5 cardinal rules of email etiquette

Email continues to be a loyalty-building tool for businesses trying to reach their customers with interesting content, incentives, and details about their products and services. However, businesses need to be mindful of a few best practices before engaging via email, as it is a very personal channel and one misstep can cause a customer to hit the unsubscribe button.

We've all experienced it: You sign up for a company's newsletter as a means of getting access to good deals, maybe a free shipping offer, or an invitation to a special event, and your inbox is hammered with content that isn't relevant, that isn't meaningful and -- just before you decide to unsubscribe -- ends up making you angry.

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But a lot of marketers are figuring out how to do it right. They understand that truly interesting, meaningful content isn't about a sales message. Instead, by providing content that informs or entertains, earns you the right to deliver your message in a more subtle fashion. And, by following a few best practices, you can successfully connect with customers.

Remember that content is king
First, valuable content is a must-have for e-newsletters, as meaningful information goes a long way to building lasting relationships. If a consumer finds interesting articles relevant to their lifestyle within your e-communications, they are more likely to open future emails.

For example, a bank might provide information on which cars hold their value the most, or feature a lower insurance rate, while a real estate agency might include a how-to column on which home renovations provide the greatest return on investment. Topics like these are tangentially related to the products and services the company provides, but it's not simply a recycled press release, or the company's marketing backgrounder. Remember to be respectful of your reader's time and provide content that isn't simply marketing hyperbole. That's not why they've subscribed to your communication.

Respect frequency
The frequency of sending e-newsletters is crucial to maintaining relationships. You don't want to over-saturate email inboxes, but you also don't want consumers to forget about you. Based on your line of business, communicating via email once or twice a month is a good benchmark depending on readership. Consumers might be interested in hearing from their favorite restaurant once every two weeks, but might be less intrigued to hear from their auto dealership that regularly.

It is never a good practice to blast emails just to meet a superficial deadline. It is more important to take the time to craft meaningful content and connect less frequently, compared to quickly developing information in order to distribute once a week. Bottom-line, respect your reader's inbox and don't overwhelm them with emails.

Provide a call-to-action
Providing a strong call-to-action alongside your valuable e-content might help nudge a consumer to make a purchase for your related products and/or services. With an increased popularity in deals and coupons, offering consumers a discount might be the incentive they need to visit your business. Offering 10 percent off of a future hair salon appointment might encourage a customer to schedule their next appointment.

In many ways, businesses can capitalize on Groupon's success by taking their own targeted email list and offering deals without the upfront advertising investment. It's all up to what your business does best -- offer consumers the ability to make a transaction online, request a call back, download a white paper, or schedule a test drive.

Share content socially
You can't ignore the power of social networks. Today, Facebook has more than 500 million active users and more than 30 billion pieces of content is shared via the social network each month. Sharing content on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks allows your customers to promote your business to their friends and followers.

Social media recommendations are very well regarded because they come from a consumer's personal connection. I am always more likely to check out a new restaurant or trust my car to a service facility if I've received a suggestion from a friend or family member. So, give your readers the chance to share your content socially and also access to information in their preferred format (e.g., social, mobile, etc.).

Include video
Videos can be a great asset to email newsletters and another layer of informative content. Today, video production is as close as a $99 Flip camera and a free YouTube account. The potential for reaching current and prospective customers is literally without limits. Video lends itself to viral sharing and has the ability to make a product or service come to life. Do you provide a product that lends itself to an installation video? Write a brief script, film it, edit it and post it, and then get that video out in as many ways as you can. But remember; keep videos short in length -- less than two minutes is optimal.

Craig Fitzgerald is editorial director of IMN.

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