I was reminded of this after watching a small business focus group last week. Their business issues are the same; how do I talk to customers; how do I speak to them en masse and not seem too impersonal; do I merchandise online, and how efficiently can I do it? The tools they have at their disposal are not that different, but I guarantee you they won't spend 3% of their marketing budget on email marketing as a first priority.
A few things are important to the small business:
The List: Have patience; it doesn't grow overnight. Think "Drip Irrigation"--this is even more important for small business owners. But do think about what you want to do with your customer and prospect information, and if email is one of the answers, be respectful of the source of the information. In today's world, you can ask them whether it's okay to send them information about your business if you get a business card. Do add a "sign up" for your email list on your blog and/or site. While it may not get traction initially, it is the foundation, and you'll thank me in a year. Just as you do with prospect lists, don't keep everyone on your list forever. Do an "interest" check once a year, and try to keep this list as real as possible. Bigger doesn't mean better.
The Plan: Everyone needs a vision. The small business owner should start with the most obvious reasons to communicate and commit to one or two a year, and the rest of your communications can be 1:1. My personal belief is that the most contextual time of year to infuse a marketing message through email is consumer holidays or local activities. Pick a holiday that is celebrated with local events, and craft an email that highlights your business and how you are involved in this event. Do this several times a year, and you'll find these types of promotional/announcement programs have amazing loyalty and readership values for your business. Just remember--there are only four justifiable reasons to use email in marketing:
To Notify about your business or an event
To Educate or provide information about consumer interests or requests
To Promote your business, specials, public relations
To Foster your community, or build advocacy for your business activities.
Outside of this we are just arguing semantics.
The Tools: There really isn't much of an excuse to not use a third-party email tool these days. I can do email for less than $50 a month for a small list, and I can look about as professional as most. There are a multitude of tools, templates and guides on the Net that make this really simple. But don't believe you are automatically a creative artist when you aren't. Use templates, and use what's already created and then customize it... There is no sense in trying to recreate the wheel. If you are like me, a blank piece of paper is exactly that--I don't have the creative vision to create from scratch, so why try?
The Message: While I listed reasons to communicate, Rule #1 is to keep the message simple. You may have a lot to say and have a hard time getting it all out, but don't let your first email to your consumers (regardless of how much editorial value you think you have) be a 700-word essay. Be brief, and try to reflect the voice that represents your business. It's okay to use a little humor, a little personalization; email has become such a natural conversant channel for us that you don't need to be as formal in marketing communications. Think about your favorite email programs today and look closely at the tone that is trending.
The key for a small business is to use email as a bridge to your business, events and staying connected. Email is the only channel that enables social networks so much that as your social network grows, your frequency of communication increases. No other channel fosters this type of communication value. It's not meant to replace your phone or grassroots approach to your business, but it is a vital tool for virtually any business.