Monday, February 15, 2010

Don't get caught in the spam can

E-mail Marketing Guidelines
Important information about “spam”

The CAN-SPAM Act is a stringent federal law that makes broadcasting unsolicited commercial e-mail - also known as UCE and “spam” - a federal offense punishable by fines and other penalties. The law defines commercial e-mail as:

“... email whose primary purpose is advertising or promoting a commercial product or service, including content on a Web site.”

CAN-SPAM has also energized the anti-spam lobby and encouraged civil action against businesses and organizations that send unsolicited e-mail. To keep your e-mail marketing program on the straight and narrow, it is imperative that you follow these guidelines.

Be sure anyone on your staff sending marketing e-mail is familiar with these rules. Compliance is your responsibility.

Send solicitation e-mail ONLY to those 
that have
“opted in” to your subscriber list

E-mail addresses that enter your database through your website should be clearly opted-in through language, disclaimers and opt-in devices. (The unchecked checkbox - requiring the visitor to check the box for opt-in - is the most legally watertight. However a lot of marketing directors won't hear of it - so you end up seeing the checked checkbox more often. Not as safe, but better than nothing.)

You must be vigilant and judicious when adding addresses manually to your database. Do not add e-mail addresses unless you can prove that the individuals have requested to be added to your e-mail subscriber list.

If you have collected e-mail addresses by other means - for example store visitors or special event attendees, be sure you can prove that those who volunteered e-mail addresses also explicitly agreed to be added to the subscription list. If you collect hand-written cards, for example, the card should include opt-in language to keep it above board.

The mere act of providing an e-mail address 

does not constitute an automatic opt-in.

When in doubt, throw it out

If you are unsure of the opt-in status of any e-mail address, it’s OK to hold onto it for non-solicitation communication, but not OK to use it for solicitation.

Grant and respect all opt-out requests

Every solicitation e-mail you send must include a mechanism to allow the recipient to opt-out. If an individual requests to be removed from your list via other means (direct e-mail or phone, for example) you must comply.

Communicating to existing customers

CAN-SPAM largely exempts “transactional” messages (like order status, shipping notification, etc.) however such e-mails may not include deceiving routing information:

“A ‘transactional or relationship message’ – e-mail that facilitates an agreed-upon transaction or updates a customer in an existing business relationship – may not contain false or misleading routing information, but otherwise is exempt from most provisions of the Act.”

E-mailing to request opt-in

Is it legal to send an e-mail to a list, asking the recipients permission to send future e-mails? This is gray area. Such an e-mail to a customer could be defended as transactional and probably within the guidelines. To a non-customer, the e-mail itself could be viewed as a violation of the letter of the law. However it is very much in keeping with the spirit of the law – and unless the recipient list includes an activist or a zealot, the risk is fairly low.

Keep your e-marketing honest to avoid trouble

CAN-SPAM was designed to give prosecutors a means to punish peddlers of pornographic e-mail ... if your e-marketing program is above board and does not contain potentially offensive material, your risk of government penalty is small. However, self-appointed watchdogs that delight in harassing legitimate businesses through civil action are not so discerning. 
(See for an eye-opening look at this unique community.)

It is in your interest to operate your e-marketing program according to best practices to avoid becoming a target. It’s always best to consult legal counsel or your e-mail marketing partner before launching a campaign. For detailed government guidelines visit

FYI, "Spam" is the tinned luncheon meat and a registered trademark of Hormel. The word for unsolicited e-mail is "spam," lower case S, which Hormel has grudgingly accepted as a generic term of the Internet age.

Because of the repetitive and annoying nature of unsolicited e-mail messages, legend has it the usage originated in the classic Monty Python sketch, set in a luncheonette with a curiously Spam-dominated menu. Customers and their waitress repeat (and sing) the word "Spam" ad nauseum.

Monday, November 30, 2009

On-track messaging

We get a lot of requests for the message critique. The old “take a look at our website/campaign/tagline/etc. and let us know how we can make it better” request.

After more than two decades in the advertising and marketing game, we keep seeing businesspeople making the same blunders in their messaging. It’s a study of human nature – evident in the fact that we see them in every industry we deal with. From trucking and logistics to microchips and software development – wherever there’s somebody out there trying to sell something, there is a good chance they are going about it the wrong way.

Some examples:

The “Ain’t We Great” Selling Proposition

The first borders on a pet peeve, because it’s probably the most common example of the advertising gaffe: the Ain't We Great syndrome. Time and time again, we see the brand of bloated, self-inflated content that gets approved by harried business executives too busy to see the whole selling landscape.

It’s understandable, yet largely ineffective. The average business manager is so focused on the task at hand, it’s often very difficult to take an elevated view. So they approve marketing content like this:

Everything about ABC Widgets is great. Everything we make is great. In fact we’re so great that we received a great award from the Council on Widget Greatness. Omigod, are we great, or what?

An exaggeration, but you get the idea. The problem: navel-gazing. The content is focused on the company doing the selling instead of the people that matter – the ones doing the buying.

There is a simple test for this but it’s often not so simple to administer honestly. Evaluate your marketing message, then ask “who cares?” If the only people you can honestly put in that category are you, the boss, the boss's boss and the board of directors, your message is targeting the wrong crowd.

The only people that matter are potential customers.

The boss, the boss’s boss and the board of directors do not need to be convinced. Chances are pretty good that they are already on your side. (Ya think?) So step one requires you to take a hard look at your message and rework it to target the buyer. This is the kind of message that sells:

Simply put, the ABC Widget will make your life easier. Because it will solve your biggest problem – the one that has been plaguing people like you for generations and continues to stand in your way, day after day*.

*You know. That problem. The one the best brains in your company have carefully and exhaustively researched … the one that is your very raison d’ĂȘtre – the reason you guys exist in the first place.

This is first acid test we recommend, time and time again. Get the focus off yourself, your company, your quirks. Turn the argument around and put the spotlight on your buyer. That’s where your marketing content needs to be.

©2009 Briarpatch Creative

Tale of Two Direct Mail Campaigns

Received two direct mail offers on the same day. One was from a well-known East Coast telephone company, the other from a national chain of bedroom, bathroom and kitchen stores.

The one from the phone company was a beautifully rendered, tastefully designed personal invitation. The stock of the envelope was of the finest quality. The font chosen for the address made it look somewhat less mass-produced than you would expect.

I knew it was from the phone company because they did not try to hide it – the logo was plain in the return address block. I normally toss mail like this, but this one was intriguing. The quality definitely scored on job one: saving the piece from the recycling bin.

So I opened the envelope. Score one for the phone company.

Inside was a top-fold card of exquisite stock and print quality, not unlike an engraved wedding invitation. The color on the front panel was rich and the message was embossed. It was an expensive piece.

So I opened the card. Score two for the phone company.

That’s when the trouble began. The gist was pretty clear. The phone company wanted me to “come home.” The mailer was sent to former customers whom had since switched to different carriers. And what incentive do you think they used to persuade me? A personalized note? A special offer set aside just for me, maybe? Guess again. It was the same hackneyed BS the phone company trots out everywhere else you look: “We have phones!” “We sell phone service!” “We are the phone company!”

Alert the media.

The piece offered absolutely nothing except tasteful design. Not even a free phone, for the love of Mike.

Score zero for the phone company.

Then I saw the bed and bath piece. It was an oversize postcard, no envelope, Nicely designed, great type treatment, but no embossing, foil stamping or linen, laid-finish 100 percent rag stock. It wasn’t even four color. Uncoated. Cheap. The message – “bring this card to the store and get 20 percent off any one item.” Period.

Guess where the phone company’s mailer ended up? You got it – the big dumpster in the sky. And the bed and bath piece? At the local franchise, where I hand carried it and cashed it in.

The real irony? At the moment, we’re not exactly enamored with our new phone company. There we were, ripe for the picking – a viable candidate to boomerang to the old carrier. But the phone company did nothing to reel us in. The obvious option would have been to pay the penalty our current company will charge for terminating the contract. It’s no secret that this is a big impediment to switching. Had they offered that – or something as appetizing – I probably would have made the call.

There’s a lesson here. When it comes to direct marketing, think long and hard about giving your prospect a compelling reason to take action. Don't get me wrong – as any of the designers I've worked with over the years will attest, I am a huge fan of good design and a vocal detractor of the sloppy.

But good design without the right message is like a bad movie with great special effects. When you're trying to close a sale, pretty pictures alone will never cut the mustard.

©2009 Briarpatch Creative

Vanity Bites

It’s that time of life. You pass 40 and all of sudden your arms aren’t long enough for reading. So they tell me.

I made it six years past 40 without a real issue. But after a contact lens prescription change, the printed word started getting fuzzy fast – and I found myself making mistakes at work.

Inconvenience I can deal with. Mistakes are a problem. So I wandered down to the local drugstore to try some reading glasses. I grabbed like, six pairs – one in each strength they stock, I think. They all stunk, one worse than the other.

Now what? If I can’t see to write, my livelihood is going to be in big trouble. (Maybe Starbucks is hiring.)

Let a professional handle it. Back to the eye doctor. He did a full “near point” exam. I even brought the laptop into the exam room to compare bits and bytes to ink on wood pulp.

Simple fix. I need weak readers, 1.0 strength. I told him about my drugstore experience – why did none of them work? He explained that drugstore readers are pretty crappy. They’re made in overseas sweatshops and not necessarily optical quality. Sometimes you get lucky, but it’s hit and miss.

Unwilling to part with $200 at his office for reading specs, I headed back to the drugstore armed with new information. This time I grabbed all the 1.0 pairs. He was right – no two were alike. Caveat emptor.

However, knowing my number I was able to find a pair that kind of works, for the most part.

Of course, the problem with modern-day readers is that they fuzz your far vision, because they are disguised as regular eyeglasses. Why? Baby boomers.

When we were kids and our parents grew old enough to need reading specs, they got those nifty little ‘half lenses’ that perch on the end of the nose. You look over them to see far, through them to see near. An elegant, time-worn, ergonomically correct design.

Try buying a pair of half lenses at the local drugstore. Forget it. Why? The baby boomers still think they’re 18. They’re completely unwilling to admit that they are just as old as their parents were when they started using reading glasses. They live in a fantasy world in which people born between 1946 and 1964 magically, miraculously do not age.

Specs that make you look like a librarian don’t fit with this particular twisted worldview. Have you seen the T-shirt? “I reject your reality and substitute my own?”

Oh well. So I can’t buy a decent pair of readers at the drug store. Neither could our parents – there was no such thing. They had to pony up the dough at the eye doctor. Maybe I should quit complaining.

But I’m not old, I’m a baby boomer! I want it both ways! I deserve it! Besides, I am only 18! Why should I need reading glasses at all?!

This is my reality. The blind leading the vain leading the idealistic.

-Sal, Head Word Guy�

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Cutting the cable - sort of

Talked about doing it for decades. Threatened to do it for years. Today I did it; goodbye, cable.

I would have dumped it completely but high-speed Internet is catnip for freelance writers. I don’t think I could work without it, even if I were writing nothing but fiction.

The "sort of" bit: internet only, no TV is $69 a month. Broadcast TV and Internet is $55 a month. So we are officially one of the very few households in Comcast’s subscriber base with the most basic of basic cable. And it will save us over $600 a year. It will be like the old days, six channels and not a damn thing to watch.

The financial benefit was not the motivation. I was fed up with paying for bad TV. I mean, TV has always been bad, but it was less aggravating when you didn’t get a bill for it every month.

Cable news stinks on ice. Everyone on “Morning Joe” should be placed in solitary confinement until further notice. The plasticized alien zombies on CNN should all come out of the closet and admit what they really are: beauty pageant judges. And the Fox flywheels should be assembled into an ad-hoc anti-terror unit and shipped to Afghanistan without rifles, bullet-proof vests or cameras.

Cable comedy is base and offensive. There’s no M on MTV. All the chefs have left the Food Network. The “History” Channel has gone from 24/7 Hitler to 24/7 UFO whackos. “Mythbusters” jumped the shark two seasons ago. Hate it all (almost.)

I am a complete geek so I will miss a few things, like the Weather Channel, “How It’s Made” on Discovery – possibly the most boring show on TV – and “Modern Marvels” on History, possibly the best thing on TV, bar none.

But that’s a small price to pay for the enjoyment of getting $600 to have the screaming cable pundits put a sock in it.