Buyer's Guide … the one with the Encyclopedia!


Direct Mail, E-mail Blasts and Newsletters
for the Marketing of Photonics and Laser Products

Obviously, it is possible to obtain traffic to your website and consequently to generate leads by sending out letters and e-mails, especially if those contain links to your website – and in addition you manage to motivate readers to (a) read the mails, (b) visit your web site, and (c) contact you with their application.

There are reasonable chances of success for those letters and e-mails which you personally address to a contact person with a good content and style. Ideally, the other person already expected your message, trusts you and is interested in its content. For mass mailings, however, such conditions are hard to fulfill:

  • It is particularly hard to get in contact with people who do not already know you or not even your company. “Cold calling” is notoriously difficult, and particularly so via e-mail.
  • You may write an interesting story with a good style, but it is difficult to make people feel that they are personally addressed.
  • We all get too many mass mailings and are therefore keen to get those mails out of our way as quickly as possible.

By the way, you may also be interested in my more general article on photonics marketing.

E-mail Blasts to Collected Addresses
Creating Your Own Newsletter
Publishers' Newsletters
Losses in Spam Filters
RSS as an Alternative Distribution Channel
Regular Mail
Call to Action and Advertising Landing Pages

E-mail Blasts to Collected Addresses

It can be useful to send short messages directly to your existing and potential customers to introduce a new product, promotion, exhibition you are attending, technology, or application.

For small numbers of personal mails, you would simply use your e-mail program, but obviously that approach is impractical for large numbers. One may then use some e-mail service such as Constant Contact or Mail Chimp, which offer a number of interesting features at quite moderate cost:

  • They help to establish a system where people can subscribe in a legally safe way (concerning privacy laws etc., which vary for each country).
  • They also make it easy for your customers to unsubscribe from promotional mails – instead of blocking your e-mail address on their server (which is definitely worse).
  • They provide useful metrics for each mailing, such as how many e-mails you sent, how many bounced (invalid email address, person no longer works there, etc.), how many recipients opened your mail, how many clicked through to your advertising landing page, etc. This allows you to compare e-mail campaigns over time, so that you better understand which topics are resonating best with your customers.

A major challenge is to build up a significant address pool for such mass mailings. You should respect privacy regulations not only to avoid legal problems, but also in order not to disturb the addressed people. (You may think that it cannot hurt, since they will just unsubscribe, but I think many people just regularly delete such mails and mentally register the sender as a source of disturbing stuff.) Certainly, it is not a good idea to put everyone on such a mailing list whom you have ever talked to, e.g. after receiving an inquiry about your products. But if you avoid such practices, it may take a long to build up a substantial address pool.

To reach a broader audience, companies sometimes use the method of list rental. This means that they let a publisher spread their message to numerous people in the publisher's database. The challenge to acquire a sufficiently large number of people who are willing to accept such messages is then with the publisher. Note, however, that you may also risk your own reputation when working with a publisher who ignores privacy regulations when collecting the addresses.

In any case, it is of great importance to produce high-quality content for such mailings. Note that it may take only a single bad mailing to lose many subscribers, who then won't get your messages for a long time to come.

Creating Your Own Newsletter

Newsletters are like short newspapers that are sent periodically. They provide value, e.g. by keeping customers up to date with what is going on in the industry and with your company and products.

You can absolutely publish your newsletter yourself. It is not about saving cost; actually, you have to do quite some work then – not only setting up a system for that, but also regularly writing engaging content. However, you then have full control over your content, you can tailor the content to the advertising message (making it much more likely to be effective), and of course, you don't have ads from others around. You will probably never collect as many addresses for such mailings as you can have when just paying for a large newsletter mailing of a publisher elsewhere (see below), but on the other hand, you can have much better quality.

Making your own newsletter may absolutely make sense – but only if you do it well. An essential condition for the success of a newsletter is that you can continuously produce high-quality content. Although it can be fun if you have good ideas for new topics, it can be quite a burden if you are supposed to write a new issue without having a good idea. In case of doubt, better wait a little longer with the next mailing. Nobody will complain if it takes longer, but people will unsubscribe or just start ignoring your mails if they get boring or even annoying.

To keep your newsletter interesting, it is a good idea not just to promote your products. (Who enjoys regularly reading messages like “We have the best product”?) Presenting interesting information, e.g. about industry trends, new technologies, applications, etc. can make your newsletter a lot more attractive. Depending on your type of newsletter, Google Alerts and can provide you with a constant stream of ideas for interesting new content, based on the search phrases you select. But you can also maintain a list where you always write down ideas for new issues when you encounter some. It often happens to me that I come across such ideas when doing technical work for somebody or when I am asked certain things.

Of course, you can use the newsletter content again to build up useful content on your website (if your outbound marketing is of high quality, as it should be). As an example, see a substantial number of articles which RP Photonics has built up over the years for its own newsletters, the Photonics Spotlight and the RP Photonics Software News. While most newsletter mailings have long been forgotten, the articles remain, and they continue to attract substantial traffic, e.g. through the search engines. You might think that this effect is marginal, given that there is already so much other content on the website, but the newsletter articles can cover a wider range of topics and therefore increase the overall “cross-section” of the website. Further, our articles often link to encyclopedia articles and other pages, thus also sending some traffic there.

I have also discovered that certain interesting topics are suitable only for the newsletters, but not for my encyclopedia. You may make similar experience in your company.

RP Photonics newsletters are special in the sense that, although they of course also serve some marketing purpose, they are particularly far from the model of the typical advertising newsletter. We do not use them to distribute any third-party advertisements, and I author the articles such that there is only a minimum amount of self-advertising – just following our general principle that usefulness for the readers is the key to success.

So, you may take this as an example for how one can gain a growing audience. However, it takes a long breath. You can imagine how much work it was to or for so many high-quality articles, and on the other hand, it is not clear how many software sales, for example, were achieved in that way. With the mentioned effect of articles staying on the website, however, I think it is probably still worth the efforts. It also strengthens our image to be helpful.

Publishers' Newsletters

The big publishers maintain enormously large databases of photonics professionals, whom they can reach e.g. with newsletters. The general idea is that they try to present interesting content (always risking that people will unsubscribe if they get annoyed), and then add advertising elements for which they can charge.

For the advertiser, the handling is relatively simple. Essentially, you just have to send them your materials, and they will send it out to some large audience – the subscribers of a certain newsletter.

However, it is rather difficult to make such things work effectively:

  • The audience is very diverse, and it is very hard to attract their attention with one message going to everyone.
  • Even if you manage to get them to read the actual text, it is usually not very plausible that the added advertising content will be seriously noticed (perhaps doing some branding) or even motivate people to click on them so that they visit some advertiser's website.

Note: the fact that such newsletters have many subscribers does not tell us much. Think about yourself: to how many newsletters are you still subscribed without ever reading them? I also wonder how many newsletter mails get stuck in spam filters (see below). Further, would you carefully look through multiple ads in such a mail? I think that the best you can hope for is probably just that they notice your company logo, and that you can support your branding a little bit.

By the way, some publishers have a big problem with their newsletter database: they did not get the properly informed consent of users according to data privacy regulations (e.g. the European General Data Protection Regulation). It can be quite difficult to get that consent later on, as they are not even allowed to send a mail to ask for that consent!

My opinion is that although it may at first glance look exciting that you can contact many thousand people at a moderate cost and with little work involved, there is probably not much value to be expected. Of course, it all depends on the quality of the publication, but what I have seen so far has never really convinced me. There are most likely economic reasons behind that: publishers cannot afford to invest heavily into creating excellent content and often just try to recycle some materials which they produced for other purposes. For example, they send around business news which already appeared on their website (perhaps even paid by their sources) but are presumably not that interesting for most people.

There are also schemes where you can select certain individuals from their database based on some criteria, trying to target those who can be expected to well respond to your message; you can then also craft the message itself. This is much better, although it means more work for you and is more costly. A carefully designed campaign of this type may be worthwhile.

Losses in Spam Filters

Everybody is annoyed about the fact that the huge majority of e-mails are absolutely unwanted mails, carrying unauthorized and unwanted advertising or even malware, with which criminals try to hack your computer to abuse it for various purposes such as the distribution of further e-mail spam, denial-of-service attacks, phishing fraud etc. Therefore, we all have to use strict spam filters, with which we try to get rid of most of the unwanted mails. Unfortunately, the used filters also eliminate some amount of legitimate mails, including newsletters which the recipients have actively subscribed to.

It takes some significant expertise to optimize both the newsletter messages and the technical details of their delivery such that the probability of being filtered out as spam is minimized. In principle, it would help a lot if the recipients would put the sender address (or the whole domain) onto a white list of the email system, but it is not realistic to expect that many of them will do that.

Under those circumstances, a substantial fraction of newsletter mails will be lost, and unfortunately there is not that much you can do against that. Therefore, you may be looking out for alternative distribution channels:

RSS as an Alternative Distribution Channel

Newsletters are often sent out per e-mail, but we have experienced that this approach has severe disadvantages, particularly the big losses in spam filters.

As an alternative approach, one could in principle hope that people regularly attend web pages where they have a chance to regularly find interesting articles. So, you would simply have to publish your newsletter articles on your website, and the readers would come themselves. That is quite unrealistic, however, unless they have a tool which systematically shows them on which of those websites there are new articles. This is where the idea of RSS kicks in.

The principle of RSS is that content providers (e.g. providers of regularly appearing newsletter articles) provide some RSS feeds in addition to the articles themselves. Users can subscribe to such channels, which essentially means that they import RSS feeds of the wanted publications into some RSS reader software – for example, some common e-mail programs like Thunderbird can serve that purpose, and there are also mobile apps, e.g. for use on tablet computers. The users can then occasionally start they are RSS reader, and it will present them the latest articles. That method is far more convenient for users than searching for new articles on the original websites:

  • They can simply start a single application instead of manually opening a series of websites.
  • Already read articles usually disappear from the displayed list. Also, after one has looked through the list of new articles and looked at those which are interesting enough, one can let the reader software make all of them disappear. Therefore, it becomes much easier to identify what one has not seen already.

Personally, I regularly use an RSS reader on my tablet to scan for new content on various sites. Besides, I offer RSS feeds for the RP Photonics newsletters.

Unfortunately, the method of RSS has not really taken off, although it is really quite convenient. Many people seem not to know that and therefore not use it. Maybe that is also due to one disadvantage: you create one more place to regularly look at, and it may not get into your routine. From that viewpoint, an e-mail inbox, which one has to look at anyway, is more convenient.

Regular Mail

Even older than RSS feeds is direct mail – paper letters sent to customers by regular mail. The content would typically be similar to that in an e-mail blast, but in addition to the cost of content generation, direct mail causes some cost for printing and mailing the letter.

Direct mail has a couple of interesting advantages:

  • It is (or should be!) more personal. A hand signed letter from a CEO or VP, addressed specifically to you, seems more personal than an e-mail blast or newsletter.
  • There is less saturation – professionals are exposed to huge numbers of online advertising images and banner ads per day and usually receive 50 to 150 emails per day, while getting only a few letters on paper.

Therefore, a letter is far more likely to get through to a key decision maker, to be opened and possibly cause an action.

A disadvantage of direct mail is that you cannot embed hyperlinks to your web site. To learn more, customers need to type in your URL, so keep it simple, like

Call to Action and Advertising Landing Pages

Whichever direct marketing channel you choose, it is vital to your success that you are clear on what you expect the customer to do after reading your message. Otherwise, no concrete action may follow, and your message will probably remain without any concrete effect. Make clear the benefit of contacting you and make it easy for them to do so. Make sure that every incoming contact gets a warm reception or reply from you.

Direct marketing leads are special because the respondents are so well filtered. After all, unlike print advertising or search advertising, you selected whom you wanted to speak with in advance. Responses from direct marketing are the most valuable ones you will receive. If the customer is not yet ready to engage with your salesperson, but is interested enough to read further, directing ad respondents to a compelling landing page can help convert them to sales leads. As mentioned, you know who will be visiting this page, and you have a pretty good idea of what problem they are trying to solve. A dedicated landing page created just for respondents to that specific mailing can rapidly provide the customer with the short version of your pitch – what solution you are offering and why you are better. Your conversion rate of website visitors to sales leads for a compelling landing page can be several times higher than just sending them to your home page, and hoping they get what they are looking for there.

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