Marketers have found a new opportunity for more intimate and direct communication with consumers. Not so long ago, families gathered around the TV; now individuals surf the web and watch video on personal, handheld devices. Consumers have grown comfortable with--and even come to expect--a one-on-one dialogue with marketers. And personalized marketing messages are a smart way to get customers' attention and deliver communications that increase sales.

As a small-business owner, you're in the enviable position of interacting with customers you know on a first-name basis. You can more easily maintain a database with in-depth customer information than larger businesses. The key is to use this important data to ensure your communications strike a personal chord with customers.

Personalization is a powerful marketing tactic that's easy to incorporate. Here are three ways to create messages that personally appeal to customers.

1. Transform mass e-mail into one-to-one.
E-mail is an exceptional tool for small businesses thanks to its low cost of implementation and high return on investment when sent to an in-house, permission-based customer or prospect list. While e-mails range from product promotions to soft-sell e-newsletters, in some instances, a one-to-one approach can have a more powerful impact.

For example, a coaching client of mine, Porro & Associates in Washington, DC is headed by Jeffrey Porro, Ph.D., a talented and experienced writer who specializes in crafting op-ed pieces and speeches for organizations and top executives. His prospect list consists of public relations and grassroots advocacy groups as well as major associations. Not only does Porro send them a monthly e-newsletter, but he also regularly sends personalized e-mails with examples of successes he has achieved for clients. Each e-mailing of this kind generates Porro & Associates several meetings and continues to bring in high-level work.

When Porro landed an op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune for one of his advocacy clients, he e-mailed copies of it to his prospect database, personally addressing each individual by name. The e-mail had a simple lead-in introducing the article as something of interest, followed by a suggestion that the prospect meet with him to talk about doing similar work for their organization, and closed with Porro's e-mail signature.

For this e-mail tactic to work, the simpler, more direct and less "crafted" your message appears, the better. Avoid graphics and other advertising design elements--including photos--which you might use in less personal forms of e-mail solicitations.

2. Personalize your offers.
Whether you're a retailer, e-commerce merchant or direct-mail marketer, if you sell merchandise, you need to know your customers' purchases, how much they spend per sale, and when or how often they buy. Knowledge of past behavior is a valuable tool for predicting future purchases. Not only can this information guide your business and merchandising decisions, but it's also critical for creating personalized marketing messages that increase sales. For instance, suppose a customer purchased jogging pants out of a wide range of clothing from your website or catalog. By customizing an e-mail or direct-mail follow-up based on this purchase history, you could successfully sell this customer additional exercise attire and related products.

The key is to look at how Jane Doe shops and then personalize your offers to her based on her past purchases and preferences. Make your marketing follow the customer--not the other way around--and truly customize it to her needs. If you address your customer by name and make relevant product offers, the one-to-one relationship you develop will keep her coming back for additional purchases.

3. Put it in writing.
What better way to make your message stand out than to express it in a handwritten note? After all, with fast online and mobile communications the norm, a handwritten note emphasizes that you've taken the time and thought to communicate something in a special way.

Entrepreneurs nationwide swear by the effectiveness of personal, handwritten notes for making a strong, positive impression. Send anything from thank you notes to meeting confirmations, depending on the type of business you operate and what you market. A financial management company in Norcross, Georgia, for example, markets primarily via networking, and its president follows up every contact with a handwritten note. It's a tactic that pays off, as the company boasts revenue growth of 25 percent year after year.

If you're in an industry where it's critical to build one-on-one relationships with prospects, it's a good idea to print fold-over notecards with your company logo to follow up with customers. Hand address the envelopes and apply real stamps--rather than run your cards through a postage meter--for a personal look that will get past screeners. If the first task of effective marketing is to get noticed and stand out from the clamor of competing advertisers, then handwritten notecards and other personalized messages will achieve the goal.