E-mail marketing can be effective at garnering customer interest in a jan/san distributor’s service and product offering, but only after a distributor examines its website, inventory and client base can it begin to turn to the contents and timing of its messaging.

The first step in adding an e-mail component to a distributor’s marketing efforts is to closely examine the enterprise’s website. The website is one of the main gateways into the firm. The site needs to be the best representation of what products the distributor offers and its specialized knowledge of those products, ultimately making the site not just a sales tool but an educational tool.

“The website is the most public face of their company and more people will visit their website than will pick up the phone and call them, pick up their catalog, visit their location or speak to the salespeople,” says Bob DeStefano, an online marketing strategist and president of SVM E-Business Solutions, Somerset, N.J. “Once they have that great website, e-mail marketing is a fantastic way to make the most of that website.”

The next step for a jan/san distributor is to deeply analyze its inventory. Calculating the return on investment on the inventory in stock can help a distributor pinpoint when and how it can, and should, attempt to move inventory.

“Another side of it is to take a look at the inventory that is providing opportunity for the distributor or examining that inventory that is becoming a risk problem for the distributor,” says F. Barry Lawrence, a professor of industrial distribution at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. “In the economy that we have right now…manufacturers are not willing to support what it takes to make (some) products successful. You’ve got to have that fundamental in place that you can properly evaluate your inventory.”

A distributor’s next step is to categorize its client base. According to Lawrence, clients should be placed in one of four separate basic categories: core, service drain, opportunistic and marginal. These categories — based on customer service costs, customer loyalty, potential and overall relationship — can help guide a distributor in how to approach the client in terms of its e-mail marketing initiatives.

“With the opportunistic and marginal, you are trying to profile those customers to say who in this group can make the trip to core customer,” Lawrence says. “You have to be able to take your [customer] data and mine it, profile the customer and target them with a discount or an additional service offering.”

The distributor should also categorize their clients based on their sector and business, to further narrow profiling efforts and, as a result, to better target clients based on their needs.

“The hospitality guys have very different interests than the industrial guys so generic e-mails are not going to be really good fits,” says Steve Deist, a partner at the Indian River Consulting Group, a national firm based in Melbourne, Fla. “So you have to do a ‘Swiss cheese analysis’ where you look for all of the holes in their buying habits based on (the client’s) industry.”

Ultimately, marketing through e-mail takes a long-term commitment from the distributor, who must understand themselves and their clients while appreciating the technology.

“Technology can give you insight. Technology can automate the processes and amplify your resources…but technology can’t give you customer intimacy,” Deist says. “E-mail marketing campaigns can be very, very effective but you have to do your homework on the front end.”

Brendan O’Brien is a freelancer based in Greenfield, Wis. He is a frequent contributor to Sanitary Maintenance.