E-Mail Marketing Services Fit Your Needs and Budget

For most small firms, your best potential customers are the ones you already have. New clientele is always nice, but repeat customers will make your business sustainable. Cultivating those relationships, while simultaneously reaching out to new prospects, is an ongoing challenge that can quickly overwhelm your marketing budget and bandwidth.

In this digital age, e-mail is the most cost-effective way to alert previous customers about special offers, promotions and new products. But sending out a personalized, attractively designed mailing to a large number of people via the tools in Outlook or with an Excel spreadsheet as your database is frustrating at best. Fortunately, a host of online services have sprung up to meet this challenge.

Online Services to the Rescue
Typically, such a service will let you upload your contact list, segment customers into appropriate groups (by location, interests, age &#151 whatever makes sense for your business), build various types of correspondence (newsletters, promotions, press announcements and so on), and send personalized bulk e-mail.

Even more valuable, most services include reporting tools that show you not only who received the mailing, but also who opened it and who acted on it. More advanced services offer very granular reporting; for instance, showing you how far into your Web site a given recipient navigated after clicking on the link in the original e-mail.

Search for the phrase “e-mail marketing,” and you’ll come up with literally dozens of choices. The trick is to find a service that suits your needs, your budget and your level of expertise. Plans range from $15 a month all the way to hundreds of dollars per month. Typically, the more expensive solutions target the marketing departments of larger enterprises. They offer more control over list segmentation, advanced delivery options and very granular reporting.

Constant Contact screen shot

With Constant Contact, constructing a newsletter or other e-mail communication is an easy cut-and-paste affair.

(Click for larger image)

Smaller firms will want to focus on e-marketing companies such as Constant Contact, IntelliContact, Sparklist or Vertical Response. These services offer relatively affordable pricing plans, as well as enough communications and reporting options to keep the owner of a growing business satisfied.

Keep in Touch with Constant Contact
One of the most affordable services is Constant Contact, with plans starting at only $15 per month&#151and that’s after a 60-day free trial. That free trial is what attracted Jennifer Gordon, president of Chicago-based Sojourn, Inc. Her custom handbag and accessory business, started in 2002, operates via the Web and through 67 field reps spread across 27 states.

Before finding Constant Contact, Gordon had a small database of clients and would piece together promotional mailings in Outlook. “We collected names at shows and typed them in,” she says of those early days. “I experienced a lot of frustration with that method.” After looking at five e-mail marketing services, Gordon settled on Constant Contact a year ago because of its ease of use, features and price.

Made for Mere Mortals
The service’s tab-driven interface is clear and easy for anyone to navigate. The main interface shows tabs for your E-Mail Campaigns (past and present), Subscriber Lists and Reports. There are a host of pre-designed templates for a range of e-mail types: newsletter, promotions, events and invitations, business letters, press announcements and cards. Pick the type of correspondence and the appropriate style, and then load your own text and graphics. You can customize the templates, or load your own design.

Handy features abound. Constant Contact tracks how many times you’ve used an image, so you can keep your mailings fresh. You can build recipient lists by location, interest categories or other criteria with which you’ve tagged each customer. Turn any words or phrases in your message into a clickable hyperlink &#151 handy for learning what words and topics click with your audience.

The Anti-spam Check tool analyzes your mailing, looking for wording that might cause anti-spam utilities to flag your message as spam. And Constant Contact’s reporting module will show you how many recipients opened the e-mail, who they are and when they opened it (useful for setting the time for future mailings).

“It’s exponentially easier than what we were doing before,” says Sojourn’s Gordon. “It’s easier to update lists and to make sure the right people are getting the right communication, so we’re not spamming anyone.”

In addition to reaching out to customers, Gordon uses Constant Contact to communicate with her field reps. Instead of trying to schedule a monthly conference call involving dozens of people in several time zones, she can use Constant Contact to alert her agents about upcoming products and promotions.

Best of all, the price is right. Since Sojourns’ list size is still fewer than 500 people, Gordon pays just $15 a month to use Constant Contact. Pricing scales up from there, topping out at $150 a month if your list has 25,000 entries.

“In terms of bang for the buck, it’s unbelievable,” says Gordon. “We also spend money on PR and other forms of marketing, but as far as return goes, Constant Contact is far and away the best.”

Mid-Level Solution
For many businesses, the Constant Contact tools will be enough. But larger businesses may need more control or more advanced reporting. That’s where a mid-level tool like Sparklist comes in. In addition to the types of mailings other services offer, Sparklist can also handle discussion groups and moderated or un-moderated forums.

Sparklist can handle anywhere from a couple hundred to multiple millions of e-mails a month. Its range of clients includes associations, publications and e-commerce businesses. A division of Lyris, Sparklist uses the company’s ListManager software (popular with marketing departments in a host of industries) as its back end.

Sparklist screen shot

The professional-looking template selection in Sparklist lets even HTML-challenged marketers create compelling correspondence.

(Click for larger image)

Sparklist’s online interface is plain but functional, and its wealth of options is well organized. To get started, simply import your database (converted to .csv format, please) and start constructing your sub-lists. As your campaigns progress, you can drill down on a particular member to see his or her history (the campaigns they received, the ones they responded to and so on) which makes it easy to build more detailed lists based on that information.

Sparklist offers 16 pre-built templates&#151just plug in your own text and images&#151and lets you upload your own designs. A convenient Content tab lets you build a library of existing document pieces for reuse in subsequent mailings.

Powerful Control
Two areas where Sparklist is more flexible than the entry-level solutions is in segmenting intended recipients and in tracking their behavior.

The Segments tab lets you target a campaign to as broad or narrow a group as you would like, based on the demographic information you’ve collected and on individuals past history with your campaigns. For example, you could send an exclusive mailing to males in the New York area who responded to your “Fall sale” mailing.

You also have options to suppress given recipients based on criteria; for example, to ensure that a person only receives one mailing every 30 days, no matter how many sub-lists of yours they are on. Sparklist also supports triggered mailings, where if a recipient does x (say, opens a particular message) the system will follow up a set time later with y (a coupon, a reminder that a promotion is ending, a thank you, for example).

After your message is delivered, Sparklist lets you track your recipients’ behavior as it relates to that mailing. While entry-level solutions generally stop at click-through reporting (tracking customers who opened and clicked on a link in the mailing), Sparklist offers click stream reporting, showing you who ventured all the way through to a given page on your site (to a checkout or sign-up page, for example). In all, Sparklist offers more than 200 reports.

All this extra power comes at a higher price than entry-level offerings, but the range is still reasonable. Sparklist charges $50 a month and up for the online community services, and $89 a month and up for newsletter mailings and the like. Enterprise-level campaigns start at $500 a month.

Whichever type you choose, be it an entry-level offering like Constant Contact or a mid-level service like Sparklist, e-mail marketing can streamline communication with your existing customers. That helps keep them in the fold, while giving you more time and resources to pursue new clients &#151 a win-win for any business owner.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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