April 27, 2016

Here’s the Problem with B2B Email Marketing

“B2B email marketing” is an oxymoron. That’s the problem.

The known limitations of email marketing don’t accommodate the demands and complexities of the B2B buying cycle. You can send marketing emails to your contacts seven times a week (Buy our product! Buy our service! 10x your ROI!), and you might provoke a few clicks and conversions, but a few clicks and conversions don’t constitute success.

Are you building meaningful relationships with prospects? Are you cultivating trust and credibility and turning skeptics into loyal customers, or simply catching the few who already had purchase intent? You know what they say about the blind squirrel.

There is no rule that prevents B2B marketers from sending promotional emails in bulk. In rare cases, this approach may even be warranted (product release, announcement of new features, etc.). But for the most part, traditional email marketing can’t deliver the depth and longevity of engagement required to make a complex B2B sale (click to tweet).

ALSO READ: Infographic: How B2B Buying Groups Make Decisions

Known Limitations

There are more than a few interpretations of the term, “email marketing.” To be clear, we’re talking about the kind of indiscriminate, untargeted, promotional emails used to directly push products and services. These may be effective in the B2C world, where the tipping point for a purchase can be as simple as color, style, or free shipping (and where email databases are much larger).

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But the same tactics applied to a SaaS platform marketed to time-crunched business professionals will probably fail to engage. Why should your prospects buy your platform? Because you tell them to in an email? Because of your beautiful HTML template? Because your enticing subject line?

No. And therein lies the problem with email marketing; it focuses almost entirely on the product. Beneath their sleek designs and clever copy, marketing emails are intended — first and foremost — to drive a business goal. They treat the recipient as a one-dimensional being, capable of either accepting or rejecting The Offer. Nothing more, nothing less.

This approach is reductive and weak in most B2B scenarios, and automation tools have only exacerbated the problem. Without the proper training, marketers use automation platforms to send “batch and blast” emails faster and with even less forethought instead of using them to personalize, segment, and engage. Hence, the “known limitations” of email marketing:

One-way Communication

There’s no reason for a prospect to respond to a batch email. If you aren’t addressing to your readers as individual decision-makers with unique challenges and priorities, why would they ever interact with your marketing? You can track engagement with links and CTAs, but if people aren’t actively engaging with your brand, you aren’t building a relationship.

The lead nurturing approach, on the other hand, usually involves addressing your emails from specific sales reps, so if a lead replies, they can actually start a conversation.

Disenchanting Early-Stage Buyers

Most of the new leads you acquire aren’t ready to buy. A well-circulated stat from MarketingSherpa indicates that 73 percent of B2B leads are not sales-ready. Even if that’s partially true, you need to be careful about pressing a hard sell too early in the relationship.

If you’re sending indiscriminate, bulk emails to large segments of your audience, you run the risk of turning off early-stage buyers or potential buyers. Nurtured properly, these leads might have developed an interest in your product, but instead, they unsubscribe and drop off the map.  

Gratuitous Personalization

Most email marketing tools offer some kind of dynamic field feature so you can insert contact names from database. That’s great, right? Personalization is all the rage, and 54 percent of B2B buyers say they want personalized interactions.

Does {your name here} really qualify as personalization? If you use someone’s first name in an email subject line, they’re certainly more likely to open it, but does that mean more likely to follow your CTA or become a customer? Doubt it.

Your prospects are keen critics. If the only personalized component of the email is their first name, and the rest is a generic sales pitch, they’ll see right through the veil. Too often, marketers regard dynamic fields as some secret, dark art that has bewitched the masses, like the first motion picture show. In reality, your leads are looking for more than their name. They’re looking for content and tools and offers tailored to their business needs and buying stage.

The Frequency Trap

When your email strategy is driven by immediate business goals rather than a desire to build relationships, it’s easy to harass people. Revenue down for the month? Release the email blast! Need to hit a registration quota to impress investors? Blast again, to the same list, with an only slightly different offer!

It won’t take long for prospects/leads to tire of the repetition. According to our 2015 email marketing study, 43 percent of email subscribers would like businesses to email them less frequently. No surprise there. Just a reminder.

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Lead Nurturing: A Better Way

Email marketing is marketing in its most primitive form, which may suffice for selling facial cleansing cream or orthopedic inserts, but not for a multi-thousand-dollar IT investment. To make email a successful B2B channel, you need to focus on the relationship.

Email marketing is marketing in its most primitive form.

Think about a romantic relationship. If you want to woo a companion, you don’t start off with, “Hi {first name}. Let’s grow old together.” You move through a progression of increasing intimacy: introduce yourself, have dinner, get to know each other, buy flowers, build trust, discuss the future, see if your goals and beliefs align, and so on.

To win a B2B sale, you must build the same kind of trust, credibility, and compatibility. And since every buyer is different, you can’t send everyone the same emails at the same time. That’s where lead nurturing comes into play.

Lead nurturing is the practice of segmenting leads based on firmographic and behavioral data and using targeted content to guide them through the buyer’s journey — from prospect, to lead, to business opportunity. Of course, you’ll need to use marketing automation software (e.g. Act-On, HubSpot, Marketo) to set up your rules, nurture tracks, and lead scoring criteria. That may seem like a barrier to entry, but it’s par for the course in the B2B world.

Lead nurturing works better than plain old email marketing because it engages each lead in a meaningful way based on their business needs and buying stage. Nurturing delivers personalization on a much deeper level, and it avoids the frequency trap by responding to lead behavior. When your leads are ready to talk, you’ll know it by their score. And if you’ve set up integration with your CRM database, you can pass the leads straight to sales. According to Marketo, companies that practice lead nurturing generate 50 percent more leads at a third less the cost.

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If you clicked on this article, there’s a good chance you’re still using traditional email marketing to engage your B2B audience, and there’s a good chance it isn’t working. Now you know why. If you have the resources and executive support, switch to lead nurturing as soon as possible. Here are some articles to help you get started:

If you don’t have the resources and support, you may need to work with an industry partner to nurture and qualify your leads, acquire leads that have already been nurtured, or some combination of the two.

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