WEB REVIEW: Is e-mail marketing the answer for you?

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If you're running a business, there's a good chance you've been frustrated with marketing. You've spent time and money on ads here and there, but the results were unpredictable-or worse-questionable. You're in the phone book because you feel you have to be, but the cost goes up year after year. Word of mouth works, but it's too slow. Direct mail works, but it's too expensive. Radio and TV are difficult to do well and nearly impossible to track for results.

I talked with a CEO recently who was complaining that his radio and television ads produced no measurable results. When he complained to the ad agency, its people suggested he buy more spots. Is that the answer, when all you want is accountability, measurable results and control? E-mail gives you all three, with one added benefit: it's affordable.

With e-mail, you control the message, the frequency, the delivery ... You become the steward of your own branding, the gatekeeper of your campaign. If you have something you want your customers to know today, you can tell them today. The immediacy of e-mail is unmatched by other marketing efforts.

Each message you send can be personalized for the recipient, and the personalization isn't limited to calling them by name. Your messages can be tailored around order history, personal preferences, geography ... whatever element you deem important. The age of one-to-many marketing has drawn to a close. The age of one-to-one marketing is dawning, and email is the tool that has made it possible.

There is no other marketing medium that offers the power, flexibility, accountability, ease of use and affordability of email. Nothing else even comes close.

The evolution of e-mail as a marketing medium has followed a path similar to that of Web development. The first Web sites were created by "geeks" who were playing with some new possibilities. Not long after, the first Web-development companies were born and had one thing in common: building a Web site was prohibitively expensive.

Once the technology trickled down, however, Web developers were suddenly competing for work with sons, daughters, students-it seemed everyone with a computer was suddenly building Web sites. This period couldn't (and didn't) last, as the competitors priced themselves out of business with nothing to differentiate their work from everyone else.

The good companies-those who understood marketing, customer service, the Web, application and interface design-prospered. They understood how to differentiate themselves and their services from the competition.

E-mail marketing is following a nearly identical path. Those first to market offered expensive and complex tools, essentially creating a barrier to entry for small businesses. Then, almost overnight, it was as if everyone offered a product to help you communicate with your customers. Prices have come down, to be sure, but buyers are left with a dizzying array of choices to sort through.

The key for business owners is to concentrate on the value offered by the product and the knowledge and expertise of the company. Because only the best companies will survive. If you're looking for someone to help you with your e-mail campaign, seek out a company that can demonstrate a firm grasp on the issues at hand and show you a proven track record of success.

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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