« | Main | »

B2B Email Marketing: Interview with Stephanie Miller

This is one of a series of occasional interviews with top practitioners on topics of interest to B2B lead generation, marketing and new business development professionals.

Stephanie Miller

My guest today is Stephanie Miller, email expert and co-author of Sign me up! A Marketer’s Guide To Email Newsletters That Build Relationships and Boost Sales.

Stephanie describes herself as a customer advocate who, through her work with email performance company Return Path, helps marketers reach the inbox and connect with prospects and customers via email and social marketing.

Recent research sponsored by Google and Forbes found that on average 27.6 percent – more than one in four email messages – never reach the businesspeople they were sent to. Stephanie, why is this happening and what should this blog’s readers do about it?

This study tracks with Return Path’s Deliverability Benchmark Report on the first half of 2009, which is based on the data Return Path manages for ISPs and corporate system administrators.

It found that about 28% of B2B marketing email never reaches the inbox, which is higher than B2C email (20% of that gets blocked). This is true for even the best of marketers.

Remember too that it is not always the same 28% – you will sometimes reach the inbox of a particular subscriber and sometimes not. So you can count on the fact that some portion of your audience is not seeing every email. Witness your own Junk folder. You will see lots of stuff in there you sometimes see in your inbox.

Why?

Put simply, email marketing messages get blocked because they are sent in bulk, which makes them look like spam. This is bad because marketers can get trapped by the same systems put in place to stop spam by the postmasters at ISPs like Yahoo!, Gmail and Hotmail, and by small business and corporate system administrators.

The way to avoid being blocked is to improve the reputation of your domain as well as the engagement of your subscribers.

The good news: This also optimizes response and revenue. Engage and delight your email recipients and they will respond with clicks, downloads, sharing to their networks and longer session lengths.

The bad news: It’s not about content – so changing words like "Free" or "Click here" won’t make much of a difference.

More bad news: There is a whole gauntlet of filters between "Send" and inbox. There is hardware at the receiving gateway; there is software on those machines; there are reputation-based filtering services like Postini and Cloudmark; and then there are filters in software such as Outlook 2007. Yikes!

What can B2B marketers do?

  1. Track your sender reputation. Use a service like Return Path, directly or via your ESP. If you don’t see actual inbox placement data, then ask for it. Inbox placement is a new number – the number representing the difference between what gets reported as "delivered" or "accepted" by your service provider and the open rate. You can get a quick overview of your sender reputation free at www.senderscore.org or dnsstuff.com.
     
  2. Map your domain footprint. Know which domains are most important to you. If you have a large percentage of web-based domains on your file or if you market to small businesses you will see a large number of Yahoo!, Gmail and Hotmail addresses in your file. That is good – because data on inbox placement to those ISPs is readily available and is a good proxy for how the corporate administrators handle your email. We have done this analysis for global marketers and identified the top 20 companies on their file – and then we reach out to each of those companies and find out what sort of filtering is happening and try to become whitelisted. This is a manual but very effective strategy.
     
  3. Build your confidence. When a CEO or one of your brand managers says, "Our message went to Junk," or a subscriber says, "I’m not getting your event invites," many B2B marketers feel as if they have been hung out to dry. It’s hard to know how to address that. However, by tracking your ability to get past such filters as Postini, Cloudmark and Outlook 2007, you can say, "Yes, I know the message didn’t reach your particular inbox, but the data shows that we are reaching about xx% of all the inboxes at businesses we target."
     
  4. Watch rendering. Be sure to know how your message renders – with and without images! – in the various versions of Outlook and on mobile devices. Lotus Notes breaks nearly everything, but it’s worth tracking that too, especially if you have a lot of subscribers at companies that use that system. Be sure to create versions specific to the email clients that are most important to you. A publisher may want to optimize for the lower capabilities of mobile, while a technology company might want to optimize for Outlook.

Stephanie, what tools are available for increasing the deliverability of email and which will make the most difference?

Tracking of inbox placement and rendering. Get this data directly, or ask your ESP to provide it. Also, lots of data can be gained when marketers become certified and placed on various whitelists. This last option is available to only the best senders who qualify.

Can you share some email best practices that B2B marketers should be following?

Here is a quick checklist. See how you rank on all these, and use the results to develop a plan to refresh and update your email program. You’ll quickly see higher results.
 

  1. Focus on the subscriber. Mail less frequently but with more value in each message. Tailor messages to the behavior (e.g. recent download) or demographics.
     
  2. Track your sender reputation and inbox placement rate. If you don’t get this data from your ESP today, ask for it.
     
  3. Make it easy to see what the call to action is.
     
  4. Keep it simple – no one has time to read a lengthy newsletter, even if the content is interesting. Break it up into shorter, pithier messages and guide subscribers to the website.
     
  5. Get permission and actively engage to ensure that subscribers still want to be in your file.
     
  6. Use a Preference Center to give subscribers choices, then communicate that they can visit the Preference Center frequently as their needs change.
     
  7. Treat prospects differently from customers. Use unique content and a slower pace.
     
  8. Highlight and nurture your most active and most socially networked subscribers. Email and social marketing are natural allies. Use them together to build relationships and encourage dialog.
     
  9. Carefully vet the sources of your email file – e.g. are some partners sending data that turns out to be unresponsive?
     
  10. Include links to your LinkedIn profile and other social network sites, and encourage subscribers to "Share this" by providing auto-status update links at each article or call to action.

Are there email practices that our readers should avoid?

Avoid high frequency. Avoid all image-HTML messages (your subscribers will see a big gray box instead of your call to action). Avoid lots of links and images if you think your audience is reading email on mobile devices. Avoid generic messages. Avoid sharing lists between brands or companies – treat the permission grant with respect.

The Golden Rule of email marketing is to treat your subscribers the way you would like to be treated – only sending them information that is relevant, timely and helpful.

Stephanie, is B2B lead generation a good application for email? How about lead nurturing and qualification?

Yes and yes. Email is the first and still most widely utilized dialog channel! Email is great for customizing the "storyboard” – aka: sending drip marketing campaigns. For prospecting, keep it very simple and offer a compelling call to action that has a low bar of commitment. “Download a whitepaper” is certainly simple, but may be too ordinary to break through. “Submit three questions to our expert and we’ll provide custom answers in two days” is more compelling.

Email is also great for moving prospects through a sales cycle. Again, customize. For free trial downloaders, send a series that guides them through getting started and then to exploring cool features that you know help close a deal. As the free trial ends, segment by those who have actually opened the software vs. those who did not. Later in the cycle, focus messaging around making a business case for the product purchase, since most B2B expenditures have to be approved by some committee or some executive.

If that sounds like a lot of work, remember that you create this series of messages once and then use it over and over again.

Are there any tips you can give for selecting the right email service provider?

There are so many providers, and it has become a commodity business so you won’t find many big differences between them all. (Note: My employer is NOT in this business, but we do partner with the best ESPs to provide inbox deliverability data.)

My recommendation is to start with an audit of your own needs – is segmentation the most important thing? Data integration? HTML templates? Then seek out four to five of the ESPs who best serve marketers with your size lists and ask them to show you how they would address that most important requirement. They need to be able to show you how they can do the whole service, too, but frankly, almost every one of them can check off every box in your RFP. If you focus on the one factor that drives your email marketing success, you will then have a point of differentiation.

Another deciding factor is to meet the person who will be your internal advocate – both account service and executive levels.

There is lots of buzz about video email. What are your thoughts about it?

I love the idea, but honestly, the only way video in email can be used for any significant reach is via an animated GIF that mimics video and links to a web page for the full experience. Technically, it’s not that cool, but it can be very effective if done well.

Don’t use video just to use it, however. Without it being central to the call to action, you will find that video can distract subscribers and actually reduce response. Instead, use it when it helps tell your story and close the conversion. Then it can be powerful.

To wrap things up Stephanie, are there any final thoughts about B2B email that you want to share with our readers?

Don’t put your email on autopilot. It’s too important to your revenue and customer engagement and nurturing efforts. Just because it’s easy to hit send and it’s cheap to broadcast, please, please, please don’t neglect your subscribers’ interests. These are your customers! Take the time to engage them. Help them be smarter and more productive, earn more revenue, and look good in front of their boss and they will reward you with more response and revenue.

Stephanie, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview!

Thank you so much for having me as your guest! Please tell your readers to email me at stephanie DOT miller @ returnpath DOT net, or to reach out to me at @StephanieSAM on Twitter.

Readers, please share:

  • Click the Comment link to add your thoughts or suggestions.  
  • Mouse over the "Share" button to see options for telling others about this interview.

Comments

[…] Read the rest here: B2B Email Marketing: An interview with Stephanie Miller […]

 

Great post! My only disagreement with Stephanie was near the end of the interview (when talking about Video Email). Animated Gif’s are not the only way to provide “in the inbox” video…EyeMail does the same, except with High Quality Video (and Audio).

 

In my inbound emails, I do see a spam ranking score inserted by my hosting provider. Occasionally, normal emails to a client get bounced back to me as well, and I can’t see what caused their system to flag it.

Just to clarify, how much effort should one put into the subject and text of the email, in order to get past spam filters? It sounds like it’s not worth bothering, but it seems like there should be some dos and don’ts? Or is it really all about the server it’s being sent from?

Thanks,
James

 

Separate question:

I have a local business that I am helping out, pretty low-tech. They want to send a note about an upcoming event to the clients they have emailed one-on-one before.

I want to maximize inbox placement. If they send them one at a time through Outlook, I assume that would get the best result. But time-consuming unless there is a solution to automate that.

If we go with a simple service like Constant Contact, what difference would we expect to see?

 

Thanks for the suggestion on Eyemail, Ray. It’s still not actual video in the email. It’s a teaser in the email until you earn the click. A good way to approach the opportunity. Thanks – Stephanie

 

Thanks for the comment, James. I would put a LOT of effort into crafting a great subject line and compelling copy. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the actual words you use. Content is a very small contributor to spam filtering.

Be smart about it – that is the beset “do” I can suggest in this forum. Don’t use FREE FREE FREE or lots of !!!! or lie in the subject line or mis-match the call to action between subject line and the body copy.

Filtering is mostly due to reputation – which is partly the sending system (your hosting provider) and mostly your practices – frequency, the cleanliness of your list and how you source data and how welcome your messages are.

If your subscribers respond on a regular basis, then your deliverability should also be high.

Thanks!

Stephanie

 

James – to answer you questions… if you are doing bulk marketing messagees, then it’s always best to use a service like Constant Contact (aWeber, Emma and MailChimp are also good services.)

THat way, you will not only save time and money, you can use HTML, generate meaningful reports and manage your unsubscribe requests – which is a legal requirement under the Federal CAN SPAM law.

Hope that helps!

THANKS
Stephanie

 

“It’s still not actual video in the email.”

I disagree…30- 60 seconds of Video (with Audio) is still Video in Email. It’s playing directly in the inbox, the amount of time that it plays for is irrelevant. Where animated Gif’s attempt to seem like Video in email, this actually is. Immediately upon opening the email, the video starts playing (without a click, download, or redirect).

In our Mercedes campaign we created a Video EyeMail campaign with a “Call Back button” where the client enters their number and is immediately contacted…tremendous. And, although the video was only 30 seconds, it was more than enough to raise their Click-thru rates by 56% compared to previous campaigns.

Using Video with Audio is much more powerful than just Video. You’re able to create a mood, an emotional response, and a memorable experience for your client.

Be sure to keep an eye on the Microsoft BizSpark Incubation Week in Atlanta…EyeMail will be there with our new portal and some great surprises!

 

Ray,

My understanding is that email with a script to run a video (or any script for that matter) is usually blocked by spam or virus filters. That’s why the best practice seems to be to mimic video with an animated gif that one can click on to view the video rather than embedding the video in the email itself.

To get around that (best I can tell from the demos on your blog) what you are calling video email is actually a graphic with an audio.

If I’m wrong, please send me a sample video email to mcintosh at sales-lead-experts DOT com so I can see for myself. Also give me a technical explanation about how you get around the blocking problem.

– Mac

 

Hi Mac,
the samples you are seeing on the blog are, in fact, Audio Samples (not Video). Here’s a link to a Video Sample of a Campaign we did for Mercedes.
http://www.onbrandmedia.com/eyemail/microsoft/mercedes/mercedesa.html

Now, I want to make this clear, EyeMail plays High Quality Video directly In the inbox of any recipient using Microsoft Outlook (a graphical click-thru interface for other email platforms). It’s Spam Friendly, no Downloads or Attachments, and comes in at less than 15K in size. The video streams to the inbox directly and is completely virus free.
Can I send you a Video EyeMail? No. Based on our Customer Guidelines and Disclosure Agreements, we are not permitted to distribute our Clients campaigns (as would be the case with your own campaign).

A good explanation of what EyeMail does can be found at
http://eyemailcanadablog.ca/2009/08/what-can-eyemail-do-for-you/

Video Gifs are still good practice (and we offer them custom-built with EyeCon) but Video Email is definitely possible and, depending on the campaign, preferable.

 

Ray, I understand that you can’t send a client’s video email to me, but why can’t you send me a demo email? Don’t you have a demo vide email? If not, I’m guessing that is a BIG impedement to your sales.

Sometimes I feel like I’m from the great State of Missouri, the “show me” state. Unless I can see your video email in action, because you sent me a video email, got it past all my email filters, and having it show up in Outlook with images on and the video running, I can’t believe it.

– Mac

 

the email best practices that are described here are really very nice.

 

[…] Email expert Stephanie Miller provides a number of suggestions in a post transcribing an interview of her by Mac McIntosh[…]

 

[…] do about this state of affairs?  Email expert Stephanie Miller provides a number of suggestions in a post transcribing an interview of her by Mac […]

 

Post a comment

(Not displayed with comment.)


Need help with B2B lead generation, marketing and sales?
For more information, please call Mac McIntosh at +1-401-294-7730, send him email at or visit www.sales-lead-experts.com