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As an online marketer, it's important that you should take every opportunity to eliminate barriers and challenges to the delivery of your message to your target audience.

While RSS feeds, blogs, and social media are all the rage right now, nothing beats that long-reigning monarch of the message-to-market medium online. Good ol' email.

As one Twitter user, Michael Kern, once remarked while commenting on one of my articles, “Email is still king.”

For instance, at the time of writing this blog post, this blog has close to 50,000 subscribers — growing by about 100 new subscribers every day. However, just 15% of that number are subscribed to my RSS feed, while the remainder are email subscribers.

My numbers are far from being unique. They are the same with a large percentage of bloggers and social media marketers, let alone Internet marketers with blogs.

With the variety of ways available to deliver an opt-in email newsletter, such as plain text, text with images, embedded HTML, and attachments, which one is the best?

These days, open rates are at an all-time low.

Some of my coaching students have told me they've never seen such low percentages, falling from a comfortable 40-60% down into the single-digit range. We're talking legitimate (not spammers), popular, well-established, double-optin email marketers.

Sure, open rates are on the decline overall for a variety of reasons. But be careful when jumping to conclusions, because the numbers may be skewed somewhat.

Open rates are largely calculated based on the appearance of images embedded within an HTML email — in plain-looking HTML emails, it's often a small, transparent image. But these days, images do not show up in a growing number of email clients.

A great example of this is the explosion of web-based and mobile-based email, which the majority have HTML or images turned off by default — often to save bandwidth, speed up downloads, or protect users from spammers and phishing scams.

(Even popular email software have HTML switched off by default. You have to manually turn it on, or tell it which individual emails you want to allow images to be displayed.)

In my case, since the introduction of IMAP and offline access over at Gmail, which you can find under their “labs” feature, I've recently converted all my email to Gmail, using it to retrieve all my other POP mailbox accounts into one centralized location.

I've dumped my email client completely. Nowadays, I check my email via any web browser or my iPhone. If I do use my desktop email client, then IMAP allows me to read my email directly on the server — without the need to download them to my computer.

At any rate, with dwindling open rates and persnickety email readers, the question remains: how do you get your message across? Here are some tips I've found useful.

Before I begin, let me first start off by saying that I'm not an email marketing expert by any stretch. Some people in the business have knowledge that is way above mine.

(In some cases, I mean that quite literally. Jason Henderson may be over seven-feet tall, but he is definitely one of those incredibly well-versed email marketing giants who know far more than I ever will. And so do many others.)

But while I don't have the winning answer, let me share my experience.

For a long time, I've been an advocate of plain-text emails only — either that, or of emails sent in dual, delimited formats (i.e., both plain text and HTML) so that non-HTML email clients can still receive your message, with the look and layout you intended.

Also, stick with CSS for colors, formats, and layouts. Check your HTML to see if your message still looks the same when HTML is (specifically, when images are) turned off.

Stick with the lowest common denominator to reach as many people as possible. Your safest bet is to use plain text, or plain-text/HTML dual format. With HTML, manipulate the look of your email through on-page CSS, without any images or external files.

Keep in mind that, while open rates may be dwindling and you should definitely look into ways to improve your deliverability, what's more important are clickthrough rates.

So the process I now use and recommend is, send a dual-format email, but have your email drive people to a web page instead, whether by using teasers or incomplete ideas, or by embedding multiple links throughout your message — and not just a single one.

That way, you can drive people to a web page over which you have full control of the look and feel, including adding any conversion boosters, eye gravity, and lengthier sales copy — let alone scripts, forms, and multimedia such as audio and video.

Plus, some aggressive spam filters sill frown upon HTML email. For example, Spam Assassin, the most widely used spam-filtering software on the market preferred by many ISPs, still assigns a certain score — albeit minuscule, nowadays — to HTML-only emails.

By the way, I use a pretty cool tool to determine my spam scores. It's a software called MailingCheck from the folks at SendBlaster.com. The reason I like it is that it not only scores your email but also gives you pointers on where to improve.

They offer a ton of resources, including this link to Spam Assassin's article on how to considerably reduce the chances your email is accidentally filtered as a “false positive.”

For those messages that do survive running the filtering gauntlet, there is a further challenge in ensuring your message is not garbled by end-user email controls, resulting in your newsletter being viewed under less than ideal conditions.

For instance, some consumers, particularly those who sign up for newsletters via offline methods, do not change these settings manually — such as allowing HTML, images, scripts, or multimedia, or whitelisting the sender's address.

Nevertheless, these factors can harm your message's deliverability and prevent your newsletters from getting through to the inboxes of many of your subscribers. Obviously, you can't read or respond to an email message that never arrives.

So how do you get more more mileage out of your emails?

One way, I have discovered, works extremely well. And that is to convert your message into a separate, downloadale PDF file. PDFs are not just for newsletters, either. Think “special reports,” “white papers,” “ebooks,” “ecourses,” standalone articles, etc.

In my experience I have found that plain text or dual plain-text/HTML messages, with newsletters as PDF documents either attached or linked so to download them, are a superior choice, providing more versatility and flexibility than any one of these.

(Note that Adobe's PDF format now has video and form capability with its most recent version, so you can literally put a web page or an entire salesletter in a PDF document.)

Your goal is to make access to your newsletter as easy as possible. For this reason PDF documents are the logical and preferred choice for leaders in online marketing.

Think about it…

If you receive an email from someone with a PDF attachment, chances are you would open your message more readily than you would a plain one, if only out of curiosity.

Plus, you don't need Adobe Acrobat, which for many is too expensive, to create PDF files. To produce a PDF newsletter quickly and easily, there are many PDF converters on the market that are only a fraction of the price of Adobe's Acrobat.

However, the simplest shortcut I've used is to upload your file — such as a Microsoft Word document or web page — into Google Documents, and then export it as a PDF.

The benefits of using PDF are many, not the least of which is the fact that they allow you to express your unique creative freedom while providing you with complete control of the visual experience — especially when that experience leads to sales.

For example, it allows you to incorporate many of the conversion boosters you normally use in web pages, such as colors, boxes, fonts (even odd fonts not found in most browsers since PDFs embed them into the document), graphics, and so on.

In fact, you can use graphics and photos to illustrate your message, and punctuate your words knowing they will be seen in context where you originally intended. This can be a significant advantage in maintaining your brand integrity.

Unlike the other choices available, PDFs provide an assurance of consistency.

PDFs look the same on any computer or in any browser. There will be no significant differences to the reader no matter how they choose to digest your information. The reader will see what you intend, whether they read online, on their desktop, or in print.

(Recently, one reader uploaded one of my free reports on Scribd.com, which allows anyone to view the document, whether they have the PDF plugin in their browser or not.)

Another significant area of control is in the distribution. If you want the newsletter to be viral and develop a wide readership base, then it is easy to encourage sharing.

However, if you want to restrict distribution to opt-in or paying members only, this is also easy to accommodate through password protection and other security features.

There is a certain degree of protection from content theft in the format itself. Piracy is slightly inhibited simply because editing your distributed document requires multiple steps. You can even lock your PDF from being modified, copied, or printed.

Granted, no protection measure is 100% foolproof.

If a thief is determined enough, they will find a way. But generally, the more steps it takes to complete a function, the less likely you will find people willing to make the attempt.

Also, one of the easiest ways to create a continuity program is not to create a membership site but to simply use email autoresponders to deliver your content on a regular, automated basis in exchange for a monthly subscription fee.

That said, however, I was recently asked a related question by a coaching student about download theft rates, and whether it was necessary to protect digital products.

Most of us don't think twice about locking our front door when we leave the house, and some of us even activate alarm systems as an extra measure of security.

Taking steps to protect our assets is natural when it comes to our homes. But what about our business' assets? It's often overlooked, but you should absolutely be thinking about protecting yourself when it comes to your business and information products, too.

Intellectual theft is an insidious and difficult issue not only due to those with malicious intent, but because of the general public attitude towards creative works.

There is a certain level of obliviousness towards copyright within the general public when it comes to creative works. Whether it's photos, music, multimedia, web pages, or the written word, most people simply do not take copyright violations seriously.

Therefore, it is for both the malicious and oblivious that you must protect your work.

You might be tempted to overlook security measures, thinking you won't lose much. How much will a few renegade copies of your product in circulation really cost you, after all?

In a recent incident, a hacker's site went up providing free downloads of products from leading marketers. One of my friends' products was included. How did he find out? The stolen documents were pulling images from this marketer's servers.

After counting how many downloads were made, he figured he lost over $21,000. Granted, sites like that are shut down as quickly as they are identified. But the losses and frustration incurred in the meantime, even if it's a short time, can be significant.

For the same reasons that it is impossible to stop shoplifting, it is undoubtedly impossible to completely halt theft of digital products. However, it is possible to reduce the impact on your business by putting simple security measures in place.

First, make sure you monitor the Internet for violations so you can stop leaks before they have a chance to impact your bottom line. (One location are notorious “bit torrent” sites. They're not just for songs and “warez.” Information products are not immune.)

When it comes to protecting their products, most people look within the product itself. Securing the individual product, such as with a password, may seem to provide one level of security. But if this is all you rely on, then it is a somewhat false sense of security.

For one, it can be cumbersome and annoying to your legitimate customers, so you'll want to consider carefully whether they are worth the effort. For another, such measures are not effective for long, as determined hackers can crack passwords in very little time.

That's why it's better, and ultimately more important, to protect the source.

If you protect where downloads are coming from and ensure they reside in fortified, access-controlled or password-protected areas of your website, then you will have a better measure of protection than simply password-protecting individual files.

It may be difficult to justify buying dedicated software if you only sell one product. But you can use third-party services or install server scripts that provide stronger security measures, like generating expiring download links or limiting access attempts.

Fortunately, there are some simple, low-cost solutions that will at least lower your risk.

  • First, don't take the easy way out and upload to a folder with a common name, like “downloads” or “purchases” or “products.” Use an uncommon and unique folder name. Random numbers and letters can work quite nicely for this.
  • Second, when creating your folder make sure you include a simple index file (i.e., a blank “index.htm” file) within it, so that someone can't just use the folder name and find the directory listing of all your files ready to download.
  • If you're a little more technically inclined and work from an Apache server, there's the “index ignore” line-item in your .htaccess file, which is simply:

    indexignore *

  • Third, you'll also want to make sure you've set it up so the search engines do not crawl that folder by altering the robots.txt file on your server.

    Also, make sure to follow the preceding steps (such as using an uncommon name for your products folder), since your robots.txt file will otherwise be extending an open invitation to hackers by telling them where your products are located.

  • Next, you can add a simple few lines into your .htaccess file to prevent referrer-based access. Aside from typical password protection, you might want to prevent anyone who tries to access your files directly or from another domain.

    This prevents hotlinking and direct access to those documents. Only links on your domain(s) pointing to those documents are allowed. Simply create an .htaccess file with the following lines, and upload it to the folder containing your files:

    RewriteEngine On
    RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !.*yourdomain.com.* [NC] RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !.*yourdomain2.com.* [NC] RewriteCond %{HTTP_REFERER} !.*yourdomain3.com.* [NC] RewriteRule (.*) http://www.yourdomain.com/order.html [R=301,L]

    Remember, this only works on Apache. Plus, be sure to modify “yourdomain” with your own domains, and change the last line to any page on your site you want to redirect them to. You might want to push them to the order page. 😉

  • Finally, move your files, rename your files and folders, and change your passwords frequently. You will have to remember to change your download links in your merchant account when you move the files, but the time it takes to do so is well spent.

Ultimately, delivering your newsletter issue or special report in PDF format provides a highest level of stability currently available. It overcomes barriers to ensure your message reaches as much of your potential audience as possible.

Michel Fortin

Chief Experience Officer at Supportibles, Inc.
A copywriter and consultant for close to 30 years, Michel was instrumental in selling millions worth of products and services. His most notable success is a salesletter that sold over a million dollars online on launch day. Today, Michel is a best-selling author, in-demand public speaker, and highly sought-after marketing consultant. Get his free report, "The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning," at Supportibles.com.

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