Web Informant #151, 15 April 1999:
How to spam your friends


I never thought that this labor of love called Web Informant would turn into a Publication. When I started it in 1995, the goal was to drive traffic to my web site and keep my clients up to date on my activities. Little did I realize what a useful marketing tool WI would turn into or how much fun I would have writing to you every week (or so). Now I have a bona-fide ISSN number (issued by the Library of Congress for serial publications), along with a trademark on the name. People are even asking for my editorial calendar. Who would have thought.

In the three and half years of writing these missives, I've used a wide variety of home-grown and commercial technologies to distribute these essays. I began with a perl script written by Bryan Taylor that would take the minimally encoded HTML text and send it out to my list. I used this system for about a year to deliver the first 43 or so issues. Back then, I was a bit ahead of the curve on HTML-email.

Over time, I went through a few different technologies:

That's where things stood for a while: one list, maintained by me in Approach driven by Cold Fusion. A second list maintained by Revnet, both getting the same plain text document to send via email. For both Groupmaster and Cold Fusion, I would fill out a series of web forms and cut and paste the text from my word processor into the browser forms. A third production stream was the HTML file that got posted to my site as an archive. It was getting a bit tedious, especially as my list grew it was getting more and more time consuming to deal with bounces and auto-replies.

That is when I began to shop around for a new distribution system. Before long I was deep into a Technology Evaluation Project, testing three different service providers: Exactis.com, MessageMedia.com, and eGroups.com. The first two have custom-designed browser-based publishing systems that they run for clients with much larger mail volume than I. eGroups is a free service that does more than list processing: you can set up common calendars and discussion groups.

I haven't yet decided which of the three services I will end up using for my list, but I have come up with a series of questions you might want to ask any email publishing vendor if you are planning on spamming your friends with your own emails:

  1. Understand the nature of their services. Do you send something to an "exploder" email address that automatically sends the message out to your list? Do you cut and paste to a web form?
  2. How do you control the formatting and look of your messages? Some services truncate lines after X many characters, playing havoc with your own line feeds, while others ignore line feeds entirely. I would test this feature with some care, including a mixture of AOL, telnet/pine email clients and newer email software versions to make sure that your messages look the way your intend them to.
  3. Does the service have a subscribe-to and unsubscribe-to email address? How about doing both via a web page or form that you post on your site? Does the service send out a List- Sub and List-Unsub in its message header?
  4. What are the biggest and smallest lists serviced by the provider? Ideally, you'd like to be somewhere in between.
  5. What kinds of reports are available, and do they tell you things like the number of subscriptions, when the mail was sent out, which messages bounced or had errors, and so forth. Try to get a look at the reporting interface before you commit to the service.
  6. Can you sub/unsub anyone yourself (as list owner) and what is the process?
  7. Do you as list owner receive any notification of bounced or error messages?
  8. Some providers, like Exactis, schedule the mail to be sent later in the day at a specific time. This can be good if you regret sending out your mail and have time to change it, or bad if you are impatient and want things delivered the moment you are finished with things. Others send them out immediately when you finish posting the information.
  9. What other services are available: can members of the list post messages to the list (ala listservs), view the membership roster themselves, participate in group discussions, and so forth. These may not be important to you now but could be useful later on.

Stay tuned as I continue my evaluation and you'll find out which service I will end up with.


So now I have a project. Here are the services that I am evaluating:
Free services. These have their limitations, such as including several lines of advetisements (usually for the service provider themselves) and limits on the kinds of reports that are available. Nevertheless, if you have a small list and low expectations, they might be useful to try out.

Minimal fee providers. These folks have better reports, allow you to upload an existing list into their system, and some other features.

Professional service providers. These guys deal with millions of email per day and have a customized interface to send out your messages. They will cost more than $30 a month, though.

I have recorded some screen shots of each service (using a great product called Catch the Web). It is a 400k Windows .EXE (virus free) that you can download and play back the sites offline and see the interfaces and my comments for yourself. Demo here.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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