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10 Lessons Learned From Using E-Mail Lists

How to run your lists and choose what to write about.

Last week's column showed you three different choices that you can use to create and manage your own e-mail list server. This week I want to talk about the "softer" side of things: how to run your lists and choose what you write about, what you send out, how you send it out, and why you bother doing it.

E-mail is the basic lifeblood of any small business communications. It is how you get and retain customers, how you find new prospects, and how you keep and motivate your staff. Even if you have a fairly non-Internet company, such as a hardware store, you can use e-mail to bring in new business and inform and amuse your customers.
Here are ten important lessons:

  1. Self promotion is fine, but it takes a back seat to real information and advice. Limit the amount of self-promotional content to less than 20 percent of what you send out. Keep your e-mails information-rich and people will want to read them. This doesn't mean that you can't let people know about cut-rate specials, or certain accomplishments, or upcoming events.
  2. Weekly is the best frequency. If you can't write something weekly, then every other week is also good. More than once a week is annoying, and less frequent e-mails tend to lose your connection. If possible, send out your e-mails on the same day of the week for consistency and predictability.
  3. Brevity counts. Keep the e-mails to fewer than 1,000 words. About 600 words is optimal. People have short attention spans.
  4. Make them original. Don't just cut and paste stuff that you have picked up elsewhere. Although it is fine to use a link as a jumping off point to provide your own point of view and commentary.
  5. Don't pile on the web links. One or two links per e-mail is fine. Any more than that is annoying and doesn't prove anything to anybody, other than you have done a lot of internet research.
  6. Good writing is essential. Have someone else edit your e-mails and check for spelling, syntax and grammar. Check the web links to make sure they bring up the right pages that you intended.
  7. Check your facts, too. While your editor is at it, have him or her also check statements of fact and make sure they are accurate. Nothing dilutes your authority more than misstatements of fact.
  8. Community counts. If you are going to start a successful web publishing venture, make sure you have a good idea whom your community is. This includes reader/viewers, information sources, and people and mechanisms for moving information around (other than yourself, that is). Are you talking to your customers, suppliers, partners, or staff? High-level management or in the trenches? Older or younger generations? Have a firm idea of who is on the other side of the e-mail and your messages will be more effective.
  9. Notification is important. Use e-mail as a way to notify your list of what is new, what is different, what is on sale, what is something that you recommend. This is probably the best use of your list, and something that we often overlook. People appreciate hearing your news first from you directly, that is often the best way to build a community.
  10. Have an archive. Think about archiving all your e-mails on your website. Mailman and Yahoo do this automatically, although both do it somewhat cumbersomely. You can also repost your e-mails to a blog format as well, which is one of the things I do with my Web Informant e-mails.

Good luck with your e-mail lists, and do share your own best tips, too!

David Strom is a former editor-in-chief of Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com and DigitalLanding.com and an independent network consultant, blogger, podcaster and professional speaker based in St. Louis. He can be reached at david@strom.com .

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