Net Results

Look Ma, No PAPER

Apart from creating a Web page for your company, there's another do-it-yourself method of online advertising that, although controversial, has powerful potential. I'm speaking of bulk e-mail, a method of targeting appropriate online readers by the thousands or even millions and, with a simple click of your mouse, sending them your marketing letter via e-mail.

Bulk e-mail requires special software that orchestrates the process, but you can imagine the opportunities. Purveyors of the technology (Email Works by Softcell Marketing Inc. is one of several such outfits that I contacted online) claim you can effortlessly mail from 500 to as many as 13,000 letters per hour without ever buying a mailing list, sealing an envelope or forking over postage.

However, I call this approach controversial because it is a form of junk e-mail (or "spam" mail, as some people derisively refer to it) that's raising the hackles of more than a few users who don't want their online mailboxes cluttered with electronic sales pitches. Responding to this concern, America Online recently went to court to try to block a few electronic mailers from routinely "stripping" the e-mail addresses of AOL subscribers to send them marketing letters. As of press time, the courts had granted the request in the case of one very aggresive mailer. AOL now also offers members a feature that allows them to selectively block e-mail themselves. Other online services are likely to follow suit.

That said, this fledgling technology is too powerful not to be harnessed and used in some way recipients would find acceptable. It's the form of solicitation Ben Maxstadt used to promote his services, and I found his letter short but sweet, disarming and effective. That's the key, say the experts.

Limit your letter to 20 lines or less to generate a lead, then send the rest of your message only to those who request it. Or, alternately, attach the bulk of your pitch as a ride-along electronic enclosure readers can open and read, at their option, after being intrigued by your letter.

As in any direct-mail program, it's wise to BODY a few different approaches to your letter, sending each version to a different small segment of your audience (perhaps 1,000 prospects each) to see which pulls the most responses. The winning letter would then become the one you send out to a much larger audience.

As someone who receives a number of e-mail marketing letters each week, I can tell you that many are indeed intrusive. This can be a major turnoff, especially when you might never have retrieved your e-mail in the first place had you known it was an advertisement.

Morever, bulk e-mail letters are pretty homely to look at. At this stage, you can only write and send them in plain computer text. Plus, there are always about 10 lines of mind-numbing computer routing codes preceding the letter's message--all the more reason to feel like trashing it. This is still an evolving tool. Yet I think you'll agree its potential power to transform the face of direct marketing is nothing short of nuclear. Stay tuned.

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This article was originally published in the December 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Net Results.

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