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How to avoid getting swindled on your email lists

Sallie Severns
How to avoid getting swindled on your email lists Sallie Severns

When you walk into a new car dealership, looking to buy a new car, chances are you've already done a fair amount of research on the make and model you want, its features and performance, its resale value, and estimated maintenance costs. You've customized your dream vehicle online, read reviews, and talked to other owners. You may have even researched the dealer invoice price and financing options -- the point is, you've dotted every 'i' and crossed every 't' before walking into the dealer to take a test drive, right? Bravo!


How about your email marketing campaigns? Can you say that you are as equally prepared and knowledgeable about your email provider or the lists that you buy? Do you know where the lists came from? Do you have enough data to ensure that your campaign is set up for success? Are you adequately protected in your contracts? Or are you just buying lists and blasting out emails, and dreaming of a steady 2 percent response rate? Similar to buying a new car, information exists that can help you optimize your campaigns, maintain control over your campaign performance and spend, and turn you into a savvy email marketer. Here are a couple of points that every email marketer should know.


Contracts are key
Most email providers have a standard contract that they use for every campaign, and whether you're buying for a one-off initiative or a massive sustained campaign, the easiest thing in the world is to take it at face value. Don't fall into this trap -- that's like paying the full MSRP on a new car. They want you to sign it because it protects their interests more than it does yours. Instead, you might want to consider adding in some additional language about:


Previewing their affiliate partners: To ensure you're buying quality, ask to review the list of third-party affiliate partners that will be sending out your offer in advance, under NDA, before signing the contract. Know what percentage of the traffic you are buying is exclusive vs. non exclusive, as well as what percentage of the email publisher's email traffic is managed internally vs. outsourced. Add in a contractual clause that states your email partner cannot cloak the referring URLs. If the provider tries to obscure the domains, that should set off warning bells as well. The vast majority of your users should be coming from Yahoo Mail, Hotmail, Gmail, or AOL Mail. This isn't a secret, and your email publisher should not want to hide this information from you.


Add a non-cross-sell clause: If you work with multiple providers, make sure that you're not buying the same lists multiple times, or buying a junk list you already rejected from another provider. All too often, email providers will try to acquire lists from other shops to fill a large customer order. Unless marketers fully disclose all of the partner relationships, the email publisher won't know your history. It's the equivalent of slapping on a new coat of paint to make it look like its own, and the marketers are none the wiser unless they compare lists and scrutinize the data. If you've already had a poor experience with that list, you'll only be throwing good money after bad.


Spread out your spend
After reviewing the lists and finding several promising ones, be sure that you assign an equal budget amount to each in order to effectively gauge the quality. If you don't do this, your email provider might arbitrarily shift the majority of your spend toward the lists that are the most profitable, and assign minimal spend to the other lists to fulfill its obligation. This will naturally put more money in its pocket and skew the results on your end. By spreading out your spend, you will quickly discover which lists are converting, and you can optimize spend accordingly.


Another way to spread out your spend is to make sure you set maximum weekly or monthly spending caps. You might not be the most popular client for doing this, but it will ensure that the provider does not blow your budget all in one or two days. You might want to set a range on this to give you and your provider some flexibility during peak response times.


Test the lists to ensure you get what was promised
Another way to keep the list companies honest is to request the insertion of a list ID into your tracking URL to verify the traffic. Most reputable email houses have the technology to do this, but might only do so upon request. Adding in a parameter to track the list ID in the tracking URL will ensure that you're getting traffic from the lists you bought and therefore are reaching the target demographic.


Afterward, you should keep a close watch on list performance consistency. For instance, if you've been getting 2 percent response month over month and then suddenly it drops to 1.5 percent without any changes made on your end, chances are your email provider is dumping high-margin, low-value emails into your campaign


Ensure you have the technology and data access you need
One of the more common complaints I hear from email marketers is that they don't have the IT infrastructure and/or data access they need to ensure the success of their campaigns. One colleague of mine who works at a major global financial institution spends multi-millions every year on email lists, but he doesn't have a good grasp on how they perform because he has neither the IT systems nor processes in place to track this. In order to be successful, email marketers need the ability to look at the conversions in real time in order to make sure they got what they paid for, but also to make campaign optimization decisions on the fly if one list is underperforming.


Are you going to get the same satisfaction from buying an email list as driving off the lot with a brand new car? No. Are people going to cast admiring glances your way for the amount of loving detail you put into your media buy? Of course not. But by doing some research and being shrewd in your contract negotiations, you can ensure that you walk away with a high-octane list instead of a lemon. Similar to buying a car, when you buy an email list you want to make sure you're buying quality, that you're getting a good value for your money, that it's going to perform as expected (get good traction or mileage, etc.), and that it will do more than just get you from Point A to Point B.


Now, if only it had that new-list smell.


Sallie Severns is vice president, media services, for Announce Media.


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