The Internet has opened a new world of marketing possibilities for large and small business owners alike. Small businesses, in particular, can rise to the top of their game and demonstrate real business savvy by leveraging online marketing tools.

For those small businesses focused on customer retention and relationship building, email can prove to be a very cost-effective and agile tactic. Not only can email be used on a pay-per-use basis, it is 100% measurable, unlike other, more traditional marketing methods.

Services such as Constant Contact allow individuals with no technical knowledge to design and deploy email to their customers at a very low cost with minimal effort. Kim Gibbons, a Toronto Mortgage Broker with Mortgage Intelligence, uses email as a regular communication touch point, and explains "As a business owner, email is an efficient, fast, cost effective and reliable method of reaching out to my clients, prospects, referral sources, business partners and lenders."

There are three components a small business owner must understand when using outbound email communication to maintain client relationships and promote business growth:

1. Building a list of email addresses

An email campaign won't be very effective without people to send the message to! Anyone doing business in Canada must abide by privacy policies, and those receiving your email must provide you with consent first. This is known as permission-based email marketing.

Permission can be granted through a simple sign-up form on your website where people provide an email address for the express purpose of receiving email communication from you. The language on your sign-up form must be explicit and describe exactly what the information you collect will be used for. You must also give people a way to opt-out of receiving email. Again, this can be a simple form your customers can fill out on your website. For a high-level overview on privacy policies in Canada, visit Wikipedia.

2. Creating and deploying messages regularly

If you want to save money and be hands-on with your email campaigns, a self-service model, such as iContact, will give you what you're looking for. Services such as this provide hundreds of ready-made email templates to choose from, and also allow you to edit the templates if you wish. You can incorporate your own logo, contact information, and anything else you feel would be of value.

In terms of subject matter, your messages should be about your business or the industry you service, and the goal of your messages should be to maintain a relationship with your customers by providing ongoing value to them. Perhaps you will use your email messages as alerts to notify customers about upcoming sales, or to position yourself as a subject matter expert in your field.

For example, a mortgage broker may use email to educate existing clients about market trends. These types of messages will keep you top of mind, and will help demonstrate your expertise. Where possible, keep it short and use the email as a 'teaser' to drive traffic back to your website. This strategy will help tie your online marketing collateral together, and won't overwhelm the recipient with too much information at one time.

Most importantly, be sure to consider the frequency of your deployments – if your customers receive messages from you too often, they will see them as spam, and lose interest quickly.

3. Measuring results to gain customer insight.

One of the best features about email is its measurability. Self-service email tools can tell you how many customers received your message, how many opened the message, and even what links within the message your customers clicked on. By analyzing this information, you can determine what topics are of most interest to your customers, and you can refine your email strategy to optimize response and success rates.

Don't be afraid to experiment to see what works best for your business. Once you stumble upon a successful strategy, however, don't forget to continue reviewing results after each send. Your customers must find all the messages relevant, or response will diminish over time.

Business owners should also weigh the expenditure as it relates to positive response from clients. As Ms. Gibbons explains, "There is a small monthly charge for that (email) service but it goes directly to my client's inbox and they are kept aware of information that would prove to be beneficial to them….& Overall, I feel that the benefits of email certainly outweigh any small cost that is incurred."&

Email marketing is popular among small businesses because it can be used quickly with great success. This demand has flooded the market with numerous self-service email products. When doing your research for the right option, make sure to check what long term obligations exist, and what your payments will be based on, so that you can budget for an ongoing program. You may not see immediate results, but with some measurement, analysis and optimization for your specific audience, you will be able to rely on email as a component of customer retention and relationship management.

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