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Handy tips on email marketing

Whether your business delivers products or services to consumers or to other businesses, if you haven't started e-marketing, you are missing a real opportunity.

You can use any of a variety of tools to create awareness of your company and your products/services – for example, blogs and podcasts. Since the goal of any marketing activity is cultivating and communicating with targeted potential customers, let's begin with the critical questions of how to find those customers, how to communicate with them, and how to build a relationship that can generate new business.

We've all experienced the dreaded email spam – I spend too long every day deleting messages I never asked for and don't want. It's simply a variation of direct marketing, which began with direct mail and telemarketing, and we are all getting these emails because, like it or not, they work. They might not produce many sales, but the cost of generating an email campaign is so small that it takes very few actual sales to justify it.

That isn't the kind of email marketing I recommend, of course, because it's certainly no way to build the reputation of your business. But a well thought out email campaign can be hugely successful. Here are some tips to bear in mind:

Mailing Lists. I don't endorse list-buying. From an illegitimate source, you're getting an untargeted list that has been sold to many, many others already. And in my experience, a legitimate, valuable list isn't for sale. Legitimate marketing firms develop demographic data over time. They'll help you determine whom you want to target and identify likely customers in their files, then they'll take the marketing materials you supply – newsletters and the like – and mail them out on your behalf.

Spam. Frequency of communication is one important measure of the difference between spam and legitimate email communications. Since a marketing firm has many clients, you cannot know how often the same addresses are being used. Ask about mailing frequency – how many pieces of mail are going to each recipient in a given period – and make sure the list is targeted to your purposes.

Permission. In the online world, permission is a critical element: You want potential customers to opt to receive communications from you. To gain and keep their favour, you need to do more than simply tell customers about your offers. You need to provide value on an ongoing basis. For many companies, that means sharing news and information about their industry or a topic related to their industry, or sharing their perspective in areas that help inform and educate potential customers in the form of an online newsletter. Letting customers sign up for a single issue of a newsletter, with clear "opt out" procedures and language, creates a "safe" option for customers who might be willing to receive communication but have been burned by others in the past.

Collaboration. Once you make a commitment to regular communication with your potential customers, you'll need to stick with it. Are you prepared to invest that much time? To see what's involved in developing regular communications, consider becoming a regular contributor to an existing communications product that targets a similar customer base. Are you in property? Agree to write a monthly column on the housing market for your local newspaper. Or offer a quarterly tips column to an online community newspaper on topics relating to your trade. If you're comfortable with that level of communication, take it to the next level. Create your own topical newsletter and ask that the paper include a way for readers to sign up with you for more frequent communications.

For more advice on this topic, see our tips on writing effective marketing emails.