'Paperless' and Print Marketing - A Perfect Pair
By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.
Propane dealers - in fact, businesses in every industry - are looking more and more at "paperless" Internet-based marketing, most notably e-mail based customer communications and newsletters. When allocating marketing dollars, digital communications can be a cost-effective option, because it removes the production and postage costs associated with printed pieces. However, we never recommend foregoing printed communications altogether. Ideally, electronic newsletters perform best as extensions of a strong, dynamic website and as adjuncts to printed pieces.
Both print and e-mail based communications offer marketing magic to the smart company. Print will reach more of your customers, and will probably remain in their homes longer than an e-mail. On the other hand, e-mail blasts and e-newsletters can include direct links to your website to provide the customer with more information and allow for immediate responses to your programs or promotions.
Print newsletters remain a tangible example of the "old-fashioned" commitment to customer service of which your company can be proud. They enable you to send something to the customer other than an invoice; and promote customer retention and company services. With print, every customer in your database receives the newsletter, can enjoy the high quality photos and interesting articles, hand it to a friend or relative to read, or put the valuable conservation advice articles and promotional coupons on their refrigerator door. They can even put it in their briefcase or pocketbook to read while away from home - something that's much more difficult to do with e-mail based communications.
Colorful, glossy print newsletters stand out in the pile of bills your customers get in the mail. At two, four or six pages, they can provide a variety of news, information and advice of real value to your customers - about new equipment that could save them money; other services you may offer; special promotions or coupons; new state and federal tax credits, financial assistance or product regulations; and personal touches like employee spotlights and customer testimonials.
A company that positions itself as "green" does not have to pass up print newsletters - in fact, there are many options available that can extend that branding concept. Have your newsletter printed on recycled paper - even glossy stock includes up to 30% recycled materials - and request soy-based inks with fewer volatile organic compounds. Be sure to include a line or two in your newsletter about your eco-friendly print programs. Use the newsletter to show your customers how you reduce, reuse, and recycle in your company's daily operations - how you have switched to compact fluorescent bulbs, re-use printer paper for scrap and recycle your old equipment. At the same time, promote the use of your website for bill payments, program enrollments to save paper, and recommend that your customers provide their e-mail address so they can receive promotions and newsletters via the Internet ... which positions you to move into a digital marketing campaign.
There are, of course, many benefits to e-mail promotions and e-newsletters, and they offer effective marketing strategies to the modern propane dealer. Consumers are using the Internet to find service providers, and the companies with the strongest interactive sites are going to garner the most new business. E-mail blasts and newsletters with live links enhance your site's content, and can increase your positioning when new customers are searching for information.
Any marketing strategy will have its own pros and cons, which is why we recommend a combined approach. Even in today's seemingly ultra-connected world, e-mail based marketing has several challenges, including:
- Not all customers even use e-mail. A 2008 survey said 20% of U.S. households don't have an e-mail account.
- Your list of customer e-mail addresses is probably incomplete.
- Customers can easily unsubscribe. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 requires that all commercial e-mails contain a visible link that enables the recipient to unsubscribe. This means that any customer can "cancel their subscription" with a couple of clicks of the mouse - and your e-mail access to them is severed.
- E-mail spam filters can keep your e-newsletter from reaching the customer.
Of course, there are ways to overcome these obstacles. The first is to get your customers' e-mail addresses. While you already have the mailing address of all your customers, I'm willing to bet that only a handful have provided you with their email address. Your printed newsletter and your home page can offer incentives to customers who provide their e-mail address. A professionally written e-mail with carefully worded subject lines can reduce the chance of getting caught in spam filter programs. And offering information the customer values - such as conservation advice, product efficiency updates and sales promotions - keeps them from hitting "unsubscribe."
The dealer who wants to "go paperless" should make a strong commitment to the Internet. The best e-newsletters work hand-in-hand with the sender's Web site, with most of the content residing on the site itself. The e-newsletter is a mix of complete, short articles and hyperlinks to information on the Web site. This format allows you to take advantage of the benefits of digital marketing.
The customers in your database have already shown their interest in your information. They have provided you with their e-mail address in order to receive offers and promotions from you - so they are very likely to take the time to read and consider your news and advice. They've already "bought in" to your message and company mission and are open to your recommendations. Many customers will look at their e-mails at a time with fewer distractions than when they're sorting the mail: during a break at work or after the kids have gone to sleep. They're already at the computer, and can easily find more information - on your website - on the products and programs you're discussing in the newsletter article.
A traditional print newsletter can be supplemented with shorter e-mail alerts throughout the year. Where you might only print three or four newsletters per year, you can send e-mail blasts on a weekly or monthly basis - or whenever something newsworthy occurs that affects your customers. Expansions in LIHEAP eligibility? State-wide biofuels mandates? Federal or state tax credits for efficiency upgrades? Diversifying your services and opening a new division? While these topics can be reviewed in a quarterly newsletter, they are also perfect for an e-mail blast that can be created and distributed quickly.
Does this mean that your website must be updated every time you want to send an e-newsletter? We think so - in fact, we recommend that all our customers update the information on their site on a regular basis. If the content of your Web site is outdated, you will appear to be out of touch ... and customers will look for someone who has the current information they need. The Internet is the world's central information and communications conduit, and the smartest companies utilize it to keep existing customers and attract new business.
As your marketing becomes more Internet-focused, you may find that instead of creating content for your newsletter, you're creating it for your website and using the newsletter to direct people to it. This is a change for the better, because the content can reside permanently on the site and serve both existing and potential customers. That growing library of content will boost returns on your Internet investment, because it will help your site appear more often in search results, while also making an excellent impression on potential customers as they discover you.
Newsletters of any type open up a dialog between you and the customer. Whether it's to comment on a product, recommendation or personal notice, customers respond to the news you provide them. They may call, they may write, or they may log-on to find out more about a service. When they do, you'll know that your newsletter - be it printed or digital - has been read, valued and earned its keep.
Richard Rutigliano is President of PriMedia, Inc., a full service marketing and communications firm with offices in New York City, Long Island and Boston. The company is now offering free marketing consultations to Oilheat retailers. Phone: 800-796-3342, or visit their Web sites at www.primediany.com and www.propane-advertising.com.