“The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.” – Peter F. Drucker

Our family now has 1,182 legs. That would mean a lot of shoes … but for the fact that few of those legs belong to people.

I married a veterinarian. And I smile when I remember that only after we married did my mother-in-law recount the tales of my wife’s childhood menagerie. Any stray animal looking for a home need meow and meander no further, for here was a modern day St. Francis.

Today, we are two adults, three children, one baby due in September, two 175-pound English mastiffs, four cats (rescued strays), five chickens, four sheep, two pigs, one turtle … and 277 zebras.

Yes, I did say zebras. We’ve got striped critters everywhere I look, but mainly on the walls of the downstairs bathroom, where a herd of singing, dancing zebras live. Moving through that room too quickly could generate a dangerous strobe effect.

All those zebras remind me of a key to online marketing success. As the old adage says, “Birds (and zebras) of a feather flock together.” In other words, though there may be over one billion people on the Internet (according to Computer Industry Almanac), you can’t aim your marketing efforts at all of them. You’ve got to target small (or “niche”) groups of people with a product or service that is highly focused on their wants, needs, or desires.

You’ll have the makings of a nice little business if you can find just 1,000 people who are as nuts about collecting zebras as my wife, or 1,000 people who have a passion for 1950s baseball cards, sand from the world’s best surfing beaches, antique fishing reels, old valve radios, or World War II shrapnel.

Niche marketing is not a new concept. Most businesses know they must target their advertising to a specific group of people. However, the concept applies not just to finding customers, but also to every aspect of your ongoing relationship with them.

And this is where many online businesses fall flat.

In Message #1776, I talked about how many businesses still practice what I refer to as “spaghetti marketing” – throwing the same e-mail or Web marketing message at large groups of potential customers and hoping some will stick. The few who are interested in what they are offering, buy – but for the majority, their message is at best irrelevant … and maybe even irritating.

Other businesses spend a lot of time and money driving qualified traffic to their websites, shopping carts, e-mail signup points, and “landing pages.” But they put almost no thought into figuring out how to communicate with those people once they become prospects or customers. Most end up in a generic pool, where everyone receives the same follow-up messages and treatment.

But how does your individual customer or prospect feel about that? She used Google and typed-in her own search term. She selected your website from the thousands available. She signed up for your free e-mail newsletter for reasons that interested her, and she believes – rightly, as far as she is concerned – that your communication with her will be part of this increasingly relevant dialog.

So why aren’t you doing it that way?

You don’t have one customer database of 100,000 people. You have 100,000 one-person lists. And you need to communicate with each of those individuals as personally as you can.

Beginning with the idea that she found you because she is interested in your business makes good sense. And you have access to plenty of data that will tell you not only why she is interested in your business, but also which search term or ad brought her to your website. That makes it easy to customize your first communications with her.

A good way to do that is to implement an introductory series of e-mail messages. This is especially effective if the customer has signed up for your online newsletter. You send out five or so evergreen issues of your publication during the first 7 to 10 days of her subscription. By “evergreen,” I mean that these issues will be made up of content that is not time-sensitive.

This gives your new reader a good introduction to your subject matter, writers, and “cast of characters.” At the same time, you could include recommendations for complementary products or subscriptions that may be of interest to her.

From one introductory e-mail series, you could move to a few more, each one focused on a different product or service offered by your business that fits with your new subscriber’s interests. Done correctly, this process will help cement your customers’ initial relationships with you while converting their interests into relevant sales.

I know of some online newsletter publishers who are using this introductory e-mail series technique to convert something like 10 percent of their new readers into paying customers for additional products.

Today’s Action Plan: Realize that all of your customers are unique and that your success lies in serving their individual needs. And there are many opportunities online – in e-mail and on the Web – to learn what makes your customers tick. So spend some time today brainstorming ideas about how you can learn more about your customers and how you will address their needs in your communications with them. Above all, find out how you can use that knowledge to better serve them.

[Ed. Note: David Cross is Senior Internet Consultant to Agora Publishing in Baltimore. Meet him in person at ETR’s Information Marketing Bootcamp in November. He and other Internet marketing experts will show you how to build and/or dramatically grow your business. Sign up now to reserve your spot.]

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.

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