Dear Digit: How can I send professional-looking emails without breaking the bank?

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“Dear Digit, I keep receiving professional-looking email newsletters, updates, and offers, and would love to send emails that look that great. But, I’m not a designer or a computer programmer, and I don’t have the budget to hire one. Is there anything I can do?” 

Most likely, the emails you receive that look fabulously designed are created on Email Service Provider (ESP) platforms such as Constant Contact and MailChimp. Systems like these offer a host of benefits while still being budget-friendly.

For those of us working in the arts world, one of the primary attractions is the suite of professionally designed templates which you can customize and adapt to suit. You can also set up different mailing lists, or divide mailing lists into subcategories based on the specific topics in which people are interested.

For example, when a new subscriber signs up, they could select from four options: a) using art in the classroom; b) art & science; c) classes & workshops; d) all the above. Then, when you send an email about your upcoming workshops, you would send only to the subscriber lists associated with the last two options. When people receive information they are personally interested in, they are more likely to engage and remain subscribers.

Although not terribly glamorous, the principle reason to use an ESP is to ensure you comply with anti-spam regulations.

Whether you are an individual, business, or organization, doing so is essential if you send mass emails. Most importantly, if you send emails that could be considered commercial, you are legally obligated to ensure your emails follow key requirements. A commercial email could be a request to donate money, an offer to purchase artwork, or a discount for your next photography workshop, etc. Even if you only send informational emails, you might include affiliate links, such as to books you recommend on Amazon.com.

The simplest approach, whether you send commercial emails or just friendly updates, is to follow the best practices for commercial emails. Period.

In many countries, legislation requires that you include the following in every email:

  • a complete mailing address,
  • the complete name of an individual human contact person (not just your business name),
  • and a one-click link to unsubscribe from future emails.

Of course, you should only email people who have provided permission to be contacted, and you should also provide a one- or two-sentence explanation of how subscribers wound up on your list.

Depending on where you send emails from, and where the recipients are, you may need to familiarize yourself with the nuances of legislation in the U.S., Canada, and/or elsewhere. Failure to comply with these rules can be astoundingly costly, as fees can be assessed based on instances of noncompliance per day.

This all sounds daunting and it would be tempting to either ignore it or just stop sending emails.

But, there’s no need to bail on an effective means of outreach and marketing – emailing directly to people who are interested.

You just need to be smart about how you send emails; ESPs are programmed to ensure you comply. For example, when you set up an account with MailChimp (MC), you are required to include contact information. That contact information is then automatically placed in the footer of every email you send from MC. So, you don’t even have to think about it.

Though I am not a rep, and am not otherwise associated with MC, I prefer their system, use it myself, and encourage others to explore what MC offers. Here are a few reasons why I like it.

  1. MC is the most user-friendly platform I’ve used; even those with little design experience can navigate it fairly intuitively.
  2. Even better, it is free for mailing lists with less than 5,000 email addresses. MC offers professional-quality templates which you can adapt, along with the flexibility to create your own if you have advanced coding skills.
  3. The system is accessible online, so you can plan and send emails from your couch, your office, or even while on vacation.
  4. You can schedule your emails to send whenever you want. If you send a newsletter on the 30th each month, and make time to prepare it mid-month, you can set the date and time, and it will automatically distribute while you’re busy doing other things.
  5. MC also provides a lot of useful data regarding things like who read (or didn’t) your emails, what links they clicked on, etc. Over time, this information can help you track what kind of content is most interesting and valuable to your readers.

Bottom line:

You can comply with anti-spam regulations, and look good doing it, by sending your outreach and marketing emails through an ESP system.

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Dear Digit is a  “question-and-answer” column that provides resources, ideas and tips to address digital communications questions from an arts perspective.  I write this column for State of the Arts, a bimonthly newspaper published by the Montana Arts Council.

Although the column emphasizes artsy digital communications, the topics we address are widely relevant, with application for communication in science, education, sustainability and many other sectors.

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