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A post about an email about email

(This was sent to my email list, which you can join here)

I actually invented a system which could track emails being received and opened, letting me know who had read the email, and when.

Some time around the turn of the century—an almost absurdly archaic phrase; although as a child of the ’80s and a teen of the ’90s, the year 2000 still sounds impossibly futuristic—I was exclusively involved in building websites, registering domain names and setting up hosting for clients who I’d find by sitting down each week with my local Yellow Pages, and writing a letter to a few dozen businesses in a random category.

Posting things, or direct mail as I discovered it was called, was my first foray into marketing, but my switch to email started for practical reasons—I didn’t really want to have to pay money (buy a stamp) to send an invoice, which I still quaintly posted, so I started emailing them.

I was having problems with a client not paying, and they would deny ever receiving the emailed invoice. It occurred to me that I could write a short piece of code, put it on my website and embed that code into the email by pretending it was an image. Every time the code loaded, i.e. every time the email was opened, it recorded the date, time and IP address of the person who opened it.

Next time they claimed they hadn’t received an invoice I sent them a list of the dates and times they had opened it. They posted me a cheque (!) and once it had cleared I fired them.

But I was excited about my new system, and the uses it could have, only to be slightly dismayed to discover an entire world of email marketing—based entirely around my idea—already existed and was thriving.

Of course, I jumped right in and transferred the direct mail skills I’d learned into digital, putting it to use primarily for clients instead of myself. In the early 2010s I decided one day that I’d start emailing everyone on my contact list every single weekday morning, something I managed to do for a couple of years before changing circumstances got the better of me.

It’s still the single best business decision I’ve made, and whenever I now think about what I should be doing better, the first answer is almost always: write an email.

There is both a longevity and consistency to email which doesn’t exist in the ever-changing fashions of social media or the ever-changing algorithms of search engine optimisation for your website. There’s an efficiency which doesn’t exist in direct mail, an intimacy which doesn’t exist in advertising.

One of my favourite books, The Man who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, tells the allegory of a lone shepherd who reforested a barren valley in Provence by planting 100 acorns a day in his slow, steady way.

Over the years enough of the trees grew – although many were lost. But he kept planting, didn’t lose hope. The forest grew, streams returned as did the plants and animals which rely on them. People returned to abandoned villages and communities sprung up.

To me, that’s what email is about: not so much the big, exciting campaigns (although they have their place), but the steady, solid relationships you can build by just keeping in touch with people.

If it’s something you’d like to try, or have already tried but not really succeeded, drop me a line.