Basic Bulk Email

People seemed interested in my recent post about basic password handling so I thought I’d write another similar post. This time we’ll look at another example of basic customer interaction that so many people get wrong – sending bulk email.

Note that I’m not a lawyer, so this doesn’t cover any of the legal stuff about getting people’s permission to contact them or registering with the Data Protection Register because you’re storing people’s personal details. This is about purely technical issues that should be simple to get right.

As always, I’m interested in any comments you might have.

Rule 1: Send text versions

I’m going to get drummed out of the geek club for saying this, but I’m not going to tell you not to send HTML email. I don’t like HTML email. I don’t read HTML email that doesn’t have a plain text version attached. But I know a lost cause when I see one. Companies are never going to stop sending HTML email and I’m not going to waste my breath explaining why they should.

I am, however, going to recommend that you don’t send pure HTML email. You should always send a plain text version of the email alongside the HTML version. A very small percentage of the people you are emailing deliberately won’t read HTML email. But a larger proportion will occasionally want to read your message using a device (maybe a mobile phone) that doesn’t support HTML email. You’ll be making their life easier by sending both versions.

And notice that you need to send both versions every time. Asking customers whether they want to recieve messages in HTML or plain text is just stupid. It makes your life harder and it doesn’t help your customer who has asked for HTML email but needs to access your mail on a device that doesn’t support it.

Obviously, the best approach would be for the text version to contain the same content as the HTML version. But perhaps you have good reasons why you only want people to see your message in the full colour HTML version. In that case you should still attach a text version. It should contain information on who you are, how the customer can unsubscribe from your mailing list and, if at all possible, a link to a copy of the email on your web site. It certainly shouldn’t contain a rude order to “upgrade your email program” or the pointless information that “you can’t read the content of this message”. Just last week I got an email from a large online shop where the text attachment consisted of the words “text content”. Content like this just makes you look unprofessional.

Rule 2: Say who you are sending it to

I have a number of email addresses that I use for different purposes. I’m sure I’m not unique in that respect. So when I get bulk email it’s very helpful if the message tells me which email address it was sent to. This is particularly useful if I want to unsubscribe from your mailing list and your unsubscribe page prompts me for the address that I want to unsubscribe.

Also, by including the email and real name (if you have it) of the person you are contacting, your email is less likely to look like a phishing attack. This is the approach taken by companies like Ebay.

Rule 3: Send it from a real address

It’s incredibly rude to send an email from an email address that won’t accept replies. Sure, I know that you don’t want to expose email addresses to potential spammers. But these are your (potential) customers. You need to trust them. And anyway you should have good spam protection installed.

There are two good ideas for addresses to send bulk email from. The first is to have it come from an unsubscribe address. That way, someone can unsubscribe from your mailing list simply by replying to the email. The second is to have it come from a customer service address where replies will be read by a real person who can deal with any queries that the recipients of the mail might have. It’s probably not a good idea to have it coming from a real person’s address as that can make it look a bit like spam.

Either of these are a good idea, but it’s important to make it clear which one you are using. You don’t want customers’ queries going to an unsubscribe address!

Rule 4: Make it easy to unsubscribe

Much as you might hate it, occasionally people will want to unsubscribe from your mailing list. And you should make that as easy as possible. You should always either send the email from an unsubscribe address (see above) or put clear unsubscribe instructions in the email (and in the text version).

And you should respect unsubscribe requests immediately. I still get email which confirms I’ve been unsubscribed from a mailing list but adds that it might still be mail for the next few days. That is unacceptable. If your software doesn’t honour unsubscription requests immediately, then you need to upgrade your software.

Four simple rules that should be well within the technical capabilities of any bulk email application. If yours doesn’t follow all of these rules then you should consider changing to one that does. If you don’t then you run the risk of needlessly annoying your customers and potential customers.

(Thanks to Chris Heathcote for some suggestions)

Update: Here’s a good example of how not to do it. I recently ordered something from HMV’s web site. The products went missing in the post and I’ve been in touch with them to get either a replacement or a refund. Every single email I’ve got from them – the order confirmation, the shipping confirmation and the messages from their customer support department – had a text portion that consisted of the text “textContent”. None of the messages needed to be in HTML. Having them in HTML added nothing to the content. They all just contained text. Not even a logo. I can only assume that whoever set up HMV’s customer support email system was a complete idiot.

I’m going back to shopping at Amazon.

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