Like most people, I'm no big fan of unsolicited commercial email. Every day I'm offered credit card deals, home-based business schemes, and plenty of badly spelled invitations to visit adult Web sites. TidBITS has published articles about how to deal with spam (see "Responding to Spam" in TidBITS-442), and we also filed one of the first lawsuits under Washington State's anti-spam law (see "TidBITS Sues Spammer" in TidBITS-439).
In our rush to blot out spam, however, we've obscured the fact that legitimate uses for direct email software do exist. I know, because I send out my share of bulk personalized messages on a regular basis using Galleon Software's well-crafted program eMerge.
One to One, en Masse -- One of the reasons for using computers, theoretically, is to make our lives easier. Instead of writing multiple variations of one email message, it's much better to send one letter customized for several recipients, saving you literally hours of effort. In addition to addressing recipients by name, the outgoing messages can include information specific to each person. Shareware developers, for example, could notify existing customers of product updates, perhaps inserting appropriate upgrade information or unique registration codes with each message.
As another example, consider one of my clients, a company that organizes conferences. They regularly send thank-you letters to attendees following events. Granted, the message is mostly boilerplate, but addressing each person individually helps contribute a level of personal contact that encourages repeat business. More importantly, my client can easily use the information stored in customer databases without having to reinvent the wheel each time. Similarly, a band could send customized messages to fans in a particular area, with details of upcoming performances and even individualized driving directions.
Join the Campaign -- Think of eMerge not so much as a bulk sender, but as the email equivalent of the mail merge feature found in most word processors. When you launch eMerge, you're presented with an untitled "campaign," consisting of the Message Header (fields for Name, Address, and Subject), the Letter, and a List field. If you have Internet Config or Apple's Internet control panel (part of Mac OS 8.5) installed, the Name and Address fields will be filled in with your information. After you've typed or pasted the text of the letter, you can customize it by choosing items from the Standard Variables and Custom Variables pop-up menus that match the structure of your List data (see below). Variables are indicated in colored text and marked with double greater-than and less-than symbols, as in this example:
Hello <<firstname>>! It's great that you'll be attending the <<lastname>> family reunion.
Editing the Custom Variables list lets you define variables specific to your source data; one of my clients, for example, wanted to alert customers whose contact information was inconsistent by displaying existing and new mailing addresses.
Building a List -- If you're planning to send to only a few addresses, you can enter them manually. However, in most cases you'll want to import contact information from an outside source, a task made easy thanks to the many options for parsing contact data.
eMerge can import text files in a variety of configurations, including files exported from Claris Emailer, Outlook Express, LetterRip, and PowerMail, plus Netscape Address Book and Eudora Nicknames files. In my experience, tab-delimited text files work best; just select the radio button describing the arrangement of the data (such as Internet Address / FirstName / LastName). If your data isn't structured according to the preexisting options, it's easy enough to open the text file in a spreadsheet like Excel, rearrange the columns, then export the data again. A handy checkbox in eMerge's Import window also lets you eliminate blank addresses.
If you don't have pre-formatted data, you can use eMerge's dredge feature, which scans a file or folder and extracts email addresses. This could be handy, for instance, for collating email addresses from Read Me files when asking for permission to include shareware programs on a CD-ROM. Although this is the most blatantly spam-like feature in eMerge, whether or not it's abused is up to the user. Unlike unscrupulous spammers, Galleon downplays this feature on its Web site and in the documentation.
A campaign can also include attachments, and Galleon Software earns extra points for noting in their documentation that some mail servers can have troubles with attachments larger than 32K. They also receive bonus kudos for writing that multiple attachments "end up tying up a lot of storage space and generally contribute to the growing congestion on the Internet."
When it's time to distribute your campaign, eMerge offers a preview of each outgoing message, making it easier to see if the list data is being correctly applied. When you're ready to send, eMerge delivers the messages directly by default (it can also send through your normal mail server), using up to 24 simultaneous connections depending on the bandwidth available. When completed, each list item is marked with a status flag indicating whether the mail was sent or not, and the likely cause of each failure. Afterwards, you can export the list and include the status reports.
Legitimacy in the Woodwork -- I suspect that there's more of a demand for direct email than is apparent, since no legitimate business wants to be labeled as a spammer. In the end, the difference lies in approach: legitimate users will use eMerge responsibly to send personalized email to people who have asked to receive it. Spammers won't bother to use eMerge since it lacks features for hijacking mail servers, forging headers, and trawling the Web for email addresses. With its straightforward approach and easy to use interface, eMerge seems to be the quiet program that's getting the job done. eMerge is available for $99, and can be purchased online at Galleon Software's Web site, or from select online vendors (including TidBITS sponsor Digital River). The eMerge installer is a 1.5 MB download, and a demo is available from Galleon.