Email marketing should be part of the sales and marketing toolset of any business-to-business (B2B) company, but some companies, particularly industrial and technology firms, either don’t use it at all or else do it badly. A few B2B companies think of email marketing as a “spammy”, business-to-consumer (B2C) tool that isn’t appropriate for their industry. Other companies try email marketing but fail for reasons ranging from bad choice of email tools through to poor design or weak content – basically, bad execution. In this post I give you some reasons to take email marketing seriously, even if you’re a B2B technology company selling complex, high-value products. Then we’ll look at how to get some of the basics right so you can use email to promote your business and generate more sales. At the end of the post there are some links to resources I think you’ll find useful.
First things first – why use email marketing?
The short answer is that email works for B2B. In a survey of B2B technology marketers in 2010 email was ranked as the 3rd most effective marketing tool ahead of tradeshows, PR, social media and other tactics (source: MarketingSherpa B2B Benchmarking Survey 2011). Email is still the most common method for business communication. For example, almost half of every hour on the mobile internet is spent on email, far more than any other task, even social networking (source: Nielsen Mobile Media View Internet 2010). And email and search are still the two most common online activities – 92% of online adults use email according to the May 2011 Pew Internet Survey.
Email has some other benefits too. Firstly, it’s cost effective – you can reach 1,000 people for the same cost as 100, unlike when you had to stick brochures in envelopes. Secondly, it’s a great way to test your promotions – you can quickly find out which topics, messages and layouts work for your target audiences. And it’s immediate – with email marketing systems like MailChimp or ConstantContact you can see the number of email opens, ‘bounces’ and clicks in real-time.
A common objection I hear from B2B technology companies is that email doesn’t seem an appropriate way to promote high tech, high value complex products. They understand how email might work when promoting a retail product like books or shoes, but not when you are trying to sell a $250,000 back-office financial system. The answer is that B2B emails are not ‘transactional’ in the way B2C emails are – we don’t expect someone to read an email and take out their credit card to purchase the $250k software system. But we do expect that if we send a professionally written email offering a useful piece of information to an audience of financial system users they will take notice of us and our products. We also expect that if we combine email with our other marketing activities, some of those recipients will eventually become sales leads.
Another objection is the belief that social networks have overtaken email as a form of communication. The answer here is that email is still used by business buyers as their primary form of electronic communication. And email has some advantages. For example, you may have a thousand followers on Twitter, but when you post a tweet only a small percentage of your followers are likely to see it because of the huge volume of messages on Twitter. But if you have 1,000 email subscribers and send them an email you should be confident that it will hit 80% plus of their in-boxes. Lastly, you don’t have to choose between email or social media. We recommend using social media to generate awareness and bring people to you online, then using email to deliver repeat communications to a regular audience.
Next, how do you do it?
Once you have decided that email marketing should be part of your marketing mix the next step is to learn how to do it well. The common mistakes we see in B2B marketing are:
- Not using an email marketing system
- Sending your emails to the wrong people
- Weak email ‘subject’ lines that people won’t want to read
- Poor layout and design
- Talking about yourself, not your customers
- Too much text
- Not offering something valuable to your recipients
Using an email marketing system
When you want to send marketing emails you don’t use your Outlook account or a company email server. You should use an internet-based system that helps you to design professional looking emails and then sends them to your target lists. These systems make it easy to pick predefined graphic templates and customize them with your logo and branding. You can then upload a spreadsheet of contact email addresses and send your email to each contact on the list. The email service providers show you the response to your email campaigns in real-time i.e. you can see how many have opened the email, the number of ‘bounces’ etc. Most email service providers charge a monthly or annual subscription – prices start from about $15 per month depending on the number of contacts you upload and emails you send. Vendors to consider include ConstantContact, MailChimp, VerticalResponse, CampaignMonitor, iContact and ExactTarget. Our recommendation is to start with one you find easy to use e.g. ConstantContact or MailChimp and try out one or two campaigns to get an understanding of how it works.
Your list – who you send your emails to
Your choice of target contacts is the single most important factor in the success of your email campaigns. But people starting out with email are often tempted to cut corners. For example, you extract every email address you can find in your contact management system into a spreadsheet and blast them all with the same email. Or you buy a list of 10,000 contacts from a 3rd party list provider in the hope that maybe 1% or 2% may be interested in what you have to sell. Our advice is, ‘don’t do that’, for a couple of reasons. First, spamming large numbers of contacts with undifferentiated email will eventually get you black-listed from your email marketing provider. They look for indicators like large numbers of unsubscribes and frequent spam complaints, which you will get by taking this approach. Second, it is a really inefficient way to approach marketing. If you put in a little more effort at the start, you will generate much better results.
For example, go ahead and extract those contacts from your CRM system, but then group or categorize them by sector or role. Update or remove any contacts that are no longer valid. Then send targeted emails to well defined sub-groups e.g. IT Managers working in financial services.
Instead of buying a list, get your colleagues to collect the contacts they have in their email accounts, on networks like LinkedIn and through professional associations. Incentivize them to bring you new contacts to add to your lists. Add ‘subscribe’ panels to your website and blog to gather visitors’ contact details.
And in all cases, only send emails to people you think will be genuinely interested in receiving them. Don’t send a white paper on technical challenges in the insurance industry to someone working in healthcare. Create different versions of your emails, each one tailored to a specific target audience.
The Subject Line
People will never see the great offer you are making in your email if they don’t open the email in the first place. And the only way they can tell if your email is worth opening is by reading your subject line. You have 2 to 3 seconds to persuade someone not to hit the ‘delete’ button but to stick around and hear what you have to say.
So how do you write a good subject line?
- Keep it short – we’ve seen a number of surveys recommending that you keep it to 9 words or less
- Include a deadline or time element – try to create a sense of urgency by suggesting that there is a time limit to whatever is being offered in the email
- Relevant – if you are sending an email to chief finance officers then make sure the headline makes it clear why this email is relevant to them. The closer the fit to their job and industry the more people will open the email.
- Benefit – use the headline to sell the benefit of opening the email e.g. get a new industry report, white paper or tool. Answer “what’s in it for me”
- Try numbers – Headlines with numbered lists tend to get good open rates e.g. “Top ten predictions for financial services” or “5 quick ways to drive online sales”
- Avoid words that trigger spam filters – Your email service provider usually provides a spam analysis tool which will tell you if your email and subject line are likely to have problems.
Email layout and design
Make sure your email looks professional and works on mobile devices. Most of the email service providers like MailChimp and ConstantContact give you a range of pre-built templates to choose from. Be careful about your use of colour and try to stick to one type of font. If you don’t think your design skills are good enough to produce a professional looking layout with an existing template then pay someone to do it for you.
Email Body and the Offer
MarketingSherpa carried out a survey in 2010 (http://www.marketingsherpa.com/1news/idg2-lp.htm) where they asked prospective buyers what they thought the biggest weaknesses were in marketing emails they received. The answers were:
- Offer not compelling – 60%
- Content not relevant – 56%
- Information not specific to my focus and role – 46%
- Poor timing – 23%
- No linkage to relevant content – 22%
Keep that list in mind when developing your own emails. The key tips for writing your email are to keep it short, write it from the point of view of your customers, and offer them something they will find useful and valuable. Your email is not the place to list 20 reasons why your company or product is so great. Instead, you should use the email to offer a piece of information, a document or report that will be genuinely interesting to your readers. People are interested in good quality ‘how to’ guides, analyst reports, white papers and surveys that help them do their job better or tell them what their peers are doing in their industry sector. You need to find some content that you can offer that is helpful to them while also highlighting the value you could provide as a solution provider.
When writing the email you can follow these rules of thumb:
- Get to the point fast – make it clear what you are offering in the first or second sentence – you don’t have longer than that to keep their attention
- Answer the “What’s in it for me” question – make sure you sell the benefit of your offer in the first paragraph
- Use the word ‘you’ – try to use the word ‘you’ in the first or second sentence. This forces you to start thinking about your intended recipients.
- Break up the text – don’t have large blocks of text; try to use bullet points to make it easier to scan.
- Don’t talk about yourself too much – the content or download you are offering should position you as valuable in the minds of the reader; if they find it useful you can follow-up with a more direct sales pitch later
- Have a clear call to action – make it clear what you want the reader to do e.g. “Download the white paper now” or “Get your copy of the survey here”. Words like ‘download’ or ‘get’ work better than simply using ‘click here’.
- Provide your contact details – make it easy for someone to get in touch with you if they want to phone or email you directly
- Provide links to your website – email is a great way to boost traffic to your website
- Unsubscribe option – always provide an easy way for people to unsubscribe if they don’t want to hear from you. Most email service providers automatically provide this option for you.
Analyze Your Performance, Test and Improve
One of the great things about email marketing is that the results are immediate. If you send an email to 1,000 recipients today you will know within 24 hours how many people opened the email, who they were and what they clicked on. Email service providers like ConstantContact help you track your performance over time and also help you compare yourself with industry averages.
You should continually experiment and test to see if you can improve your results. A/B testing refers to split-testing your email by sending one version to half your audience and a slightly different version to the other half. For example, you could try out a new subject line on one group and a variation to the other group to see which one gets a better response. You can also test the email text, the offer you are making, the design and layout – in fact, pretty much every aspect of your email marketing.
Integrating email with social media and other tools
Email marketing is just one of the tools you should use to promote your company and products. You should combine and use all of these tools to maximize their effectiveness.
For example, include links in your marketing emails to your LinkedIn profile, your website and blog. Use email to help promote other marketing activities like seminars and webinars. Send an email newsletter to all of your customers on a monthly or quarterly basis to encourage them to buy more of your products or services. And use email to ‘nurture’ leads who have registered with your website but who are not yet ready to buy.
Useful B2B Email Marketing Resources
Here is an initial list of useful B2B email marketing resources which we plan to update over time. You should also monitor relevant hash tags on Twitter such as #emailmarketing, #emailtips and #emaildesign – there is a huge amount of free information available on the web.
- GlobalSpec – Email Marketing to Engineering, Technical, Industrial and Manufacturing Professionals – http://www.globalspec.com/advertising/wp-detail/E-mail_Marketing_to_Industrial_Sector
- Interview with Bryan Eisenberg on Calls to Action – http://www.wdfm.com/marketing-viewpoints/cta-buttons.php
- Who’s Blogging What – most useful email marketing posts of 2011 – http://whosbloggingwhat.com/issues/2012/01052012/email#useful
- MarketingSherpa – most effective email variables to test http://sherpablog.marketingsherpa.com/email-marketing/email-marketing-testing-variables/
- MarketingSherpa also publish an email benchmark report – http://www.meclabs.com/media/marketingsherpa-releases-2012-email-marketing-benchmark-report
- Unbounce – “50 Awesome Posts on Email Marketing” – http://unbounce.com/email-marketing/50-awesome-posts-on-email-marketing/
- Neil Patel’s QuickSprout Blog – http://www.quicksprout.com/2011/12/12/5-reasons-why-you-cant-make-your-email-marketing-work/
- Jill Konrath, “The ultimate guide to email prospecting” – http://www.slideshare.net/landmarkrecruiting/the-ultimate-guide-to-email-prospecting