Your Best Marketing Weapon: Email

Last Updated Aug 11, 2010 1:51 PM EDT

Social media marketing may be all the rage right now, but if you're a small business owner and you're not thinking strategically about using email to market your company, you're missing the boat. It's inexpensive, can result in great returns if executed wisely, and it's measurable. I recently spoke to Gail Goodman, the CEO and founder of Constant Contact, an email marketing company with 350,000 customers, 70% of whom have fewer than ten employees. We discussed seven steps to creating highly effective email campaigns. Here they are:
Build a great list. "The number one tip we give to business owners is to ask for email addresses and permission to send email everywhere you touch your customer," says Goodman. Sure, you can ask people to sign up for your newsletter on your blog and on your website, but don't forget the old fashioned way: ask them in person. "End every conversation with "we have a great newsletter, would you like to join the list?" suggests Goodman. "And train everyone on your team to do the same." If your company gets customer traffic, put up a Lucite stand with a sample of your best newsletter; offer customers $10 off their next purchase when they sign up for a subscription. Remember that the permission aspect of an email campaign is critically important; you don't want to violate anti-spam regulations like the CAN-SPAM Act. And, says Goodman, "permission is perishable." So send your newsletter as quickly as possible after receiving permission so that your subscribers don't forget who you are.

Compose engaging content. "Think informational, not promotional," says Goodman. For instance, if you own a boutique, you might write about summer fashion trends, or the best fabrics to keep you cool at the beach. Keep your tone informal and conversational and don't feel that you need to make your articles lengthy. To make sure you're content is relevant to your audience, Goodman suggests you keep a "tickler file" of notes you make when you're having conversations with customers so that you can work their questions and concerns into your content.

Write an irresistible subject line. You've got 40 characters, including spaces, so you need to make every single one count. Your subject line should "create a sense of urgency," says Goodman. "Newsletter #10" won't cut it, folks. "Try to link to a specific benefit they'll find within," suggests Goodman. "And I do think that being personal - using words like you, your, we or our, will warm up your audience." Example: "New Summer Wines For Our Best Customers." But getting too personal can backfire. Goodman doesn't like it when marketers put recipients' first names in the subject line because it appears insincere. Another suggestion: use numbers in your subject line (i.e. "Four New Wines For Your Summer Parties"). You may also want to test different subject lines by splitting your list in two then comparing your open rates.

Create a compelling call to action. While a great subject line may get your subscribers to open your email newsletter, your content must convince readers to engage further with your company. Your "keeping cool at the beach" story might end with encouragement to "click here to see what we have in the store." Or a short mention of a media interview might include a link to a full story or a YouTube video. "Open rates tell you interest and clicks tell you engagement and you need both of those analytics to measure the success of your campaign," says Goodman. Constant improvement should be your goal. It's easier to get people to open your email than it is to convince them to click on links, so "you need to always be working to understand how to drive more engagement," says Goodman.

Live by your analytics. If you use an email marketing service, like Constant Contact, iContact, Vertical Response, or Mail Chimp, among others, you'll get access to analytics that will allow you to tweak your campaigns for optimum effectiveness. You might even be able to compare your own results to industry averages. Goodman says that open rates of 25-35% are considered good, while click through rates might hover around 10%. You'll also want to pay attention to your unsubscribe rate and your "report as spam" rate. While sending your marketing emails through a service gives you a mailing reputation that typically prevents you from being identified as spam, know that some consumers use a spam report when they simply want to unsubscribe. "Don't be offended," says Goodman, "just learn what it's telling you. Your content may have been too promotional or failed to be interesting. It could also be telling you something about frequency." Once a month is about right for a business-to-business promotion; business to consumer promotions, especially those that offer coupons or discounts, will typically be welcome twice a month.

Integrate social media into your email marketing. Encourage current readers to share your content by posting on Facebook and LinkedIn, and tweeting on Twitter. "Your email list is the perfect way to kick-start your social media presence among fans, friends, and followers, and you can also build up your list with your social media contacts," says Goodman. Make it easy for your email readers to connect with you online by integrating social media buttons into the body of your newsletter. Your email marketing service may also provide you with a "join my list" Facebook plug-in and/or a way for you to tweet a sign-up form to your Twitter followers. Make it all work together!

Steal great ideas. That's right. Be utterly, positively shameless about signing up for email newsletters (especially your competitors'!) and to scouring them for best practices and effective techniques. Copying content would be highly unethical, of course, so don't even be tempted. You should analyze other email campaigns for word usage, quality of links, promotional tone, valuable information, and writing style. Chances are, if a particular technique resonates with you, it may also drive engagement among your own readers.

Are you a small business owner with a highly successful email marketing newsletter? Share some tips with your fellow entrepreneurs!

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Email image courtesy of Flickr user Mzelle Biscotte, CC 2.0