B2B Email Worst Practices: Assuming Opt-In or Requiring Opt-Out

Last fall I met Rebekah “Red” Donaldson, founder of Business Communications Group, LLC, a Sacramento-based marketing consulting firm specializing in B2B. Red’s a seasoned marketing practitioner so I invited her to join me on a Forrester teleconference last October where we talked about the factors threatening B2B marketing with obsolescence and the steps marketers should take to avoid this fate. More recently, we were chatting about email practices when Red pointed me to a recent post that generated a lot of commentary sparked by an email from lead management automation vendor, Marketo, that presumed opt-in on Red’s part.

Given the current economy, I see how marketers feel extra pressure to create new sales pipeline and may aggressively pursue email as a lead generation option. Email is the channel of choice among lead management automators who regularly promote nurturing programs to engage prospects and turn “warm” respondents into “hot” leads.  Two things bothered me about the Marketo email:  it sounded like it came from sales (not marketing) and it did very little to engender trust or build relationship.

I asked resident email guru, analyst Julie Katz, about best practices and she replied emphatically, “Use opt-in”. She told me many B2B marketers she interviews and surveys lean on opt-out. Yet marketers get a stronger list of prospects who are truly interested in receiving more information when you use opt-in.  In Julie’s research, “Break Free From Bad Email“, she advises marketers to take a longer term perspective and adopt a more intentional approach to email, that Julie defines as “A holistic email marketing strategy aimed at increasing the long-term return from email subscribers.”  She offers sage advice that I paraphrase for B2B marketers to follow:

1) Make customer value your primary email metric.

When balancing user needs with business goals, email programs can increase customer value by deepening subscriber engagement. However, most marketers obsess over opens and clicks instead of building relationships. Instead, use traditional database marketing to mine customer data and build lifetime value (LTV) models to better understand the impact email has on building trust and relationships.

2) Integrate email with other channels.

Coordinating email with traditional and digital channels is worth the headache. Merge email, Web analytics, and sales pipeline data to increase conversion. Jump-start integration efforts by setting up data feeds between system marketing/sales databases  and your email system that contain only the modest number of data points needed to build basic email conversations.

3) Map out a long-term customer contact strategy.

Instead of using email to wheedle out a standalone purchase, B2B marketers should take a long-term view toward how email marketing can nurture a customer. This starts with replacing ad hoc email campaigns with conversations — series of messages that work collectively to graduate a customer through different stages of the purchase process from awareness to consideration.  Email conversations should be forward-looking and deepen a customer’s relationship over time, not just try to get them to buy this quarter.

I believe inbound marketing is an essential discipline today that many marketers should improve. Email is the best way to continue conversations with those prospects who come looking for you. If you’d like more information about email best practices, check out Julie’s research or consider attending Forrester’s email best practices workshop coming up in May.

I would also welcome pointers from you about email best practices you use or links to email advice you’ve found particularly helpful.

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