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Seven steps to smart email marketing

What do you consider to be the sharpest tool in your marketing toolbox? Is it your website? The web banner ads you've placed across the Internet? A listing in the Yellow Pages?

A slow economy doesn't mean businesses should halt their marketing efforts. Perhaps one of the most cost-effective tools you can employ that delivers a solid return on investment is in permission-based email marketing. Email marketing can be a simple, successful and fairly inexpensive -- if it's done right. Done wrong, email marketing can annoy recipients, waste valuable staff time and create negative associations of your brand in the minds of prospects.

According to Campaigner®, an email marketing software company and Comcast partner, shoppers are increasingly turning to online shopping to save time and travel and to compare prices. Smart e-tailers see this as an opportunity to provide incentives such as coupons and discounts. More importantly, email establishes a direct channel between your business and your customer - one that can go beyond top-down sales messages to help you better understand customer wants and needs.

So how do you get started? Whether you are giving advice, promoting an event or contest or issuing a call to action, email marketing should follow your overall marketing strategy and align with your business goals. Before you jump in, it's crucial to take the time necessary to design a campaign that's on-strategy.

My job at Comcast is to provide small and medium businesses with the tools and technology that increase productivity and ultimately improve the bottom line by providing advanced communications solutions that help them meet their business objectives. With that in mind, I've pulled together seven of my best tips for launching and managing a smart and engaging email marketing campaign. Even if you're dealing with the leanest of budgets, these tips can help shape a program that will provide a return on investment:

1. Avoid spamming - Spam is defined as unsolicited email. If you're utilizing email marketing to reach your customers, you certainly don't want to lose their trust or their business by aggravating them with communications they didn't ask to receive. When inviting current or prospective customers to join your email list, consider providing opportunity for them to assert their preference on frequency and content. Add only those who have deliberately opted in to your email list.

2. Leverage relevant content - Let's be honest: who hasn't opened their inbox and been overwhelmed by the volume of emails from other businesses? If you're anything like me, such emails are immediately deleted. Good content is key to developing email marketing pieces that customers and potential customers not only open, but act upon.

In addition to your call to action (buy now!) incorporate content that will be valuable to the recipient, such as industry trends and relevant events. If you're the type of person interested in "extra credit," you can take your email marketing efforts a step further by incorporating multi-media content, such as video or podcasts.

3. Be consistent and transparent - Even if your recipient has opted to receive your email marketing, you risk deletion if they don't recognize who the email is coming from. Make sure to use your company name or a clear theme in your subject line to prompt recognition and maintain your reputation as an effective participant in e-commerce. Additionally, maintain a consistent format (if you're a Comcast subscriber, Campaigner has some excellent templates) and a consistent frequency so that recipients come to recognize your material and when to expect it.

4. Unleashing the power of personalization - Relevance, relevance, relevance - it is to email marketing what location is to real estate. The more you personalize the messages to your customer's needs and interests and time it appropriately, the more loyalty and ROI you will gain.

5. Privacy policies - Respecting subscriber privacy is paramount. Earlier this month, Tagged.com announced that it had adopted revisions on the use of invitation e-mails after New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo alleged that the social-networking Web site essentially stole the identities of some 60 million Internet users. When building your email list, keep it simple and keep it transparent to avoid any violations of privacy policies.

6. Maintain subscription records - Effectively maintaining your email list is also one of the easiest opportunities to measure the impact your email campaign has made. Set regular goals to measure against, including "forward to friend" counts, changes in email list count and general feedback on the value of your emails.

7. Allowing users to unsubscribe - The goal of an email marketing campaign is to bolster interest and build relationships, so you certainly don't want to continue sending emails to a person who isn't interested. By making the opt-out process easy to find and fast, you'll increase the potential for that individual to reengage again at a later date.

Every business owner wants to take the shortest path from prospect to sale, but it can be tough to decide which marketing channel to use. For the owner of a small- or medium-sized business, email marketing offers an ideal combination of ease-of-use, cost effectiveness and return on investment.

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Karl Ossentjuk

Karl Ossentjuk is vice president of Comcast Business Class Services for Comcast Colorado, where he oversees sales and support for local business customers.  From Comcast’s regional headquarters in Denver, Ossentjuk helps small to enterprise-scale businesses align the technologies they need – including high-speed Internet, voice, video and more – to streamline operations, uncover cost efficiencies and drive bottom-line results. Ossentjuk holds a master of business administration from University of California at Berkeley and received his bachelor’s degree from Colorado College.

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