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7 ways to get customer email addresses

If you're like most small business owners, you need a generous supply of potential customer names and email addresses to effectively market your offerings online.

The good news is you don't have to deceive or spam people to get them. The bad news is that too many others have already taken that route, giving online marketing a shady reputation.

Unlike the offline world, where consumers get junk mail daily and simply toss it into the recycling bin, unwanted email messages offend people and trigger nasty replies. People are more protective than ever of their email addresses.

"Spammers have made it bad for the rest of us," says Derek Scruggs, an expert on permission-based email marketing. So you shouldn't be one yourself; there are enough already out there.

So how do you build your database of names and email addresses? Here are seven tips to consider:

1. Be upfront: Put an email sign-up box prominently on your home page. Why not just tell customers what you want? In return, "offer something of value, earn their trust, and build the relationship," says Jeffrey Graham, vice president at Dynamic Logic, a New York-based online research company. The offers could include free tips and advice, news alerts, newsletters and/or new product information. Be creative, but allow people to opt-out of these emails anytime they want. Two online retailers that follow this strategy effectively are Health4her and BabyCenter. The latter site asks prospective mothers simply for their email address and the date their baby is due. With that information, BabyCenter is ready to roll — it can offer pregnancy and child-rearing tips as well as cribs, car seats, and other products up until long after the baby is born. Similarly, Health4her, which sells health and beauty products for women, can directly reach the consumers who want to be reached with recipes, health and beauty tips, and special product offers. "It has been very successful; we get from 2% to 4% of those visiting our site to sign up," says Louis Jay, Health4her president. Putting a sign-up box on your home page, he says, "should be the first thing on anybody's mind when they start an online business."

2. Make your promotions and special offers worth the click. Contests for cash prizes or free trips will always attract lots of sign-ups, whether the offers are made through banner or email newsletter ads. Make the offers worth the trouble. But know that the jury is still out on the effectiveness of this strategy because those signing up are often not long-term customers. Still, an incentive-based offer is a way to gather hundreds of names and email addresses, which are especially viable if your site is frequented primarily by your target customers -- such as adult women for Health4her. "We give them a chance to win something, like a free cruise," Jay says. "It's a way to gather names and build relationships."

3. If you rent lists of consumer names, be forthright about it. This means marketing or industry lists where consumers have given their consent -- not the many other lists of names obtained deceptively or without the consumer's permission. Scruggs discourages buying even the opted-in lists in his e-marketing rules, though many other online marketers don't. That's because the potential for spamming still exists. Not every consumer who agreed to sign up for the particular list you bought will remember doing so, and certainly won't know where or how far his or her name is being spread. Complaints are all but guaranteed. If you abide by this risky practice, make sure you indicate in your emails that you obtained a consumer's name from a complementary list and that you offer products and services you believe he or she would want to know about. "If you are not upfront with them about why they are getting your message, you're going to have a bad relationship," Scruggs says. One other note: the effectiveness of obtaining customers this way is also dubious. Your homegrown lists are a more solid investment, says Graham.

4. Put ads and links in specialized email newsletters. Which newsletters reach your audience? By targeting your ads and promotions in specialized email newsletters, you may get more promising sign-ups. "It builds credibility for you and your business," says Debbie Weil, a Washington, D.C.-based email marketing consultant.

5. Distribute your own free newsletter too. So you hadn't thought of this already? Regular email newsletters provide an incentive for people to stay in touch with you and your business if you provide worthwhile content. What tips, advice, resources, and other information can your newsletter provide beyond simply touting your services? (Yes, that you could do in places throughout the newsletter.) A bigger question may be: Who could you get to write your newsletter, if not you? An employee? A spouse? A friend? A professional writer? Be creative. And don't be afraid to start small, Weil says. By following tip #1, #3, and #4, you can build traffic and acquire customer names. Even peaking at a subscriber base of 500 may be worth your while in terms of customer loyalty and industry visibility.

6. Think geographically (and beyond ads). A common mistake among many small businesses today is that they fail to realize their best online customers are generally nearby. To that end, what are the online publications and websites that serve your geographic area? What are the email newsletters that are geographic in nature? Here is where playing up your physical location is most helpful. "Think local, not global," Weil says. "Know what publications people locally read, and where they hang out online. "Besides placing ads in these publications, write articles, submit letters to the editors, and send posts to discussion lists -- all including your business name and website address, Weil says. (Even a catchy blurb in your signature line will help people remember you.) This is an inexpensive way to gain visibility and acquire names. If you have something thought provoking and worthwhile to say, you almost always will trigger a reaction, she says. "It can be a great tool, but you have to be tasteful as well as compelling."

7. Partner with other complementary businesses in email and ad campaigns. Exchanging email and online ads with other businesses in your industry or geographic region is often an effective way of targeting your customer acquisition efforts. The trick is to find such businesses that aren't your competitors, says Tim Choate of Aptimus, a Seattle-based online direct marketer. Co-registration pages, where those who sign up for an offer are then presented with a complementary offer from the partnering business, is one strategy proven effective, he says. Another is cross-promotion in each other's email newsletters.

Alas, you still may be tempted to buy or rent that cheap list of names of people who haven't given their permission to be emailed. Resist. Think about the junk that comes into your inbox -- and whether your business should be regarded that way.


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