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Managing customer data is hard work, but that hard work will yield one of the most important assets for the cooperative of the future: the first-party data you can own.

We often hear from farmer-owned and electric cooperatives that they communicate via paper mediums such as a mailed newsletter, postcards or flyers because they don’t have access to their customers’ email addresses. And, with the demise of third-party cookies looming, owning your first-party data is essential.

Big Digital

When we ask how many email addresses they have on file, it is not uncommon to hear that our cooperative clients have “about one-quarter” to “one-third” of their customers’ email addresses. In today’s digital landscape, cooperatives have an opportunity to grow those percentages.

According to the PEW Research Center, eight-in-ten adults who live in rural communities say they use the internet on at least a daily basis (though, those in urban settings access the internet more frequently). Many without broadband access at home, rely on internet service from their smartphones.

For the agriculture sector, the Connectiv Ag Council 2020 Ag Media Study found that, on a weekly basis, 73% of farmers read a print magazine or newsletter, but 66% also read an ag e-newsletter. Are they reading your e-newsletter? Or your competitors?

Why Digital Marketing?

Easy. Digital is measurable.

Cooperative marketers (really) have no idea if their print mailers are being read or even opened. Today, email programs track readership, measure customers’ activity throughout their journey on your website and offer unique content insights for your organization.

Most importantly, engaged customers equal informed customers who are more likely to be loyal, recommend your services or buy (another) product from you.

Six Ways to Grow Your Email Program

1. Give your addresses a home.

Customer relationship management (CRM) tools differ from financial systems. A CRM tool manages sales activities, customer communication preferences and offers lead generation opportunities in addition to storing email addresses.

Regardless of the tool, a central customer database should be accessible by the entire team (from sales to accounting to IT and marketing) and protect customer data in the case of staff turnover. (No more saving customers’ email addresses in your sales rep’s personal cell phone!)

2. Scrub it.

High-quality email addresses will reduce your bounce rate and create opportunities for higher open rates. This step also protects your organization from fake or malware-infested emails. Your email count may go down in this step. Think quality over quantity here.

A couple of online scrubbing tools include Webbula, BriteVerify, Kickbox and Neverbounce.

3. Create an online form to collect it.

If the content customers receive in return for their email is valuable to them, they will gladly share their coveted email address. As you decide on this “gated content,” make sure it’s deemed worthy of the customer data; consider prize giveaways, proprietary research, a pricing sheet or information your customers can’t get anywhere else. Save yourself time and manual data entry and ensure your email collection system is tied to your customer relationship management system through an API.

You can also send a printed mailer asking customers or prospects to go online and sign up. In this case, make sure the URL is easy to remember and type in. Consider a QR code for direct access on a mobile device.

4. Ensure your site is mobile-first.

Unfortunately, 22.3 percent of Americans in rural areas lack high speed broadband coverage, compared to only 1.5 percent of Americans in urban areas, according to a recent report by the Federal Communications Commission. Ensure your site is mobile-first, with all aspects lightning fast for use on a smartphone using a data plan.

5. Buy digital ads to drive web traffic.

If your Facebook or Twitter pages are booming, but you’re not getting the conversion to sales or services, consider purchasing targeted social media ads (beyond just boosting), or targeted programmatic media using digital banners or native ads.

These ads could be in an industry e-newsletter or local online newspaper, which entice your leads and customers to visit your website and add their name to your email list.

6. Continually offer great content.

We’ve all fallen prey to an email program that sends us three “great deals” emails per day. Don’t be those guys. Offer insights or news your cooperative’s customers can’t get anywhere else and be consistent and respectful in when and how often you send it.

Regardless of how you build your digital database, your content should offer a glimpse inside your organization that builds loyalty, offers real discounts or coupons, or provides information that drives business.

The rule of thumb is that if 10% of your list opens your email, you’ve been successful. With great content, we’ve seen clients hit as high as 50% open rates. Now those are engaged customers!

We’d love to say that once you’ve grown your email list, your work is done. However, we have found that organizations need to continually monitor their statistics and find ways to continually improve their customer data lists. Think of your email marketing program like a lifestyle change; not a fad diet. Remember, you are building the most important asset you will have in the future!