Thursday, April 17, 2008

Email Marketing and Small Businesses: Waste of Time or Worth The Effort?

by Josh Nason

Stop me if you've had this conversation before with a small-business owner:

You: "So that's a broad overview of what we do. We can definitely help you out with whatever you might need in the email marketing space."

Them: "Well... how much do you cost?"

You: "It really depends on what you use us for, whether it's software, creative or something else. Do you have a budget set aside for this type of thing?"

Them: "Not really."

You: "OK. How much money do you invest in marketing?"

Them: "We don't really have any money set aside for that."

You: "Oh."

"You" are the email marketing person. You've made your pitch, given the 10,000-foot view of your assortment of services, and provided a cost-effective and much more financially sensible way to spend marketing dollars. "They" are the small business owner (SBO), who either has no idea about what email marketing is all about or has only a rudimentary knowledge. They have heard of email and figure they should be doing something, but they're not sure where to start.

For email marketers, how to deal with the SBO is an ongoing challenge. I always try to be optimistic in the early stages of these talks, since it takes a lot of small pebbles to fit around the giant rocks in the sales bottle I'm trying to fill. You never know when the person on the other end of the line has the next big idea that will catch fire and, as a result, create a fanbase of information-seeking consumers.


In my experience, there are three main obstacles to introducing email marketing to a small business.

1. Budget

No matter who you're dealing with, the question of cost will always be a factor. Every dollar counts when it comes to a small business, from pens to water to benefits to that arcade game you buy from the pizza shop going out of business. So the SBO often worries about the expense before the benefits.

2. Education and Experience

There is a chart that a coworker and I designed to help us classify prospects and how much of an educational investment we'd have to make in bringing them on. Featured on one axis was experience and on the other education. Some people were very experienced with email, but had no real education on what a successful campaign was. Some people were well educated, having done research on the subject, but had never deployed a campaign themselves.

For the most part, the SBO falls low on both counts, simply because email doesn't fall high on the priority chart when you're opening up the doors to a new restaurant. Email marketing is one of those deals that come after a Web site, unfortunately months after people have already become consumers of the product—and, with the right offer, could be easily enticed to come back. This leads to direct mail and, then, a colossal waste of money and resources.

So when you're trying to explain paying for something that traditionally is understood as free (Hotmail, AOL, etc.), it can become difficult to get the SBO to understand the next step. In addition, when you try something new and don't have experience, it can be a bit scary. You don't want to err so badly that you suddenly alienate your client base, but you also don't have to the time to fully commit to doing things the right way. How can you win?

3. Desire

The best marketers are those who want to do a great job, rather than feel like they have to do a great job. Desire will turn a good marketer into a great one, and a lackluster campaign into an award-winning one. However, most SBOs don't desire to do great email, but feel they should be doing something because "everyone else is."

If SBOs don't embrace the concept, how can we expect them to pull off successful campaigns?

Surmounting the Obstacles

Have no fear, though. There are ways to get around those obstacles.

Sing to their stinginess

One of the easiest selling points of email marketing is its cost-effectiveness. Pay by the month, pay by the campaign, do whatever makes you comfortable. If they're saying they have no money, tell them that email is the stopgap in flushing money down the marketing drain, and that if done right email will help their sink overflow. (Note: The overflowing sink isn't a great analogy with plumbers... so try something else.)

It's the metrics, baby!

Are they going to do ads in the local paper? Stop them. Running a series of :30 jingles on a radio station? Stop them. Letting their crazy nephew walk around town in a sandwich board? Stop... well, let them do it—and then stop them.

Paint a simple analogy: If you put an ad in the paper/TV/radio, will you know whether people keep going back to it, point to it, or tell other friends about it? With email, you can track all that and more. Know your prospects' actions, and then cater your marketing around it. Feel free to add in the cost/benefit again, too!

Be honest

I've told several potential SBOs, "Just so you know, this might not work out." Some are stunned, while others appreciate the honesty. Quite simply, there are some smaller companies that we just don't have the bandwidth to work with... because of time, budgetary resources, or needs. They need more than we can offer at a price we can't justify. But that's OK. We'll refer them to one of our partner email consultants who has more one-on-one time available.

If you're honest and upfront with every prospect you come in touch with, that'll alleviate any potential trust issues down the road. And trust is a huge part of any partnership that a small business encounters.


Helping the little guy win some battles can be a great feeling, especially when it means that you're helping make their dreams come true.

The email marketing business is more effective and targetable than any other mass medium. And it is relatively easy to get started. So the small business owner can spend more time thinking about all these new revenues he has and less time banging his head against a wall trying to figure out why his radio ad isn't working.

The tricky part is getting them to understand that.

Josh Nason is The Email Marketing Guy for SendLabs (, an email marketing software and solutions company. He can be reached at or (603) 296-4084 ext. 01.
Published on February 12, 2008

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