Is using e-mail as a customer acquisition tool really such a bad idea?

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Answer: It's a familiar dilemma: On one hand, e-mail marketers want to increase the size of their mailing lists. On the other, they understand that prospecting to strangers in the hopes of recruiting new customers seldom produces the desired results. Between most people’s aversion to receiving unsolicited messages and ISPs’ efforts to block offending senders, casting e-mail campaigns like a net across a sea of unsuspecting recipients is seldom a good idea.

However, you can use e-mail as a customer acquisition tool. How? By carefully targeting your efforts to customers who already have a high affinity for your brand or product. Two great ways to do this are to bring current customers into the e-mail channel and to find new customers by borrowing credibility from a trusted source.

  • Bring current customers aboard: During the course of your communications, ask customers if they would like to join your e-mail list. Invite them to fill out a form or card, such as customer feedback, and give them the opportunity to opt in. Or encourage them to visit your Web site, where they also can sign up to receive special discounts, coupons, your e-newsletter or information on offers and promotions. Make your opt-in attractive and prominent.
  • Borrow credibility from a trusted source: Attract potential customers by participating in cross-promotions with partners or affiliated businesses. By collaborating to offer relevant products and services, companies can leverage each other’s customer relationships and expand through each other’s customer base. Work only with partners that you trust to present you in the best light, and be very careful to observe legal boundaries and permission-related best practices.
  • Always offer something of value: As with all relationships, e-mail requires give-and-take. When you ask for someone’s e-mail address, be sure to demonstrate the value you will provide in exchange for precious space in the in-box. Let recipients know what to expect, and how you intend to fulfill your promise, e.g., weekly notices of sales, a monthly newsletter, or product updates as they become available. The more specific you are, the more likely people will opt in. If you are less specific, you will retain more flexibility in your marketing campaigns, but you may have a smaller potential audience.

At the heart of every successful e-mail marketing program is a carefully cultivated house list comprising permission recipients who look forward to a company’s messages. By providing incentive and value, as well as making it easy to sign up, you can acquire new e-mail customers without sending unsolicited messages. As you gain new customers, be sure to keep the promises you make at the outset. This will fortify your e-mail relationships, ameliorate attrition and help your list continue to grow.

Elaine O'Gorman is VP-strategy for Silverpop (, a provider of e-mail marketing solutions.

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