Webvanta Blog: Creating Effective Websites

Adding an Email List to Your Site

Adding an Email List to Your Site Image

Maintaining an email list of customers and prospects is perhaps the most fundamental of Internet marketing techniques. Whether what is being sent is a periodic newsletter, a series of tutorials (as in our Learning Webvanta and Learning Rails courses), or customer updates, maintaining an email list is a fundamental technique.

Note that this is not about sending spam; any reputable email service will immediately ban you if they catch you sending unsolicited email, and they don’t allow use of purchased, rented, or harvested lists. When we talk about email marketing, we’re referring to sending emails to customers or others who have explicitly asked to join your mailing list.

Email Service Providers

You can, of course, maintain an email list using your regular email client, but this approach quickly become untenable for sizable lists. If you’re mailing to a list of more than a few dozen people on a regular basis, you should be using some sort of service.

List servers have been around since the before the invention of the web, initially for technical discussion groups. (Listserv, created by Eric Thomas in 1986, was the first program to provide this function.) Such programs allow people to join and remove themselves from the list without human intervention, and they can be set up so that either everyone on the list or only the administrators can send messages to the list.

This type of list continues to be used, although facilities such as Google and Yahoo groups and forums are displacing it. For business and marketing oriented lists, a new breed of service, known in the trade as an email service provider (ESP), has taken over.

There’s now several dozen such providers, spanning a wide range of features, pricing, and approaches. In this post, I’ll explain what these companies do; in Part 2, I’ll give a quick rundown of the top candidates you may want to investigate.

Integrating Email Lists with Websites

With an ESP, adding a ‘Join Our List’ form to a website is trivial. The ESP provides the HTML for this form, which you place on your web page. (For a Webvanta site, you’d typically put this code in a snippet, and then invoke that snipped on any page where you want to show the form, or in a template if you want it to appear on many pages.)

When someone completes the form, it is submitted directly to the ESP. Joining the list can be done via ‘single opt-in,’ in which case the name is added to the list as soon as the request is submitted, or via ‘double opt-in,’ which requires that a link in a confirmation email be clicked. Double opt-in is generally recommended, since otherwise anyone can enter anyone else’s email address, and you have no assurance that emails on the list are valid.

The ESP handles all the processing for the double opt-in, from sending the confirmation email to processing the response. The ESP will typically provide default confirmation pages that it hosts, or give you the option to specify the URL for pages on your site. For a professional experience, we recommend that you build pages on your site for this purpose. For double opt-in, there will be two pages: one that is displayed right after the form is submitted, to indicate that a confirmation email has been sent, and another that is shown when the confirmation link in the email is clicked.

In both cases, the action (submitting the form or clicking a link in the email) is sent to the ESP, which then redirects to your site without displaying anything. As a result, the person joining the list is typically never aware that there is an ESP involved.

If you’re curious, next time you see a page with a ‘Join Our List’ form, view the source for the page, and look at the action specified in the <form> tag; it will reveal the domain name of the ESP.

Basic Email Marketing Services

No matter what provider you use, a few basics remain constant:

  • The provider stores your email list, and you create and send emails using a web-based interface.
  • HTML email templates are provided, with a WYSIWYG interface for creating emails. You can generally create text, HTML, or text plus HTML emails (generally the best approach). Usually you can also provide your own HTML, which we prefer (see Creating HTML Email That Works).
  • You can enter names manually or import existing lists (if you have permission to send email to them), but the primary way names get added is when people fill out a form on your site.
  • Almost all services also have an API (application program interface) so you can programmatically add names to the list and otherwise integrate with existing systems (for example, we use this capability to add new Webvanta users to our list).
  • Every email has an unsubscribe link, and when clicked the ESP removes that person from the list automatically.
  • Email addresses that bounce are removed from the list.
  • Analytics tell you how many of the emails you sent bounced, how many were opened, how many times each link was clicked, and how many users unsubscribed. Sometimes you can even analyze the activity by user.

Email Deliverability

A key value provided by email marketing services is email deliverability. They can’t do anything to keep your email from getting filtered as spam, if the content in the email matches things the spam filters are looking for. But all reputable services make efforts to stay off blacklists (list of banned senders) and get on whitelists (lists of approved senders).

To stay off the blacklists, they must manage what kinds of messages are sent via their service to protect their sender reputation. This is one reason why all services have terms of use you must follow, which require that you comply with the CAN-SPAM regulations and do not mail to names for which you do not have explicit permission.

Some services claim to have better deliverability than others, but this is hard to evaluate. It does stand to reason that services with tens of thousands of customers and an automated sign-up process (such as Constant Contact and MailChimp) are going to have a harder time maintaining their sender reputation than higher-end services such as Emma, Bronto, and Exact Target that have smaller numbers of customers that they interact with individually before allowing them to sign up. Some services even have every outgoing message reviewed by a human.

A few services, such as Streamsend, set every user up on their own IP address. This gives you immunity from the bad reputations of other senders, but it also obligates you to do your own blacklist and whitelist management.

Beyond the Basics

All services support sending batch emails to the entire list. Features that only some services have, and that vary considerably in how they are implemented and how flexible they are, include:

  • Rating messages for their likelihood of getting blocked as spam.
  • Showing how messages will look in various email clients.
  • Sending a series of messages at preset intervals when someone joins the list (often called an autoresponder series).
  • Sending an email when certain conditions occur, such as when the ‘birthday’ field matches the current day to send a happy birthday email.
  • Segmenting the list based on certain fields, or using tags.
  • A/B or multivariate testing, splitting a list into two or more parts to test different versions of a message.
  • Inserting dynamic content depending on the value of a certain field. (Few low-cost services have this feature; generally all they can do is to insert the value of a field in an email).
  • Sending transactional emails (emails to a single recipient, triggered by the completion of some transaction).
  • Creating and sending surveys, and compiling responses.
  • E-commerce transactions, such as event registration or product sales.

Choosing an Email Service Provider

With many companies to choose from, a complex range of features, and various pricing models, choosing an email marketing company can be a challenging task. In my next post, I’ll give some pointers on what to look for, as well as links to the leading companies.

Topics: Email Marketing

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