“The stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people.” – George Simmel

Dong! 1970. Dong! As the resonant peals of Big Ben welcomed in the New Year, my sister and I felt quite important being allowed to stay up past midnight. We had fizzy pop in our glasses, potato chips in our laps, and enough chocolates left on the tree to increase our level of excitement even further.

Dong! Dong! Ding-dong! Another bell rang out … our doorbell. Ice clung to the inside of the window as we pressed our warm noses against the glass to see the dark-haired figure standing on the stoop. Our old front door creaked open, letting in a blast of bitter-cold air and the sound of a distant, drunken chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

“Happy New Year!”

“Oh, come in out of the cold, Love. You must be freezing!” my mum exclaimed. The door clicked shut, and we heard two sets of footsteps walking up the hallway.

“Dad!” We ran over to hug him. He handed us each some nuts, a silvery sixpence, and a piece of shiny black coal.

“Food to fill your tummies, money for your piggy bank, and fuel to warm our home! May your New Year be prosperous and happy!”

My dad kissed us all, and then headed off again into the frigid night air, with a canvas bag over his shoulder and a spring in his stride.

It’s a very old tradition in England for a dark-haired stranger to welcome the New Year into your home and bring you good luck by giving gifts of money, food, and fuel. My dad, as the only person in our neighborhood with jet-black hair (“and quite dashing, when he was in the Navy!” my mum always reminded us) took on that role of the local “dark-haired stranger” – and our house was always his first stop.

Every year, the same ritual. A stranger (who wasn’t really a stranger) being welcomed into our home to bring us good fortune. And every year, just as magical. A perfect, treasured memory … one of many.

Throughout the year, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities of living and forget the magical moments that bring us joy, warm our hearts, and cement our relationships. But in this simple New Year’s ritual lies a clue to the best way to markedly improve your online business in 2007. And it is this:

Develop a relationship with your online customers and readers that makes them see you as a “welcome stranger” – one they can depend on to fulfill their needs.

In your personal life, your most important relationships are with family and friends. In your business, they’re with your customers, every individual one of them. Every communication, every “touch” with every customer, is precious – and it behooves you to develop those relationships by finding ways to make your communications with them as personal as possible.

As direct-mail professionals have known for years, people don’t buy the item you’re selling. People sign up for your e-mail newsletter or buy your product based on your promise – expressed or implied – of what you can do for them. Personally. Fulfill that expectation and build a long-term, profitable relationship. Fail, and you’ve just lost a customer.

So, your challenge as an online marketer is not only to make your communications with your customers and/or subscribers personal and timely and relevant, but also to learn how you can deliver what they want and need from you.

How will you do that? How will you turn yourself into a “welcome stranger”?

Here are some ideas to get you started …

  • When someone signs up for your e-mail newsletter, start their subscription with an introductory series of three or four e-mails that are separate from their subscription. This series of e-mails should introduce the content, writers, and topics you typically talk about in the newsletter.

A newsletter is a conversation. Welcome each new subscriber to that conversation so they feel comfortable with what’s going on.

  • Depending on where a subscriber/customer signed up to receive your e-mail messages, they should receive a different series of introductory e-mails. For example, if your newsletter is about investing and a subscriber signed up to receive it on a page about high-tech stocks, they’re probably a different kind of investor than a subscriber who signed up on a page about safe, long-term investments in gold.

Make sure the content of at least the first e-mail in your introductory series matches the broad topic the new subscriber was reading about when they chose to sign up for your newsletter.

  • Keep tabs on your active customers/e-mail openers/link-clickers. Behavior leads to similar types of behavior. Action leads to similar types of action. It is more likely that a customer/subscriber who did something recently will do that same something in the near future.

Marketers call this recency – and what it means to you is that you’ve got a much better chance of getting these active customers/readers to take other similar actions than your more dormant customers/readers. So segment them out and figure out ways to get them to buy … or buy more … or look at new content … or sign up for a new e-letter or free report.

  • Your customer service team hears firsthand from your customers/readers about what they think of your products and services. Listen to them and learn. Their insights about your customers/readers can help you understand how to adapt to and capitalize on their needs.
  • When shopping online, be an observer as well as a customer. If an online store does something really well – especially if they get you to buy more than you planned – think about how they did it. Adapt their techniques to your own online business.
  • Test different communication methods. Telephone, print, text messaging, teleconferencing, e- mail, and good old snail mail … they are all channels through which you can communicate with your customers/readers. Try segmenting your most active customers/readers and telephone some, write some a print letter, and so on. See what works best.

I’ve seen great results recently when people who started but did not complete checkout at an online store were phoned or snail-mailed within 24 hours.

  • Finally, remember that every relationship needs nurturing. Attached to the other end of that postal or e-mail address is a real, live, breathing, feeling, sentient human being. You don’t always have to try to sell them something when you communicate with them. It really is okay to thank them for doing business with you … to give them some good news … to share some interesting, useful, or helpful information …or just because.

That said, I wish you and your family “Food to fill your tummies, money for your piggy banks, and fuel to warm your home! May the year ahead be prosperous and happy!”

[Ed. Note: David Cross is Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing in Baltimore.]

Although David hails from Blackpool, England – which is often referred to as the “Las Vegas of England” – he shunned a career in show business and instead followed a meandering career path overflowing with “life’s great experiences,” working or living in over 20 countries along the way. Chef, teacher of Transcendental Meditation, guest presenter on QVC, earthquake relief volunteer, CEO of a web hosting company, marketer at a radio station and all combined with years of direct marketing, PR and sales experience for clients as diverse as health food stores, small charities and right up to multinational public companies. David brought unique talent and experience to his role for six years as Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing Group. Working closely with Agora’s publishers and marketers to test new ideas and marketing campaigns, Agora’s Internet revenues topped $200 million in 2007. David understands and can communicate fluently with creative “right-brain” marketers and analytical “left-brain” IT and software teams, all with equal ease. He has a proven track record for generating results and creative thinking and excels at making trouble to find new ways of making things happen! He lives on a small farm close to Mount Hood in Oregon with his wife Cinda, a veterinarian, and their four children and a menagerie of animals (no more, please!). When not marketing or brainstorming you’ll find David following a dream of self-sufficiency for food, power and water within 10 years, tending the land and caring for the farm and animals. Not surprisingly, David is an engaging and knowledgeable speaker with many amusing anecdotes from his work and travels over the years.