You've heard that email is one of your best marketing tools, but you are afraid of spam complaints and you are discouraged about how long it takes to build an opt-in newsletter list. Let's dispell that fear and discouragement. There are actually dozens of channels you may not have considered to send spam-free emails and dramatically boost your traffic, sales and improve your communication with those who help make you successful.
This is where folks often start. That's great. I'll repeat what everyone else has already said. You need to have an opt-in newsletter. You need to have signup box prominently displayed on your site and you need to publish a helpful newsletter about topic of your market often (preferably weekly). This will help you build long-term return traffic to your site. It will also build a sense of community with your visitors. You will eventually cease to be just a website and become a person that your visitors respect and get to know.
Yes; it is discouraging when you only have a handful of subscribers at end of your first month. Hang in there. It's all worth it. Do you think it takes too much time to write articles for your newsletter? Use articles submitted by others. More on that later...
Is it OK to email your customers? Absolutely. Is it OK to email them your newsletter? No; not without permission. Is it OK to email them an advertisement for your latest product/service. Yes; it probably is... But hold on just a minute. You have a relationship with this customer. It's far better if you recognize and respect that relationship. They purchased something from you. Why not drop them a personal note every once in awhile and ask them about your product/service. Ask them if they are happy with what they received. Ask them if there is any way you can improve your product/service. Go ahead and let them know about your newsletter. It's OK to mention your product/service. Tell them where they can find more information if you think it might help them.
These are your customers. Treat them with respect they deserve and they will likely become repeat customers. Blast email advertisements at them and they might or might not buy that product, but you will have missed a chance to build a relationship with them.
You need to have contact information on your site. This needs to include either an email address or a form to submit questions and other inquiries. People who email you are prospects. Is it OK to email your prospects? Absolutely. In fact, I recommend that you email them a response IMMEDIATELY upon receiving their inquiry. I always return prospect email same day.
Is it OK to sign them up for an auto-responder that blasts product information at them for next several weeks. Yes; it probably is... But I think you are really blowing another opportunity if you do. Instead, why don't you spend some time and honestly answer their question. Once again, you have removed illusion of faceless website and replaced it with a one-on-one discussion.
Feel free to send them a follow-up email in a couple of day if you don't receive an order or another question from them. Ask them if they have any other questions. It's OK to send them yet another email in a week or two. Be helpful and shoot for solving their problem or answering their question.
Having a resource directory of sites in your market is a great idea. It's a great way to build traffic (by trading links with other sites in your market) and a great way to provide a free resource to your own visitors. If you have a link directory, you need to have a simple form to request a listing in your link directory. That form should have an email address.
You can have a checkbox on your form to signup for your newsletter. This will increase your opt-in subscribers. You should also promptly add listing and send them an email to tell them about it. Is it OK to try to sell your product/service in your email? Probably; but I don't recommend it. You have so many more valuable things to talk about. This is a webmaster in your topic area. They may or may not be interested in your product. They WILL be interested in their listing in your directory. Remind them of URL to your links page. They may also be interested in your affiliate program. Feel free to tell them about that.
Then, make bold step to treating them like an equal. Invite them to suggest any other ways you might partner. Webmasters are a creative bunch. Reach out and make some real connections with those who request a listing in your directory.