One of the things that most people have figured out about online music is that it’s a great way to communicate directly with fans. If you collect their email addresses, or connect with them using some online social network or contact management system, you can send them stuff. Latest release information, links to videos, concert dates, news, photos and so on.

Better still, most of the time fans enter into these relationships willingly and voluntarily. They will happily write their name and email address onto your clipboard at a gig or fill in a short online form in exchange for an mp3 or video.

But what to send them, how much and how often?

Send me stuff
The most important thing to do is to make sure you send SOMETHING. If I sign up for your email list and you don’t send me something pretty much straight away, then not only is it a wasted followup opportunity on your part, but it makes me feel like you’re actually not that interested that I turned up and made an effort.

When people sign up to your mailing list, the first thing to send them should be a message of thanks. Just a brief “hi” and a clear indication that you’re going to treat them with respect. These sorts of things are important:

We’re not going to sell your email address to a marketing firm. We’re not going to bombard you with crap. And anytime you want out, then just click here and you’ll never hear from us again.

Let me sneak out gracefully
Note – I said “click here”, not “send an email and ask to be removed”.

The unsubscribe process should feel anonymous and with no opportunity to hurt anyone’s feelings. I have a whole bunch of filters set up in my email that redirect mailing list communication from perfectly good bands straight to the trash – so that I don’t have to ask to be removed from the email list.

My reasons for not wanting to read their communication generally has very little to do with me not liking them, and rather than have to go to some very nice people and ask them to stop sending me their very important newsletters, I’ve just had to be sneaky and throw it out automatically every time it arrives.

Personally, I’d far rather just click a no-human-contact ‘no thanks’ link than have to send an email to the band member who sends out the messages and face a possible ‘Oh, but WHY don’t you like us any more?’ response.

Don’t send me everything
Be really choosy about what you send out. I don’t want your touring itinerary, because I’m not in all of the towns you’re playing. In fact, I don’t really want more than a couple of paragraphs from you more than once a month if I can possibly avoid it.

I’m on your mailing list – I’m not your new BFF.

Do let me know about the cool stuff you’re up to, but do it in a brief, to-the-point manner that lets me know stuff that’s actually of use to me. If you have free stuff to give away, a new video, a tour coming up, an album for sale or whatever, then tell me that it’s there. Give me a link to where I can read all about it on your website, but don’t send me 3,000 word emails.

I signed up to your mailing list because I’m interested in you and what you do. That doesn’t mean I’m obsessive and fanatical about every minor detail of your existence.

Don’t mess with my fonts
This might be counter-intuitive, but I don’t want an HTML emails. I want HTML web pages. If you have something to tell me, type it in plain text and give me a link.

My email looks the way it does because that’s what I chose. Your formatting may not be right for my preferred email client, and so your lovely design may not display the way you want it to. I know this is an oldschool attitude, but plain text emails feel more like a note from a friend and not a piece of marketing.

A little every now and then
The best use I’ve come across for band (or label) email lists is just a reminder. It’s to keep your band top of mind, so you won’t have to deal with “oh yeah – I think I’ve heard of them”.

It just puts your name back into our lives every now and then – and helps us recall that we had a good experience and liked the music.

It’s a nudge to re-engage. Visit the website. Go to a gig. Buy a CD. That sort of thing.

You have to remember that there are an awful lot of bands and record labels that I like as well as yours. There is no competition for attention – I can like them all without having to prefer one to another. So you’re not trying to be my one super-artist that becomes my sole object of interest.

This is a mailing list, not a marriage. I don’t have to forsake all other bands in order to be interested in yours – and you have to remember that they’re all sending me emails too.

Rule of thumb: don’t be so frequent and annoying that I end up ditching you – and don’t be so absent that I forget who you are.

Opt-in not opt-out
I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t repeat this very simple point. If I’m on your mailing list, it should only ever be because I asked to be on your mailing list.

If I’m on your mailing list because you found my email address and simply added it to your mailing list and started sending me stuff, that makes you a spammer. And in my book, being a spammer makes how cool your music is completely irrelevant.

If you spam, I wish you a crushing, crippling and brutal music industry failure.

The best tools I’ve come across for managing your fan mailing lists are ReverbNation and AWeber. Check them out and figure out which suits your needs best.

One of the things I like most about ReverbNation is that the signup process can be widgetised (and therefore circulated widely) and the messages can be easily sent to different subgroups (‘send this message only to fans in Iowa’, for instance).

One of the things I like most about AWeber is that it’s completely professional, does mail merge spectacularly well – and is virtually spammer proof. The signup process guarantees that everyone on that list is there by choice.

You can, of course, just have your own database of email addresses and send the messages using your everyday mail programme. It’s not always convenient – particularly if you have a large list – and can often be read as spam by automatic filters if there are a lot of recipients.

But using a mail manager allows you to directly address an email to a recipient, and target it based on things like geographic location. So – to me, your mailout could read:

‘Hi Andrew – just a quick note to say we’re going to be playing in Birmingham later this month. You can check our itinerary at our website…’

…and so on.

Final notes

1) Never, ever, ever send my email address to a list. If you write an email and you put all of the addresses in the CC line – then everyone on your list has everyone else’s address. It’s beyond rude, and actually exposes your fans to unwelcome spam, phishing, virus attacks, etc.

If you are going to use ordinary email platforms to send email newsletters, then whatever you do, make sure you BCC (Blind Carbon Copy) the addresses. It hides the addresses of the other recipients, but still ends up in all of the right places.

2) The simplest key to getting this right is to think about the communication from the point of view of the recipient – the fan. The question is not “How can I get them all this information?” but “What do they want to hear from me?”.

3) Remember – if you have a million people on your email list, you’re not talking to an audience of a million – you’re talking to a million audiences of one.