I was introduced to e-mail marketing more than 10 years ago. While working at the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce (now Greater Fort Wayne, Inc.) as vice president of communications, I edited a monthly magazine that was printed and mailed (via U.S. mail) to our 2,000 members. We were looking for a way to reach our membership on a timely basis to provide up-to-the-minute news and event reminders. We had previously used a weekly fax for this purpose, but knew with all of the new electronic communications that there was a more effective way to reach our members.
Our Chamber explored options and chose Constant Contact, one of the pioneering firms in e-mail marketing, as the delivery platform. The tool was inexpensive, with the cost based on the size of our mailing list. What’s more, the templates were attractive and user friendly, and the customer support was exceptional. The response from our Chamber members was also favorable. They were glad to receive real-time communication via e-mail instead of fax, and in an attractive format that allowed for color photographs, advertising opportunities, and links connecting them with further information or event details. It’s hard to believe that e-mail marketing was a novelty a decade or so ago, but it’s definitely a popular and effective tool for today’s marketing needs.
When I left the Chamber and joined the staff of the Northeast Indiana Small Business Development Center (NE-ISBDC), it wasn’t long before I convinced our director of the need for a monthly newsletter. I was glad to discover that a Constant Contact subscription came through our network’s affiliation with America’s Small Business Development Center network (ASBDC). With the exception of a brief stint trying out the services of a Hoosier-based e-mail marketing company, Constant Contact has been our go-to source for e-mail communications since 2009, and I now work with training our small-business clients how to use this tool to their advantage.
When asked how to effectively use e-mail marketing, I tell my clients that there are two key factors to consider: 1) Cultivating and Growing Your Audience, and 2) Creating Content that is Engaging and Valuable. These will be explained in the following sections.
CULTIVATE AND GROW YOUR AUDIENCE
E-mail communication is a form of permission-based marketing that relies on having the e-mail addresses of your target audience. At the Chamber, we were able to obtain e-mail addresses through our membership database, and at the Northeast ISBDC, we use the e-mail addresses of our clients, our partners, and our workshop attendees. Each month the mailing list is updated to include new contacts, and the subscribers all have the opportunity to “opt out” if they no longer want to receive our e-mails. Existing businesses can use the e-mail addresses of their customer and supplier databases, as well as any potential customers that they have called upon. But for a start-up business, it’s a bit more challenging to create a list of subscribers. Here are some suggestions for starting or growing your e-mail audience:
- Collect a business card from everyone you come in contact with—new customers, potential customers, suppliers, business partners, networking event attendees, family members, etc.—and add their e-mail addresses to your database. Be sure to record contact information, including e-mails, from any call-in customers.
- Share your online marketing pieces with your Facebook friends via links to the archived files, and include a “Join My Mailing List” link on your Facebook page and your website.
- Collect e-mail addresses at your retail store or trade-show booth. This can be accomplished through a simple sign-up sheet, or via a drop box where visitors can deposit their business card. Giving them an incentive—such as the chance to win a door-prize drawing—increases their motivation for providing their e-mail address and contact information.
- Include “Forward” and “Subscribe” buttons on each of your e-mails so your readers can share your e-mails with their contacts and hopefully help you increase your subscribers.
By following the above procedures, it won’t be long before your e-mail list grows and you are able to reach a broader audience. But now that you have a larger list of subscribers, how do you encourage them to actually read your e-mail marketing pieces instead of unsubscribing from them? That leads us to our second suggestion:
CREATE CONTENT THAT IS ENGAGING AND VALUABLE
Novice e-mail marketers have a tendency to use their e-mail marketing merely as sales pieces. “Buy one, get one free” or “Come sample our new product” are just some of the headings you may see in one of these online sales pieces. But you likely won’t see them for long, as you quickly will be turned off, leading you to either unsubscribe or to quit opening these e-mails because you perceive them to be merely sales pieces.
To keep your subscribers active and engaged—and from hitting the “Unsubscribe” button—you need to give them something of value. The Northeast ISBDC newsletter includes stories about our clients’ new or expanding businesses, focusing on the human aspect of each story to keep our readers interested. We also include news about our partners, upcoming events and educational opportunities for small businesses, statistics and industry data—anything that might be of interest to our entrepreneurial and small-business clients and workshop attendees. In addition, we also provide links to helpful information on other websites that hopefully is of use to our readers.
As a small-business owner, you may want to include helpful tips, recipes, or information about industry trends or newly-developed products (not necessarily your own) that would be of interest to your readers. Or, how about featuring some of your customers’ success stories to enhance that human-interest appeal? You may also want to include a coupon at the bottom of the piece to give your customers a reward for reading your e-mail—but don’t make that the focus of your e-mail or you will lose them. Remember, the subtler your message, the better. Keep your sales tactics to a minimum! If you enjoy writing, a blog may complement or take the place of an actual e-mail marketing piece, but be sure to keep your subject matter engaging and valuable. Story telling about your interesting experiences or about some of your customers may be a good way to keep your audience captivated, and be sure to embed helpful links in your blog posts to increase the value of your message.
For more information on successful e-mail marketing, you may want to read some of the books available on this topic, including Engagement Marketing: How Small Business Wins in a Socially Connected World, written by Constant Contact CEO Gail F. Goodman.