In a world where Amazon, Netflix and Spotify serves up content that feels handpicked, B2B email can no longer be the realm of batch and blast.
Today, B2B marketers must use data and intelligence to personalize email content—and that means going way beyond just dropping someone’s name in the subject line.
“The challenge is understanding the customer and what will influence their decisions,” says Anthony Nygren, evp at EMI Strategic Marketing. “Behavior is the best indicator of what someone wants to do, especially when you can take that information and look at it at scale”
This can be a challenge on multiple fronts. “It seems like it should be easy, because we all have so much data, but turning that massive mountain of data into a [successful] program is work, because the data needs to be clean and coded properly,” notes Nygren. “That can be a big obstacle.”
Relevant content that people crave is crucial, and many brands have a hard time generating content at scale to fuel their B2B email marketing initiatives, says Nygren. “If you don’t have the content, or it isn’t something people want, the house of cards falls apart.”
“Pay attention to your promotions, says Stu Richards, CEO of research agency and consultancy BredIn. “For example, [if you’re a bank] and a customer already has a business checking account, don’t just send them a random link to an article. Relevancy is the key to the kingdom in content marketing. If you have a preexisting relationship, personalization should resonate and feel authentic.”
Email is a significant part of Akamai’s marketing mix to support events and webinars, nurture prospects and trigger messaging to folks nearing conversion, says Annalisa Church, senior director, marketing technology.
The average sales cycles for the content delivery network is about three months for smaller products, with a longer tail for more expensive solutions. Not surprisingly, content depends on where the prospect is in their buying journey. Those deeper in Akamai’s pipeline might be an excellent target to attend an event or register for a trial, while those earlier in the process might be inclined to read more educational assets, such as whitepapers coproduced with Gartner or Forrester.
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Akamai focuses on listening to the behavior of prospects and customers, to tailor both the content of email messaging and volume. The risk of over-communication always exists, says Church, but the brand does want to make sure it keeps in touch with segments that are really engaged and crave more frequent contact.
“Long term, we only want to be talking to people who want to be talking with us,” she says.
HubSpot takes a “pick your own adventure” with its email marketing, asking subscribers what they want to accomplish and learn about, and then tailoring communications to those needs. “It’s worked incredibly well for us, doubling open and clickthrough rates,” says Dick. “There are a lot of assumptions around what people want, and just asking questions helps us know what they want.”
That content needs to tell your B2B brand story, and be in a format that is accessible. While big images are flashy, in a mobile environment they might be distorted or unviewable.
“People are experimenting—there has been some movement in the direction of a stripped down simplified delivery format,” says Nygren. “[Many recipients] just want you to give them your story and let them decide if they want to engage.”
Tailoring to Personas
Network security company Fortinet has a very heavy email calendar, with campaigns going out daily to different segments such as healthcare or education. Chief security officers are the main persona it markets to, while also reaching out to CIOs, CTOs, VP of infrastructure and other decision makers.
The brand, which uses an Uberflip content hub, utilizes email for everything from thought leadership to asset and webinar promotion, as well as a weekly CISO Collective newsletter. All content is tailored to specific personas.
“Anything written to a cyber security architect will be written in their language,” says Hillary Lupo, senior marketing manager of Fortinet. “The vp of infrastructure or vp of networking gets different messaging.
B2B email content can be personalized based on a number of variables, including location, and what products people are using. “Sub in and out different content blocks to create a cool experience,” says Dick. “Based on actions, we can create email content that people will consume and use to help them grow. You can get to the next level based on data.
“Content is at the core of all our go-to-market strategies,” says Randy Frisch, CMO and president, Uberflip. “The email itself isn’t the content, it’s the conduit to the content. We need to think about the exchange with the buyer and how to keep people engaged and break through the clutter.”
The key is getting people to the next piece of relevant content immediately, rather than making them wait for another email, much in the way that Netflix suggests a new show to someone who just finished bingeing a series. “If they’re engaged in one asset, let’s get them to the next,” says Frisch.
To accomplish this, marketers need to be strategic about the calls to action in their messaging, rather than making B2B email that looks “black and blue” with links strewn everywhere, he says.
“If you look at websites or home pages, they’re very strategic about calls to action and thinking about conversion, and using multiple pages to walk people through their journey,” says Frisch. “You can’t do everything in one email, but one you take them out of the email you can still own the experience—that’s the opportunity.”
Marketers should consider where they are sending people when they click. “Keep people in channels you own—if your email leads someone to YouTube, the next video they see could be a competitor’s.”
Consider curating content for key segments, chosen specifically for their industry or even specifically for that account, if they’re a high-value customer. “People want to feel that you have handpicked and curated for them, because that’s what they see on Spotify and Netflix and Amazon.”
Tuning Into the Right B2B Email Frequency
Let the recipient guide you toward what the frequency should be, says Nygren.
“If you deliver things that are relevant and substantive, people will respond even if it is a frequency you think might put someone off,” he says. “Are you delivering value? If you’re giving someone good stuff two or three time a week that is relevant, they’ll keep responding.”
“Email is an incredible engagement channel, but the nature of how people interact with it has changed,” says Dick. “Many people don’t communicate with it any more, preferring more one-to-one channels [like social], but it still plays a role as part of an omnichannel messaging strategy.”
For many brands, less is more. HubSpot cut its B2B email volume by 50 percent in 2017 and saw engagement rates and clickthroughs increase. “This was an incredible finding,” says Dick. “We were overwhelming people with email. Today, you need to pick your messaging carefully or people will blank you out.”
No matter what your volume, gauging the specific return on investment of email can be a challenge. Fortinet considers email ROI in different ways, such as engagement with messaging, what assets recipients view or whether they sign up for a webinar.
“Somebody told me early in my career that nobody buys just because they read an email,” says Akamai’s Church. “You can’t look at email in a vacuum. You need to think about where it is in the journey—if we did an email campaign for an event, did we meet our attendance goals? If we have a spring release and we were talking about new features, did we have high open rates and did the content connect with our audience?”