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Email Marketing: Part Art, Part Science
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By Carl Weinschenk

Of course, there is great value in deeply understanding a topic. As a journalist, there also are surprising benefits in not knowing something—if you harness that ignorance creatively.

That sounds flippant, but it isn’t. Before coming to SmartBiz, I knew little about email marketing. I'm picking it up as I go along, but I'm definitely still in the learning stage. That's okay, because it enables me to look at the topic through the eyes of a business person whose main interests lie elsewhere.

A few weeks ago, ExactTarget released a study that said open rates declined 16.5 percent last year. That seems fairly alarming. The number of people opening messages may not actually be declining, however. The problem is that antispam software is asking for permission to download HTML images. The code that tracks open rates is embedded in the images. If the receiver declines, there is no way to measure whether or not the email has been opened.

The good news, however, is that the percentage of people who click on a link in emails that do get reported as being opened has remained steady.

I'm for anything that slows down spam, regardless of what it does to email statistics. It's likely that the experts will find a way to track open rates without relying on the HTML images. The point is, however, that this is a confusing field that seems be changing on a rapid basis.

This all begs the bigger point of whether a company—particularly a small business unlikely to have a lot of email expertise on staff—should take the risk of doing their own email marketing. Morgan Stewart, ExactTarget's director of strategic services, thinks that it is possible for neophytes to handle the creative element. However, he advises that the technical end is better left to the pros.

I agree with Stewart, though I may be more inclined to bring in the pros. There is a tremendous gray area between the technical and the creative and, in reality, it seems impossible to effectively separate the two. The HTML situation is a good example of this: Use of an image would seem to be a purely creative decision—but only an expert would be aware of the tracking problem.

Another example is subject lines. Whether to use a generic or specific subject line is both a creative and technical issue—and a wrong step can kill an email blast. There are many other issues that straddle the technical/creative border.

The good news, according to Stewart, is that email marketing—despite the challenges—is getting better. People are becoming ever-more comfortable with using the Internet to research and ultimately purchase goods and services. That makes email an ever-more important marketing tool. At the same time, email marketers are perfecting their craft. "We're getting better at it, frankly," Stewart says.

Carl Weinschenk is the Editorial Director of SmartBiz.
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