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'Tis the Season for Smart Marketing

6 ways to market to your customers and prospects during the holidays

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Nothing drives sales and business relationships like a personal connection, and there's no better time to make that personal connection than during the holiday season. No matter what type of business you have, reaching out to your customers and prospects over the holidays is critical, since it helps builds long-term relationships with customers who buy from you--and keeps them coming back all year long.

If you're not sure just what to do, here are a few tips:

1. Personalize your holiday cards.

Perhaps the most important way to network during the holiday season is to send a customized and personal holiday card to each and every one of your prospects and customers. Standard cards purchased at the local drug store just won't make the impact you really need to make that personal connection. Instead, consider purchasing holiday cards that are customized--include your logo, your company name and even your photo on the front of the card.

Then write something personal on the inside instead of just "Happy holidays" or "Best wishes." Stories about your family or a funny (but tasteful) quote will help you make a personal connection with your customers and prospects. Match the look and feel to other printed holiday materials, such as return address labels, gift tags, gift stickers, holiday brochures and thank-you notes to carry the theme throughout every aspect of your business during the holidays.

2. Show your charitable side.

When it comes to sending cards, one option to consider is the charity holiday card--a portion of the proceeds from the purchase of the card is given to a specific charity. Holidays are a season of giving, and current and future customers like to see that you support appropriate charitable organizations. Locate an organization whose cause is close to your heart, or consider one that your customers will appreciate. Regardless of the organization, a charitable contribution is always appreciated over the holidays.

3. Remember that timing is everything.

The timing of your holiday card mailing is also something to consider. Is your product or service holiday related? If so, consider sending out Thanksgiving cards in early November to remind customers to think of you when purchasing gifts or services related to the holidays. Even if your product or service isn't holiday related, Thanksgiving cards stand out because it's more than likely they'll be the first card your customers receive and open. Another alternative is to mail New Year's cards, a nice way to help drive business at the beginning of the year.

4. Make a high-impact promotion.

Once you've determined your holiday card strategy, your next step is to implement special sales or promotions related to the holidays. Then send out a postcard or two to drive sales for these promotions. Consider vertical postcards instead of horizontal ones, and make sure they're full color, high-impact, glossy cards that will stand out in a sea of promotional mailings. Use photos of your business or products, or choose images that relate to your promotion.

5. Get out there!

Now's the time to get out there and network. When people see you in person, they're more likely toremember you when it's time to make a sale. So attend industry conferences or other events related to your business. And depending on just what business you're in, consider participating in industry holiday parties or town celebrations. You might even want to sponsor an event that will provide you with the right target market visibility.

If that's not an option for you, think about throwing your own holiday party at your place of business and inviting customers and prospects to attend. Offer refreshments, and put on some holiday music to set the mood. Another option is to partner with similar or complementary small businesses to throw a party. That way, you can share the costs while making an impact. Be sure to provide giveaways, such as calendar magnets with your company name on them, to all attendees.

6. Don't forget the thank you.

The final step in a successful holiday season are the thank-you notes. Handwritten thank-you notes make a strong impact on customers because they're proof you go the extra mile to please your customers. It's especially effective, during the holidays, to send thank-you notes to your customers when they purchase large orders or to thank them for referrals-you'll attract a tremendously loyal customer base.

If you follow these steps for holiday networking, this holiday season is bound to be one of your best yet. And the best part is, the relationships you build during the holidays will surely carry over to the new year.

Janet Holian is the chief marketing officer for VistaPrint, a leading online supplier of high-quality graphic design services and customized printed products for small businesses and consumers.