By Karen E. Klein
If you're like me, you get at least one e-mail newsletter every day. You know what I'm talking about: Those sometimes chatty, sometimes informative, sometimes useless dispatches originating from your customers, competitors, and often, from total strangers. They contain articles, promotions, ads -- and links to more articles, promotions, and ads.
When experience has taught me that an e-letter is likely to be well researched, well written, and loaded with fresh, interesting information, I look forward to its arrival. When I get dull, unsolicited e-letters laden with information of minimal interest, I gnash my teeth, curse the sender, and regret the day e-mail was invented.
Marketing surveys leave no doubt that today's downbeat economy has spurred an increase in e-mail marketing, with permission-based e-letters being the most popular. According to an April, 2002, survey by e-Dialog for Marketer.com., promotions, event notifications, product announcements, and customer-service messages follow in descending order of popularity with recipients.
With e-mail costing a fraction of what it takes to print and mail hard copies, and the bonus of access to accurate and quick feedback, it's easy to see why a lot of small companies are embracing e-letters.
Every entrepreneur who knows about acquiring and keeping customers realizes that a relationship based on trust is vital, and that ongoing communication is one of the most effective ways to achieve those goals. So, what are the elements of a good e-letter? How much do bulk e-mailers charge? Who should be sending them, and how often? Kathleen Goodwin, of iMakeNews.com, offers some tips on the process:
Do your homework. Shop around -- and not just for the best price -- before settling on the outfit you will be entrusting with sending your e-letter. Some mass e-mailers do nothing more than distribute whatever it is that you provide. Others will help you find subscribers and manage your mailing list. Still others provide templates, allowing you to simply plug content into the blanks. And remember, the e-mailer you choose should be able to provide detailed statistics and analysis to help you determine how the newsletter is being received and whether it's a cost-effective marketing tool.
No surprises. Content should be germane, timely, and expected. This does away with the problem of having your message confused with the spam flooding people's in-boxes. Goodwin recommends first asking customers if they would like to receive your newsletter, and she urges that you provide a link so that signing up is a matter of a simple click. She also recommends including a prominently displayed "opt-out" link.
Make it worthwhile. You can include new product information, market data you've collected, quick polls, the opinions of your staff experts, and surveys. Carefully crafted polls also invite customer feedback, which you can feature in follow-up e-letters, as well as prompting questions about your company or products.
Some customers contribute their own content, particularly in the product area, Goodwin says, while others pick up free or paid content online. "We host a library of 190,000 articles of independent content that's third-party derived," she says. "There's also a lot of free content that some clients use as the bellwether of their newsletter and then surround it with their in-house information."
Mutual benefit. From the sender's perspective, an effective e-letter provides insights about customers and helps shape a profile of the target market. It can be a source of intelligence and marketing data, generate customer responses to help you follow evolving trends, and individualize communications and incentives more effectively, Goodwin says. Don't use your e-letter as an in-your-face promotions tool or repetitive customer-service message. Instead, make sure it contains value-added information to make it worth your customers' while.
To the point. You don't need tons of content -- but you do need to produce your newsletter on a regular basis. "Five articles is a lot," Goodwin says. "We recommend that you send out the newsletter not less than once per quarter. You're using them to establish a relationship, so the ideal frequency is once or twice a month."
Monitor the reception. Technology can let you see how many recipients and customers actually open your e-letter, and how many click-through to the articles that appear on a separate page. A good e-marketing firm should also be able to tell you which articles your customers are reading first, second, last, and not at all. Also, how much time they're spending with it and whether they are forwarding it to someone else. This is all valuable information that should help you decide if your investment in e-marketing is paying off.
"Over time, you can understand what individuals want in terms of content, and whether or not you're delivering it, " says Goodwin. "This kind of automated analysis really adds value to small businesses and helps them compete against the very large businesses doing the same thing."
Be polite -- and secure. Look for an e-marketing firm that sends only permission-based, opt-in e-mails -- and never even considers selling your customer lists to third parries. Don't send an e-letter as an attachment: Too many people are justifiably fearful of contracting computer viruses by opening attachments. Don't overdo the graphics or many of your customers won't bother, either because it won't load or, if it does, will take too long to appear.
In addition to iMakeNews.com, whose services begin at $199 a month for up to 10,000 e-mails and go all the way to e-letters for corporate clients paying as much as $12,000 a month, there are many other e-marketers. Some you might want to check out: bCentral, GotMarketing(http://www.bcentral.com/products/marketing.asp), Responsys.
Klein is BusinessWeek Online's Smart Answers columnist