The Inbox As The 'Great Equalizer' For SMBs

I was at my 8-year-old son's basketball game last night.  Evan is the tallest on his team by two inches, so imagine my surprise when he set up for the tip-off against (and I am not exaggerating) a second grader that was at least a foot taller than him!  The kid was huge, and that was not the worst of it; he could shoot, he was fast, and he understood the game.   

In recent weeks I have been lucky enough to speak with both large and small businesses that leverage the email channel to acquire, retain and grow customer relationships.  At first glance, it's hard not to look at smaller companies as if they are standing next to the six-foot-three center in the middle of the basketball court with no hope of competing.  The good news is that, like my eight-year-old, many of the marketers we work with don't know the word quit.  Even better, unlike my son (who simply cannot grow taller or get faster in the first quarter of a game), small and medium-sized companies can use the inbox as the great equalizer.  

Here are some tips for SMBs using the world's greatest direct marketing channel to look bigger in the eyes of their competitors and, most importantly, their customers:

Invest in Your Creative!
Too often, companies just building an email strategy repurpose direct mail creative to be used in email.  I actually have an email in my inbox that uses about 60% of the real estate to show a picture of a print catalogue -- ughhhh!  A small investment in your email templates will give customers the impression that you are bigger than you are.  

As a general rule, work to insert at least two to four personalization elements into your program.  If you are just getting started, you can begin with basic mail merge fields like "first name" but quickly move toward personalized content based on past purchases, subscriptions and other unique data that only you can leverage to build a deeper relationship with your audience.  Years ago, only larger companies could afford to invest in the technologies necessary to leverage personalization, but today on-demand and SAAS offerings make this readily available to the small and medium-sized business.  

Respond to Inquiries Quickly!  
One thing I have learned from working with large enterprises is that while they are excellent at delivering large volumes of highly relevant content quickly, it is very difficult for them to react to inbound communications based on those programs. Automation of responses that hit the mark when it comes to customer inquiry remains a work in progress.  Don't get me wrong, I have worked with a number of larger companies that have nailed inbound response handling and use it as a competitive advantage, but I do feel this is yet another opportunity for small and medium businesses to shine.  

Most email deployments systems offer reports that allow you to dig into individual responses.  Take the time to review these reports and respond to customers when appropriate.  Some systems also provide "alerts" that can trigger text messages to customer service representatives or sales associates, delivering the inbound response details AND contact information to enable quick follow-up.    The email channel can give you the ability to be faster than your larger competitors -- USE IT!

Learn Something About Your Subscribers -- and Use It!
Many email marketers struggle with the issue of data.  I spend a significant amount of time with larger enterprises that have to deal with servers full of data and figure out how to rationalize it to create relevant and timely email content.   Many small and medium-sized companies simply do not have the same quantity of information to manage.  A few of the sharpest create an "email only" database.   They add a limited number of attribute fields and work very hard to add data that can be used for relevant messaging.  You MUST build a preference center to give your customers a place to tell you more about themselves so you can drive a more meaningful conversation.  

The email channel gives you the opportunity to stand on an equal playing field with larger competitors. Use it wisely, and no one is too big to compete against!

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