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Five Commandments of Small-Biz Email Marketing Awesomeness

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Why it's important to "be human" in your emails
  • What customer-centric tactics will help you gain and keep email subscribers

Before we even start, let's ask: Is email marketing for your small business even worth doing? Yes and no. Yes, if you do it well. No, if you take the path of mediocrity. Sure, tools can make email marketing easier, but it'll still take time and effort. Before you invest any precious time into email marketing, take on the mindset that "good enough" isn't good enough.

Countless small businesses send out countless emails every day. If you were to sift through campaigns and results (as I do), the mountains of data would suggest two breeds of email campaign: the outstanding... and the invisible. Your emails need to be outstanding.

A "bad" email promotion can be much harder to produce than an outstanding one because it involves laboring over imitation and so-called best-practices... sterilizing the soul out of your verbiage only to get lost in a sea of lookalikes and clichés. It's much easier to make an outstanding email because that involves just being yourself and enjoying the process.

With that in mind, here are my Five Commandments for email awesomeness—tailor-made for small businesses.

1. Perfection can be a huge imperfection

The other day, I met a gelled, buffed, and dry-cleaned car salesman delivering a flawless pitch to an elevator-music soundtrack. Why did he make my skin crawl? Because I wasn't seeing him. It was a projection, a front, a lie. His shtick was so universally and calculatedly inoffensive... that it became somewhat offensive. Do not do that in your emails.

Be you. The best brands—much like the best people—have an identity, a voice, idiosyncrasies, and unpredictable quirks. That is the stuff of relationships, the brand glue that turns customers into friends.

Think about the emails you read most—your priority emails. They're from friends, family members, and co-workers: emails packed with quirks and typos and life, but always relevant and real. Relationships are what dominate real email communication. To become a priority, you have to be human, not a watered-down, mass-oriented chunk of supposed perfection.

I'm not suggesting you sprinkle in some "mood" or typos (very bad idea), but do let your guard down a bit. The play-it-safe tone of boardroom presentations has no place in your email. It's the one-on-one candid stuff that happens behind closed doors that perks readers up.

Let them see the fire and passion you have for your brand, products, and services. Take chances, be real, and you'll increase the odds of being read, liked, and trusted.

2. Humanize everything

Your email strategy isn't just about your email. It's also about getting new signups and keeping them. Once you've found your true voice, use it everywhere.

Name your email. "Sign up for our newsletter" is a little blah. If your business is Maggie's Garden Supply Warehouse, garden-variety garden junkies are much more likely to opt in to "Maggie's Green Thumb Gazette."

Customize the opt-in process to make it nice and simple. Name and email data fields are usually all you need—or maybe you just need email addresses. Asking for a ton of personal information will annoy potential subscribers, lower your subscription numbers, and make you look suspiciously robotic. Put a human touch on your opt-in process by asking only for what you truly need.

Add a splash of personality to your opt-in landing page and confirmation page. Even a simple line that reads "Yay, you did it" could make a big difference. You just started a relationship, and you should be ecstatic. Don't sour it with a cookie-cutter response such as "Your email sign-up process has been confirmed." Welcome your new friend warmly, and set the tone with a lovely first impression.

3. Accessorize

You just designed a beautiful email. Think you're done? Think again. Just like a dashing scarf completes a beautiful outfit, an added anecdote, tip, or testimonial completes a beautiful email.

Get in the habit of "accessorizing" your emails with add-ons that surprise and delight the reader. If your focus is a specific promotion or product, start with that. Underneath that (I prefer using a simple line as a divider), add a recent customer review that has you bursting with pride, or a blurb from your latest blog post, or a link to someone else's fascinating article... and a short comment about it.

Something is always worth sharing, and your email is perfect for doing so. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, you're not limited to one message. You can piggyback a second one. It's like the bubblegum in a pack of baseball cards; it's not the main reason you bought the cards, but it sure is sweet. Plus, you might be surprised by all the clicks and social sharing that your little afterthought generates.

4. Great design is always worth it

Your email needs a killer header—a banner-esque image at the top of each email that's branded, distinctive, and memorable. Like a magazine cover, the header sets the tone. A strong header can make an email that's light on content seem weighty and important. Have a graphic designer help with type-setting and graphics. Do it once, and do it right. You're going to get tons of use out of it.

For the body of your email, simple is better. Go for a one-column layout. Multi-column layouts are hard to digest; they work in print newsletters, but email newsletters scroll, so columns are unnecessary.

Use bigger type and readable fonts, preferably the official fonts and colors of your brand. Choose simple, powerful images, and tweak your copy blocks to avoid awkward line breaks and distracting asymmetries.

When in doubt, cry for design help from your email service provider. It has a vested interest in your email looking beautiful, and it should be more than willing to help.

5. To send or not to send... that is the (stupid) question

OK, it's never stupid to ask questions. But when sending emails, the adage "less is more" breaks down.

Email is a crowded playing field. After your best efforts to make smart, human, beautiful emails, you can still expect most of them to be ignored.

If a baseball player bats .300, that's 30% success—good enough to become an All-Star. But with those odds, you need to step up to the plate as much as possible. When in doubt, send. Err on the side of too much sending... and increase your odds of connecting.

Don't send just for the sake of sending, though. Make sure your message is relevant and its content is outstanding. If you have an important promotion, repackage the message or offer it in a different way, and send it again a few days later. It's fine. I promise.

The benefit of being seen far outweighs the risk of annoying someone who opted in to receive your emails.

* * *

Enterprise is changing into friendterprise. As a small business, you have to be a friend to your customer if you want to stand out from the herd of bigger businesses. The easiest way to seem like you're a friend is to actually be one. As a small business, that should come easy to you. You're not hamstrung by bureaucracy, committees, and shareholders. You have a manageable customer base, so you can afford to take risks, give personalized attention, and just be yourself.

Rising above email mediocrity is similar to rising above mediocrity in relationships, art, life, everything. Brands that keep it real, love what they do, and work smart, do better in general—and so do their email campaigns.

Ultimately, email is just a tool. It's the humanity behind the tool that gives email its power. So the key to crafting outstanding email campaigns is to be in touch with what you want to say and feel genuine satisfaction in saying it.

In the words of Janis Joplin, "You know you got it, if it makes you feel good."

(Image courtesy of Bigstock, Protecting Your Business.)

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Gary Levitt is the CEO of Mad Mimi in New York and is responsible for tactical aspects of Mad Mimi's development and brand. Gary was born on a remote farm in Southern Africa and went to school with Nelson Mandela's grandchildren; he was also a skateboard pro and champion, and a professional bass player.

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  • by Erika Barkhuizen Wed Nov 23, 2011 via mobile

    Good advice. Now to set about doing it

  • by HCG corporate designs Wed Nov 23, 2011 via web

    absolutely agree - good post!

  • by Scott Wells - Iron on Patches Mon Nov 28, 2011 via web

    I agree....emailing your customers has to be personal and there are many software packages online to do this. We simply make sure all our campaigns have the customer's name and business listed in the email. If we can get other pieces of information about the customer over time, we try to include these into groups. Birthdays is a good one. We make sure to send a happy birthday wish to our customers. It lets them know we are thinking of them. is our website and this is the way we do our email marketing.

  • by Kirk Kiernicki Thu Dec 1, 2011 via web

    I'm a bit new to this but this sounds like some very good advice. Really love the humanize point - I can't stand the sanitary/germ-free/non-personality emails that I get. I don't even look at them anymore. Could you do a followup article on point #4 (Great design is always worth it) and what has worked best for you?

  • by Michaele Wed Feb 8, 2012 via web

    Excellent article, thanks. You give us specific directions about personalizing the e-mail and relating to the reader on the human level.
    Kirk and I want more instructions!

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