I recently undertook a marketing research exercise—I signed up to the mailing lists of around twenty Christian authors through a multi-author online giveaway to find out what makes a good email. The emails I received from the participating authors ranged in quality and effectiveness from great to illegal.
Here are the five key lessons I learned reading emails from over twenty authors:
1. Use a Mailing List Provider
Email marketing in the USA is controlled by the CAN-SPAM Act (that’s the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act. Isn’t it great that marketing is placed on the same level as porn?). Yes, the CAN-SPAM Act is American and I’m not. It still applies to anyone with Americans on their email list.
The Act has several requirements, including:
- You must have your full name and physical address in the email
- You must provide a clear method to unsubscribe
- You can only email people who have consented to receiving your emails
- You must not share personal data such as email addresses with other people without permission
One author emailed me and 218 other people using CC. I now have their personal email addresses … and they have mine. This clearly contravenes the CAN-SPAM Act (the giveaway promoter assures me the offending author will be getting an email to “discuss” this).
Using a reputable mailing list provider will help ensure you don’t break the law by requiring you to include necessary information such as a name and address, and an unsubscribe option. It will also help your mail delivery rates, as mail from a personal Gmail or Yahoo account is more likely to end up in the recipient’s spam folder).
Note that even if you use a mailing list provider you still can’t add people to your mailing list without their permission (as has also happened to me this week, and as I have seen recommended by a self-proclaimed marketing “expert”). Most recommend a double opt-in, which both complies with the law, and helps ensure your mailing list isn’t filled with spam bots.
2. Introduce Yourself
The best emails started with an introduction to the author by name, and a reminder of how I subscribed to their email list (through the giveaway, in case I’d forgotten). This is good email list practice, as it helps cut down on spam complaints. It’s also good business practice, because you want subscribers to learn to recognise your name over time and get into the habit of opening your emails.
I got a couple of emails where I couldn’t work out who sent them. The sender was an email list provider, they didn’t introduce themselves, and the signoff at the bottom of the email was from a nickname (e.g. Kath), not from the author name. How can you convert subscribers into buyers if they don’t know who you are?
3. Keep the Presentation Professional
Some of the emails I received were plain text. These were plain and functional, but there was nothing wrong with them. Most used customised templates with branded headers and other images. I like pretty things and I’m interested in visual branding, so I liked these branded newsletters both for the content and for professional delivery.
But some emails were a horrible mix of plain text and colours straight out of the 1980’s. Why use plain black text when there is red and green and blue? In consecutive paragraphs? It looked like the newsletter equivalent of the recent job advertisement for a Graphic Designer for the City of Los Angeles.
4. Give Permission to Unsubscribe
You have to offer the option to unsubscribe, but don’t hide it at the bottom of the email. Offer the option in the middle of the email—or even at the top, right under the introduction. Not everyone who signed up for your email list actually wants to be on it. They may have signed up to all the lists because they thought it increased their chances of winning (it doesn’t). They may not have intended to sign up to all the lists. Or they may be conducting marketing research into email list best practice …
While most mailing list providers are free to begin with, you will have to start paying at some point. You don’t want to be paying for people who actually don’t want to be on your mailing list, so it’s better to say goodbye gracefully.
5. Offer a Subscriber Incentive
The better authors offered some kind of free downloadable gift in their introductory email. In fact, after getting a dozen or so emails with a free offer, the few that didn’t offer anything stood out in the wrong way.
Why offer a gift that appeals to your target readers?
- It helps readers decide whether they like you as an author
- It leverages the principle of reciprocity
- It’s not asking for a sale
Some authors offer a free download of the opening chapters of their books. This sounds nice, but it’s not really an incentive—I can get that from Amazon or other online retailer. I’m also not a fan of gifts that don’t relate to your books. A pretty booklet with Bible verse memes is more appropriate for a devotional or inspirational non-fiction author than a fiction author.
If you’re looking for further information on email lists, I recommend you read Email Lists Made Easy for Writers and Bloggers by Kristen Oliphant. It’s excellent, because it’s realistic, not the get-rich-quick-quick-quick some experts seem to sell. She also has a free downloadable workbook to help you work through some of the major decisions.
Note that since Email Lists Made Easy was published, MailChimp has added autoresponders to their free plan (MailChimp is free for up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails a month). Also, she doesn’t mention MailerLite an email provider. I know several authors who use and recommend MailerLite for the cheaper prices, ease of use, and excellent customer service.