E-mail Databases in the Age of Spam (1,049 words)
By Ann Roskey
Expert advice on how to build and maintain your e-mail housefile.
Considering all the recent controversy over spam and the new legislation being developed at both state and federal levels to restrict it, building and maintaining a viable e-mail database can be daunting.
The company I work for, Accela Communications, produces and promotes hundreds of B-to-B Webcasts and other online lead-generation programs for businesses around the world. We send a lot of e-mail from our database as well as those of our partners. We've successfully built databases ranging from 500 to several hundred thousand contacts, and have not encountered any major spam complaints—primarily because we follow a set of standard practices developed through years of experience and careful testing.
Building an e-mail database does not have to be onerous.
One of the most important steps in building an e-mail database is the data collection process. While some of this may seem elementary, sound data collection is essential for future maintenance and growth.
First and foremost, make sure the questions being asked in your registration form reflect the target audience you're seeking to reach. Use pre-formatted responses instead of "fill in the blank" questions whenever possible, because a carefully chosen set of options will enable you to profile your entire respondent base, whereas ad hoc responses cannot easily be aggregated and analyzed. Respect your prospects' time by making your questions clear and straightforward, without too many dependencies (i.e., if you answered "yes," please go to "X," etc.).
When developing data collection forms, consider the length of the form and the types of questions that will be asked. Evaluate the trade-off between depth of information and quantity of respondents you seek.
We recommend no more than two or three questions beyond the core demographics on a registration form, with only two of these being required. The number of questions you ask will act as a filter, turning away prospects who are not truly interested in your product or service. However, this also will affect the total number of registrants for a particular promotion or offer.
The desired quantity of registrants, target audience and level of qualification need to be considered and balanced when creating a registration form, as does the value of what you're offering. If your offer has a lot of value to a potential audience, respondents typically are willing to offer more information.
Consider building multi-phase data collection processes. For example, when someone completes an initial request for information, send a confirmation e-mail message that offers an additional product or service, which requires the respondent to provide another level of information. Confirmation messages are key to developing future communications, and customers will be more likely to open your message if they know who sent it and why.
Your preferred demographics likely will change over time to stay in tune with the needs of your business and product set. To maintain a high level of integrity for the data you've collected, document the database layout, including field names and values, as well as any conversion efforts that have been undertaken.
Sometimes data collection inadvertently changes if a form is set up with different questions or response choices, in which case you may decide to convert data to maintain consistency and simplify data structures.
Don't rely on your technical or engineering team to record and document these changes; as a marketer you are the primary user of the database, so take ownership of this task. The database layout and attributes may be clear to everyone who works with it now, but as we all know, memory fades over time and other contributors may enter the picture who also need to have an intimate understanding of the data.
If you plan to use your e-mail database for list rental purposes, explicitly collect permission for sending third-party e-mail offers. If you ask for multiple levels of permission, be prepared to manage unsubscribe requests at multiple levels. Keep in mind that customers may be annoyed at the concept of unsubscribing individually from multiple types of offers, because once they want to stop hearing from you, it usually applies to all types of communication.
From a permission standpoint, I treat my communications as if they were third-party mail, to make the process easier for recipients, and to take a more conservative approach when communicating with customers.
Maintaining Your Database
Handling of bounced e-mail and unsubscribe requests should happen in as close to "real time" as possible to prevent serious complaints. Many ISPs will "blacklist" you as a mailer if you continue to mail to invalid e-mail accounts, which in turn will prevent other valid mail from being delivered.
If you receive a spam complaint, respond to all parties immediately, and let them know that you're investigating the claim. Follow up within 24 hours, and supply as much information as possible about the recipient's request to receive information from you (on which you established the willingness to receive future e-mail communications). If you can supply the date the request was made along with the IP address, you'll be in good shape. Keep a careful e-mail trail of all your communications regarding spam with an ISP.
Depending upon the volume of e-mail you send, you should consider using an e-mail service provider, simply because these companies' business dictates that they keep up to date with the latest in privacy, develop good relationships with ISPs and understand how e-mail filtering technology is being applied today.
You'll also need a strategy for dealing with active versus inactive records. Don't dump old records since they may become instrumental for behavioral profiling or modeling, but databases also can become unwieldy if they're left to grow without "pruning." A database field used to indicate whether a record is active or not will easily solve this issue.
If you develop these simple core guidelines, you'll have a good road map to follow to a robust, privacy-compliant e-mail database.
Ann Roskey is vice president of marketing and audience development at Accela Communications. With close to 20 years of marketing and product management experience in the high-tech publishing industry, her primary responsibilities include generating audience for Webcast programming and building circulation for a newsletter service encompassing nearly 40 newsletters. She can be reached at Ann_Roskey@accelacommunications.com.