I published my first email newsletter in the mid-1990s. Since then, the newsletter publishing scene has changed drastically. The huge volumes of spam, the maturity of email clients and computer technology, and the rise of the jaded newbie has made publishing a newsletter a different cup of tea from those years.
Although unsolicited email has been with us from the early days of the commercialization of the Internet, few people will dispute me when I say that the volume of spam making its rounds on the Internet today is incredible.
This rise of spam has serious consequences on legitimate email newsletter publishers.
With the tremendous amount of spam people receive, there is a heightened awareness of spam among email users. Unfortunately, this heightened awareness does not come with an equivalent dose of competence (and good memory) to distinguish between spam and the newsletters that they previously signed up for. As a result, if the anguish among the legitimate newsletter publishing community is anything to go by, there is a rise of false spam complaints.
False spam complaints come in at least two forms:
They are made by people who have signed up for your newsletter but have forgotten that they have done so.
My experience is that the more infrequent your newsletter is, the more susceptible you are to having subscribers who have forgotten they subscribed to your newsletter. I experienced this with thesitewizard newsletter recently, when a subscriber emailed me to tell me that he had completely forgotten he subscribed and was about to file a spam complaint when he visited a URL in that issue that took him to an article on my site. It was only when he read the familiar article that he remembered that he did subscribe some time ago.
This doesn't happen to me when the newsletter is released at least once a month. However, when the frequency lapses to once in two or three months, people forget. The lesson here is that, if you can help it, make sure that your newsletters go out at least once a month to minimize the possibility of people forgetting that they subscribed.
Apart from frequency, you should also make sure that people have to confirm their subscriptions when they subscribe. While this may have been an option at the time I wrote my beginner's newsletter publishing guide at http://www.thesitewizard.com/archive/newsletter.shtml it is no longer an option for legitimate publishers today. Forcing people to confirm their subscription is another layer of protection for you — you can show them that it is impossible for their email addresses to be added without their having sent an email from their account confirming their subscription.
Spam complaints are also made by people who received mail with forged email headers, purporting to come from your domain. Unfortunately there is little you can do to pre-empt this. You simply have to show them that the email headers they received prove you are innocent (assuming that they bother to complain to you and not to some email blacklist).
Another consequence of the increased awareness of spam is that more people are using throwaway email addresses to subscribe to newsletters they are not familiar with. They then subscribe using their real addresses after they are sure they want to receive your newsletter. In addition, more people today consider email addresses to be temporary, and they discard them after a period of time (such as when the spam going to those accounts becomes excessive).
I have no personal quarrel with these tricks. I use them myself all the time. They do however pose a problem for newsletter publishers and advertisers.
The problem with throwaway email addresses is that most people don't bother to unsubscribe when they stop using such addresses. As a result, your list of subscribers become filled with dead email addresses. If you are using a mailing list host that charges according to the number of subscribers on your list, you will end up paying for these subscribers who no longer even check those accounts. Or, if you are an advertiser paying CPM rates (prices that are pegged to the number of subscribers), you will end up paying for subscribers who no longer exist.
There is no simple solution to this. If you can afford to lose large numbers of subscribers, you can take the approach I took with one of my less important lists. I sent a message to the subscribers asking them to re-subscribe if they wish to remain on the list. Then I deleted the entire list. Only 30% of the list resubscribed.
Incidentally, before you rush out to do this, you should also be aware of the circumstances under which I took this action. The list was an announcement list for a computer program I wrote. I had not posted anything to the list for more than two years, since there were no new versions of that program in that period to announce, and was thus not confident that the people on the list remembered they subscribed. Furthermore, it was hosted on a free mailing list host that was closing down, so I had no choice but to move the list. Since I was moving the list anyway, I took the opportunity to prune it. To be honest, I was surprised that 30% actually resubscribed!
The widespread problem of spam has led many email providers and ISPs to implement spam filters on their system. Some of these are based on the free Spam Assassin engine. Others use commercial offerings or their own proprietary filters.
I have written on the problem one such filter pose to email publishers in my article How to Prevent Your Newsletter From Being Unintentionally Blocked. If you missed that article, you can find it at http://www.thesitewizard.com/archive/blockedezine.shtml At the time I wrote that, the use of email filters was in its infancy, with people implementing them on the client side. Now however, sophisticated email engines are implemented at the server side, and your newsletter risks not even reaching your subscribers. For example, this issue of thesitewizard.com newsletter may not make it through some email filters, since it uses a few of the catch phrases that these filters trap.
You can read the list of tests one popular email filter, Spam Assassin, uses to determine if a message is spam, from http://spamassassin.apache.org/tests.html If you have never seen that list before, you'll probably be horrified.
I suggest you use the Spam Assassin's list as a starting point to minimize the number of words and phrases you use in your ezine that will trigger the filter. It is probably impossible to avoid them all, but if you can keep the aggregate score for your newsletter low, your newsletter might be able to survive the filter and reach your subscribers. If you are serious about your newsletter, it is also a good idea to get an email account at a place which implements such a filter, to see how your newsletter fares with Spam Assassin. One such email provider is Fastmail.
When I first started publishing my newsletters, the general consensus among the newsletter publishing community was that HTML newsletters were disparaged. Plain text newsletters (like what thesitewizard newsletter uses at the time I write this) was the order of the day.
Things appear to have changed over the years. Today, I hear more (legitimate) publishers moving to an HTML format. The advantages of a HTML formatted newsletter cited by these people are as follows:
HTML newsletters allow you to put pictures in your ezines. For certain types of newsletters, this is a great help in getting your point across. You know the old cliche: a picture paints a thousand words.
Obviously you have more options when you use the HTML format. You can produce a multi-column newsletter, use bold font, large print, underline text, etc, to produce a newsletter that is eye-catching and uses its appearance to get its point across.
With a plain text newsletter, readers are exposed to the raw URL when you put links in your newsletter. Publishers that use HTML make a clickable link out of a descriptive title, thus hiding ugly URLs.
I'm not entirely sure what has changed over the years that makes publishing your newsletter in HTML format more palatable to these publishers now than in the earlier years. Perhaps it is the increasing number of people who check their email from a web interface using their browsers. Or perhaps it is due to the improvements in many email clients' ability to display HTML mail properly. With more people being able to read HTML formatted email without problems, these publishers feel that the benefits of sending their newsletter in HTML format far outweigh the ire they may provoke among some subscribers.
Don't get me wrong: the newcomer to the Internet today is still mostly like the newcomer of yesteryear. However, the moment he hits the Internet, he is swamped with newsletters, mailing lists and spam. When the newbie registers a piece of software, he is asked to sign up for the vendor's newsletter. The moment he makes an online purchase, he is placed on a mailing list. And so on. You even get newsletters for sending in the warranty card for your hardware!
What does this mean for the newsletter publisher today?
My early issues of thefreecountry.com's newsletter many years back were incredibly simple. In those days, it contained a brief notice of which pages on the site had been updated, and a general statement of what the additions were. Those issues would never have survived today's more sophisticated newsletter subscribers. (Actually, I'm surprised it survived my early subscribers too, but that is beside the point here.) One look at that newsletter will lead today's subscribers to think that it has little of value to warrant opening it. They will either unsubscribe or not open future issues when they arrive.
The point here is that your newsletter has to compete for your reader's attention in an overflowing mailbox. It also has to compete with other newsletters and messages that your readers receive, all of which claim to have valuable information for them. In other words, if your newsletter does not strike your readers as having sufficient value to warrant reading, in comparison with the other mail they receive, don't expect them to read future issues.
Developments in the email and Internet scene has led to changes that will affect newsletter publishers as they publish and deliver their electronic magazines. All newsletter publishers need to be able to adapt to these developments in order to survive.
This article can be found at http://www.thesitewizard.com/ezines/newsletterpublishingtips.shtml
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