Less than 15 years ago, if you wished to directly alert your customers to a sale, you would have to design and print a flyer, organize the mailing, and pay for postal rates. Depending on the location of your customers, your message might have taken over a week to reach its destination. Your message could only show a few sentences, pictures, and a logo to motivate your recipient to respond. All this would take considerable time in planning and a sizable monetary investment.

Today, with e-mail, at about 10 percent the cost of printed bulk mail distribution, you can reach the same prospective customers and more, quickly and precisely. You can trigger immediate responses, and obtain a surprisingly accurate feedback on your marketing investment.

E-mail marketing is a form direct response marketing -- advertising that solicits recipients to take immediate action. Despite the ease and cost-effectiveness that make it a great tool for budget-conscious small businesses, which desire to add new customers, it has been the large businesses that have most successfully mastered the art, generating billions of dollars in sales with very little overhead.

The secret of most large companies success in their email efforts consists in making it part of a comprehensive endeavor, spanning multiple media and advertising methodologies. Small and mid-size businesses, while not always in a position to extend their brand over costly TV and radio ads, can find creative ways to combine emails with other forms of advertising to greatly increase the response.

Integrating e-mail into advertising strategy

While the advent of computerized communication has revolutionized the way small businesses can reach their customer base, it has not changed the underlying structure of your complete advertising strategy. Your approach might include newspapers, radio, some television ads, billboard signs, posters, and even store window art and packaging.

In order for you to maximize the success of your e-mail campaigns, you need to consider how it will collaborate with, and augment these other efforts as a part of your complete strategy.

How will you present e-mail that will reinforce the message from your billboard sign or follow up on your sales call? How can your e-mail campaign leverage your customer's word-of-mouth activity to generate interest in your upcoming promotion?

A good example of simple synergy between two marketing efforts within the reach of most small businesses is the combination of e-mail with traditional direct response postal mail marketing. Each mode can be organized to compliment the other: a postcard announcing a sale can persist on the recipient's desktop for days, while e-mail provides direct access to purchasing your products and acts as immediate reminder.

One way to structure dual mode mailing is to execute the mailing modes in sequence, by first sending your postal mail message to inform and 'soften up' your target audience, then following up with emails to monetize the results.

In addition to providing potential customers with more time to react to your message, this methodology presents a number of advantages:

  • multiple ways to respond;
  • lower over-all costs than separate efforts;
  • greater ability to personalize your message;
  • the ability to track more accurately the results of your campaign, and
  • greater exposure to your brand.

E-mail and the power of branding

Multiple reinforcements of your message and identity through different channels, such as e-mail and postal mail, in fact not only tend to increase the overall return of your campaign, but are also very effective in developing 'brand.'

Branding is the subtle edge that gives fine businesses the advantage.  In a world increasingly driven by information, people know better than ever what they really want. For the most part they will have plenty of choices with similar prices and the primary differentiator will be your brand.

In the world of small businesses brand matters just as it does for large corporations. E-mail marketing paired with offline strategies is probably the least expensive way to reinforce it and help you move it towards the 'top of the mind' of your prospective customers.

A few rules about email marketing

Be it a part of your advertising strategy or just a one-time promotion, there are a few simple, yet important rules that will help you make the most out of your e-mail marketing efforts.

  • Don't spam. Use only permission based lists: opt-in, double opt-in. When possible always tray to create your own mailing list: it will always yield the best results.
  • Be personal. Customize your message for different recipients; make them know you understand them.
  • Create value. Give your customers something in return, such as information, which will help in their business.
  • Use 'viral marketing' techniques. Create opportunities and incentives for enthusiastic recipients to forward the information to other people.
  • Test and measure. E-mail marketing allows for detailed measurement of results. Test different creative ideas, different text content, different promotions, and compare and go with what works best

Andrea Peiro is president and CEO of the Small Business Technology Institute, a non-profit organization created to foster the adoption of information technologies among small businesses.