Newsletter Nightmares

Newsletters are a fine thing. They help you keep in touch with your customers, and remind them how much they enjoy your products. With your brand fresh in the mind of your subscribers, they’re more likely to buy from you again – assuming you manage the relationship correctly.

So this is the tale of two companies, told to me by a friend. I’m repeating it here in the hopes that others will learn from it. The names and the fields have been changed to protect the innocent. I’m almost tempted to say “criminally innocent.” It’s hard to remember sometimes, after writing about technology as long as I have, that there are plenty of people who don’t understand something that seems to be common sense. That includes people who should know better.

But let me start my friend’s story. She works for a company whose online business caters to crafters of various stripes: those who sew, those who knit and crochet, those who embroider, etc. One of the ways it keeps crafters coming back to visit is with its two regular newsletters, one that appeals to general crafters and another that appeals specifically to jewelry artists.

Just a couple of years or so ago (this was before my friend’s time), someone at the company discovered that not everyone who was receiving the general newsletter had actually signed up for it. My friend was weak on the technical details; the company had forums for crafters, and it was possible that some databases got confused, so that someone registering for the forums got signed up for the newsletter as well. This had to be traced down and tracked back, as the company discovered (quite belatedly and unintentionally) that they had been put on a list of spammers by one of the major independent organizations that covers this kind of thing.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, there are organizations such as Spamhaus that maintain lists of IP addresses that send unsolicited bulk email, otherwise known as spam. Many major ISPs subscribe to these lists in order to block spammers. If you find yourself on such a list, usually known as a black list, you may find your mail is not getting through, including newsletters to which users have legitimately subscribed. It is possible to get off black lists, but the offender must seriously clean up his act to do so.

Since this was an American company, after sorting out the database issues they had to also come to terms with the CAN-SPAM Act. It’s not all that difficult, but as is often true with these things, the devil is in the details. Two very important changes had to be made: the company had to set up a double opt-in system for its newsletters, and it needed to add an unsubscribe link to every newsletter it sent out.

A double opt-in system for newsletters is very much what it sounds like. If you have a link on your web site that allows users to sign up for your newsletter, the first opt-in happens when they fill out the form on your web site and check the box that says “Yes! Sign me up for your free newsletter!” The second opt-in happens when you automatically send an email to the address they gave you in the web form, thanking them for their interest, telling them a little more about what they can expect, and giving them a link to click to confirm their subscription.

The etiquette concerning this second level of opt-in is important. If they unsubscribe at this point, let them; do NOT add them to your database of subscribers. If they don’t click the link that confirms their subscription, treat them as not having signed up for your newsletter. For all you know, someone else played a prank on them by putting their information into the form; kids played these stunts all the time in the days before the Internet by taking the postage paid subscription cards out of random magazines they found, filling them out with their victim’s information and mailing them off.

Thankfully, in these days of quickly built and easily modified templates, adding an unsubscribe link to every issue of the company’s newsletters was a piece of cake. My friend told me she doesn’t know how many subscribers they lost, but seems to recall that it wasn’t that many. And it was more than made up for by the fact that the ones who stayed really DID want to receive the newsletter they’d signed up for. It wasn’t too long before the circulation for the two newsletters grew beyond the subscribers they lost. And once they were able to show they had mended their ways, the online craft company got itself off of the “black lists” maintained by companies that track spammers.

But happy endings are far more common in fairy tales than real life, and as you probably guessed, this isn’t the end of the story. After getting itself successfully on track, and becoming rather popular, our little craft company with two newsletters married a handsome prince – err, joined forces with a larger company that also covered crafts. And that, according to my friend, is where the trouble began.

Anyone who has been through a merger knows that they present many challenges – sometimes on a daily basis. More of them are unforeseen than you’d think. In this case, our little laid-back crafts company was hooking up with a savvy firm with products aimed at up-to-the-minute designers trying to keep on top of the trends in their field. (Yes, there are trends in the crafts field; it isn’t all grandmothers making sweaters and doilies!).

But if you think the big firm figured it would educate its smaller counterpart, guess again. The smaller company had more traffic, thanks to good content that lasted for a while, better SEO, and a loyal audience. The larger company, as it turned out, was alienating its audience without even knowing it. It was doing newsletters, but it wasn’t doing them properly.

My friend wasn’t entirely coherent on this point; she sounded rather like she did the last time she tried to put together a crazy quilt and decided that NONE of the scraps she had worked together. Anyway, it turned out that the larger company generated newsletters automatically from the content on its web sites. And it generated a LOT more newsletters than the smaller company – something like sixteen or so during the same period of time for which the smaller company did only two.

Now if you put all these things together – less traffic, lots more newsletters, all automatically generated – it’s no wonder my friend saw this as a problem. Getting the larger company to put out fewer newsletters went onto the priority list. Oh, by the way, it’s worth mentioning here that the larger company’s newsletters did not have any content that you couldn’t get from going to their web sites. The smaller company, meanwhile, made a point of including original content in its newsletters along with the usual enticements to visit the site; it just seemed to make things more personal, and they figured their readers appreciated it.

Anyway, back to the story. What the smaller company didn’t realize is that there were some important gaps in the way the larger company conducted its business – specifically, for the purposes of this article, its newsletter business. When a subscriber signed up for a newsletter, the larger company knew she was interested in its content…so it assumed that she was interested in ALL of its content. Rather than just getting the one newsletter, the subscriber’s name went into a pool of names that received all 16 company newsletters.

Talk about bad public relations! Sewers were getting newsletters that interested weavers, embroiderers were getting newsletters aimed at crocheters, jewelry makers were getting newsletters aimed at scrapbookers…and all of these newsletters were clogging up their mailboxes despite not even doing a SINGLE opt-in, let alone a double opt-in! It made me shudder just to hear about it, and it should make you shudder too, if your company’s policies are anything like this.

And before you say they aren’t, consider this: do you have page that shows a group of newsletters which your visitor can sign up to receive? Do they have check boxes next to them? Are any of these check boxes ticked by default? If so, that’s not good enough. Let your visitor decide which newsletters he or she is interested in; don’t make that decision for them. They just might make the decision to go elsewhere, maybe to some site that isn’t arrogant enough to assume it knows exactly which newsletters they want to get in their inbox every week.

But the problem went beyond PR (and by that I don’t mean PageRank). One disgruntled recipient of those newsletters went right to the large company’s web host and reported the crafting firm as a spammer. The web host, being an ethical and responsible sort, after looking over the complainant’s proof, sent an email to the larger company sure to light a fire under any C-level person, whether they knit, crochet, or quilt: stop spamming NOW or we’re going to hold your URLs hostage.

These URLs represent a considerable investment on the part of the larger company – not just the cost of the domains themselves but building them out and basically creating the business. It was like somebody threatened to lock up every Michael’s Arts & Crafts store and cover their signs with an anonymous drape. I suppose I don’t need to tell you about the flurry of excitement that followed; you can probably imagine it for yourself.

It took some high-level discussions, major apologies, and some real changes going forward to keep this from turning into a total disaster. My friend’s negotiation skills came into play (when you’re juggling kids and a full-time job you learn a lot about negotiating) and she saved the company – for now anyway. There’s a mess of database sorting that someone is going to be working overtime on.

Meanwhile, the lesson to be learned here is that, when it comes to doing a newsletter, do it right from the beginning. Start with a double opt-in, keep your databases clean and include an unsubscribe link in every newsletter (and update your databases promptly when you get that unsubscribe notice!). It’s not just good for business; it may help to KEEP you in business.

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