Building your mailing list

Mailing ListIn 1997 — approximately four decades ago in Internet years — Dave Farrar of Gypsy Divers in Raleigh, North Carolina, invited me to qualify his staff instructors to teach Nitrox. To help make the trip worth my while, he suggested I teach a consumer-level Nitrox course at the same time.

In so far as this took place on short notice, I had little hope of seeing more than a handful of divers in addition to the instructor staff. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the store to find the classroom filled with over 20 smiling faces.

“How did you do it?” I asked Dave. (I’d never seen a retailer fill a class so quickly.)

“That’s easy,” Dave replied, “I just e-mailed everyone and told them they had to come.”

This was my introduction to the power of e-mail marketing — and it was at a time when e-mail access was nowhere near as common as it is today. I’ve seen many examples of successful dive store e-mail campaigns since — as well as examples of ineffective (or downright abusive) efforts.

As most of you already know, done correctly, e-mail can be a powerful marketing tool your customers will welcome (and one that won’t cost you a penny in printing or postage). Done incorrectly, it will be ineffective and — worse — can generate ill will. So, how do you do it right? Here is what we’ll discuss:

  • Respect your customers’ right to privacy.
  • Clearly explain your intentions when collecting e-mail addresses and other contact information.
  • Have a published mailing list policy.
  • Collect e-mail addresses (and other contact information) at every opportunity.

Respect Your Customers’ Right to Privacy

Most of us consider unwanted e-mail to be among the leading plagues of the 21st century. Your customers are no different.

  • Sending your customers unsolicited e-mail is unprofessional. It generates ill will. And it’s just plain wrong.
  • Any e-mail you send customers should be both expected and wanted. It should reflect a pre-existing agreement between you and your customers that spells out how, where and when you will contact them via e-mail.

You should clearly explain your intentions when collecting customers’ e-mail addresses and other contact information, and have a formal, published mailing list policy to which your store rigidly adheres.

Clearly Explain Your Intentions

For a long time I used to avoid shopping at Radio Shack. Why? Because every time I tried to buy 98 cents worth of solder or wire some pimply-faced adolescent refused to take my money until I coughed up my full name and address. Why in Hell did Tandy Corporation need my name and address to complete a 98-cent sale?

Of course, Radio Shack wanted this information so they could inundate me with four-color catalogs hyping cheesy hobby kits and TRaSh-80 computers (remember those?). But they never told me this.

It might have been one thing had the salesperson asked me, “Are you on our mailing list?” “Would you like to be on our mailing list?” Or simply explained to me why they wanted my contact information and what they intended to do with it.

Instead, they just pissed me off. As a consequence, Tandy Corporation has probably wasted hundreds of dollars over the years, trying to mail catalogs to me at any one of the dozens of made-up names and addresses I’ve given them when asked to do so in a less-than-civilized manner.

How Would Your Customers Feel?

Imagine that a customer — especially one you don’t know that well — is standing at your cash register. He simply wants to give you his money, take his merchandise and get on to whatever pressing business is at hand. You, on the other hand, start demanding his name, address, phone number and (gasp!) that most personal of information, his e-mail address. How do you think he will react? Probably about as well as he would if you donned a khaki uniform and jackboots and demanded that, “You vill hand ouffer your identity papers…now!

Any time you ask a customer for personal information, he or she has a right to know how you intend to use it. For people enrolling in courses or signing up for trips, this is easy. You can explain this information will make it easier for you to contact them with updates and changes in schedules, to monitor their progress with self-study materials and provide other information that is a normal part of the learning or travel process.

You and your staff should also develop a quick and easy way of explaining how, when and where you intend to use customer contact information that applies to everyone. It can be as simple as:

“If you don’t mind, we’d like to get some contact information from you. We use this to send out periodic newsletters and sale flyers; we also publish a monthly e-mail newsletter and occasionally send out notices on special events and activities. We don’t share this information with anybody, and you can get off our mailing list at any time just by asking.”

Once customers understand how you intend to use their information, they will be much more likely to share it.

Your Mailing List Policy

An important step in getting customers to willingly share contact information with you is having a formal mailing list policy to which you and your staff rigidly adhere. Here is a typical policy statement:

  • “Our dive center collects customer contact information for the sole purpose of informing our customers, through periodic postal and e-mail newsletters and flyers, of updates to our website and news about dive equipment, dive travel and other opportunities in which they may be interested.
  • “Our customers’ privacy is important to us. We will not sell, trade or give away our customer contact information to any other business, organization or person, under any circumstances.
  • “We will happily delete you from our mailing list at your request.”

For such a policy to work for you, you must:

  • Make your customers aware of it.
  • Follow it without exception.

Your mailing list policy should appear any time and anywhere customers are likely to be asked for contact info. Examples include:

  • Being posted prominently by your cash register and in your classroom.
  • Appearing on any contest or mailing list forms used to collect customer contact information.
  • Being on your website, either on the page on which your customers sign up for your mailing list, or on whichever page appears as soon as the click the “Submit” button on your mailing list form.

Seeing that you have a formal mailing list policy will both help impress customers with your professionalism and put them more at ease with the idea of sharing contact information with you.

You staff should, of course, be aware of your mailing list policy and be expected to follow it as a condition of employment. This should go hand in hand with an understanding that your store’s mailing list is a valuable (and confidential) company resource that is not to be used except under the strictest guidelines.

Collect Contact Information
at Every Opportunity

You can’t have a successful direct- or e-mail marketing campaign without someone to send your information to. The more valid contact information you have, the more successful your campaigns will be. Your mailing list (or, more accurately, your database of customer contact information) is among your most valuable assets. This is why you should take advantage of every opportunity to both expand this list and ensure its accuracy. Examples of how you can do so include:

  • Point of sale
  • Sign-up forms
  • Contests
  • Your website

Let’s take a look at each opportunity.

Point of Sale

If you are like most dive retailers, you use your store’s Point-of-Sale (POS) software to manage your mailing list. Thus, ringing up a sale is often among the best times to update or expand your mailing list.

  • As you begin to ring up a sale, you can ask customers whom you don’t know, “Are you on are mailing list?” If they say Yes, you can look up their customer record and verify that the information you have is accurate. If they say No, you can easily add them.
  • Make certain to get any information that may be missing from existing customer records, such as phone numbers or, in this case, an e-mail address. Whenever you ask for new or additional information, be sure to explain how, when and where that information will be used.

For example, if you see that you have no e-mail address for an existing customer, you can ask, “Are you getting our monthly e-mail newsletter?” (This is a lot less contentious than simply saying, “I need your e-mail address” — and it helps explain what you intend to do with this info.) If your customer says No, you can ask, “Would you like to?” This, coupled with the fact you have your store’s mailing list policy posted prominently near the register should help make the customer more at ease with sharing this information.

Of course, if a customer is unwilling to share information with you, that is his or her prerogative. Ultimately, customers need to know that it is they who control what you do with their information, not you.

Sign-Up Forms

These are nothing more than a simple form customers can use to provide name, address, e-mail and other contact information. (Your mailing list policy should be printed on the bottom of the form.)

Sign-up forms have countless uses:

  • You can leave them on your sales counter, next to a sign that asks “Are You on Our Mailing List?” This will enable new customers to sign up for your mailing list, even though you or your staff may be busy helping others. Similarly, when customers are “just looking,” the mailing list form will enable you to obtain contact information from them, without having to ring up a sale.
  • You can use these forms to collect customer contact information at shows and events taking place outside your store (see “Contests,” next page).
  • If there are people waiting in line at the cash register, you can have customers fill out the mailing list form while you ring up their sales. Then, when things slow down, you can use their completed mailing list forms to fill in or update information that may be missing form their customer records.
  • A further benefit of mailing list forms is that they can provide you with a record of customer contact information separate from what is on your computer. For example, if a newsletter, sale flyer or e-mail comes back to you with a “bad” address, you can check what is in your records against the latest mailing list form the customer has completed. Often you will discover that the data in your computer contains mistakes.

Also, people move constantly. They change their e-mail addresses even more frequently. Having customers complete your mailing list form, even though you are reasonably confident they are “already in the computer” will enable you to check their most current contact info against your database. Often you will discover that customers have moved, changed phone numbers or have new e-mail addresses. (You may also discover that you did not have this information in the first place.)


Does your store exhibit at consumer shows and other public events? If so, a great way to stimulate the acquisition of contact information (and often the single most important reason for participating at such gatherings) is to offer a prize drawing. The prize need not be elaborate — just something valuable enough to make it worth peoples’ time to fill out a form. Frequently one of your vendors will donate a prize in return for exposure.

You can use your standard mailing list form as a contest entry blank, or you can design one that is specific to your prize drawing. The latter may be worthwhile if there are contest rules that you want to have appear on the form. In any event, it is important to have your mailing list policy appear on the form as well — and a check box for people to indicate if they do not want to receive mailings from you.

Few things will aggravate potential customers as much as feeling they were somehow conned into helping you build your mailing list under the guise of entering a contest.

Be up front about this and you will have few, if any, complaints.


Don’t assume that, because someone visits your store’s website, he or she is already on your mailing list. People come to your website from a variety of sources, including links from manufacturer and training agency websites, search engines (if you’ve set up your website correctly), your store’s ads and printed materials, and referrals from friends.

So that you don’t risk having these visitors remain anonymous, provide a means for them to sign up for your mailing list directly on your website. You can do this in one of two ways:

  • Ask only for customers’ e-mail addresses.
  • Ask for complete contact information, including name, mailing address, e-mail and, possibly, phone number.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.

E-Mail Address Only If you ask only for e-mail addresses, you will get a substantially higher response rate, as this take less of the customer’s time, and enables him or her to remain more anonymous. It may also enable you to put a mailing list sign-up box on every page of your website (this will result in the highest possible response rate).

On the other hand, you will not be able to use the information you gather to send out direct mail (“snail mail,” i.e., newsletters and flyers sent via the Post Office) or update existing customer records. Depending on your POS software, you may also not be able to find a customer record simply by looking for an e-mail address, should a customer later want to be removed from your mailing list.

Asking for More Complete Contact Info This will result in a lower response rate, as it takes more customer time, asks visitors to reveal more about themselves and may require they go to a separate sign-up page. The up side is you will get information that you can use for both direct- and e-mail promotions, and which is easier to update and maintain.

Which approach is best for you? That is a difficult question to answer, and the answer may be different for your store than it is for others. You may want to experiment, seeing which of these approaches works best for you.

If you follow the steps outlined thus far, you will not only continue to build and better maintain your customer contact database, you will also acquire the e-mail addresses needed to mount an effective e-mail marketing campaign.

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