Email has long been a lead-generation mainstay. But as the definition of a lead itself changes, marketers’ approach to using email to attract and nurture highly qualified prospects must evolve, as well. “The Ice Bucket Challenge has been a fantastic driver of leads for The ALS Association, but things like that are really hard to replicate through email,” notes Gudmundur “G.B.” Heidarsson, CEO at email intelligence company eDataSource.
The issue here isn’t that email is less effective at generating quality leads, but rather that the term lead has acquired additional meaning over the past few years as e-commerce and social media continue to evolve and disrupt both marketing and sales. “In the not-too-distant [digital] past a lead was someone who downloaded an asset as a result of an email campaign,” says Mark Coleman, VP of digital marketing services at marketing agency LSC Digital. These days the definition is much broader. Going back to Heidarsson’s Ice Bucket Challenge example, how many of the millions of people who made videos qualify as leads at all, let alone quality leads? Some people just wanted to participate in the viral hype. Others donated instead of taking the challenge and may not be likely to become long-term supporters.
“Some ‘leads’ may not be interested in converting in the first place; I’d say 95 percent of leads aren’t qualified [today],” says Jerry Jao, CEO and cofounder of retention marketing company Retention Science. “Leads are people who have shown interest. That aspect of a lead hasn’t changed much, but there are so many companies trying to get in front of you that most people are distracted. A lot of the time people are just doing research.”
This broader, more nebulous definition of a lead brings with it ambiguity, but it also brings opportunity to uncover the leads that matter most. Here are eight ways to use email to harness that potential.
Keep the first contact light
The first impression is as crucial as it is delicate, whether in person or online. And, like dating, coming on too strong can turn off a prospect. Marketers need to resist the temptation to request too much data or rush prospects down the funnel. Getting people to share their email is difficult enough; pushing for too much personal information when requesting an email address—or too soon after—is likely the surest way to stifle any chance of building a relationship with a qualified lead. A better approach is to ask a few questions essential to determining or ensuring lead quality, and building on that information over time as prospects interact with a company’s emails, website, and content.
“Asking for 10 fields of data when collecting an email address will kill your form conversion numbers. Marketers have to take the onus of creating continuous value if we want to build deep customer knowledge over time,” says Dave Walters, digital marketing evangelist at Silverpop.
Segment as early as possible
According to Silverpop’s “2014 Email Marketing Benchmarks” study, personalized email messages achieved an open rate nearly 15% higher and a click-through rate nearly 79% higher than other emails. Marketers who want to reap the benefits of these targeted emails must start by segmenting their lists not just by demographic information, but also by behavioral data. For example, prospects with characteristics or interests similar to customers may be a segment to prioritize in terms of targeting.
“Identify ways to segment [prospects] as early in the process as possible so that nurturing communications are relevant to the interests and intentions of the leads,” says LS Digital’s Coleman. “If a lead opened an email and clicked a link, then the follow- communications focus on that. If not, they would flow through a different series of communications. Targeting based on behavior is the key to all marketing communications.”
Leverage dormant lists
Marketers often focus heavily on acquiring new prospects. While this may be essential to business growth, it doesn’t mean that prioritizing new lists over existing ones is the optimal strategy. “I’m seeing marketers going back and really working the dormant part of their lists,” Heidarsson says. He cites Macy’s as an example. “Macy’s has been very active in getting dormant people to engage,” he says. “[The retailer] is seeing more than 20 percent open rate on the emails to non-paying subscribers, which is a higher open rate than their general emails.”
Consumer-facing brands, especially in the retail sector, have an advantage in that they can more readily send promotional offers to prospects who have opted in to communications but haven’t yet made a purchase. But any marketer reaching out to dormant leads must do so cautiously to avoid the spam button. Personalization can be valuable here. For example, remind prospects of previous communications or their initial opt-in: “Because you attended our webcast on conference management strategies last year, we thought you’d be interested downloading our whitepaper that delves further into the topic.”
Maintain a killer content strategy
Few tactics are as effective as content marketing when using email to move the right prospects through the funnel. But not just any content will do. Personalization by virtue of sending appropriate content is as important, and potentially as effective, as personalization of other elements of the email delivering or linking to it. “Content needs to match my interests,” Colman says. “If I’ve identified that I’m interested in study-abroad programs, please don’t communicate with me on local education opportunities.”
Know how deep prospects are in the funnel
An essential aspect of optimizing email communications today is in realizing that by the time marketers reach out to potentially qualified leads those prospects are much further along the path to purchase than they were in the pastwhen purchasers often started their buyer’s journey by contacting a salesperson or visiting a site such as a store or dealership. Indeed, this can mean that a lead coming in deeper in the funnel is more qualified than those coming in earlier.
“The highest performing marketing teams I work with understand that the customer normally shows up very late in the consideration cycle, and is almost ready to buy,” Silverpop’s Walters notes. “Much of the social proof and Web research that precedes the purchase event has already happened, and it’s difficult to undo someone’s perception that your competitor’s product is better than yours with just a last-minute email or a coupon. This is the simple reality of today’s buyer, and marketers who ignore this are absolutely underperforming on the revenue side.”
Marketers must ensure that their emails are engaging and creative. While this may seem obvious, too many marketers miss the opportunity to engage best prospects by weaving their unique brand attributes into their email communications to illustrate such attributes as creativity, relevance, and attention to detail. Marketers often lean on industry best practices in this area, which can lead to dullness in marketing emails. This is especially true in B2B.
“I think B2B is losing out because they are trying too hard to be B2B. Every B2B email I get has something to do with a whitepaper or a webinar or a download and it’s all very bland and doesn’t grab my attention,” Heidarsson says. “Anyone that has an event in Vegas says something about, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ I think B2B marketers might want to look at their private inboxes to see the creativity of their B2C counterparts.”
Prospective customers are inundated with emails from preferred and prospective brands alike—especially as they move through the purchase funnel and their lead quality increases. Concise copy that gets right to the point will go a long way toward currying the favor of today’s time-starved, over-stimulated customer, and this brevity should start with the subject line.
“The subject line is the ice breaker. You have one chance and only a few dozen characters,” Heidarsson says. “Subject lines need to be urgent and create interest, but you have to follow up on that in the copy. The subject line and copy have to work in tandem.”
Keep the faith
The rate of change in digital communication is staggering, but many of the most disruptive technologies rely on email to stay connected to customers and prospects. Email is a direct and personal form of communication that is effective and engaging all along the purchase cycle—as long as it’s relevant. “Email is still the best way to qualify and nurture a lead,” Jao says. “Focus on how you can provide meaningful and valuable resources to consumers. The most effective messaging is when its relevant and the communication is thoughtful.”