Peer-to-Peer: How can I market online and avoid looking like a spammer?

Written by ProfitGuide Staff


“I own a medium-sized toiletry company. Traditionally we’ve stuck to manufacturing and wholesaling, but we’re now flirting with the idea of retailing as well. Regardless, I suspect I can improve business in a big way through e-mail marketing, but I’m afraid I’ll look like a spammer, and we definitely don’t want to get lumped in with the porn pitchmen and scamsters. Can anyone offer up advice on how to make e-mail marketing work well? Your hints, tips and successful approaches will be much appreciated.”

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Reader responses

Carolyn Gardner, cardcommunications inc., Kanata, Ont.
Concerned about being mistaken as spam? Here are the 12 fundamentals of e-marketing best practices.

  • Ensure you are sending your e-mails to a permission-based list. Don’t assume you have permission — ask for it! Once you get permission, don’t ever take it for granted. Ipsos-Reid reports that of those who join e-mail lists, 77% eventually unsubscribe because information is not of interest or is sent too frequently.
  • Be cautious of third-party lists that you can buy or rent. If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. Work to build your own permission-based list by encouraging your target audience to sign up for your e-mail communications (i.e. an e-newsletter) at every opportunity. Include the option to “subscribe now” in your e-mails, on your website, at trade shows, on invoices, in advertisements…everywhere!
  • Have a strict privacy policy with respect to the use of your growing house list. In a recent study conducted by integrated e-mail agency Quris, 74% of those surveyed were suspicious that companies were sharing their personal e-mail contact information. The bottom line is that you should never sell or rent your house list to anyone. Never. Make sure your privacy policy is both written clearly and easy to find in your e-newsletter.
  • Develop a content formula that works for you and your readers. Some tried-and-true ingredients for e-newsletters include expertise, tips, case studies, success stories, industry news, Q&A’s, industry statistics, industry trends, how-to articles, did-you-knows, short surveys and contributed articles by experts (either inside or outside your company). You can even include special offers, provided that they do not ring too harshly of a selling nature. Given today’s cluttered inboxes, it’s a good idea to keep them short and interesting. Not sure what to include in your e-newsletter? Do a quick survey using your database, and ask for feedback!
  • Determine an appropriate frequency for your e-mail communications. Monthlies are usually a safe bet, but there’s always the option to do less (quarterly) or more (weekly). Another major complaint, according to Quris, is that permission-based e-mail is sent too frequently. Ask your readers what kind of frequency appeals to them; this might also be a good question to include in your survey.
  • Understand your reader preferences and send your e-mails in all popular formats — text, HTML and AOL-friendly versions. Multi-format deployment is important since it respects all reader preferences.
  • Avoid sending emails with attachments and large files. Today’s very real fear of viruses means that many people simply don’t open emails with an attachment. And a second fear relates to “crashing” — a reality that is associated with large files. If you have an attachment you would like to share with your readers, have it posted on a web page, and make it a trackable link from your e-newsletter.
  • Because readers can be fickle when it comes to e-mail loyalty, ensure you continually measure and refine your e-mail communications. Monitor click-throughs, open rates, opt-outs, bounce rates and so on, and then respond accordingly. If no one ever clicks on a certain topic, maybe it’s time to pull that topic and find a new one. Keeping a watch on open rates and unsubscribe requests is also an important metric to watch for.
  • Personalize your e-mails by using first names and other personal information that may be relevant to the recipient. This improves response rates, so use it whenever possible.
  • Use enticing subject lines that will make readers want to open your e-mail. To avoid looking like spam, eschew words like “FREE” and “URGENT”.
  • Include a real person’s name and e-mail address in the “From” line, rather than an “info@” or sales@type of e-mail. Using your company name adds legitimacy and builds your brand.
  • Always include an option to unsubscribe and respect those who wish to do so. According to Quris, being unable to unsubscribe ranks as one of the biggest complaints with permission-based email. Make the process easy, and ensure you follow through on these requests.

Andrea Levy, Great Glasses, Hamilton, ON

To me, this is a public relations issue. It is all in the spin, and how the spin is handled.

Sending out a newsletter to clients with relevent information about your field of expertise is a great idea. Sending a newsletter regularly, but not too frequently is essential, so that it feels like a service rather than an advertisement. Giving a person good information that they can use is a gift rather than an imposition.

I have heard it said that the main difference between a flower and a weed is good PR. It seems to me that the difference between spam and good communication with customers is PR too. Advertising is not credible or effective in this context, but solving your client’s problem by giving them good information to make the decision to buy your product or service is very effective.

It is the same as direct mail in the sense that if you send advertising via mail, most of it gets sent to the trash having been given a cursory look, if that. Why not just put the postage money right in the trash? Save the mailman some trouble, and give the mailman a break. Put something in that letter that a person will take notice of and keep, for example a business card-sized gift certificate (intended to be kept in their wallets), or a fridge magnet. Give your customer something that will remind them of you so that they remember you when they want to buy.

Same with using email marketing. Give them something to remember. Give them information they can use and make it interesting enough that they will remember where they heard it after it hits the delete file.

Alexandria K. Brown,

One of the most proven ways to best market via e-mail is by publishing an e-zine, or e-mail newsletter. Most any company can develop one and grow their opt-in list.

Publishing an e-zine can help you:

  • sell tons more products and services
  • establish yourself as an expert / resource in your field
  • effortlessly spread the word about your business
  • create new revenue streams via ads and affiliate programs.

The most challenging parts are:

  • Generating content that your readers will find useful. Articles, tips, news, promotions … consider what your readers (prospective customers) would most like to hear about.
  • Starting and growing your opt-in list. Begin with an invitation to all your current contacts, then also capture signups at your Web site, through company events, new customer signups, etc.

If you’d like more step-by-step help, I have many free resources at, including how-to articles and teleclasses.

Jack Bradley, MSM & Associates Consulting Inc., Bolton, ON

In response to your question posed on Email Marketing it is often difficult in today’s day and age not to be seen as “spamming” if you are sending out e-flyers or emails on your business offerings.

I might suggest some of the following from some experiences we’ve had (not an all-inclusive list):

  • Catch the attention of the reader in the subject line as it is your only chance they might read further and is the most critical aspect of the email … such as “Transportation Savings Opportunity”.
  • Target your audience carefully and try to obtain the right contact to send the email to.
  • Make your email presentation (body of the message) short and to the point.
  • Try to allow sufficient ability in the context of your email to make it more “personal” and less a “canned / generic” message.
  • Enhance your ability to gain follow up by including a link for more detail to your web site. Ensure your web site is current and easy to navigate to obtain more information. Nobody likes to visit a web site not updated since 1998.
  • Look for associations to “broadcast” your business such as “member profiles” through the local Chamber of Commerce or Board of Trade. Good way to let people know about your business and create a link to your site and email contact without having to email them directly.
  • Look to the email as a way of getting your information in print to many, in a quick manner. Keep a record of all send-outs and do some follow-ups.
  • Provide a monthly follow-up to your emailed targeted market with perhaps some interesting industry-related tidbit, small newsletter from your company. This will enable you to stay in the “news” with any potential client. It also gives them an opportunity to gain a bit more information about your company perhaps and/or your abilities.
  • Always keep in mind how you would react to similar emails. Test yours with a small group of friends and/or associates and keep tweaking the email for improvement.
  • Follow up promptly on any responses you get from your email marketing campaign and thank anyone who responds; even if they are not interested. Very few will bother to respond at all so let’s recognize those that take the time to respond in kindess.

Hope this helps.

Peter Moorhouse

I would suggest that it is virtually impossible to take part in wide-cast and non-targeted e-mail campaigns without being lumped in with all other spammers out there. I think perhaps a better strategy is leveraging your current customer base.

If you haven’t already, begin a program where current customers receive a certain benefit (cosmetic or health news updates, for example) for providing you with their e-mail address. Ensure that they know their e-mail address will not be shared and that they can opt-out effectively at any time (and follow through on those policies). Once you have established an environment of trust with subscribers, if they are happy with your products, they will refer their friends, if asked properly. Offer a separate benefit (a small product sample, for example) for referring a friend, and assure them that their friend can effectively opt-out if they choose (and again, follow through on that policy).

I guess what I’m saying is that over the medium- to long-term, permission-based email marketing is far more effective than a spam-type campaign. Good luck.


E-mail by itself doesn’t work — it has to the be part of an internet marketing strategy. It’s easiest if your company has a website, and you can integrate e-mail marketing with that. It also makes it easier to build a list (see below).

The biggest issue is to ensure that people who receive your e-mail do so at their own request, and that they know you won’t sell, rent or trade their names to anyone else. In the trade, this is known as “opt-in”. I assume you will be going after a completely different customer base, so you may have difficulty building a list. If you offer to contact people by e-mail on your website, and explain exactly what they can expect to see, you’ll at least get started.

Secondly, make sure that whatever e-mail you send “from” is visibly yours, and not some third party. You can’t afford to create any confusion about exactly who the sender is. Use a meaningful name here, if you can ( rather than Avoid, or some gibberish name.

Third, allow people to opt out. A lot of legitimate e-mail marketers remind readers at the bottom of the mail that they asked to receive it, and include unsubscribe instructions. A nice touch is to have the unsubscribe e-mail address be an obvious human ( rather than; an alternative that a lot of people use is to direct readers to a web page where they can enter their e-mail address. This works best when your e-mail database can be addressed by the page; it will require some programming, though.

Fourth, provide a reason for people to opt in. Obvious ads that talk about how great you are, aren’t all that interesting. It’s like signing up for junk mail. What do you know about your target market? How sophisticated are they? Can you provide them with value in terms of instruction, background on your product category, etc? If you can do some sort of newsletter, and work your sales pitch in subtly, you’ll get more subscribers than if you offer to send them straight, traditional, advertising.

Fifth, like any other form of marketing, regularity and frequency are keys. Have a publishing schedule (no more than once a week — unless you really have something to say that often — and no less than once a month) and stick to it. Devote company resources to this, and make it a priority. Always have content to send out, and ensure that the content is relevant to your readers (and, ideally, your products). You can get away with “seasonal” hints a bit, but it can’t carry your publication.

Sixth, since you’re going to be relying on your website to build a list, do whatever you have to to ensure people get to that page on your site. There’s a lot of material out there on optimizing your site for different search engines, but the best way that I’ve seen to get people to your site is by (a) having links from as many other relevant sites as possible and (b) giving them something useful to see and easy to use when they get there. Make sure they can find the sign-up page!

There are actually newsletters and websites devoted to this subject: and are two that I subscribe to. Both have newsletters.

Best of luck!

M Beachey

In response to your question, the advice I can give is based on my own company’s activity and participation in online marketing.

There are a variety of methods and ways to promote your company’s product or services. Listing your website in the major search engines is a good start. There are also safe lists and referral programs available as well. A lot of people are under the impression that they will make huge sales on the internet. With the millions upon millions of advertising that is out there, the challenge is to get the exposure that your site needs. There are also a variety of banner exchange programs available on the internet as well. I found a neat Canadian company called who has a really unique way of assisting small businesses with a Powerful New Customer Loyalty Program. There are bonified [sic] companies out there that can assist you in your expansion in the retail markets.

Whether your focus is on direct selling, cold calling or warm marketing referrals, I have always found that “Word of Mouth” marketing has been the most powerful form of marketing as well as building relationships with others.

I hope this helps and wish you the best in your endeavors.

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