To take the pulse of email trends and best practices, BtoB East Coast Bureau Chief Christopher Hosford performed a virtual roundtable discussion with executives from companies that have recently conducted studies on the topic, to explore their findings and gain takeaways for marketers. Participating in the virtual roundtable were Jim Davidson, manager-marketing research, Bronto Software; Derek Grant, senior VP-sales, Pardot; Tom Sather, senior director-email research, Return Path; Kara Trivunovic, VP-marketing services, StrongMail Systems; and Dave Walters, product evangelist, Silverpop.
BtoB: Tom, Return Path's study, released in June, was titled “2012 Sender Reputation Benchmark Report.” How is sender reputation being determined and how does it impact email performance?
Tom Sather: Reputation is made up of many measures. In our report, we focused on the three most important: Complaints from recipients, spam traps consisting of addresses that haven't signed up for anything and unknown users, meaning email addresses that don't exist or used to exist but don't any longer. The biggest thing for marketers is managing their deliverability and reputation. In our survey, we tracked 130 million IP addresses and nearly 20 trillion messages last year, and 85% of those messages were classified as spam. However, businesses with high sender reputations saw 95% of their messages delivered on average. Those with lower sender reputations—the majority of businesses—saw delivery rates of only 68%.
BtoB: Dave, your study, “2012 Silverpop Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study,” released in July, noted that email open rates in the U.S. have fallen to 19.9% while clickthrough rates have risen to 5.4%. What does this say to marketers?
Dave Walters: A point or two in either direction isn't a big deal because of uncertainty about how pertinent those numbers are. But what I love to see is that click rates are going up. That, for my money, is a strong indication of good messages being sent at a good time to the right person. It's the kind of thing that indicates the beginning of conversations. Behavioral targeting is about what people are doing. And yes, an email open indicates some interest. But marketers are getting more intelligent at their jobs, thinking more deeply and doing things like A/B testing of subject lines. That's why click rates are increasing.
BtoB: Derek, Pardot's study, “The Changing Role of Email Marketing,” released in July, suggests that lead generation isn't really in email's sweet spot. Tell us more.
Derek Grant: The prevalence of data brokers selling massive amounts of names for email blasting is one thing that's leading to more and more crowded inboxes. And that leads to horrible deliverability and even worse response rates. The one thing that's missing is that we're marketing to people whom we've not have a conversation with. Offer them a white paper? That's just me hammering them with a message. Email, when used with an opt-in list of clients who find the message relevant, can still have a role in lead-gen. However, we're seeing great power in nurturing emails—short and concise—and that don't contain offers but rather encourage a two-way conversation.
BtoB: Jim, Bronto's study, “Define, Benchmark, Evaluate,” released in May, focuses on goal setting as key to email performance measurement. What goals are most important?
Jim Davidson: They vary, but four important ones are to increase conversions, to acquire new subscribers or fans, to increase loyalty and to raise awareness as measured by such things as more website visits, impressions, opens and clicks. Establishing these benchmarks upfront will tell you how you're doing. Of course there are many benchmarks. Marketers can shoot themselves in the foot with benchmark studies. The recommendation from our study is to define internal benchmarks along with industry ones, use the two in tandem and build out reports to understand when you're moving the needle.
BtoB: What to do after those goals are achieved is the subject of the StrongMail study, “The Ultimate Lifecycle Email Marketing Guide: Post-Purchase Programs,” released in July. Kara, explain the nature and importance of post-purchase email programs?
Kara Trivunovic: If you look at how marketers engage with their client bases and their needs, a post-purchase program is a very obvious opportunity to explore. There's really an entire life cycle that happens after a purchase, including transaction and shipping confirmations, lots of opportunities for cross- and up-selling, and even the sending of reviews from others to validate that the customer made the right choice. You want to reach out to customers to make sure they're satisfied with both the purchase and product experiences, and to encourage them to make social media reviews. Of course if a customer is dissatisfied it may be good to follow up with an email or a phone call.
Email in general is more complex in the b2b world, with different people who procure products, different ones who use it and different people who manage the relationship. For b2b, a post-purchase program is even more important than in b-to-c. You can get a feel for who's using your product and the life cycle of the purchase.
BtoB: Relevance, engagement and ROI are common themes. How is the push toward these changing email marketing?
Sather: Email is the most effective digital channel of all, with the highest ROI. A distant second is search. But because email is so easy, ROI is also its weakness, because a lot of marketers may decide not to follow the rules or look at all the email intelligence available to them to make important marketing decisions.
Importantly, Internet service providers now are looking at engagement to determine where to deliver email. If you're getting an email every day from Groupon, for example, and you're deleting them regularly, Microsoft can see that and identify those messages as spam. Both Yahoo and Gmail do something similar, in considering what emails someone is or isn't opening consistently.
Trivunovic: When you talk about engaging with customers and their needs, it's important to get outside the normal transactional follow-up communications and bounce ideas off customers to get a feel for what their tolerance is.
BtoB: Virtually all email messages today have sharing buttons. What role is social media playing in email marketing today?
Grant: Social is growing exponentially and will increasingly challenge the role of email. Social media users send more than 25 billion tweets annually and share 30 billion pieces of content per month on Facebook. People do say it's about social now, about pull messaging; but really email is still a superpowerful communication.
Sather: When it comes to deliverability and reputation, I've been surprised how much of an offender social media sites are. Social networking is hitting 20.8 spam traps per IP address, compared with others, which average less than 1, except for consumer products. The reason is social networks allow their users to invite friends by uploading their address books. And most address books are full of email addresses that have been abandoned. It's a popular tactic to grow lists, but as a consequence it destroys reputations and deliverability.
BtoB: Testing email ingredients is often praised but perhaps not practiced all that often. What's your view about testing?
Davidson: If you go in extreme directions with some ingredients, such as changing subject lines, or going from a short email to one with lots of text and many images, it could impact on how the message is perceived. The recipient could rebel against something that's not familiar. Always make sure, if you're making extreme changes, to send initial tests to get an idea of how the message will be received. Doing that before a full launch will work out most problems.
Walters: We attributed the fact that click-through rates in our study rose from 4.5% to 5.4% as the result of an increase in automated A/B testing, of different subject lines for example.
BtoB: The essence of direct marketing, used so effectively by email, is offers. What's happening on this front?
Grant: The most effective offer to include in an email is an invitation to a webinar. White papers are the second most effective when it comes to generating responses, followed by case studies. Less popular content includes freebies, discounted services, limited-time offers and personal text-based emails.
But the content has to map where the recipient is in the buying cycle. A case study, for example, is great for someone in the final approach to a sale, but I don't think it drives awareness or overcoming a problem the recipient isn't aware he has.
BtoB: What do your studies say about the timing or frequency of sending email messages?
Grant: In our study, 53% of b2b marketers have the most success sending emails between 8 a.m. and noon. Also, 53% say that Friday is the worst day for email open rates. B-to-c emails are more likely to be read in the evening and b2b emails around lunch. There is an idea that Monday is bad because of internal meetings on the first day back after the weekend. Also, Friday afternoons are good because executives are much more unguarded and emotionally winding down from the week. But Friday mornings aren't good.
Walters: Seasonality really doesn't play a role, but the buying cycle plays an über version of seasonality. For example, there are high-tech buying cycles. It gets to the grander question that marketers are thinking very deeply about what their recipients are doing and how and when they're interacting with a brand.
As for send rate, it all hangs on the content and message. I see problems with master suppression, for example—the concept that a record in your database will only tolerate six emails a month. But what if the seventh is the productive one? Yes marketers need to think about frequency; but the more dynamic and customized email becomes the less a roll frequency plays.
Trivunovic: Customers will tolerate more frequent email messages, but only those that are relevant. When the communications are centered around a recent conversion, that message is tolerated much more than just another offer or discount.
BtoB: Email marketing is a legacy channel and yet somehow continues to evolve. What are your thoughts about its future?
Davidson: I think the convergence of mobile and social, and the shift in how people receive information, will augment the experience between brands and users. People will always have a reason to receive information via email. But for marketers trying to find new ways to leverage channels together, they need to know the difference between the channels. Years ago, marketers just duplicated print ads or what's on their website into their emails. But there are different experiences with different calls to action. Making sure you cater to users is really important.
Trivunovic: To evolve further, email will require some concessions by inbox providers like enterprises Google, Yahoo, etc. These err on the side of caution, of course, and limit the type of content that's received. It's not that a marketer can't include a video in an email but rather that the recipient can't get it on the other end.
While inbox providers want to keep their customers within their environments as long as possible, there are some glimmers—for example, connecting directly with customer service within the email experience—that could take the form of live chat from within the inbox. Some services already allow that to happen.
Walters: What we're seeing is email getting more intelligent in understanding the fundamentals of marketing automation. A lot of rigor and measurement is coming to marketers who previously had been content with batching and blasting. At the end of the day, our study is showing me that campaigns are getting smarter, click rates are going up and marketers are stepping up to the challenge of what recipients are interested in, and not just shoving deals.
Sather: Marketers must pay more attention to deliverability. Is their email landing in the inbox or in a spam folder? And if they know which, they should know why. Marketers need to track complaint rates. A lot of this data isn't available, even through email service providers. Many marketers will have to find third-party solutions to access this data.
Also, companies will have to do more brand management, meaning assuring that their domain is not being spoofed or used for phishing messages. A lot of big brands are being targeted by phishing campaigns, and that can have a detrimental effect on your brand.