If you talk to marketers who help businesses harness the Internet to reach out to customers and fellow businesses, you'll find that one social network in particular is all the rage.
It's called e-mail.
E-mail marketing suffers from its unfortunate - and unwilling - association with the spammers who junk up the Internet.
It's not just about direct sales any more - e-mail marketing has kept pace with the times, and these days it's used just as often to build brands, provide links to valuable information and build relationships with consumers as it is to let them know that they can get 30 per cent off this week.
In the age of junk-mail, why is e-mail still such a tool of choice - and why should you consider it for your business?
Even in an information-overload, spam-riddled era, an e-mail represents one of the shortest routes between you and a customer's eyeballs. (A close contender might be text messages, but that's another ball of wax entirely.)
It's hardly a given that e-mail will be effective - shoddy planning, bad writing, and delivery problems can sink any campaign.
But the advantages conferred by an opt-in e-mail are tangible. "With e-mail, you've got people's permission to be in their inbox," says Scott Stratten, a marketing consultant, speaker and author of the book Unmarketing , who has maintained e-mail lists for years to promote his own work.
Once that permission has been conferred - and we need not describe the torments that customers wish upon marketers who e-mail without permission - e-mail becomes a powerful "push" medium.
Social networks require marketers to perform some fancy dancing if they want to draw viewers to their pages. With an e-mail campaign, however, information is pushed directly to their inner digital sanctum. It's a trust that's easily abused, but comes with enormous potential.
It's venerable and ownable
The fact that e-mail has been around for so long is more a blessing than anything else. Web giants and passing fads have both come and gone over the years, but they've all had one thing in common: The first thing each one, from MySpace to Google+, has asked its users is for a working e-mail address.
Not only is e-mail the universal, common denominator of online life, but an e-mail list is impervious to the shifting tides of social networks, and the question of who owns the data that users plug into it.
Unlike social networks and their friends' lists, there's nothing proprietary about e-mail contacts.
"We put so many eggs in the baskets of Facebook and Twitter, that we forget we don't own the basket," Mr. Stratten says.
An e-mail contact list belongs to its owner. Any e-mail-management service worth its salt will allow you to download the list to your computer, so you can pick up and migrate to a new service, should you desire.
The tools are there - and they're powerful
E-mail campaigns are best managed through self-serve websites that specialize in bulk delivery.
Sending the mail yourself is possible, but not recommended, unless you have an itch to plug thousands of names into Outlook Express, and a hankering for frustration as they fail to go through.
Commercial providers not only facilitate the process of managing lists and help shepherd messages past the Internet's spam filters, but they help to gauge a campaign's effectiveness.
One of the benefits of working with commercial providers is their ability to track the number of times an e-mail has been opened. (Typically, this works by embedding a small, invisible graphic in an e-mail, and counting the number of times that gets loaded from a Web server.)
Mr. Stratten says that a good e-mail campaign can still see "open rates" of 40 per cent to 50 per cent, while perhaps 10 per cent of recipients will actually click through the e-mail message to reach the merchant's website.
In a world where banner ads go unclicked by the millions, and Facebook pages languish, unloved, this is a powerful way to drive traffic.
There's an art and science to e-mail marketing: How best to craft an e-mail campaign? Which sending tools are the most helpful for a small business? How to slip past spam filters? We'll examine these in the remaining parts of this series.
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