Businesses need to connect with their customers on all levels, from social media to newsletters. According to Microsoft, 60 percent of new customers come from referrals for small businesses, and 85 percent of people trust a product more when it was referred to them by a friend. These are very important statistics for businesses looking to grow. By providing a tool for customers to share how much they love your product or service, you can maximize sales and better your business.
There are tons of email marketing clients to choose from, but cost can be a significant hurdle. Our top two picks in this category aren't exactly free. Benchmark costs $11.95 per month for up to 600 contacts, while iContact costs $14 per month for up to 500 contacts. While these prices are affordable by themselves, both of those services are discrete programs that you add to your company's other services.
Microsoft, software giant that it is, is rolling out a new email marketing program called Connections that's built into its new Microsoft 365 Business suite. It's more expensive than the stand-alone programs above, but it comes with a host of other features. By combining Connections with other programs, Microsoft is looking to integrate email marketing into a central place.
What is Microsoft Connections?Credit: Microsoft
Microsoft Connections is an email marketing client geared specifically toward small businesses. In addition to many features related to marketing, Connections offers a dashboard that integrates seamlessly with the Microsoft Business Center.
The Business Center, which also features analytical components from other Business 365 sections such as Bookings, Listings and Invoices, integrates multiple areas of small business management into one place. For email marketing, users can view metrics such as subscribers, campaigns launched, email sign-ups and redeemed incentives. It basically gives you a bird's-eye view of your company's email marketing analytics.
Connections is rolled into the Microsoft 365 Business package. This bundle includes all the perks of Office 365 Business Premium in addition to extra apps, including Connections, Bookings, Listings, mobile device management and new security features, and it's available for $20 per user per month and supports up to 300 workers. While this is more expensive than other email marketing clients like iContact and Benchmark, the $20 monthly price per user supports all aspects of Microsoft Business 365. Microsoft also provides the option for Office 365 Business Premium subscribers to download Connections for free. For companies only looking for an email marketing client, this could be a good option if you already subscribe to Office 365 Business Premium. If your company doesn't subscribe to either business suite from Microsoft, a third-party email marketing service may be your best option.
Newsletters, referrals and incentives
Connections functions in a few ways: by creating newsletters and announcements, tracking referrals, and issuing incentives for top referrers. Announcements can be a vital way to check in with customers and continue to build your brand, while newsletters can offer important information on company or industry news.
Connections has a built-in tool that can track product referrals. As a business owner, you can send referral links to customers. If a customer shares that link with a friend, and the friend makes a purchase, Connections can track that referral. If you, as a business owner, want to reward that customer for referring your product, you can issue an incentive through Connections as well. The ability to track referrals is arguably the most powerful aspect of this program – business owners can view who issues referrals and can subsequently offer incentives, such as discount codes. Connections syncs directly with QuickBooks, so any adjustments are also recorded and updated in your accounting software, and it also keeps all your customers' information in one place.
The design aspect of Connections offers template-based email creation for newsletters, announcements and sending incentives for top referrers. These are the three types of templates that business owners can use. The text and style of the templates can be adjusted, and business owners also have the option to add images. All of these templates are also mobile-friendly. (Note: Connections does not support the ability for users to create and design their own emails from scratch.) One interesting feature integrated into the design center is Bing's fair-use image search. Instead of worrying about copyright infringement or paying a membership fee to a stock image service, small business owners can select images that are free for the public quickly and easily.Credit: Microsoft
The program also offers lots of analytics data on the success of your email marketing campaigns. You can see who opened their emails, clicked on links and redeemed incentives. Connections offers a lot of features for small business owners who have little experience with marketing or email marketing.
Microsoft provides a few how-to webpages on creating email campaigns, designing individual emails and issuing referral incentives. There is an option to send yourself a test campaign to practice using Connections and work out any early kinks.
An important first step is to understand who you can and can't send marketing materials to. Without explicit permission, which comes mainly through customers signing up in person, during an online purchase or through an online subscriber form, it could be illegal to directly market to customers through email.
Once you have a subscriber base, you can send out newsletters, referrals and announcements to engage customers and build your brand using Microsoft's 365 Business suite. According to Word Stream, 80 percent of retail professionals say email marketing is their greatest driver of customer retention. Connections' features, which include announcements and newsletters, also offer the ability to retain existing customers in addition to growing your business.
Microsoft Connections could be a good tool for business owners looking to create and run their own email marketing campaigns. By integrating customer information and financial data into one area, users will be able to market their business and build their brand without having to update separate accounting information and third-party contacts management systems. The centralized feature of Connections is a huge draw, but small business owners looking for design flexibility should consider the fact that Connections is only a template-based service.