The following article appeared in the July 2009 issue of St. Louis Small Business Monthly

A friend of mine recently was on the verge of selling his small business, but the deal collapsed. The business was profitable and growing, and the prospective buyer liked the numbers. But the deal tanked when the prospect asked to see the customer list. When my friend replied that he had not been collecting emails and other contact information from most of his customers and prospects, the prospective buyer bolted.

The prospect knew that a business is only as good as its list. Sure, your business may be making money and even growing. But you limit your potential to grow your business if you do not have a good, clean, homegrown list of prospects, customers, and former customers.

Your most valuable asset is not your inventory, employees, or intellectual property; it’s your list—the herd of people with whom you can communicate regularly to sell your products and services.

Before you roll your eyes and say, “D’uh,” read the list-building checklist below. If you answer, “no” to any of the questions, you’re missing list-building opportunities that could drive your business forward.

* Do you collect contact information, including email, from every customer when they complete a transaction?
* Do you actively work to get additional information from people in your database for whom you have incomplete data? For example, if you have a customer’s postal address, but not email, are you doing anything to get that email?
* Does your website include a prominent form (or link to the form) on every page to collect visitors’ contact information?
* Does your advertising include direct calls-to-action that invite people to submit contact information to you? For example, all of our print advertisements direct readers to a page on our web site where they can sign up for marketing tips.
* When you send postal mail to customers and prospects, does it include a contact form they can return with updated contact information? Does it include direct calls-to-action that invite them to submit contact information online?
* Do you actively and perpetually ask existing clients for referrals?
* When you field phone calls from prospects or customers, do you collect their contact information?
* When you meet people directly—at networking events, parties, on airplanes, or through any other encounter—do you collect contact information?
* When you ask someone for contact information, do you explain what you will and won’t do with it?

Offer Value and Protect Privacy

The last question is key because it addresses how you ask for contact information. People are happy to share contact information with you if you offer them something of value and if they believe you won’t violate their privacy. When you ask someone for contact information, you should clearly state what they’ll get in return and how you’ll honor their privacy. That applies to existing customers, active prospects, and people you’ve just met.

I attended a networking event this morning, and this is what I said every time I asked for someone’s card:

“May I have your card? From time to time I’ll send you information to help you understand what we do, and I’ll also send you occasional marketing tips that will help your business. Even if you’re not actively shopping for the services we provide, I think you’ll find the emails valuable. And you can easily forward them to others who may need our services or might benefit from the information. You can opt-out of our email list at any time, and we will never share our list with others. We honor your privacy.”

Before the end of the day, I will send a personalized, trackable email to everyone whose card I collected. It will deliver what I promised—information about MarketVolt, interactive marketing tips, and a request for recipients to forward the email to others who might be interested. The email system will track who opens and clicks so I’ll be able to determine who has interest in particular products and services I mention in the message.

After we complete a sale and again following training sessions for new clients, we confirm their contact information and notify them that we will be contacting them regularly with how-to information, marketing tips, and other information that will enhance their experience.

What About Purchased Lists?

You may have read the list-building checklist above and thought, “That’s a lot of work. It’s much easier to just purchase a list.” Sure, it’s easy to purchase or rent a list of email addresses, but that doesn’t mean you should do it.

You may consider list purchase as a way to find leads, but you shouldn’t do it in lieu of building and working your list of existing clients, former clients, and known prospects.

If you add email list purchase to your lead acquisition strategy, tread carefully. People on many of the so-called “opt-in email lists” have no idea they’re on those lists. Such lists violate most anti-spam policies for internet service providers, spam filters, and email service providers so the computer that sends to such lists runs the risk of having future deliveries blocked.

If you want to use a third-party email list for lead acquisition, look for a vendor who will keep the list (you won’t see the addresses) and send the email for you—rather than one who will give you a file with the email addresses. Vendors who send the email for you usually have cleaner lists that have been built more ethically.

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