By Michael Della Penna, Managing Director of ThreadMarketing, A StrongMail Company

The social web has changed the email-marketing arena dramatically. But with so many ways for consumers to engage with a brand (and each other), many businesses still lack the tools to understand and engage their key customers and subscribers.

Email is a common thread that connects every touch-point in the customer’s lifecycle. But to build an effective email strategy, you must first understand how it affects channels like social networks and mobile.

A recent report from Forrester Research found that "given the increasing complexity of the email marketing channels — including the need to integrate email with social and mobile channels — the call for strategic guidance will only continue to grow in importance."

This ‘strategic guidance’ can assist businesses with getting the most out of listening and monitoring activities; lifecycle communications frameworks; email and social media campaign tools and execution; community management; analytics and loyalty marketing programmes that encourage and reward participation across the social web. The relevance this service provides is well illustrated through the example of social CRM.

The concept of Social CRM can be described as the ability to leverage data and insights gained from marketing activities in social channels to build more relevant conversations that drive results. An exciting new channel this may be, but to achieve results, it is important that marketers first identify a key group that is vital to their business: their best customers.

Research suggests that best customers represent around 20 percent of a business' customer base, and account for 80 percent of sales. Identifying and striving to create a unique experience for those customers should therefore be the aim of nearly every marketer on the planet.

While it is important to leverage social media to connect, engage and influence all consumers, it makes common sense for brands to think more strategically to identify best customers and create unique, special experiences for them.

To do this, brands need to:

Listen to and understand the conversations customers are having and, specifically, what they're saying about your brand. Insights gained through listening can often identify a shared passion (be it travel, sports, music, etc.) that's essential in engaging best customers for ongoing conversations.

If your brand has a loyalty programme and robust data, you’re already a step ahead. If not, you’ll want to conduct some proprietary research across your best customers to understand how they use the social web, which will inform your segmentation and marketing strategy further. This research will also be critical in developing new social programmes that appeal specifically to your key segments.

By now you’ve gained a good understanding of your key customers and influencers. The next step is to build a truly unique experience for them, leveraging all touch points: website, email, customer service desk and presence on social networks. Take the time and effort to build a lifecycle communication programme for every segment, paying attention to community management. Rethink your loyalty programmes – perhaps shift your focus from promotions to rewarding best customers for participating with your brand – be it their community contributions, social network activity or brand advocacy.

As you begin to engage your best customers, don’t forget the “social” in social CRM. Leverage social tools to facilitate and encourage sharing and brand advocacy. Flag and thank active customers, and reward them for their advocacy.

Finally, track and anticipate what’s coming next. The greatest benefit of focusing on your best customers is the ability to manage and execute campaigns based on the data. Amazing things begin to emerge when you not only know who your best customers are, what segment they fall in, what products they like and how often they use them, but also their email activity, loyalty/purchase activity and social activity.

While many companies “listen” and “learn,” few leverage the data they capture to “engage” and “influence." Leading brands must learn to create this bond and leverage the strategic guidance, creativity and tools necessary to build relationships and drive brand advocacy. It is social CRM in practice — leveraging the data and insights gained from marketing activities to build more relevant conversations — that will drive results.

As consumers embrace social media, mobile and other emerging channels, email remains the critical foundation for nurturing each customer relationship. But for marketers to be truly effective in each channel, they need the right tools and expertise. Providing these tools with effective guidance through social CRM, forward-thinking companies can reach a new level of engagement with their best customers by mastering the various digital marketing channels available today.