Email marketing.

No, it’s not about sending a couple smiley-face emoticons and self-indulgent, “Hey, look at our business” messages to a couple old clients from your dinosaur AOL account.*

Email marketing is the lean, mean, evergreen secret to keeping customers and keeping them coming back.  By maintaining an active list, you have the opportunity not only to stay in touch, but to continue to market your wares and services to that list, thus cutting down on new acquisition costs.

The world of email marketing is a big one, full of best practices, little secret tips, and jargon that you’ll eventually want to learn.  But as an intro primer that won’t leave feeling like you just got hit over the head with an unpadded postal mailer, let’s cover some of the basics and next steps.

Why should I use email marketing for my business?

In today’s business climate, trust has become more important than ever.  People buy from businesses they know, like, and identify with.  This isn’t exactly a new concept, but modern business has made transactions more anonymous, and consumers are more wary about who they’re dealing with.

As a result, when a first-time customer is happy with a purchase, they want to keep buying from that vendor or service provider.  Namely, you.  Email marketing gives you a direct and inexpensive route to allowing that single purchase to become a lifetime series of quality transactions through an ongoing conversation.

Let’s use an example.  Say you have a business selling shoes, and Bill buys a pair of your shoes.  He loves them.  He would be open to buying more of your shoes.  But you can’t just assume Bill is going to remember your website address, or even think that he needs more shoes.

Now, if you were to add Bill to your email list, you would be able to tell him about all kinds of things — new shoes you get into your store, any sales you’re having, a coupon you’re featuring this month.

What’s even cooler is that, based on Bill’s buying behavior, you can track the things he likes and “segment” him so that you can only send him promotions and emails based on that data.

As a result, you now have a customer who not allow allows, but welcomes you to send him your promotions and business updates because you’re directly serving his needs.

This is a fundamental of what Seth Godin calls Permission Marketing.  People are literally giving you permission to send them stuff.

This type of marketing has infinitely higher return on investment than, say, a blanket catalog mailing or a semi-targeted ad in a weekly circular.  It also tends to be cheaper (and often more effective) than other types of highly customized direct mail pieces, since there are no printing or postal costs.

So How Do I Start Using Email Marketing?

Most successful businesses use an email marketing service.  They’re better than just sending a mass mailing from your Gmail inbox for several reasons, such as higher deliverability rates, and tracking/analytics info so you can see how many people are opening and clicking on the links in your emails.

Plus, most email marketing services offer easy-to-use customizable templates so you tailor the look and feel of your emails as you see fit.

I use AWeber.  I pay about $20/month and love the features and customer service.

Some people also use MailChimp, Constant Contact, iContact, Vertical Response, etc.

Great.  What Are Some First Steps I Should Take?

Sign up with one of those companies above.  If you’re worried about cost, start with MailChimp.  They’re a great company and have a free plan up to 2,000 subscribers (although you don’t have access to certain features).  You can also scale up to the paid plans when you want to.

Once you’ve signed up, then go through the process to learn how to use their service.  The good ones have video (and written) tutorials to get you up to speed.  Then, create an opt-in form to go on your website and start collecting email addresses. Again, the company you use should be able to tell you how to do that.

Keep in mind that the more fields (i.e. Name, Email, Phone Number, Address) you use on your form, the less likely people will be to fill it out.  So, only include the ones that you find necessary.  Most businesses start with name and email.  Remember — you’re starting a conversation, and you can get more info from people as time goes on and it becomes more relevant.

You might also want to consider offering an “ethical bribe,” such as a free report or series of video tips on how to do something in exchange for submitting information.  It tends to get people more interested.

How Often Should I Email My List?

Some businesses send out a message once every month.  Some email their lists four times a day.

Test it.  Start with once a week and see how many people unsubscribe.  If it’s not a lot, then try emailing twice a week and see what happens.  Your list will essentially “tell you” when you’re doing it too much.  As long as you’re sending out valuable content that people want to read, you should be fine.

Get Started Now

Email marketing doesn’t have to be overwhelming.  Just get started, take it a step at a time, and think of it as a way to dialogue with customers who want to hear what you have to say.

*By the way, shut down your AOL account.  It’s time.  There are phonographs serving greater purposes these days.