What's working in BTB e-mail marketing today?

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There's no shortage of experts claiming they know precisely what works in business-to-business e-mail marketing. But I take what most of them say with a grain of salt.

In traditional direct mail, there simply is no silver bullet, no magic rules that apply all of the time to guarantee a winner. Logic follows that there are no silver bullets in any kind of marketing, including TV commercials, print ads and e-mail marketing. But the gurus and experts keep trying to formulate silver bullets or, at least, best practices, nonetheless.

First up is the question, when is the best day of the week to send a BTB e-mail marketing message? According to a new survey by eROI Inc., high-level executives read most of their e-mail messages on Mondays and Tuesdays. And the best time to send messages on those days is during lunch hour.

Next up, subject lines: A study from e-mail services provider Silverpop showed that BTB e-mail open rates are 20 percent when the subject line does not mention the brand, company or product, and 32 percent when the brand or company name appears in the subject line.

That's a 60 percent lift in open rates just from adding either the brand or the company name to the subject line. But beware of using both: The study found that open rates fall to only 24 percent when both the company name and the product name are in the same subject line.

The debate about which is better, text or HTML e-mail, rages on in business-to-consumer marketing. But overwhelmingly, the vast majority of BTB e-mail marketers send HTML messages. One would suppose HTML works best. Or does it?

"The majority of e-mail campaigns for our BTB clients are HTML," says freelance copywriter Alan Sharpe. "This is partly because of aesthetics and the need to project and protect the brand, and partly because we can only measure open rates when we design in HTML."

But other marketers are defying the best practice of using HTML for BTB e-mail marketing with good results.

"For most of the BTB clients I have worked with recently, plain text - formatted effectively - has worked better than HTML," says copywriter Steve Slaunwhite. "I suspect this is because of the many issues that plague HTML, such as deliverability and blocked images."

Adds Steve: "I think plain text works better in e-mail because it looks like personal communications. Think about it. When you send me an e-mail, do you dress it up with fancy formatting and graphics? Or do you just write a simple e-mail?"

Software copywriter Ed Gandia also finds that text can outperform HTML in BTB e-mail marketing.

"When a conversational tone and approach would work better, text seems to be outpulling HTML," said Gandia. "Also, since most BTB marketers use HTML, text e-mails are different, stand out and therefore get more attention and higher click-through rates."

So, if it's not true that HTML is universally better than text for BTB e-mail marketing, are there any legitimate BTB e-mail marketing best practices - rules that stand up in the real world and that you ignore at your peril?

I can think of only three. First, the most important part of the e-mail marketing message is the "from" line. If the e-mail is from a source readers know, such as a trusted vendor or an online newsletter they subscribe to, they are more likely to open it.

The second most important part of the message is the subject line. Even though the subject line is only 40 characters or so of text, tests conclusively support that a simple change in subject line can increase click-through rates by 25 percent to 50 percent or more.

Third, avoid focusing on the product instead of the prospect, a sin committed perhaps more frequently in BTB than BTC.

Many BTB e-mails I see start with the product. But the reader, your prospect, doesn't care about you, your company, your product or your technology. The readers care, first and foremost, about their needs, fears, concerns, problems, challenges and desires. The more you answer the primary question readers ask when they see your e-mail - "What's in it for me?" - the greater your click-through and conversion rates will be.

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