E-mail has rapidly evolved into a popular marketing tool, and for good reason. It’s fast, it’s inexpensive, and with the right list, it’s uniquely targeted to a specific audience.

There’s just one challenge: how to keep e-mail from ending up in a customer’s virtual trash bin.

Fortunately, there are techniques building service contractors can use to avoid being caught in spam filters or trash bins. The key is to get the desired message to people who’ve expressed an interest in getting it.

The Mailing List
In the past, business owners who wanted to send out direct mail advertising purchased a list of prospective clients within certain zip codes. e-mail marketing isn’t quite so simple. E-mail addresses change frequently and don’t indicate the recipient’s location or position in the company.

Another challenge is anti-spam laws, which have traditionally prohibited marketers from sending unsolicited e-mail. Current legislation requires that all messages have an opt-out mechanism; if the recipient doesn’t want future e-mails, there should be an easy way to unsubscribe.

For these reasons, marketing pros recommend creating a list of customers and prospective customers.

“Your best response will come from someone who knows you and actually wants to read your e-mail,” says Helen Kennedy, president of Kennedy Consulting Services, Union City, Calif.

It takes creativity and good recordkeeping to create a list.

“Whenever you run a promotion, get an e-mail address in addition to a name and phone number,” recommends Michelle Howe, president of Internet Word Magic, Irvine, Calif. “Ask for it so you can continue to sent notifications of special offers or discounts. If people see a benefit to receiving your e-mails, they’ll gladly give you that information.”

Your Web site is also the perfect place to capture e-mail information. Howe says 97 percent of the people who come to a Web site are not ready to buy. E-mail marketing offers a way to stay top of mind so they think of you when they are ready to sign a new BSC contract.

The Message Matters
In e-mails, avoid the temptation to focus on selling services.

“Your goal is to create awareness, build a positive relationship and build trust so they feel comfortable when they’re ready to make a purchase,” says Howe. “Make their life better by finding information that they don’t have time to find. They’ll love you for it and look forward to your e-mails.”

Get right to the point and be brief. Use subheads, short paragraphs and bullet points, Kennedy suggests.

To make sure e-mail doesn’t get lost in the inbox, be clear that it’s being sent by the company. Then create a short but interesting subject line that makes them want to open it. Avoid words such as “free” and “guaranteed,” which are sure to trigger spam filters.

The most frequently overlooked element of the e-mail message is the most obvious: contact information.

“Include your e-mail address, Web site address, company name, phone number and fax number,” says Howe. “People will print your e-mail, and that information should be there.”

E-mails can be sent in either text-only or html formats. Text e-mails look like the ones sent every day. Html format, however, allows the incorporation of graphics, photos and logos, creating an attractive and memorable message.

With e-mail marketing, keep expectations realistic. One or two e-mails won’t translate into an immediate surge in sales. Some industry experts say that it can take seven or more messages before a prospect makes a purchase decision.

Also recognize that some e-mails won’t be opened simply because people are busy or have forgotten who you are. The same is true of direct mail pieces, but fortunately, e-mail is a fraction of the cost of traditional direct mail.

Maureen Connors Badding is a freelance writer based in Wauwatosa, Wis.