One Word:

Remember in The Graduate, a young Dustin Hoffman receives a seemingly important piece of information that will forever change his life? “Plastics.”

Fast forward nearly 30 years. Forget about Mrs. Robinson. If you are interested in expanding your brand through email, I’ve got one word for you: “Database.”

We’ve heard a lot about how email is the most effective medium to leverage if you want to extend a brand successfully into the online world. However, clever language coupled with good offers simply aren’t enough to differentiate your business. Everyone else is doing it. So the question is really not “if” you should implement email marketing techniques, but “how” you can do it better.

Your database is your gold mine. It is critical to be able to say, “I know what you want. I know what you need. I am your company.”

Just how much do you know about your customers? What have they ordered in the last month? Are they big spenders? What are their favorite hobbies? Hopefully you are already collecting this information. If not, you better start. Track what your customers are buying, when they are buying it, and at what price point.

You may want to consider a survey. Make it short. Make it relevant. Decide what exactly you want to know. And if possible, connect it to some sort of promotion.

Two free issues of your magazine? You decide. However, remember that each survey contains valuable information. Let your customers know just how important it is by offering something of value to them.

With your data mined and your customer base organized according to factors like age, geographic location, income level or shirt size, you can now start thinking about effective email-based campaigns and promotions. And about integrating more customer interaction on your web site, or into some current marketing programs that you’re wrapping up.

For catalogers, consider integrating an email-based customer order acknowledgement program. This way you can let your customer know that his snowboard is delayed due to fog in San Francisco. And, as a side note, a Gortex jacket in the same colors as his new snowboard is 40 percent off. And oh, what a stud he will be on the slopes next season!

Publishers might begin by touching base with some of their dormant subscribers. Pen the quintessential “we’ve missed you” email and include a special offer with it. A Barry Manilow video with your subscription to 1970s Heartthrob Magazine? You decide. Because by now, you should know what your customers like, need, and want.

This may sound like a “duh” factor for successful online marketing. However, I’m amazed to find a number of “big of the big” guys — Fortune 500 companies — that don’t have any sort of online customer communication programs to learn more about their customers. Hell, they don’t even have email addresses.

The key here is not just offering up any old item to your customer. But rather, making sense of the data you’ve collected and taking the time to find out what he (or she) might like. (And that you would like to sell.)

It’s a lot like shopping for the perfect gift for that special someone. If you want to endear yourself, choose a thoughtful card and wrap it in lovely paper. But inside the box, place something special. In the right size. In her favorite color. Something that says, “I knew this would be perfect for you.”

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