Judging from industry chatter and headlines about social media and mobile marketing, it'd be easy enough to think that marketers have moved beyond such staid channels as email in favor of newer, flashier modes of connecting with customers and prospects.
Yet behind the scenes, b2b marketers continue to hone their email communications, steadily improving their campaigns in an effort to send the most relevant content and offers to their audiences.
The reasons are simple, though perhaps among the most compelling to marketers: Email works and it can be highly cost-effective. “It gives us economies of scale and great marketing efficiencies and, ultimately, a lower cost per lead,” said Phil Dolan, CMO at Navicure Inc., an Internet-based medical claims clearinghouse for physician practices.
Still, many b2b email marketers have a long way to go before they achieve true one-to-one marketing. The challenge remains to get recipients to open, read and respond to emails, and with business email traffic expected to grow steadily (at an average annual rate of 13% over the next four years, according to the Radicati Group), standing out in the inbox isn't getting any easier.
To make sure they'll be heard above all that noise, b2b marketers are focusing on segmenting their lists and delivering tailored content based on each group's needs, using data such as demographics, company size, vertical and buying behavior.
The shift toward providing what the target audience wants to hear—and away from what marketers want to tell it—is happening because recipients are demanding it, said Kristin Kleweno, director of client services at Yesmail Interactive, a provider of email marketing software. “[Recipients] are empowered, and they want to know what marketing communications they're getting. If they don't like it, they'll label it spam,” she said. “It's evolving because it has to.”
The other leap b2b marketers are finding they have to take is optimizing their email programs for mobile devices.
Enterprise mobility services provider iPass found that the average number of mobile devices used by mobile workers in the first quarter of 2012 had increased to 3.5 from 2.7 in the year-earlier period. Almost 100% of mobile workers have a smartphone, and more than half have a tablet, according to the company's “Global Mobile Workforce Report Q1 2012.”
As a result, b2b email, while still a very effective tool, is reaching a tipping point, said Lauren Fisher, an eMarketer Inc. analyst. “If [b2b marketers] aren't building mobile-specific optimizations into their email communications, that could become a problem,” she said.
While more advanced marketers are beginning to use so-called “responsive design”—creating emails that render according to the size and shape of the user's screen, whether it be a smartphone, a tablet or a laptop—many are just getting started with mobile optimization, Fisher said.
Having functioning mobile landing pages and using mobile marketing tools such as QR codes is essential, but businesses— especially smaller business—are struggling with the shift, said Jeff Crouse, VP-general manager of the small-to-midsize business segment at Pitney Bowes' pbSmart Connections, a provider of email software and solutions. “They say, "I just got my regular Web page up. Now you want me to have a mobile page?' ” he said. “But that ability to go to a functioning mobile marketing website has become critical.”
Email marketing messages that don't render properly for recipients on the go run the risk of being deleted, Fisher said. “Business professionals are busy, so they're a lot pickier about which emails they're going to open,” she said.
In an effort to avoid the “delete” button, b2b email marketers are also focusing on creating content that will prove valuable to recipients. They're listening to what recipients say in preference centers, on their websites and also in social channels.
“When companies don't get the traction they want to see from email it's because every message they send out is a sales piece, which creates list burnout,” said Raj Khera, CEO at MailerMailer, an email marketing service provider. The company, which works with message management solutions provider Message Systems, recently launched a tool that allows marketers to pull newsletter content from a library of business and technology articles.
Marketers should establish a relationship with recipients by sending educational material and building trust, Khera said. That way, when the marketer does occasionally send a promotional piece, the recipient will be more receptive. “But if that's all you send, you'll be ignored,” he said.
More marketers are targeting their content based on behavioral triggers, said Jill LeMaire, senior director of the strategic and analytic consulting group at Epsilon Data Management. For example, a recipient who previously clicked on a story about cloud computing would receive more content about that topic, she said. “It's driving higher relevancy than a one-size-fits-all newsletter,” she said.
For Aquent and its Vitamin T division, staffing agencies for marketing, design and digital creatives, offering more specific content resulted in more calls to salespeople, said Jeremie Audran, senior director of marketing operations. Previously, Aquent sent out a monthly client e-newsletter, but it didn't encourage interaction with recipients, Audran said. “It was a one-way street,” he said.
So working with Silverpop, Aquent last year increased the frequency of its newsletters to every week and created market-specific content for 27 cities. The approach has worked so well the company is now rolling it out for international locations and brands.
“Recipients are more responsive now since our content changed,” Audran said. “We thought about how to cater to the audience so they would want to interact with us versus forcing them to read something generic.”
Navicure's Dolan said his company follows an overall strategic approach of providing value to prospective clients before the sales cycle starts. The company relies on solutions-focused webinars, dinner events and blog posts, and works with marketing automation provider Marketo Inc. to send out triggered email to support those efforts. “Buyers buy on their time table, not ours; so establishing brand awareness and preference before the sales cycle starts helps to put us in the driver's seat,” he said.
The company recently began using video in its emails, Dolan said, with the goal of piquing recipients' interest rather than giving them the hard sell on a solution that's too complex to explain in a one-to-three-minute video.
Video is dynamic in a way that a piece of collateral or a white paper can't be, he said: “That's why it's so powerful.”