Dear Email Diva,
Recently a number of my marketing colleagues have been discussing the use of business card exchange tools. At first glance, it seems like a great idea -- kind of like hitting the jackpot of database lists! What's the harm, it is business info, not personal data -- but ethical and ultimately practical issues (like being reported as a spammer and recipient backlash if I have to explain I got their info from such a tool) have stopped me from hopping on the bandwagon. Do you think is it fair business practice to use such tools?
By business card exchange tools," I assume you mean an exchange where you can trade names of those who have trusted you with their business contact information to others in exchange for contacts you need. The Email Diva thinks it's a horrible way to build an email list.
When I teach email classes, I present the Advertising Media Aggravation Continuum. At one end of the spectrum are advertising media that are impersonal and unobtrusive, such as print ads and direct mail. At the other end are the most personal and intrusive media, with telemarketing in first place and email in second. (They are also first and second in delivering ROI, which is no coincidence.) When sending email, we must always remember its potential to be aggravating and craft our strategy accordingly.
People respond very negatively to unsolicited email because it takes mental and physical bandwidth that we would like to reserve for relevant personal and business correspondence. While we expect a certain amount of visibility to our business contact information, our business inboxes are part of our personal domains. I don't cease to be a person when I'm sitting in an office, so my "business info" is indeed personal.
When you consider the recipient's perspective, it's easy to see that you do not want your first contact with a prospect to be unsolicited email. Aside from labeling you a spammer and compromising your deliverability, it makes a terrible brand impression. If you want to build your list, create an email program that people want to read, write for publications and that reach your target audience, promote your email content online and off (through SEO, banner ads, traditional media, etc.), and optimize your site to make email sign-up "prominent, compelling and everywhere" (according to a presentation by Stephanie Miller and Sean O'Neal). Draw subscribers to you by providing great content, advertising its existence, and making it easy to sign up.
A better use of the business card exchange is to locate a few key contacts at companies that you believe will have a legitimate interest in your business. Rather than send a mass email, however, send a personal email, inviting the prospect to explore your offer. This won't get you a large quantity of prospects, but will deliver a much higher quality introduction than a "canned" unsolicited email, and better results as well.
The Email Diva
Send your questions or submit your email for critique to Melinda Krueger, the Email Diva, at firstname.lastname@example.org. All submissions may be published; please indicate if you would like your name or company name withheld.