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How Can Small Businesses Compete in the New Age of Email Marketing?

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Email marketing isn’t what it used to be. Which is not to say that it’s become any less effective. Quite the opposite, actually: Email continues to offer the best return on investment around — outperforming other digital marketing channels substantially. In fact, according to the Data & Marketing Association and Demand Metric, email has a median ROI of 122 percent.

So, all I’m saying here is that email marketing has changed immensely since the first email marketing tool for small businesses was introduced way back in 1998. Today, email newsletters are no longer a novelty, and when it comes to personal email, most of us navigate through our inboxes at lightning speed. We quickly decide which messages are worth our time and which will get trashed or ignored.

Small businesses and huge corporations alike are vying for attention in that inbox. The only difference is that large corporations have the benefit of big marketing budgets that can afford talent and advanced marketing tools.

So, how can small businesses continue to compete in the inbox? They need to embrace three emerging trends in the email marketing industry: automation, artificial intelligence and personalization.

Automation leads to easy action.

Many small businesses still see automation as a dirty word. They fear automation will hurt the authenticity of their customer interactions.

But putting more faith in automation is the best way to drive action. Something as simple as an automated welcome email ensures that small businesses can strike when the iron’s hot and reach new subscribers at the exact time that they’re highly engaged with a business.

For example, gourmet coffee retailer Door County Coffee & Tea Co. uses its automated welcome email to deliver a coupon for all first-time customers — driving sales from new customers on an ongoing basis.

Similarly, when a business foregoes pen and paper sign-up sheets in favor of tablet apps and “text-to-join” tools, they’re able to add new contacts to their email lists immediately. Another benefit? More advanced automation, like triggered emails, can be the secret to effective follow-up based on audience action and behavior.

A 2014 Raab Report found that 60 percent of companies with revenues exceeding $500 million had already implemented marketing automation, but just 3 percent of small businesses with less than $5 million in revenue had actually invested in it. A lot has changed in the almost four years since, but one thing has stayed the same: Automation is still being underutilized by small and mid-sized businesses.

That’s not smart: Automation is like the personal assistant most business owners could never afford. And it’s time small businesses embraced it.

Artificial intelligence is the next best thing to face-to-face.

What’s the easiest way to turn subscribers off? Send them a message that has nothing to do with them.

Consider: People have high expectations for businesses. They want to receive experiences that are perfectly tailored to their interests. In person, that’s pretty simple. You have a quick, one-on-one conversation to hear about what they’re looking for and then explain what you have to offer that could be a good fit.

The inbox is different: Delivering engaging experiences is a lot harder when all you have to go on is a name and email address.

That’s why artificial intelligence (AI) can be your secret to getting a fuller picture of your email subscribers and how to best reach them. A recent Salesforce report found that 57 percent of marketing leaders surveyed called AI absolutely or very essential in helping them deliver an optimal, one-to-one communications experience. Separately, 64 percent said their companies had become more focused on providing a consistent experience across every channel as a result of changing customer expectations.

With data now available across multiple devices and marketing channels, AI has the power to unlock information, such as which products a specific email subscriber has looked at on your website. And that advancement can potentially boost the effectiveness of a company’s marketing automation efforts, allowing it to follow up with targeted email campaigns that will push prospective buyers toward a purchase.

Ultimately, it all comes down to personalization.

The Salesforce survey found that more than half of consumers and 65 percent of B2B buyers surveyed were likely to switch brands if a company didn’t make an effort to personalize its communications to them.

And this is exactly the advantage small business have that larger companies just can’t touch. Small businesses know their customers better than anyone, so they already have a big leg up in the personalization game.

But making marketing messages “feel” personal relies on more than knowledge and data alone. Personalization also means continuing to get to know people, asking thoughtful questions, and showing them that their opinions matter.

One great example is Sheena McDeavitt’s strategy as marketing director for the Hajoca Corporation. McDeavitt personalizes emails and gathers feedback by adding quick one-question polls to her emails. When planning events, she takes the time to ask her subscribers what timing is best for them. She also regularly asks if her messages are relevant to their interests.

Adding polls the way McDeavitt does makes her company’s emails more interactive and boosts her click-through rates to an enviable 30 percent.

So, how can small businesses tackle these emerging, sometimes daunting trends?

Actually, there are three ways:

1. First off, remember that no one has all the answers. Most small businesses have enough on their plate just keeping their business running. They’d rather not have to worry about learning the latest technology or keeping up with every marketing trend. if this describes your business, start small, experiment and find the tactics and technology that work best for you.

2. Get to know your subscribers better, and increase personalization by including polls in your emails. Not only is this an easy way for small businesses to learn more about their subscribers, it leads to more engaging emails and gives subscribers a chance to voice their preferences proactively.

3. Another option is to find a service that offers the features you need to succeed. Options include customizable mobile-responsive email templates, contact-management and reporting tools that makes things like automation and AI simple and accessible.

4. Set up automated annual date-based reminders, like birthday coupons or membership renewals. These are a nice, personalized touch and an efficient way to build customer relationships without your having to create a new email every month.

Ultimately, automation, AI and personalization are all trends that are accessible to any business, and will give small businesses the ability to compete — without breaking a sweat. So, take that, big guys.

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