Author’s Note: This article will be especially useful for businesses targeting a smaller number of higher value connections. These email marketing strategies may be most useful for companies with long, trust-based sales processes and large transactions. Also, these strategies are most effective when email marketing is combined with blogging.

Quality beats quantity every time. A small email list of engaged subscribers is far more valuable than a big list of indifferent recipients. Fewer subscribers is actually an advantage if online networking is one of your best marketing strategies.

Here’s how.

1. Find your fans.

First, let’s see who’s paying attention. It may be obvious if they’re leaving comments in your blog. If not, here are a few places to look for fans:

  • Email reports: opens, clicks, and forwards
    Check your reports to see who is most engaged. Look at opens, clicks, and forwards. You can see who’s opening your emails by going to Email > Reports. In the “Opens” column, click the hyperlinked number.  This page lists your subscribers who opened your last email.

  • Social Tracking
    It’s not always obvious who is sharing your content, but there are several tools that help. Use BackTweets to see who has shared a specific post. Use Klout to see who you’ve been influencing across all the networks.

2. Reach out and be social.

Next, build more connections to your biggest fans. Find them on social media networks, and connect. The more connections you have to a person, the more visible you are and the more likely they are to trust, listen, and open your next email.

  • Look them up on social media networks.
    Look them up on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Google+. Also try Slideshare, Quora, or a network specific to your industry. If you’re already connected on one network, try another. But don’t add them all at once. That’d be creepy.

  • Put them on your “radar.”
    Create a Twitter list, Facebook list, or Google+ circle. Now you can connect with them more easily. When they’re more visible, you’re more likely to chat with them.

  • Listen, say hello, interact.
    This is where the magic happens. You’re listening for topics and looking for inspiration. What are they sharing? Are they writing something? Anything interesting? Share, comment, and say hello. Remember, they already subscribe to your emails. They’re likely to be friendly.

I call this “crossing the streams” (yes, like in Ghostbusters), and it’s a powerful strategy that combines email marketing with social media.

3. Put your fans into your emails and articles.

If you want to be influential over your fans, you should let them be influential over you. Loyalty and gratitude are two-way streets. Now your fans are becoming friends, and your emails are becoming networking tools.

  • Add them to your content with a quote or mention. When possible, quote them. When relevant, link to them. When they see their name in your articles, the connection grows stronger.

  • If they brought the topic to your attention, say “thank you” in the article. Those are the two most powerful words on the web. Use them.

  • After the email is sent, mention them when you share the article on social networks. Let them know they’re in the piece. They’re likely to share the article with their network.

4. Create content for specific readers.

The next step goes beyond mentioning your fans. It’s about writing something for a specific reader or group of readers. You can use the fans on your email list as a source of inspiration.

  • Write a piece that answers a question they would find interesting. Maybe they asked the question on a social network, or even just shared / commented on a related post.

  • Write a piece that responds to an opinion that they stated in social media. You might agree or politely challenge their idea. Or you can respond to any opinion piece that they noticed, commented on, or shared.

  • Write a piece that elaborates on a another post that they wrote or shared. If your fans are sharing an article that could be better, chime in. Write something more useful than the original post. Make yours more concise, more practical with more examples and evidence.

Now you have content custom tailored for a group of your subscribers. And it likely has that personal tone that your entire list will enjoy.

5. Collaborate with your readers on articles.

Finally, you can fully integrate your subscribers into your email marketing. This strategy has the biggest benefits: you’ll build even stronger connections, save time, and have some fun.

You’re connected. You’re interacting. You’re getting to know them. Who is an expert in which fields? Who is writing what kind of content? Who loves which topics?

  • Offer to interview them for a post. Email them a few questions. Use their answers as an article.

  • Offer to guest blog together. You could write for their site or vice versa.

  • Offer to research a topic together. Combine your data and experience to write a reference piece. Or combine your lists to create a survey.

  • Coordinate topics and timing. Write on similar topics in the same time frame and you’ll find opportunities to share research, quotes, and audience. Don’t forget to link to each other in your articles. Links are part of SEO basics that will benefit both of you.

Bonus Tip: Pick up the phone and dial. If you do this during step 4 or 5, it’s really not that weird. And that short, informal phone conversation instantly sets you apart from the hundreds of other voiceless faces and names they see online everyday. This is a guaranteed way to blow someone’s mind.

Love isn’t measured by subscribers

So don’t lament if you’re a beginner with few subscribers. In fact, these strategies are actually easier with a smaller list. I’ve seen open and clickthrough rates of 50% and higher, but only with smaller, hyper-engaged lists.

Online networking is about listening, interacting, and staying connected. Combine email marketing with social media and blogging to grow a stronger network…and eventually a bigger list!

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Andy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, a web design company in Chicago. He’s also the author of Content Chemistry, An Illustrated Guide to Content Marketing You can find Andy on Google+and Twitter.