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.
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.
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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
- 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.
- 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.
- Track your sender reputation and inbox placement rate. If you don’t get this data from your ESP today, ask for it.
- Make it easy to see what the call to action is.
- 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.
- Get permission and actively engage to ensure that subscribers still want to be in your file.
- Use a Preference Center to give subscribers choices, then communicate that they can visit the Preference Center frequently as their needs change.
- Treat prospects differently from customers. Use unique content and a slower pace.
- 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.
- Carefully vet the sources of your email file – e.g. are some partners sending data that turns out to be unresponsive?
- 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.
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