring. And, of course, nearly all retailers get a nice bump around the Christmas holidays.

If yours is a seasonal or event-driven business, then a well-timed bulk mailing can catch buyers’ attention at just the right time.

Can you afford it?

Running a small bulk-mail operation should not be terribly pricey. However, you’ll need to make a cost-benefit decision about it, just as you would for any other business expense. Factor in the time you’ll spend preparing for and developing the mailings, as well as the few hours per mailing that you’ll enjoy (not!) on such administrivia as pruning your address list and dealing with bounces, removal requests, and complaints. Finally, consider what you’ll pay to a remailer service to help you send out the message. These costs should be balanced against the potential return, and against other (possibly more productive) uses of your time and money.

Of course, the costs don’t stop with the mailing itself; in order to make most efficient use of bulk mail promotion, you’ll probably need an internet domain and a permanent web presence of your own (i.e., on a virtual host or collocated server). To capture sales as quickly as possible from your mailings, you may also need an e-commerce setup and a merchant account. These are routine items for the internet-based retailer, but may be big investments of time and money for “ground-floor” beginners.

Can you commit to it?

Many newbies to the online retailing game assume that it’s simply a matter of sending the mails, collecting the orders, depositing the checks, and shipping the goods (more or less in that order). Experienced merchants know better. Doing online retail correctly requires a considerable commitment on your part to provide good customer service, take care of your inventory, manage your shippers, cultivate your suppliers, outguess your competitors, and watch your finances.

Simply sending out bulk mail indiscriminately is not a complete business plan. If you’re unable to invest the time and effort needed to run the rest of the business properly, then bulk mail may soon become a tiresome chore (or a source of spam complaints) rather than a promising sales-building opportunity.

Dealing with address lists

The heart of any bulk-mail operation is, of course, the address list; the ethical collection, secure handling, and effective management of such lists is the hallmark of a good bulk-mail user. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject:

Collect your own address lists
using the “confirmed opt-in” model

Your mailing lists should contain only addresses that you yourself have collected using ethical means. You collect these addresses by inviting people to join (through advertising on websites, bulletin boards, “chat” mail lists, etc); then you use proper methods to add the new addresses to your list. You should never use mailing lists offered to you by others; read more about this below.

As you can read on my page regarding opt-in and opt-out mail, the best way to ensure that your list includes only those people who want your mail is to use confirmed opt-in, which requires new list members first to sign up for the list, and then to take a separate, positive action to confirm that they really did want to sign up. Simple “open-loop” opt-in, which lacks the crucial step of list-member confirmation, is not sufficient because it allows people to be signed up unknowingly and unwillingly by third parties, Opt-out (the spammer’s standard technique) is an even poorer way to run a railroad, because the list member is given no choice at all and is likely to take offense.

Here’s how a a typical confirmed opt-in setup might work, from a potential subscriber’s point of view:

Secure your lists

Your mailing list is a valuable asset of your business. It also represents trust placed in you by your list subscribers to handle their personal information in a secure manner. For these reasons, you must see to it that your list is reasonably secure against theft or exposure.

Don’t use anyone else’s address lists

Stay away from purchased or rented address lists, as the chances are very high that the addresses on such lists may simply have been “scraped” or otherwise harvested without the permission or prior knowledge of the address owners. Particularly if you run a niche business, there’s also little likelihood that these addresses will have been properly screened to eliminate those with little potential interest in your products and services. Using scraped address lists is the surest way to end up in spam prison.

If you use a professional remailing service (as I recommend below), be very suspicious if this service offers you access to other mailing lists (either its own, or those from third parties). Such lists may have been ethically collected, but you have no way to know for sure. This site (like many others) is full of examples of what happens when otherwise careful businesses get hoodwinked into sending mailings to scraped address lists.

Don’t let anyone else use your list

Maybe at some time you might want to help a buddy to bootstrap his own internet business by loaning him your address list. This is a bit of an ethical no-no, because your subscribers agreed to join only your list and not anyone else’s. Also, once you give your list over to someone else (even someone you might trust), there’s a good chance that the list could eventually end up in the hands of spammers, which could get you into hot water with your subscribers (some of these folks may use special e-mail addresses just to receive your mail, so they’ll know instantly whether these addresses have been compromised).

Of course, there’s nothing at all wrong with putting links in your own mailings to other websites or services you’d like to promote (like your buddy’s); this way, the subscriber can choose for himself whether to use them, and will otherwise be left alone.

Prune dead, duplicated, or bouncing addresses

Invariably, over the lifetime of your list, you will have many e-mail addresses that go dead or that otherwise bounce; these need to be pruned from your list so that you won’t be wasting your time and resources (and possibly running up your costs) by repeatedly sending out mail that won’t get through.

If you use a “real” Return-path-address in your mailings (see below), then bounce messages will be sent back to this address; you need only check this queue to find the bounces, then examine each bounce to find out to which recipient address it applies. These addresses can then be removed from your list by hand. If you use a remailer service (see below), they may offer techniques for handling bounces that don’t require so much of your time and effort.

Be aware that messages can bounce for many reasons; for sure, because the address no longer exists, but also for reasons like the following:

Finally, the messages returned to you by challenge-response spam filters can be considered bounces of a kind. Usually, you are requested in such messages to take some action such as responding to the challenge mail in order for your message to be released to the recipient. It’s up to you as to whether you want to make such a response; I personally resent having to respond to these, and would hate them all the more if I were delivering mail at the explicit request of the recipient. You can try sending a personal note to the recipients who use challenge-response (to get them to turn it off), but the likelihood is great that these messages won’t make it through either. The best solution may be simply to remove these addresses from your list altogether.

I don’t know how this could happen in a properly-managed mail operation, but often such lists will develop duplicate addresses. For instance, I once belonged to a certain online retailer’s mailing list, and got 1-2 messages per week from him. Later, however, the messages increased sharply in frequency and seemed to be duplicates (i.e., the same message sent to the same address more than once at about the same time and date). As I said, I don’t know how this happens, but I do know that it is annoying. If you’re running your own mailings, you may want to check periodically for duplicate addresses and get rid of the redundant ones (this ought to be a simple matter of sorting the addresses and spotting the dupes).

Managing your mailings

Properly managed, a mailing list can let you share information with your audience, and give you lots of useful information about them, all without tying you down for hours at a time to the incomprehensible mechanics of bulk-mail programs, database software and the like. Here are some list management tips:

Consider using a remailer service

Running an effective and ethical bulk-mail list takes a lot of work. You could cobble together the tools to do this work for yourself (and such tools are often free or of very low cost), but you might find that you’d be spending too much time running your list and not enough running your business.

There are a number of ethical outfits that specialize in helping small businesses and institutions run mailing lists. Here are some points to consider when shopping for such a service:

Once you’ve found some prospective remailers that look interesting, you might ask them to give you a list of some of their current customers. Finding out exactly what kinds of businesses or institutions use a particular service can give you a good idea of whom you’ll be dealing with (Fortune-500 companies good, fake watch sellers and pyramid schemers bad). By all means contact some of these customers directly if you can, to find out whether they are pleased with their service.

Watch your statistics

You should keep an eye on your list turnover: how many people are in the list, how many are joining, and how many are leaving. The latter data point could be particularly interesting: if you find that you are losing a lot of subscribers after you make some change to your operations, this could be an important clue that something has gone wrong.

Many remailers will offer tracking services that allow you to determine who’s opening your mails and when (or even where) they’re doing it; this may provide useful information to you, but bear in mind that this is usually accomplished by the embedding of web beacons in the outgoing mail, a practice that many do not consider to be entirely ethical (see my notes below).

Being open with your list members

No amount of technical bulk-mail wizardry can replace the feeling that a customer or subscriber gets when he knows that a merchant respects him and values his good will. Here are some of the ways that the better lists I belong to help to keep a good relationship with their members.

Tell recipients how they came to be on the list,
and how they can get off it.

Every message you send should contain an explanation of why it was sent, as well as the address to which it was sent (e.g., “you subscribed to this list as joe@somewhere.foo). This is as much for your own protection as for the convenience of the recipient, since it makes clear the nature of the mail-list “contract” in every mailing, and may discourage unwarranted spam complaints (although many spammers also use similar language in their mailings — complete lies in these cases). This information could be put into the bottom of the message as part of the usual “fine print.”

In each mailing, you should also include clear and easy procedures (through a web-link or similar) for the recipient to unsubscribe from the list. By making it clear that participation in the list is voluntary and can be discontinued at any time, you may actually reduce your list turnover because your members will not feel like they’re being harrassed.

Quickly and cheerfully honor removal requests

Your subscribers may have excellent reasons for wanting to unsubscribe themselves (e.g., lack of interest in your business, necessity to change to a new e-mail address, financial or personal issues) and these deserve to be honored. Whenever a subscriber requests you to remove him from your list, you should remove him immediately and then send no further communication (except, perhaps, for a brief message to confirm that he’s been unsbscribed). If you use a competent and ethical remailing service, they will usually provide easy and effective unsubscribing links that do not require action on your part to stop the mails.

Use web-bugs and beacons with caution

Web bugs (or beacons, as they’re sometimes known) are HTML elements that serve no purpose other than to silently communicate back to a central server that a message has been read. Using web bugs, you can in fact determine whether any given member of the list (say, “frank16@nowhere.zzz”) has read your message, and when (the time and date) and from where (from what IP address) he did so. You can find examples of these in my spam analysis pages.

Many businesses use web beacons to measure the “penetration” of their mail campaigns. Some of the more sophisticated spammers may also use beacons for list-laundering purposes.

While there are probably good business reasons to use beacons, many folks (including your author) consider them to be indefensible invasions of privacy, and the presence of a beacon link in an otherwise innocent e-mail message can mark the message as sleazy (at best).

On the other hand, a knowledgeable subscriber will probably be more likely to overlook the occasional web bug on a list that he has knowingly subscribed to and that he otherwise finds useful and interesting.

If your messages contain no images other than a web beacon, this could lead to some suspicious-looking behavior when they are received by your subscribers; the subscribers may be asked by their mail programs to click a button to complete the loading of a message that already appears to be complete in their display. See my note below about this behavior, and take appropriate measures.

Don’t be a pest

I belong to a couple of mailing lists run by large companies who see fit to send out mail at the rate of several per month, but seldom do these contain anything particularly new or earth-shaking. Each time I receive one, my finger hovers over the “unsubscribe” button. Thus far, I haven’t actually hit it, but one of these days...

The lesson here is that the bulk-mailer should be careful about going to the well too often. Depending upon the nature of your business, you should keep your mailings down to 1-2 per month or less. Consider sending mail only when you have big news (such as a special sale, or a new line of goods).

The thing to keep in mind here is that the more you send mail with the “same old stuff” in it, the greater the likelihood that some subscribers will drop out in the face of such constant low-level annoyance.

Avoiding spam “fingerprints” in your mailings

All of your mailings should be prepared and sent in an ethical and transparent fashion, free from the common earmarks of spam mailing. I have a long page with descriptions of the tricks that spammers use to get their mail out and protect their resources; basically, you simply don’t want to find yourself using any of these. To summarize:

If you fail to observe these precautions, then not only will your mail look like spam, it may actually be treated as spam by spam filters. The mail won’t get through, and you may get spam complaints directed your way.

If you use a remailer, they will help you ensure that your messages don’t have the fingerprints of spam. In fact, they should insist on this for the protection of their own business as well as yours.

Address your messages properly

Each mailing to each subscriber should be addressed only to that subscriber, and the subscriber’s address should appear in the visible To-address field. Do not put more than one subscriber’s address in the To: field, nor put anything in the cc: or bcc: fields. While putting every one of your subscribers’ addresses into a single message might seem tempting, this is a very poor way to handle the private data (e.g., the e-mail addresses) of your subscribers. It is also lazy, and can often make your messages look like spam (particularly if you sort the addresses alphabetically or by domain, which will look very suspicious to many spam filters). Plus, it doesn’t actually save you any money or resources, since your outgoing mail host will still send one packet per recipient.

Formatting your mailings

While the info in this section is not about ethical bulk-mailing per se, it may prove useful in helping you devise bulk mailings that present your message effectively and successfully.

There’s nothing so irritating to a mail recipient as a list e-mail that is unreadable for technical reasons. Of course, you’d have to work pretty hard to create a plain-text e-mail that couldn’t be correctly viewed by nearly all your audience, but the same is not true for “tarted-up” HTML-based e-mails.

HTML in e-mail is great tool for tweaking marketing messages. You can decorate your messages with logos, pictures, text in different colors and sizes, and other features, and you can provide hyperlinks that take your readers directly to your site for further information or for ordering. Using HTML, you can give your messages an overall “look” that can reinforce their resonance with readers. Still, you need to be aware that getting too tricky with HTML can result in problems — the fancier you get, the more likely it is that many readers won’t be able to see the result (particularly if they’re using non-Windows computers or less popular browsers to read their mail, since many tricks don’t work well—or at all—on these systems).

There are, as it happens, a few Luddites out there who deliberately try to avoid receiving HTML mail. Some high-volume lists give subscribers a choice between HTML mail and plain-text mail, but this might be rather too complicated for a small-list manager to offer. You can always format your messages with both a plain-text (MIME type text/plain) and an HTML part (MIME type text/html) containing the same info. If properly done, this will allow text-only readers to get the gist of your message without having to save and view an attachment offline. If you use a remailer service, they can probably help you set this up.

Be conservative with HTML formatting

The best plan is to stick to the basic tags for text formatting, tables, links, and image embedding; this will help allow the message to be properly rendered across all hardware and software platforms that your subscribers may be using.

Using cascading style sheet (CSS) formatting may be overkill for a brief ad, but it should be OK as long as you keep things basic, and use standard fonts and CSS properties that are common to most computer platforms. By this point in history, it can be assumed that all browsers (and even many mail clients) will understand CSSs, or else simply ignore them. If the style sheets are small, they can be embedded directly into your HTML markup; otherwise, you can serve them from a website under your control (but decide first whether you really need all those styles just for a mail message).

About those fonts...

Many e-mailers and web designers don’t seem to understand how font tags and styles work in HTML (or CSS): just because you might specify OldEnglishBlackletter 24-point in your ad does not mean that it will appear that way on everyone’s computers (in fact, it probably won’t). You should really stick to the handful of fonts that are more-or-less guaranteed to be installed on all computers. You should try a web search for “standard web fonts” or “web safe fonts” to see the latest data, but here are some tips:

Most (not all) of the fonts that I listed above come in the four standard variations plain, italic, bold, and bold italic. Other fonts do not, and browsers may simply ignore your <i> and <b> tags (or switch to other fonts) in these cases.

CSS allows you to define a list of fonts that can be used for a given block of text, so you can define the font you really like, followed by second, third, or other choices. The user’s browser will apply the first font in the list that it has on hand (e.g., a Linux user, not having Georgia installed, might be able to use Utopia or Times Roman instead). You can also use “generic” font family names, like “serif,” “fantasy,” or “monospace;” each user’s computer will figure out which font to use based on what it has available to it (the visible results will vary from system to system).

Don’t embed images in messages — link them instead.

If you plan to include images in your mails, you should link them (and serve them from a web server under your control) rather than try to embed them in the message (e.g., by embedding them as MIME attachments and using CID links to show them). Attaching such images will bulk up the size of the message for no good reason, and might even attract the attention of zealous spam filters. If you don’t understand what I just said, just stick to normal image links of the “<IMG HREF=http://www.yoursite.foo/picture.gif>” variety, and don’t attach image files to your mailings, and you should be OK.

When serving images from a website, you should be aware that your images might occasionally get blocked for particular users by overzealous filtering software (or “net-nanny” software) used by many businesses and home users; these filters sometimes block all content from domains judged to be “bad,” even if this also blocks perfectly innocent content. There’s not much you can do if this happens, but you might keep this in the back of your mind in case some of your readers have problems.

Go easy on (or go without) client-side automation
and HTML forms

Using JavaScripts, Java applets, VBA scripts, or other bits of “client-side” web automation in your mailings could make your messages unreadable to those whose operating systems or software won’t support the tricks; they also may make the messages unreadable when the user is offline, even if the messages already reside in their inboxes. More importantly, however, they can trigger security warnings on the readers’ machines, which is definitely not what you want to have happen for a simple advertisement. Even if a user’s setup allows them to work, the user may turn these features off for security reasons.

Likewise, it’s considered a big no-no to include HTML forms (e.g., order blanks) in your mail messages; these may not work for all users and (worse) could be mis-identified as evidence of malicious “phishing” mail. Instead, put these forms on your website and include hyperlinks to them within your message. Give your readers a choice as to whether or not to use them.

Don’t force multimedia content on the recipient

Often, ill-informed bulk-mailers will include video, audio, or complex shockwave-type presentations in their messages. These can be annoying for recipients for several reasons:

If you want to offer these, make them web links to files on external servers so that the recipient can choose to load them (or not).

Preparing for (and dealing with) spam complaints

No matter how hard you try to hew to the straight and narrow path of ethical mailing, you will inevitably be subjected to spam complaints. You really have very little control over this; many people don’t fully understand what spam is, and tend to complain about any message that somehow ticks them off even if it isn’t really spam. The best way to deal with these complaints is to recognize that you are going to get them, and to prepare in advance. Here are some tips:

Tell your ISP(s) you will be running a mailing list

There’s an old bit of business “wisdom” to the effect that “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” Where the running of a bulk mail list is concerned, I think the opposite may be the case. If you clue your providers in on the fact that you want to run a list, and then stick closely to their policies, they’ll be more likely to back you up should you be subjected later on to spam complaints. Plus, you may learn that your provider has bulk-mail services that you can use.

So, always let your internet provider(s) know that you plan to run a mailing list, and get their suggestions and advice for making sure it stays on the right side of their policies. This applies also (and perhaps especially so) if you plan to use an outside remailing service to send the mail.

Keep your records

Obviously, you want a copy of your current mailing list close at hand; this list should include the e-mail address of each subscriber and possibly the date he joined (or left) the list, along with any other information he provided (like name and postal address). You’ll also want some kind of records of mailings you’ve sent (or ordered to be sent), possibly with a list of recipients (which may not be the same as your current subscriber list).

Also, make sure your interactions with your various providers are documented in writing (e-mail is fine). For some issues, it may be easier just to pick up the phone and talk to a tech support minion, but always document these calls with the time, date, and name of the rep. A follow-up mail to the customer service department doesn’t hurt. You’ll be glad you went to all this trouble later on if (really, when) you get a complaint.

When you get a complaint

Notice that I wrote “when” and not “if.” If you run a large enough list for a long enough time, you’re bound to get a spam complaint. This is especially true if your mailings are sporadic or infrequent (people may forget that they signed up to receive them).

If the complaint comes directly from the complainer, you can easily deal with it by unsubscribing the complainer and then (if you wish) sending an apologetic note. It probably isn’t productive to try to badger the complainer into admitting that he did sign up (although you could prove this if you keep your records).

If the complaint comes via your ISP (i.e., the complaint was filed with your ISP and not with you directly), it may require a bit more attention. You’ll want to explain to the ISP that you are running a 100% opt-in list, that the complainer actually opted into the list (here, you can produce your records to verify this), and that you either have already taken or will immediately take action to ensure that the complaint is resolved. As long as there’s no consistent history of such problems from your operation, you probably won’t have any further problem from your provider. Here’s where my advice about keeping your ISP in the loop pays off (as well as that about using your own address list and keeping your records).

As long as you only get one of these complaints every once in awhile, you have little to worry about. If you begin to get a lot of them in a short time, you may have some investigation to do. If the messages identified in the complaint don’t appear to have come from your operation, for example, you may need to determine whether your list has fallen into the hands of a competitior or a spammer.

In the unlikely event that your outgoing mail server ends up on an e-mail blocking list, you should find the website associated with that list; it should contain instructions for removing your addresses from the block list. It is actually very easy to get de-listed from the typical large block list (although it is also easy to get re-listed if the problems are not fixed). The best block lists should be fairly agreeable if you explain your situation to them in a straightforward manner and offer to provide evidence from your files. Spammers probably can’t do either of these, but you should certainly be able to manage if you’ve followed the advice on this page.

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Updated:Tue, 10 Mar 2009

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