From the November 2006 issue of Entrepreneur

There's no time like the holidays to actively reach out to your customers. To keep you up-to-date with holiday marketing trends and etiquette, Entrepreneur's editorial director, Rieva Lesonsky, spoke with Gail Goodman, CEO of Constant Contact, a Waltham, Massachusetts-based e-mail marketing service for small businesses, associations and nonprofits. Heed her advice, and you just might get what you were wishing for this holiday season.

Rieva Lesonsky: What marketing methods will consumers respond to best during the 2006 holiday season?

Gail Goodman: Free shipping, which is normally offered in the last couple of weeks, will happen earlier this year. This is kind of a "get over the drive" thing. People don't need to spend on gas--they can shop online. Also, retailers expect the best response will come, not surprisingly, from the people who have already bought from them. Shoppers will stay closer to home this year with the high gas prices, so a [brick-and-mortar] retailer should be thinking about how to create more of a local market presence.

Lesonsky: What can entrepreneurs do in their marketing efforts to get existing customers to help spread the word about their businesses?

Goodman: We've seen people do [offers such as] "give your friend a gift for the holiday--here's a $10 coupon you can pass on," or "introduce a friend to our jewelry--here's a discount to start." You can encourage customers to invite friends to a preview or party. Use an event as a marketing opportunity.

Lesonsky: With the high gas prices, how can a small retailer encourage people to spend money?

Goodman: If you believe your customers are going to spend less per gift recipient, you want to get more of their gift recipients. Think about broadening your range of appeal. Offer a little more service. Have gift advisors--particularly men in women's stores or women in men's stores. Invest in unique displays. Put cool ideas out where they cannot be missed. And maybe go so far as [providing] gift recommendations by group. If it's a kid's store, put the age groups out. The most important thing, though, is to grab their e-mail addresses, because that will become your asset next year.

Lesonsky: Is there a general timing schedule for e-mail marketing during the holidays?

Goodman: I like Thanksgiving as the starting bell for real holiday promotions. You don't want to be the first e-mail promotion out there, but I strongly feel customers shouldn't be hearing from you [only] once a year. To get your e-mails opened, customers [must] recognize the "from" address. If they haven't heard from you in a year, the odds of them recognizing you are slim, so your holiday promotions actually start with building a relationship every day over the course of the year.