5 Trends in B2B Email Marketing

Dynamic content and smart automation among the key developments

By David Ward

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For years, there's been the expectation that email marketing would eventually go the way of the DVD, AOL, and other tech from the 1990s, especially as millennials and gen Z gravitate toward social, mobile, and other communication platforms. But more than 20 years after the first branded email message hit inboxes, email marketing remains stout as a business-to-business outreach and lead-generation tool.

"Email is the channel for serious communication, which puts it right in the sweet spot for B2B marketing," says Keith Sibson, SVP of product and marketing at PostUp, a provider of enterprise-level email, audience development, and monetization solutions. "No sensible person, millennial or otherwise, makes a serious product purchase decision for their business based on something they saw on Snapchat."

Mitchell Lapides, an email marketing veteran, agrees: "Lots of millennials don't use email for talking to each other, but when it comes to business, it's a persistent communication. If your list is of a high enough quality, you're sending out relevant content to that audience, and you can get them to respond to the appropriate calls to action, then the metrics are there to be monetized."

A 2018 survey by Litmus, an email solutions provider, found that, on average, for every $1 spent, email marketing generates $38 in ROI. But as impressive as that number looks on paper, Sibson says it presents a somewhat distorted view of email's effectiveness in the B2B space.

"I actually caution marketers not to think of ROI in the context of email, at least not in terms of dollars spent with a vendor," he explains. "Sending email is so cheap and the apparent ROI so high, that the naïve conclusion is to turn it up to 11 and send more email!"

The popular batch-and-blast B2B email strategies of the past won't work today, Sibson says. In fact, the brand can be damaged as target audiences, increasingly annoyed at the volume of messages cluttering up their inboxes, unsubscribe in massive numbers.

In recent years, brands and email specialty firms have become much savvier about leveraging new tools and strategies to boost deliverability rates, increase automation, and maintain email's integral role in B2B marketing. Here are five trends likely to gain traction in 2019 and beyond.


1. Dynamic/Adaptive Content and Personalization

"The biggest trend I'm seeing right now is the increased use of dynamic content, especially for personalization," says Adam Holden-Bache, author of How to Win at B2B Email Marketing and director of email marketing at Enventys Partners.

Dynamic content is messaging that changes based on the behavior, preferences, and interests of the targeted user along the path to purchase. "With the amount of data that is being collected through multiple channels, not just email, brands can now leverage it for their email messages to create more meaningful and effective communications," Holden-Bache says.

Andrea Lechner-Becker, CMO at the marketing firm LeadMD, says leading businesses are moving away from B2B email programs that rely on sheer volume to generate leads. "We're seeing personalization take the lead, from custom videos to individual email communications from sales reps to their target accounts," she adds. "There's still value in what's been called 'air cover' for email marketing, but personalization has become a major focus."


2. B2B Email as Content Marketing

While most B2B marketers include some call to action in their email messages, savvy brands are increasingly viewing email less as direct marketing and more as a long-term relationship-building tool. That requires high-value content, often in the form of an e‑newsletter.

"If you can present yourself as a thought leader in the space and distribute useful content in the form of, say, an e-newsletter, you have a better chance of being top of mind with the prospect when they are actually thinking about buying a product," PostUp's Sibson says.

LeadMD's Lechner-Becker adds that because the path to purchase is often long in B2B, hard-sell emails are not nearly as effective as content the user finds of value. "A click is not the goal," she stresses. "Being useful to your prospect should be the goal. So even if the call to action is simply 'Read this email,' that's fine."


3. B2B Video Emails

Even though video has been around in B2B for several years, not every email marketer is enamored with the medium, despite anecdotal evidence that a 90- to 120-second video can boost response rates.

Chris Arrendale, chief privacy officer at the email marketing agency Trendline Interactive, says B2B video emails are not a cure-all but can be effective in engaging audiences that are simply tired of seeing everything in text.

"Aim to have five to 10 clearly defined segments … for your prospects, and use data and analytics to bucket them as quickly as possible in order to get them into the right messaging stream."
— Keith Sibson, SVP of product and marketing at PostUp

"In the B2B space, everyone has been so caught up in whitepapers, PDFs, and webinars — and all of those should be part of the process," Arrendale says. "But B2B buyers are changing and some want informational videos."

B2B email videos require analytics that are a bit more granular, Arrendale adds. "You want to be able to tell if [viewers] are stopping and repeating at a certain point and going back and reviewing," he says. "The B2B brand would then know they should invest in more content about that specific topic."

Holden-Bache is another advocate of leveraging videos and animated GIFs as a way to deliver more information and create a more memorable email experience. However, he recommends B2B brands stay away from costly, elaborate productions, noting that people often respond well to a concise video shot on a smartphone.

"After all, that's what we're all used to seeing every day from friends and family," Holden-Bache says. "It may make a brand more 'human' to deliver that kind of content, as long as it is appropriate and provides quality information."


4. Smart Marketing Automation/Analytics

Email marketing has long been a numbers game, especially in the B2C space, which is accustomed to large prospective client lists and low response rates. However, Sibson says that because B2B audiences are much smaller, marketing automation tools, A/B testing, and data analytics are being introduced to B2B email programs far more strategically than in B2C.

"I've seen many B2B marketers over-engineer around data and analytics, ending up with their shoelaces tied together," Sibson says. "The best investment of time and energy for B2B marketers is a strong segmentation strategy, backed by rigorous qualitative research. Aim to have five to 10 clearly defined segments, or personas, for your prospects, and use data and analytics to bucket them as quickly as possible in order to get them into the right messaging stream."

"There are plenty of marketing automation tools out there that can help you integrate email analytics with inquiries on chat, social media, and even by phone," Lapides adds. "Incorporating all of that information can give a brand a better view of what the prospective client is interested in, where they are in the sales process, and what you should be doing to help guide them to their ultimate decision."

Over time, machine learning and artificial intelligence will be introduced into B2B email programs, Lapides says, enabling brands to automatically generate hyper-targeted subject lines based on large volumes of analytics data.


5. Deliverability Amid Increased Privacy Concerns and Screening Software

Despite its impressive and lengthy track record, email marketing has only recently moved out of the "Wild West" phase. Marketers now can take advantage of best practices and tools to better engage audiences and combat the spam and phishing scams that have long given the industry a black eye.

In fact, Trendline's Arrendale points out that B2B email marketers are increasingly focused on boosting deliverability, which is becoming especially important given that many of the companies where prospects work now have productivity solutions such as Google G Suite or Microsoft's Office 365 that track and screen emails. "Those systems are looking at what people are doing with their email — did they read it, did they print it, did they reply to it, did they click on the unsubscribe link," he notes.

Emails that are ignored will eventually get blocked, Arrendale says, adding that for all the tricks the industry has tried in the past, the best solution going forward to the deliverability challenge is better content.

"Having emails with focused subject lines that are not too 'salesy,' and having focused content that's not too long is key," he says. "And encouraging people to respond gives you that two-way conversation with a potential buyer, and Office 365 and G Suite will notice that."

Along with screening software, B2B email marketing programs will need to adapt to changes in regulations. B2B brands with an international footprint, Arrendale says, are facing more stringent opt-in compliance rules put in place by Canada's Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL) and the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While the latter deals primarily with data protection and privacy within the EU, it also addresses the export of personal data outside the union.

Arrendale also cites the growth of industry standards to combat phishing, most notably domain-based message authentication, reporting, and conformance (DMARC), which essentially allows companies to receive reports from email providers about anyone trying to use their domain address to send emails. "With DMARC, if somebody tries to use your brand name for phishing and you haven't authorized this use of your domain, [the emails] will bounce," he says.

Whereas phishing and spoofing were once considered unavoidable aspects of email, DMARC has the potential to make those bad behaviors a thing of the past, which can only help the industry's reputation over the long run.

"The brands that are turning that on are not only getting that protection and the information about who outside their company is trying to use their domain, they can also see if other departments within the company, such as sales, are trying to set up systems to send emails," Arrendale says. "It has the added benefit of getting every department in the company on the same page when it comes to B2B email marketing."


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comments (1)

Jenn Emerson

February 4, 2019 12:36pm ET

Good info, David. I think a couple of the reasons video may be under utilized for email marketing include the lack of understanding in how to implement it and the technology limitations to play a video within an email.