Small business owners can win big with e-mail marketing, and today's technology makes it easier than ever. Like everything worthwhile doing, it requires a commitment. To be effective, first and foremost you must have something interesting to say!
In some ways, small businesses can do more than their big business counterparts. Nimble organizations take on the personalities of their founders and employees. That is a perfect starting point for e-mail and social marketing. E-mail is a dialogue channel, and while many still use it like a broadcast medium, the real opportunity is to engage in conversations that nurture sales and loyalty.
"E-mail is a fantastic way of competing with larger organizations because it is very low cost and also very personal," said Mathew Patterson of Campaign Monitor. "Use it to have meaningful conversations with customers or groups of customers."
That ability to connect on a personal level is what makes the difference.
"Small businesses use e-mail marketing effectively because they don't have the budget of larger organizations," said Ben Chestnut of MailChimp. "They must be more thoughtful and personal about it."
E-mail isn't a one-size-fits-all solution.
"Pick the right combination of message types and consider the best timing for your audience," Chestnut advised. "Sometimes newsletters help build relationships. Perhaps alerts or transactional messages fit your business model. Sometimes weekly promotions and coupons are most effective. Perhaps start with newsletters to build a following, then add the promotions later."
Regardless of what you do, being professional is paramount.
Using a tested template or having a skilled designer definitely helps, but even plain text message can have great impact if the content is valuable and relevant, Patterson said.
"Creating a great subscriber experience is not a matter of budget or size but of creativity and empathy with the recipient," Patterson said. "Small businesses are at least equal in that area, if not ahead."
Content is both the simplest and the hardest part, he said.
"Every business owner is an expert in something, so as long as it's relevant to the business and appropriate for the audience then it's a good source of content. Raunchy jokes or your children's artwork are rarely appropriate in e-mail marketing," Patterson added.
Once you get started, Chestnut recommended setting up a Twitter account and Facebook Fan page to build distribution.
"And install Google Analytics and learn how to track conversion," Chestnut said. "This way, you can see your e-mail marketing ROI (define)."
Ros Hodgekiss, also of Campaign Monitor, cautions small business owners about biting off too much in terms of e-mail and social marketing, although the two channels are complementary.
"Social media is cool, but also requires regular maintenance," Hodgekiss said. "Nothing looks worse than an idle Twitter account, or a Facebook Page with zero fans. On the other hand, nothing creates a more dramatic spike in fans or followers than an e-mail mentioning your social media presence – or a Facebook campaign to build e-mail subscribers."
Most small business files are small, and e-mail service providers will often pool several businesses together on one IP address. That means that inbox placement and sender reputation are also shared. There are pros and cons to shared IP systems.
"For a low volume sender, shared IPs offer the ability to utilize a pre-established reputation," said Justin Rauschenberg of iContact. "If the senders using that IP pool have been vetted properly, this can create an incredible advantage for a business that hasn't already established a reputation through organic means. The downside is that one bad actor can contaminate the entire pool."
Be sure you know how your service provider is vetting new customers – and start by observing how they vetted you upon your arrival!
Where can you steal some ideas from smart small business marketers? Chestnut recommended checking out Bonobos because their e-mails are well designed, and the founder gets personal.
"You get the impression he's really obsessed with great fitting clothes (and the clothes he sells fit really well)," Chestnut said. "And anything that helps endangered apes is nice."
Patterson suggested checking out Moo, Threadless, Wufoo, and FreshBooks.
"All produce e-mails worth reading," Patterson said. "They inject some personality into their e-mails that larger companies have a hard time pulling off."
If you're a small business, how do you use e-mail marketing to build your business? What small businesses do you think do a great job with e-mail marketing? Let me know what you think and please share any ideas or comments below.
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Stephanie Miller is a relentless customer advocate and a champion for marketers creating memorable online experiences. A digital marketing expert, she helps responsible data-driven marketers connect with the people, resources, and ideas they need to optimize response and revenue. She speaks and writes regularly and leads many industry initiatives as VP, Member Relations and Chief Listening Officer at the Direct Marketing Association (www.the-dma.org). Feedback and column ideas most welcome, to smiller AT the-dma DOT org or @stephanieSAM.
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