Small Business Marketing Success Stories: E-Mail Marketing

Did this yesterday with Facebook in honor of #SBW2014, so now we’ll do it with e-mail marketing. Before we get going, remember two things: (1) please don’t call this “an e-mail blast and (2) always keep in mind that human attention spans are not that great. Beyond that, e-mail marketing is an amazing tool. Think about this: Apple has billions of dollars of cash on hand. You have a $2 double IPA from Trader Joe’s and maybe $6 in your pocket. If you send a killer e-mail and Apple sends a middle-of-the-road e-mail, you just took a few customers from an entity that could buy you and sell you 567,829 times over. Cool, right? Let’s dive in.

Constant Contact is obviously a player in this space; they target small businesses and many use their service to send, target, and analyze e-mails. They did a blog this January about successes. Some takeaways: 

Getting more than just a name and an email address is as easy as asking. While you don’t want to overwhelm subscribers with too many fields on forms, asking for a zip code or the name of the person’s organization can go a long way.

You can do this when people sign up in the store or you can customize your Join My Mail List form so people can self-segment into the categories they find most interesting.

Some companies will even ask for birthdays. That way, whenever it’s a customer’s birthday month, they can send those people something special.

The trick is to think about collecting this information over time.

The more you know about your audience, the better you can segment your lists.

There are a couple of examples of best practices in segmenting here, and this stuff is really important: I managed an e-mail list for a while for a segment of PBS, and initially (when I knew very little about the process), I was blasting everything to everyone (and calling it “a blast”). I would have 24-30 unsubscribe e-mails within about 10 minutes of the full e-mail send. People sign up for things often because they’re interested in one specific thing — for example, you might sign up for a venue’s e-mail list because one time they had Dr. Dog there or whatever, but if you start getting e-mails about “80s Dance Parties,” you’re like “F*ck this!” and you’re un-subscribing. Lesson: targeting is important.

Here’s a story from Racine, Michigan (ideally they don’t mean Wisconsin) about a man with no budget who increased sales 15 percent. Here’s how:

To encourage subscribers, Danny offered each new subscriber a free steak on their birthday. Since November of last year, Danny’s subscriber list has grown from 33 to 2,400 and counting.

“The goal is to get a new customer in,” Danny said, “sell them a couple of extra things … break even on it, sometimes make a little money if they like things and buy more.”

Now, there are three reasons you should pay attention to Danny’s “birthday steak” strategy:

  1. Freebies are enticing incentives to encourage anything, in this case newsletter subscribers. And Danny has the right idea: get them in the door, but don’t let them leave with just their free steak; sell them enough “extras” to at least break even and hopefully to make a profit.
  2. Danny personalizes his marketing by centering the freebie around his customers’ birthdays. People love things that are meant specifically for them, and few things are as specific to a person as his or her birthday.
  3. The “birthday steak” gives Danny a way to engage customers even if they haven’t been around for a while. This is critical. NEVER forget about your past customers and clients. They make up your largest potential for revenue and if you ignore them, you’re leaving huge opportunities for cash flow on the table.

Not only did Danny increase his subscribers and sales, but he added additional value for his customers by providing weekly specials, recipes, cooking tips and more.

Point here: targeting to the individual. The birthday is the hook, and the marketing can personalize out from there. Also, tricks like this are useful — you’ll see stuff like “For every like we get on Facebook, we’ll donate $1 to breast cancer research!” It seems a little odd on surface — like maybe it’s not completely on the level — but if you’re following through on your end (free steak/research money), it’s all good — but the key is to take the influx of subscribers and really offer them something of value which is, ultimately, tailored for them.

Here’s a simple tactic from AWeber (who you can use to help with this kind of stuff):

Her site,, used a standard sign up form in the sidebar. Then she decided to try a “lightbox” form as well. The lightbox pops up once per visitor a few seconds after they reach the website, and encourages them to get email updates.

In a few months, the lightbox form was getting 1,375% more sign ups than the sidebar form! And set up was a breeze.

Sometimes the lightbox form annoys me, to be sure — but if the initial content you’re there for seems interesting, you might delve in and try it out. It’s definitely more prominent/affecting than a simple sidebar box, which is the common thing people use.

Forbes got on this train in 2012; the article’s a little old as a result, but some of the ideas still resonate:

Only send email if you have something to say. This one seems obvious, but too many companies start email newsletters with no plan and nothing to say. Email is simply a way to publish content—the content itself has to come first. Before starting a newsletter, make sure it’s a sustainable commitment that will help you achieve your business goals. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting your subscribers’ time and your own time. Ask yourself: What’s the goal for this kind of communication? What do we have to say? How will we measure success? Send thoughtful newsletters, and keep the focus on your company’s message.

Yep. Goes without saying, but so often is the first thing that an organization violates when sending newsletters/e-mails/etc.

Another point from Forbes, going back to the “attention span” argument above:

Make it scannable. Your subscribers are busy people who get a lot of email, so it’s safe to assume you don’t have their undivided attention. Instead of one long block, break up your content into short paragraphs. Include subheadings and images to guide readers through your email and make it easier to scan, and add a teaser to the top of your newsletter to tell subscribers what’s in store. If you’re sending a long article, consider inserting a “read more” link so people can get to the rest when it’s convenient for them. Your subject line should be to-the-point and easy to digest, too. You might even want to a/b test subject lines to see which ones perform best.

For sure. If you don’t break up things, no one really reads them. In the same vein, your initial headline needs to be fairly awesome. Controversial? No, not necessarily (although for some industries, it can help). Mother Jones actually does a really good job with e-mail headlines. One recent one: “Your air is racist.” I’d like to know how my air is racist! ** Click **

Here are a couple of other success story examples — A and B — and here’s the final big thing to remember: a ton of people who get your e-mails will be getting them on mobile, so you need to focus your efforts there in terms of design, layout, how it looks on a mobile device (which means the same thing as “design,” but also means “check and test it”), etc. If you get up with a notable provider — like a MailChimp, Constant Contact, ExactTarget, etc. — their templates will likely have a mobile function (or look) associated with them. If you feel you can’t afford their services, then do something as rudimentary as crafting the e-mail and sending it to your friends with an iPhone, Android, Blackberry, etc. to see how it looks, feels and reads. That’s basic, but it’s important. If something looks awesome on an iPhone but crap-tastic on an Android, that could be an issue for you in terms of customer capture and retention.

Here’s a small business case study from Constant Contact:

This stuff isn’t an exact science — if you go ahead and Google “small business email marketing,” there’s about 80 million potential things to click on. People are trying to figure all this out; remember, even using e-mail to market a product/brand is only about a decade old (if that). But some of the above will help you. Get after it.


Ted Bauer