internet marketing

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Make a Connection:
Continuing the Conversation

If you’re networking, enduring those long, uncomfortable silences while attempting to bridge the gulf between little knots of conversations, and then you finally get into a chat with someone who’s a great potential client, what do you do next? Something like this?

you: …so that’s what my company does. It really seems that we could do some great work together.

potential client: You’re right. I’d like to talk more.

you: [silence as you walk off into the crowd]

Or this…?

you: …so that’s what my company does. It really seems that we could do some great work together.

potential client: You’re right. I’d like to talk more.

you: Great, here’s my card. You take a card out of your pocket and hold it out to the potential client. They reach for it…

you: Oh, psych!

…and you snatch it away at the last second.

potential client: Ha ha. OK, give me the card please.

you: OK, here you go… nope, changed my mind! Hahahaha….

Doesn’t make sense, does it? Well, at least 90 percent of the web sites out there do one of these two things. Folks invest time, money, and effort to build a site that will grab the attention of a visitor. Then they invest even more time and money to get visitors to their site, in pay-per-click ads, search-engine optimization, and who knows what else. Then they do the online equivalent of walking away.

You’ve made a pretty substantial investment of time, money, and energy to get folks to your web site. They’ve come, they like what they see, and they want to ponder a bit. Now you have two choices:

The former is great if your company name is, say, Nike or CNN. But it won’t do you much good if you’re Morgan’s Bikes, or even Some will remember you and return, but there’s a chunk of that audience that wants to learn more, to be reminded of your existence, and to know when there’s important news.

That’s where the latter choice — politely asking — comes in handy. Think about a big networking event — you’ve gone through the group-to-group trolling and all the awkwardness that’s entailed. Now you’re talking to someone who’s very interested in your product. When ready to move on, what do you do? You ask her for her business card, and ask if you can call her in the next week or so. You’ve made a connection, and in so doing you’ve increased the odds that you can continue the conversation.

On the web, the most common way to make a connection is e-mail. It’s ubiquitous, everyone knows how to use it, and it doesn’t depend on others coming to find you. But there are other methods that are worth remembering, too: RSS and its close relative, Podcasting.

E-mail: Powerful, but Dangerous

If I say “e-mail marketing,” what’s the first word that pops into your head? Spam?

Thought so.

But not all e-mail marketing is spam. There is a right way to draw subscribers to an e-mail newsletter, and actually have them feel good when you send them something.

How can you use e-mail as a marketing tool, and not get tagged as a spammer? First of all, keep in mind that there are two definitions of spam: the legal definition, with which it’s pretty easy to comply, and the emotional definition. It’s the emotional definition you have to watch out for — folks are quick to use the s-word (spam, not that other one) for any and all e-mail that they feel is either unsolicited, inappropriate, or otherwise naughty. It’s very easy to run afoul of the emotional definition, so stick to these rules:

Opt-in Only

Only send e-mail to those who expressly ask for it. Put a simple form on your web site — all you really need is the subscriber’s e-mail address, remember — and only send e-mail to those who complete that form.

There is one, and only one, exception to this rule. If you have an existing customer list, and want to sign up those people for another list, send them a polite e-mail inviting them to subscribe. Do not sign them up and ask them to unsubscribe! That’s just rude, like eating the last piece of cake and then asking if anyone wants it.

An opt-in-only list will start smaller, it’s true. But a small list is a targeted one — your subscribers will truly appreciate receiving your e-mails.

Keep It Small

Your e-mail message should be no larger than 15 kilobytes. The total file size for all images and text should never be larger than this number. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, hire someone who understands e-mail template design. Believe me, it’s worth it.

There’s another definition of spam, the automated one. Most companies use automatic spam filters now — it’s very easy to send out an e-mail that trips their alarms. When that happens, your intended recipient may not even see it. Follow these rules, though, and you’ll minimize the chances of getting the spam filter smackdown.

Remember that all your e-mail has to do is get the reader to click through to your web site. You don’t have to show your product in an extra-large photo, or provide ten paragraphs explaining your service. Save that for your site. Keep the message compact, and don’t use more than one or two images in your message. The result will be a small, fast-loading e-mail message.

Try to design an e-mail message that looks good in a standard Microsoft Outlook or Eudora preview pane. At a minimum, someone viewing your message in a small window should see your logo and the basic message.

Stay away from fancy technologies in your e-mail. Restrict yourself to HTML and images, or even better, plain text. Macro-media Flash and other streaming technologies seem like great e-mail gadgets, but they’re disastrous: they lead to bloated messages and a whole array of compatibility issues. Don’t drive your audience crazy — keep the streaming stuff on your web site, and out of the e-mail.

Avoid the One-Image Gag

Even an HTML e-mail must include some text. Don’t send an e-mail that’s just one big image. Most spam filters now check for e-mails that contain images and no text, and automatically assign them to the junk heap.

Be Honest

Your e-mail subject line should clearly describe the content of the message. And the e-mail’s reply-to address should be an address that goes to a human being.

Finally, make sure there is a clear Unsubscribe link in your message.

Follow Your Instincts

Lastly, follow your gut. Would the e-mail you’re about to send annoy you? Will it feel like someone on a sidewalk pushing fliers in people’s faces? If so, reconsider. Chances are you don’t en-gage in a conversation with someone, or hand them a business card, unless there’s a reason. Conversation Marketing through e-mail should follow the same rule.

RSS and Podcasting: Emerging Options

RSS, also known as “really simple syndication,” lets folks subscribe directly to a feed that delivers updated headings and new site pages. I’m not going to get into the technical details. Trust me — it’s not that difficult. There are a few great sites where you can learn how to create an RSS feed; do a quick search on the web and you’ll find what you need.

The beauty of RSS is that you can use any one of a number of feed readers (some are free) to aggregate lots of feeds from lots of different web sites. And the presence of RSS is growing — Apple’s latest version of Safari has built-in RSS support. So do Mozilla Firefox, and Internet Explorer.

If you maintain an RSS feed and visitors subscribe to it, they’ll see any new information every time they open their feed reader.

google reader
This is my favorite newsreader, Google Reader, in action. It shows all of the RSS feeds to which I subscribe, in one place. I can quickly see what’s new, and scan the headlines to see if there’s anything interesting.

Although the geeks love RSS, it hasn’t caught on with the masses yet. But it will. If you have a technically advanced audience, or just want to get ahead of the curve, think about including an RSS feed in your site. It takes very little time and provides one more way to keep in touch.

RSS is one more invitation to converse. It lets people sidle over, listen for a moment, and decide if they want to join in. As such, it’s a great Conversation Marketing tool when you have an audience that may not want to give you any information just yet.

Podcasting: The Younger Brother of RSS

Chances are you’ve heard the word podcast. It seems mysterious, but the concept is pretty simple: a podcast is an RSS feed that includes some form of audio or video content. Think of it as TiVo for radio or for online video.

Subscribers to a podcast with a compatible RSS reader are automatically updated as new audio or video is posted to the feed. Most folks then transfer the audio or video to their MP3 player (hence the term podcast; iPods rule the world right now).

Again, I won’t go into details — suffice it to say that if your business involves any form of public speaking, music, or other things that are best communicated via audio or video, you need to consider podcasting. It offers the same advantages as RSS, and is a great way to converse with your audience if they’re short on time, because they can download the conversation and literally take it with them.

Morgan’s Bikes: Connecting Here, There, and Everywhere

When we last left Morgan, she was making progress. She has a site design, a good, well-coded set of pages, and content. She’s invested a fair chunk of her money and time, and her site’s now live. Sales aren’t bad. A $6,000 bicycle is not a casual purchase, and Morgan knows that her best customers get to know her company before they buy, either through a local dealer or directly. She’d hoped to get more calls and ongoing conversations going from her web site, but it hasn’t happened yet.

So, she starts the RoadTrip, a biweekly newsletter. In it, she gives training tips, maintenance advice, and news about her company. Occasionally she reviews other products.

She lets visitors sign up for the newsletter from her site. She also sends a sign-up invitation to all customers who have given her e-mail addresses in the past.

I said she sends an invitation. She does not just sign them all up. She’s being polite.

She immediately gets a handful of sign-ups, resulting in a list of about 200 people who want to keep in touch. Some of them start sending her inquiries after receiving a newsletter. Within a few months, two list subscribers have become customers. Why? They liked her, and her newsletters — in a world where there are dozens of custom-bike manufacturers, building that relationship can make all the difference.

Keep in Touch

However you decide to keep the conversation going — e-mail, RSS, or something else — make sure you live up to expectations. Send subscribers an e-mail when you have important news. Update your RSS feed regularly. Record some new audio and post it to your podcast feed. Remember, these people said “Yes, please talk to me!” If you do that, there’s a better chance you can stay “front of mind” and a much better chance you’ll turn a visitor into a customer.

You can also draw people to your web site by bragging (modestly). That’s the next chapter.

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