How SMBs can harness email to drive revenue

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Credit: Rich Brooks, Flickr

Snapchat, Facebook, and other social channels get all the attention. But people still don’t use them nearly as much as email, which they check for more than 6 hours a day. That’s one of the reasons many experienced marketers still consider email the workhorse of the marketing world.

As a channel, email delivers visibility, reach, and relevance. About 90 percent of U.S. Internet users have email, and it’s a central feature on smartphones, the growing device of choice. It’s a high-attention channel, serving as a primary communications channel for personal and work contacts. And it offers something that many of the hot new social channels don’t: a flexible timeline for consumption. If users aren’t online when you send your message, they’ll find it the next time they are.

Large companies—especially those that rely on their existing customer base for ongoing purchases—tend to use complex customer relationship management, or CRM, and email automation platforms to deliver timely and relevant messages. They effectively create one-to-one conversations at scale, delivering the right messages at the right time to the right people, driving engagement and, with it, purchases.

Inexpensive and easy-to-use tools make it possible for small and midsize businessses, or SMBs, to unlock this value. Anyone who supports SMB marketing needs to be able to help these businesses build effective email programs.  

Why SMBs shouldn’t resist email marketing

SMBs are loathe to spend time or money on projects that don’t have obvious and immediate benefits. They tend to prioritize serving existing customers and strong leads over marketing to prospects who might not be interested in making a purchase anytime soon, and they prefer investments with short-term payoffs—both arguments against email marketing.

A lot of SMBs think that it’s too difficult to develop or maintain a customer list, or to create and send emails. They might worry about spamming their customers, and they can probably all recall some awful emails they’ve received.

It’s true that businesses need to have technical skills to manage email marketing programs. But the actual level of skill required has dropped tremendously as systems evolve.

Email delivery tools, in particular, are much more powerful and widely available than they were just a few years ago. They have intuitive interfaces and premade templates that make it easy to create, send, and track the engagement of emails.

Many of these new systems are accessed over the Internet, meaning that the companies using them don't have to install or manage any software. With a subscription model, they can pay as they go. They can also easily buy lists of leads relevant for different industries.

As systems get more powerful and easier to use, SMBs are getting more skilled at using systems across many aspects of their businesses. From word processing to search marketing to financial programs, systems that once felt too specialized are now seen as a way to access enterprise-level resources without needing enterprise-level skills.

We’re just getting started

SMBs looking to do email marketing still encounter challenges. For one, it still takes time to collect and manage data. They need to determine which customers to exclude because of personal relationships, which ones offer the highest potential value, and which ones should be removed from the lists, among other issues. Some CRM systems can solve some of these challenges, but most SMBs aren’t convinced that these are worthy investments.  

Each email also needs to deliver a positive customer experience. Traditionally, this means getting a clear message across, with the right brand voice, relevant for the reader, with a valued message, leading to an offer or useful information. Large brands do this by tapping into data for personalization, list segmentation, and bringing in professional communicators and designers. SMBs working at a smaller scale will likely have less data and more limited segments, increasing the risk that the messages won’t be specific enough to spur the recipients to action.  

But the new tools give SMBs design templates, and they can get away with writing their own copy instead of hiring professionals. Given the current preference for authenticity and aversion to advertising, this could not only be cheaper, but also more effective at getting readers’ attention.

Consider that 90 percent of all businesses in the United States are SMBs. What if just half of them started this real-voice email marketing? How would large companies need to respond to parry the power of these emerging brands?

The pieces are falling into place for SMBs to start marketing with email. And it will get even easier, as SMBs get more technologically savvy, and tools become easier.

As businesses adopt it in greater and greater numbers, they might transform email marketing into something new, something real, and something to which all marketers pay closer attention.

This post first published on The Huffington Post.

Topics: agile, marketing strategy, email, email marketing

Katherine Ogburn, Director of Strategy

Katherine Ogburn, Director of Strategy

Katherine builds foundations for brands and marketing programs, and helps clients define marketing goals that are grounded in business needs and user-centric audience views. While much of her recent work has been for large companies such as Google, Intel, iShares, General Motors, and Microsoft, she also enjoys helping define identities and competitive differentiation for startups and small companies. Prior to Ready State, Katherine worked at MRM, McCann, FCB, and McKinsey. She has a master's in business administration from Columbia Business School, a master's in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley, and a bachelor's in Russian studies from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.