You'd be surprised, perhaps, but it's that old favorite, email marketing. Most people who have created email lists and instituted email marketing programs over the last decade are finding that the number of "opens" (someone actually receives and opens their email) they receive has gone down somewhat over the years.
And yet, they don't know what else to do. Small businesses can't afford print advertising, and most of their customers are too targeted for conventional methods used by larger brands. Many have been trying social media, but the ROI from that can be very limited if you don't know what you are doing. And small businesses complain that they don't have time to sit on Facebook and Twitter all day.
The best ROI for a small business is still email marketing. Look at it on this graphic: email marketing returns close to 4x more than other forms of direct marketing.
These are last year's figures. But then look at the projected growth of email marketing between now and 2014. Clearly, it's not going away.
As a small business, you must target your email messages, develop your own opt-in lists, and leverage those lists to increase the likelihood that someone will open your email.
One suggestion might be to try Flowtown, which combines the tried and true of email marketing with the innovative ways to reach customers now available through social media.
Flowtown posted the graphic below on its blog (and I "stole" it from them with their permission). With Flowtown's tools, you can find your customers on their social networks, and then contact them there with more targeted messages that also might make them open your emails. Since the process of finding your social media contacts is automated by their technology, which takes your uploaded email addresses and almost instantaneously locates your customers, the time you spend is quite limited.
I'm a big evangelist for Flowtown, because in our Fasttrac programs we are always looking for tools that will help startups and small businesses with limited resources get the job done. And finding and keeping customers is one of the largest issues for new and small businesses.