Keys to BTB E-Mail Marketing Success

In the United States, e-mail has surpassed the telephone as the preferred way to communicate with other business associates, according to a recent study. Add to that e-mail’s low cost and high response rates, and it is no wonder e-mail is being touted as the next big thing in business-to-business marketing.

But how do you make e-mail work for your company? You need to apply the new rules of BTB e-mail marketing — along with traditional direct marketing strategies — to your marketing program.

Understand the unique online environment. E-mail is a one-to-one communication between two business associates. Informal messages are written hastily in plain type with no graphics and vary in length from one-sentence quips to a few paragraphs. There is a sense of urgency about using e-mail.

Business e-mail inboxes fill up quickly each day. People read through e-mail at a furious pace in an attempt to deal with each message in the shortest time possible. As Web marketing guru Jim Sterne said, “E-mail is not something you read. It’s something you do.”

Integrate e-mail into your marketing program. Think of e-mail as a new marketing channel you can add to your communications arsenal alongside Web pages, print advertisements, direct mail, catalogs and press releases.

One of the hottest categories in e-mail marketing is customer retention.

“Instead of throwing all that money at indiscriminate branding efforts, such as TV commercials or banner ads, e-mail is becoming a more attractive alternative to marketers, especially when it comes to retaining customers,” said Gary Galati, director at eMarketer, New York, a company that analyzes e-commerce data.

Retention is the most neglected part of most marketing programs because of the misconception that you need to add customers in order to increase sales. In reality, it is far less expensive to get more sales from existing customers.

You also can use e-mail to enhance results from existing programs, such as lead generation. Most BTB marketers generate leads from print ads, trade shows, seminars and direct mail. If your program is producing results, do not sabotage it in an effort to save money with e-mail. You might end up tossing out the cherries with the pits and lowering your response. Instead, try testing some of the newly available opt-in e-mail business lists to see how they respond compared with direct mail. And try using e-mail to help convert leads. Send timely e-mails to your B- and C-list leads that move them along in the buying decision process. This will increase your overall lead conversion rate and will allow your sales force to focus on the A-list leads.

Develop fresh creative formats and content. E-mail is an intimate, written form of communication. For this reason, in e-mail messaging, text rules. Some of the most successful BTB e-mail campaigns have been sent in straight text.

A comprehensive study found that online readers focus first on text. They ignore photographs and graphics totally, only to return to them — if at all — after reading the text. So design your messages to mimic personal e-mails in type font, color (all black) and size. Keep the tone informal and conversational. You can even make it more personal by writing in the first person singular rather than the corporate “we” — and have it come from an actual person in your organization.

It is possible to send graphics-oriented versions in HTML featuring logos, photos, illustrations and other graphics. However, tests have found that HTML versions often produce lower response rates than text-only versions, perhaps because they take too long to download and look like ads.

E-mail is best used to strengthen relationships. Invite prospects to a seminar or trade show. Offer helpful information such as case studies, how-tos, customer testimonials and research summaries. Entice customers to visit your Web site. Cross-sell products and services. E-mails are not well suited for branding, image building or other scenarios that require graphics and visual imagery to achieve your objective.

A couple of winning formats are emerging for BTB e-mail. Do you have a single offer and message? Use the standard e-mail format, which looks just like an e-mail from a business associate. The message is just a few short paragraphs. I recently received a well-executed standard e-mail from Siebel Systems, inviting me to attend a free Web seminar. The message was warm and brief. Nothing fancy. Very effective.

The second winning format is the e-newsletter. Most people think marketing e-mails must be short. However, e-newsletters that present several topics can be highly effective. The key is to preview the contents first so the reader can see whether there is something of interest, then present each topic in a few short paragraphs. For example, does an e-newsletter that presents tips for freelance contractors (“gurus”) on serving clients, comments from other gurus, news of successful match-ups and so on. There is lots of information, but it is so well organized that you can skim through it and stop at the places that interest you.

Determine your frequency and keep messages timely. As you decide what audience segments you will target with e-mail, be sure to consider the frequency of your messages. Ask yourself when the information you are conveying might be useful. Where is each segment of your target audience in the buying or decision-making cycle? How often should you e-mail updates about your product? Should you send reminders about an offer before it expires? Remember that most companies do not communicate with customers and qualified leads often enough.

Make a strong offer. No matter how smart your strategy or how compelling your message, a strong offer is what drives prospects to respond. E-mail lead generation campaigns should include offers for free white papers, research studies, CD-ROM product demos, free seminars and so on — just like traditional campaigns.

Consider the proverbial trial offer — it still works. E-mail retention programs benefit from a strong offer, too. Thank-you gifts — a complimentary audio compact disc, for example — do wonders to cement relationships. Free stuff also makes sense when you are cross-selling an existing customer to different products or services.

Be sensitive to online privacy. Send e-mail only when you have a relationship — to current and past customers, to qualified leads, and to prospects who have opted to receive business e-mails. Create and post a privacy policy on your Web site, and include an unsubscribe option in every e-mail.

Despite the promise of e-mail, industry experts say marketers are likely to overload businesspeople and consumers alike. eMarketer estimates that the number of commercial e-mails will skyrocket to 226 billion annually in 2003, up from 64 billion in 2000.

So how do you cut through the clutter and make your BTB e-mail marketing program a success? Make your messages personal, relevant and timely. Unless you do, time-crunched business readers are likely to feel that you are wasting their time. Only companies that provide e-mail messages of value will be able to maintain a dialogue with their customers.

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