The prices of paper, printing and postage continue to rise, and the U.S. Postal Service has plans to reduce its number of delivery days. It’s no wonder that businesses have turned to email as a primary method for keeping in touch with customers and reaching out to prospects.
If your practice is considering joining the ranks, then building a strong email list is critical. And if you’ve already experimented with email, but aren’t happy with the results, then examining your list—and your list-building habits—is a key step to take. To help you on your way to an effective and ethical list-building strategy, we’ll outline a few rules of play.
What Not to Do
You cannot just assume that someone wants to be on your list unless you have that person’s permission. If a friend offers you the list of the local dressage association, don’t take it! That person might not have the right to give it to you, and the local dressage association might not have the right to share those names and contact information.
Be cautious when buying or renting lists. Even using email addresses from a seemingly appropriate association—like your local Pony Club or regional breed association—might not be the best idea. These third-party lists contain people who might not fit your customer profile (horse owners), which means you’re wasting time and money reaching out to them. Even worse, if anyone on the list is under the age of 13, then you have a different set of legal rules to follow when contacting those minors.
Keep in mind that sending your information to recipients who haven’t asked for your emails—and who might not be interested in your services—is a sure way to rack up disappointing response rates and potentially get banned from sending emails! When you are labeled as a spammer, your messages can be blocked by service providers. Put it all together, and it’s a sure way to tarnish your practice’s reputation.
Outside Lists Aren’t All Bad
While it might seem like the risks of renting an outside list outweigh the potential benefits, that’s not always true. If you deal with a reputable group or organization that understands the rights of its list members, then getting your message out to that group might save you time and trouble building your own list.
Understand the Opt-In
Another solution, of course, is to build your own email list, full of clients and solid prospects who have opted-in to receive your e-communications. In fact, email marketing “best practices” say you shouldn’t even send to your own customers unless they’ve given you permission to do so. Ideally, you’ll go so far as to get a double opt-in. That means the person signs up for your list, then receives an email at the address they submitted asking them to click a link to complete the sign-up process. This keeps people from signing others up when they don’t want to be on your list.
As another part of opt-in best practices, you should set expectations up front so clients know what kind of emails they’ll get from you and how often. According to the CAN-SPAM laws, every email you send should also include an easy, obvious way for people to unsubscribe from your list as well as a postal mailing address. (For more on email marketing laws, see the Federal Trade Commission’s CAN-SPAM Act: A Compliance Guide for Businesses at http:// business.ftc.gov/documents/bus61-canspam- act-compliance-guide-business.)
How to Collect Email Addresses
So how exactly do you get those all-important opt-ins? Here are five proven tactics.
1. Offer something of value.
Consumers want to know: “What’s in it for me?” So before you ask them to surrender their personal email addresses, make sure you have something of value to give them in exchange. Be clear in communicating the benefit, whether you’re sharing practice updates, equine industry news, client stories and photos, educational information or discounts. The value could even be as simple as giving clients added convenience or the ability to let them “go green” by sending new client forms, treatment plans and appointment reminders via email instead of print.
One caveat: Make sure that what you’re offering has a direct connection to your business. For instance, offering a $5 Starbucks gift card might help you build an email list—of coffee drinkers. But that doesn’t necessarily equate to a list of people with a need for equine veterinary services.
2. Ask your clients and potential clients.
Train your front desk team to ask for emails from in-person clients and callers, and to include a space on your sign-in sheet to add or update email addresses. When you’re working in the field, you or your assistant should ask each client for an email address and include it on the client information sheet. Likewise, have a spot for an email address on your new client forms.
Make sure your team knows the value of requesting email addresses and can explain how your practice will use them. Equally important, make sure your team knows what you won’t use the email addresses for, such as sharing them with third parties. You should also include this information in writing anywhere you request emails.
3. Spread the word online.
Add a sign-up box to primary pages of your website. Again, be sure to note why people should agree to hear from you. Make sign-up easy—don’t ask people to fill in too many fields or make too many clicks, or they probably won’t complete the process. Your practice management software representative might be able to help you with set-up.
If you have a presence on social media, get the word out that way, too. It’s an easy way to multiply your exposure quickly and inexpensively.
4. Get their friends involved.
Social media is just one way to help your message “go viral” or get spread from people you know to people you don’t know. If you have other features on your website that let people forward information to their friends (such as informational articles or product/service details), consider adding your sign-up form to those forwarded pages or forms. Likewise, include a “share” feature on any emailed newsletters or general updates you send to clients. When the client chooses to forward the information you provided about, say, the equine herpesvirus, have the form used for the forward require the friend’s email address and full name, plus the client’s full name, so you can personalize the forwarded message.
5. Change up your efforts.
Don’t focus all of your email collection efforts on one channel. Instead, review all the ways your practice touches customers and add your email sign-up message wherever it’s appropriate. Don’t be afraid to get creative and mix up that “something of value” you’re offering, too. For instance, if you advertise in a show program, you could offer a free list of colic warning signs to people who provide an email address. Or on your appointment reminder postcards, you might offer to help clients “save a tree” by requesting that future notices be sent via email.
Collecting email addresses should become an ongoing part of your practice’s marketing and practice management work. But that’s only half of the battle. Once you start using those emails, you’ll also need to keep that list as “clean” as possible. That means tracking your emails to check for and remove those that bounce or email addresses from people who request to be unsubscribed. This will ultimately help your metrics and ensure that your email list is working hard to help you build strong, lasting client relationships.
You Have a List; Now What?
Once you have your soundly, ethically built email list, here are a few types of communications you can send:
- Practice news
- Your comments on industry news (i.e., if there has been a horse with equine herpesvirus in your area, offering your recommended vaccination protocols)
- Product/service information (especially if you are offering a new product or service)
- Pre- or post-appointment instructions
- Equine healthcare information (e.g., newsletters)
- Welcome messages
- Appointment reminders
- Birthday messages
- Thank-you notes
- Client surveys
- Referral requests
Sushil Dulai Wenholz is an award-winning equine journalist based in Lakewood, Colorado. She is also the vice president, creative director for the direct marketing agency Customer Communications Group, Inc., through which she helps Fortune 2000 companies with their email initiatives. Sources for this article included Benchmark Internet Group, ExactTarget, Experian, the Federal Trade Commission, MailChimp, Oracle and Veterinary Economics.