What is email marketing?

Email marketing is, as the name suggests, the use of email in marketing communications.

What sort of email?

In its broadest sense, the term covers every email you ever send to a customer, potential customer or public venue. In general, though, it's used to refer to:

Give me an analogy...

You can think of these three main forms of email marketing as the electronic equivalent of:

There is, however, one extremely important difference - the issue of permission (see later).

Why is email marketing so popular?

Email marketing is so popular because:

For more information, see the article Why do email marketing?.

Let's briefly review the three types of email marketing:

1. Direct email

Direct email involves sending a promotional message in the form of an email. It might be an announcement of a special offer, for example. Just as you might have a list of customer or prospect postal addresses to send your promotions too, so you can collect a list of customer or prospect email addresses.

You can also rent lists of email addresses from service companies. They'll let you send your message to their own address lists. These services can usually let you target your message according to, for example, the interests or geographical location of the owners of the email address.

2. Retention email

Instead of promotional email designed only to encourage the recipient to take action (buy something, sign-up for something, etc.), you might send out retention emails.

These usually take the form of regular emails known as newsletters. A newsletter may carry promotional messages or advertisements, but will aim at developing a long-term impact on the readers. It should provide the readers with value, which means more than just sales messages. It should contain information which informs, entertains or otherwise benefits the readers.

3. Advertising in other people's emails

Instead of producing your own newsletter, you can find newsletters published by others and pay them to put your advertisement in the emails they send their subscribers. Indeed, there are many email newsletters that are created for just this purpose - to sell advertising space to others.

Where's the catch?

This all sounds great of course. Imagine how much cheaper it is to send a message to thousands of email addresses, rather than thousands of postal addresses!

It's not that simple, unfortunately. Quite apart from the complexities of designing and delivering email messages to the right people, getting them to actually read and respond to your message, and measuring and analysing the results, there is the issue of permission.

What's "permission"?

Responsible email marketing is based on the idea of permission. This is a complex issue and the subject of intense debate in the marketing community.

Essentially, you need an email address owner's permission before you can send them a commercial email. If you don't have this permission, then the recipients of your mail may well regard your message as spam; unsolicited commercial (bulk) email.

You do not want to send spam!

If you are accused of sending spam, then you may find your email accounts closed down, your website shut off, and your reputation in tatters. In some parts of the world, you may even be breaking the law.

Quite apart from these practical considerations, there is also a strong argument which says that long-term successful email marketing relationships with customers and others can only work anyway if they're permission based.

The big question, of course, is what constitutes permission...and that is the main subject of debate. It's important to remember that it's not your views, or even the views of the majority, that count, but the views of those receiving your emails and those responsible for administering the infrastructure of the Internet.

An example of permission is when your customer buys something from your online store and also ticks a box marked "please send me news about product updates via email". You now have "permission" to send that person product updates by email, provided you also give them the opportunity to rescind that permission at any time.

Educate yourself

It's important to stress that anyone considering email marketing must read up on the subject of permission and spam. If you don't understand the importance of permission and the risks of ignoring it, then you could be heading for commercial disaster.

Don't panic, though. It's actually relatively easy to ensure that the address lists you use or build yourself are permission-based.

OK, now that you're armed with some brief background information, browse the rest of this site to find the resources you need to develop a better understanding of how email marketing can work for you and your (potential) customers. Or to speed things up, try some of these email marketing books.