Wednesday, June 17, 2009

B2B E-mail Marketing 101: How to Ensure Success

For small and mid-sized businesses, e-mail marketing is one of the most valuable and economical tools available. It's direct, it's inexpensive, and it's rapidly deployable. But how you go about crafting an email campaign can make all the difference between success and failure. One of the most important things you can do when preparing a campaign is to put yourself in your customers' shoes.

First, you need to ask yourself "Exactly what kind of information do my clients or prospects actually want?" What will attract their attention and get them to actually open and read — and hopefully act on — your e-mail campaign? What can you offer them that will be of real value to them? It's important to think of email as a fairly intimate mechanism for engaging with your prospects or clients. Any successful campaign will involve a well-designed series of communications that is designed to take them through an extended conversation, rather than just a series of unrelated, uncoordinated messages. Email addresses for your clients — and especially your prospects — are a valuable resource, and the best way to lose access to them is to abuse them. When we don't give sufficient thought to the messages we send, you can almost be assured of getting "unsubscribes" and, ultimately, the loss of that prospect or client. And, as we all know, it's much easier — and less costly — to maintain an existing client than it is to acquire a new one.

So, content is crucial. If it's not meaningful to your target audience, you'll lose their attention, and possibly their business. Stuck for ideas...? Here are a couple of ideas, just to get you started:

Highlight an Existing Client — When you get positive feedback from a client, reach out to them and ask if it would be O.K. for you you to highlight them on your website and in e-mail campaigns. Nothing sells better than success, and prospects are always looking to validate their purchase decisions.

Provide Useful Tips or Market Insight — As an expert in what you do, your knowledge can be extremely useful to your audience. These can be tips on how to make better use of your product or sewrvice offering, or they can be insights into the current state of your marketplace. You don't necessarily want to "sell" in these messages, you just want to demonstrate that you have market expertise that can prove useful to your prospective clients. They'll make the sales connection on their own, and they won't feel like they're being spammed.

Announce Upcoming Events — Got an industry event or trade show coming up? Announce it, and be sure to include a link to the event. If you'll be exhibiting, provide your booth location and on-site contact info. If you're just attending an event, let your audience know if you'll be available for meetings or general networking. And, if an event has already passed, highlight photos of you with clients or industry figures.

As you can see, ideas for content are limited only by your imagination. You can include sales promos, or even industry news. And once you’ve identified the types of content you'll be using, you can begin preparing the actual emailing, building your e-mail list and creating an email template that properly reflects your brand image. There are several ways to approach this, starting with using Microsoft Outlook as your basic foundation, to stand-alone email software packages, all the way to hosted email management solutions, which can range from simple (inexpensive) to complex (expensive.) Unfortunately, a serious discussion of the merits of each method is well beyond the intent of this article.

Finally, it's a good idea to send out a preliminary e-mail in which you introduce yourself and establish expectations about what type of information your subscribers can expect to receive, and the frequency with which they'll be receiving it. Encourage an ongoing conversation by asking for feedback. This will not only engage your customers, but their suggestions and feedback can also help you improve and better target future campaigns.

The next step is to draft an e-mail marketing plan for the entire year. Look at the calendar from the perspective of your customer, being aware of significant industry events that might be of interest to them. Map-out topics and promotions that can help you reach them with pertinent information at the "right" time, throught the year. The time you spend in front-end planning will greatly improve the performance of your campaigns, while ensuring that your audience receives information that is both relevant and timely.

When it's time to push-out your campaign, be sure to do a couple of "test" emailings, to your personal email account, and to family members or friends. Check against not only your "Office" email client, but also against web-mail clients like Yahoo or G-Mail, to be certain that everything looks the way you've intended. Make sure that any included graphics show up where they're supposed to. Proofread, then proofread again. And be sure to proof your "Subject Line," as well. Then, make sure that any included links function properly.

Lastly, be sure to include an obvious "Opt-Out" mechanism on your email, even if it's a simple "Reply with UNSUBSCRIBE in the Message Header" link. There will typically be some folks who — while appreciating your company as a resource — prefer not to receive unsolicited email promotions, and it is vitally important that you respect their wishes.

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