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SMART ANSWERS
By Karen E. Klein

8.10.99  
The Etiquette of E-Mail Marketing
Be sure you don't spam your customers

Q: How can I determine if my customers are online? Also, if I find that a good percentage of them are online, how should I set up a mailing list for them? --M.R., New York

A: There's only one way to find out something like this, and that is to ask. The key, though, is to ask respectfully and to give your customers an incentive to respond to your query. The one thing you want to avoid is the perception that you're spamming -- sending dreaded unsolicited E-mail. On everything you ask your customers to fill out -- be it a survey, a product registration form, or an application -- include a place for an E-mail address. If you find that people don't want to hand over information for nothing, hold a contest for a giveaway item and include the question about E-mail on the registration form.

Remember not to give your customers the feeling that you're violating their privacy. Ask their permission to send them information by E-mail. "Before they give out their E-mail address, people want to know how you're going to use it," says Jeannine Parker, Internet strategist and president of J. Parker Co. in Santa Monica, Calif. "You should include a checkbox that allows people to state a preference for whether they want to be contacted by E-mail or not." Some customers, particularly those who are environmentally conscious, would rather get advertising by E-mail than direct mail. Others are already overwhelmed with E-mail and don't want to deal with any more.

It's a good bet that you will find a substantial group of customers are online. A recent survey done by the Small Business Banking Group of Bank One Corp. showed that 49% of U.S. small-business owners now have Internet access, 41% use E-mail, and 19% have a Web site. What is especially interesting about this survey is its micro-business focus, defining small businesses as companies with 10 or fewer employees, with annual revenues of less than $50,000 to more than $1 million.

So, if your customers are not online at work or at home just yet, it's likely they will be soon. And if they're not surfing the Web, they're probably at least hooked up to an E-mail server. That's why E-mail is still "the killer marketing tool," Parker says. You can use an E-mail list to promote specials (just don't overuse it, or your customers will start tuning out), send your customers a regular newsletter, or deliver occasional tips and resources related to your industry (this can be particularly effective if you serve a trade or hobbyist client base). That will keep your name in front of your customers without annoying them.

There are several ways to set up an E-mail list, depending on how often you will use it. If you won't send frequent E-mails, Parker suggests you use freeware, such as E-groups (www.egroups.com) or ListBot (www.listbot.com). As another sign of respect for privacy, choose an opt-in list: You input the E-mail addresses of your customers, and the system sends them a notice that they've been invited to join, allowing them to choose whether or not they want to participate. If you're going to send frequent E-mails or you want to start a moderated or unmoderated discussion list, you will probably want to pay for a more sophisticated program, such as ListServe (www.listserve.com), MajorDomo (www.sparklist.com), Lyris (www.lyris.com), or RevNet (www.revnet.com).

These programs start at $15 a week for the smallest groups and can serve E-mail lists in the millions of customers if need be, some with fancy customer-support options. One caution: Once you open the E-mail channel, you need to commit to honoring, respecting, and replying to your customers' queries promptly. "It's the kiss of death to not respond," Parker says. "People expect same-day responses, or next-day, at the outset. If you're on top of it, the loyalty factor you'll achieve from E-mail correspondence with your clients is phenomenal."

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