As small companies search for new customers in order to grow, many may be tempted to rent or purchase a list of e-mail addresses. Advertising to a ready-made list can be appealing for its low cost, immediacy and wide-reach. But beware -- it's not always a good idea, and those who prospect via e-mail can actually do more harm to themselves than good.

In the early days of e-mail marketing, people received comparatively few e-mail solicitations. Recipients clicked on anything that appeared in their inboxes, and e-mail prospecting stood a real chance of success. But the idea quickly caught on -- to put it mildly -- giving rise to spam, a ceaseless torrent of unsolicited commercial e-mail that has become the scourge of the Internet.

As a result, today if you send messages to people who haven't asked for them, you risk being characterized as a spammer. Think about it. When was the last time you bought something from a stranger who sent you an unsolicited message? What impression did you have of that person or business? Did you read his sales pitch, or toss it out, or hit the "spam" button? Studies show that the overwhelming majority of U.S. Internet users find unsolicited messages annoying and offensive.

So that's the bad news. The good news is e-mail can be a key part of your new customer efforts -- if you use it to build on relationships established through other channels. In fact, the interactive nature of e-mail often makes it the very best way to build relationships regardless of the channel that started it.

What do I mean by building relationships? Companies today must work to establish and maintain good relationships with recipients. As with all relationships, success requires give and take. Offer people something they want, and they will give you permission to send them e-mail. But flood them with unwanted or irrelevant offers, and they will turn away forever.

So before you resort to renting or purchasing a list and sending messages to people who haven't asked for them, consider developing your own list of people who actually want to hear from you. Here are four ways to do it:

  • Take advantage of your current customer touch points. If you have a retail location, ask customers to sign up for your list at cash registers and other visible locations. When customers make a purchase at your store, they already are interested in your brand. What's more, you have their undivided attention. They are presenting you with a perfect opportunity to get them on your list.
  • If you have a Web site, place an invitation to sign up for your e-mail list on the home page at the very least, and every page if you can. The more frequent, convenient and inviting you make your opt-in, the more people will use it. Be sure tell visitors about the value they will receive in exchange for providing their e-mail address, and that you will respect their privacy.
  • Let new customers come to you. Advertise on a local or target search engine to drive people to your Web site or retail location. When someone finds you via a search engine, chances are, he or she already is highly engaged in your products or services. It's a great time to get that person on your list.
  • Leverage a pre-existing relationship. Introduce yourself to potential customers through another business that already has an e-mail relationship with its customers. Getting another company to vouch for you is a great way for people to get to know you. For example, if you are a restaurant owner, you might go to a local real-estate company and ask it to mention you in its e-newsletter to new homebuyers, and invite them to visit your Web site and sign up for your e-mail program in order to receive special discounts, recipes, etc. Because your offer has value to recipients, and because it is coming from someone they trust, they are more likely to respond to the message.

These methods will help you find customers and build your e-mail list, but to keep them, you must continue to establish and build trust. Develop high-quality, relevant content, and send only as often as you have something interesting to say. And be creative. The medium itself gets you nothing -- it's what you do with it that counts. Think about a message you would enjoy getting, and send that one.

If in the end you still decide that renting or purchasing an e-mail list is appropriate for your particular business situation, be sure to work only with reputable list brokers that exercise tight control over their lists. Look for lists that are targeted to your audience as narrowly as possible. And, be clear about the kind of permission the broker has obtained from list members. Will recipients understand why they've received your message? Will they, as the law requires, be able to opt-out of receiving your advertising messages in the future?

However, by building your own in-house list and capitalizing on relationships instead of soliciting to strangers, you will be tapping the true potential of e-mail marketing. And you will benefit your business in the long run, instead of merely recruiting a few customers -- at the possible expense of many -- in the short run.