I'll be the first to admit -- despite more than a decade as a B2B marketer and as someone who has easily sent millions of B2B emails throughout my career -- I never fully realized the importance of email deliverability to B2B marketing programs until I came to work at Silverpop a year ago.
I viewed deliverability as a problem only for the 'mass emailers' -- i.e., for the digital consumer marketers -- and I rationalized my ignorance. As B2B marketers we often send email in small batches or -- ideally -- only send email one-at-a-time through dynamic/triggered nurturing campaigns. We also tend to identify prospects through what is essentially a one-at-a-time fashion -- via mechanisms such as tradeshows, Webinars and content offers, and assume things like opt-in. Plus, the people we're selling to have a vested interest in improving the efficiency of their businesses, so they want to hear from us, anyway ... right?
Add to this the fact that it seems the only people who talk about deliverability are the companies that are involved with delivering your email.
So it can all feel very suspect as a B2B marketer. Is this really that big of an issue? Should I even care?
I've learned the answer is a resounding 'yes.' Moreover, it's critical that we as B2B marketers begin understanding and talking about email deliverability. As we come to depend more heavily on email-based nurturing and as the B2B buyers we target continue to prefer digital/Web engagement ahead of ever talking with our sales folks, email deliverability is increasingly the critical link between us and our prospects for a growing portion of the buying process.
What do you need to know to make sure that email deliverability is not your weakest link? What are the key elements of email deliverability for B2B marketing? What is the impact of deliverability on your B2B demand generation programs? And what can you do to improve your deliverability?
I did some research, checked in with my Silverpop colleagues and ran the numbers, and so I wanted to share with you some subsequent insights and best practices to consider.
What is this 'email deliverability thing' all about?
Email deliverability -- in a nutshell -- is pretty straightforward. The issue is whether your email-based messages are getting through to their recipients. It's whether the people you are nurturing via email -- sending content offers, event invitations and Webinar reminders -- are actually getting these touch points.
Unfortunately, deliverability is not something that you directly control. Third parties -- ISPs, hosting companies and corporate IT organizations -- decide whose email gets by and whose doesn't. So it's critical that you pay attention to those things that they use to judge your emails and your domain and adopt best practices that will improve your deliverability.
There are four categories of potential email deliverability challenges you should consider:
> Opt-in/CAN-SPAM compliance: This is really the starting point for improving deliverability performance. It's the law. Not only shouldn't you spam B2B buyers ... you can't. Not up on the current regulations? Here's a US Federal Trade Commission site with guidelines for businesses. And CAN-SPAM violations are at the top of the list when it comes to things ISPs, hosting vendors and corporate IT departments score against.
> Content: Many spam filters judge emails solely on content. Elements as seemingly benign as a poor image-to-text-ratio can keep even low-volume emails from getting delivered. There are also vendors -- such as Barracuda and Cloudmark -- that provide companies with digital-fingerprinting technologies to see if senders are repeatedly distributing the same material. If this “suspicious” behavior is detected, the sender can be blacklisted, and those blacklists are shared among all the users of their services.
You should make sure your HTML is not only well formatted but that it also is designed for email. Many emails are blocked daily purely on improperly-formatted HTML. What works on a website will not necessarily work in an email. In fact, it also might be a good idea to use an HTML validation tool, such as CSE HTML Validator.
Not only do your email messages need to not be spam, they also need to not look like spam.
> Identity and reputation: The domain you are sending email from needs to have a good reputation. "Your email reputation is built entirely on your actions [as an email marketer]," advises MarketingSherpa in its 2009 Best Practices in Email Marketing Handbook. "Email reputation is not a word-of-mouth phenomenon. It's based on how ISPs and blacklists experience and rate email coming from your ISP addresses. If you've taken actions that aren't consistent with email best practices (even if you risk your reputation unknowingly), your reputation will be downgraded, and possibly result in lower deliverability."
A shared IP infrastructure also can negatively affect delivery rates. While a respected marketing automation provider will work to ensure that all its clients are distributing relevant messages to opted-in recipients, even despite their best efforts, not every sender will follow best practices. So keeping clients’ deliverability reputations separated -- on separate domains -- can be crucial to ensuring deliverability success.
Also, with the move to domain based reputation, ISP’s and inbox providers are specifically tying your reputation to your authentication. Said another way, if you do not have authentication in place, your reputation can not become established. And make sure authentication is setup properly. Having improperly configured authentication will hurt your email campaigns more than not having any at all.
> Volume: One way unwanted messages are detected is by examining the volume of messages coming from a particular IP address or server. If the volume exceeds a designated threshold, messages coming from that source may be temporarily blocked. Marketing automation providers that possess a clear understanding of the restrictions of the particular ISPs and corporations you send to and tightly manage the flow of your outgoing email -- a technique known as 'throttling' -- can help prevent this from happening.
What is the impact of email deliverability on your B2B demand generation programs?
Email deliverability is a critical element of success in your B2B marketing activities -- touching several aspects of our demand generation programs. Some things to consider:
> Low deliverability rates can significantly impact both top-line revenues and bottom-line profitability: The growing importance of email-based marketing in B2B demand generation means that we have more dollars than ever riding on our nurturing programs. The truth is that what happens earlier on in the buyer's decision-making process -- at the top of our 'funnels' -- significantly impacts the other end.
SiriusDecisions noted at their recent SiriusDecisons 2010 Summit that an average of only 2-5% of raw inquiries coming into the top of the B2B marketing and sales 'funnel' ultimately convert to sales. We're spending a lot of time and energy on demand creation, and we're increasingly turning our attention to email-based nurturing as a way to improve efficiency because we don't have much room for mistakes. Add to this another data point from SiriusDecisions -- the fact that on average nearly 25%+ of B2B marketing databases have bad or incomplete records -- and you are starting to see that we can't afford to lose a single deal.
For low-volume, high-dollar sales organizations, a single sale can sometimes make or break a sales person's month or quarter, and just a few deals can have a major impact on the overall company's performance. This means that having a qualified opportunity stopped dead in its tracks by the inability to nurture via email can have a knock-on effect downstream on close rates and revenue earned. This can really harm our top-line revenues.
The other reason inbound marketing and email-based nurturing are critical today is their cost advantages. Having live sales people do early stage nurturing of unqualified prospects is very expensive and significantly raises the ultimate cost of sale. Mac McIntosh, a demand generation strategy consultant that works with B2B marketing and sales organizations, covers this challenge in a session he presents as part of Silverpop's B2B Marketing University series. He provides a case study that shows that a single sales-team nurture can cost as much as 30X what that same touch point would cost via a marketing automation nurture program. So successful email-based nurturing is critical to targeting sales resources on accounts only when they are truly sales-ready and to protecting bottom-line profitability.
> Email-based B2B marketing campaigns are increasing over time -- meaning it's tougher than ever to 'cut through the noise,' yet easier than ever 'to get it wrong' in doing so: SiriusDecisions also reported at their recent SiriusDecisions 2010 Summit that the number of marketing campaigns targeting B2B buyers is up from an average of 15.4 campaigns per week in 2006 to an average of 20.3 campaigns per week in 2010. And email dominates the mediums leveraged in B2B campaigns. Forrester similarly reported at their recent Forrester Marketing Forum in Los Angeles that 89% of B2B marketers use email and that it is the number-one outbound marketing tactic today for this segment. The cross-product of these two data points highlights the growing importance and challenges of email in B2B demand generation. It really has become the critical link -- a connective thread that moves the buying process forward.
A growing volume of B2B marketing email means that our messages and content offers must be more compelling than ever. It also means that B2B buyers are potentially closer than ever to being annoyed and to being likely to hit the 'unsubscribe' button. So we need to get it right -- getting our email through, getting them opened and getting them read. Or as my colleague, Kristin McKenna, wrote in a recent blog post, you've got to make a great 'first impression' with your B2B email message -- now, more than ever.
> With long buying cycles, email deliverability problems can worsen and ensure you're not in your buyer's consideration set, just when you thought you were: If your nurturing messages are not getting through, you may be off the radar at a critical time when your prospective buyer is making key decisions. Shifts in B2B buyer's information consumption patterns have turned inbound savvy and email-based nurturing into smarter tactics than ever before. Buyers that have responded to a content offer and have filled out an online form actually do want to passively stay in touch with us via email if what you are emailing is compelling and consistent with what they have signaled they are interested in. Consider that behind a buyer's name, their email address is the number-two point of information B2B buyers are most likely to provide honestly and truthfully, according to a MarketingSherpa and KnowledgeStorm study of nearly 3,000 technology buyers, "Connecting Through Content."
Overall, modern B2B buyers are preferring to consume content at their own pace and on their own terms, and they're doing this for a larger proportion of what is already a long decision cycle. "According to MarketingSherpa in its 2010 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, 59% of B2B purchase decisions take longer than three months," noted my colleague, Kristin McKenna, in her post from above on making a good first impression with email marketing. "This means your nurturing email must not only get read once, but the stream of nurturing emails must actually help better engage a buyer with your company and your potential solution over an extended period of time."
But this is where email deliverability can be a problematic weak link. If that is the mechanism you are depending upon, and the messages are not getting through. You're actually nurturing yourself off of your buyer's consideration set, not onto it.
> Barriers to deliverability put up by B2B buyers' organizations can be higher than those in consumer marketing: "If you're a B2B marketer and you think that the hurdles for B2B deliverability are higher than for most B2C marketers, you may be right," advises MarketingSherpa in its 2009 Best Practices in Email Marketing Handbook. The email gurus at MarketingSherpa note that there are many reasons why corporate email administrators are more cautious than many consumer ISPs -- such as protecting networks and preventing employees' time from being wasted. For example, "... private blacklists (a blacklist compiled by the company) are used more frequently than public blacklists (41% vs. 35%)," notes MarketingSherpa. And there are not consistent, formal methods for getting 'whitelisted' with corporate recipients.
As B2B marketers we also send to more non-corporate email addresses than we may be aware of. A simple report can show how many AOL, Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo! domains your database contains. And don’t forget that corporate email domains hosted by third parties -- such as Rackspace, Go Daddy or even Gmail -- are going to use techniques similar to those of top ISPs to keep an eye on blacklists, monitor reputations and avoid spam. If a sender has a bad reputation, they’ll get blocked at the top level, and never even make it into the dreaded corporate junk mail folder.
> Too many marketing automation vendors have painfully-low levels of deliverability and/or lack best practices: I won't make this final point a long one. This is probably the data point that many in the industry don't want disseminated, but it's true. We've seen quite a bit of carping among marketing automation vendors recently -- touting one deliverability metric or another as why they are the industry leaders and highlighting that many vendors are all over the map when it comes to deliverability-related performance. Suffice to say, a lack of expertise and experience with email deliverability is not a quality you should seek in a marketing automation vendor. For example, many of the providers in the marketing automation space operate primarily on a shared IP infrastructure -- not a best practice -- that renders delivery rates as much as 10-15% below what best-in-class providers are able to deliver. So unfortunately, one last reason that it is important to be up on the issue of email deliverability is the sad reality that your marketing automation vendor may not be.
(For the record, Silverpop is a best-in-class marketing automation vendor when it comes to email deliverability, with industry-leading sender scores, a 96% average delivery rate across the 40 million emails we deliver every day, and we've been doing this for 11 years ... but I digress ... )
How can you improve your email deliverability as a B2B marketer?
What does it take to get a deliverability rate in the high 90s? (And you SHOULD shoot for a score that high!)
> Make best practices a key part of your B2B demand generation programs: Many of the best practices for improving your email deliverability as a B2B marketer are also just good, common-sense marketing best practices. Don't 'spam' B2B buyers. Really! I.e., don't repeatedly send the same, non-personalized, uninvited message to people that you don't have a relationship with and that have not ever responded to you. Doing so represents poor understanding of how to fuel the modern B2B buying process through effective lead management and content marketing strategies that are critical to successful B2B demand generation programs. Don't be that guy/girl!
Beyond the basics, you should pay attention to key dynamics that will help tune your deliverability. My colleague, Robert Consoli, who leads Silverpop's deliverability team wrote in a recent blog post:
[H]ere are three things you can do to help keep your delivery rates strong:
- Authenticate, authenticate, authenticate! Make sure all sending domains have a valid SPF, Sender ID and Domain key/DKIM signature.
- Keep your lists clean. Remove subscribers who haven’t opened any emails in the past year, or place them in a special re-engagement campaign.
- Make sure your users stay engaged. Recipient behavior has never been more important. If you find open and click rates are starting to drop off, take a step back and re-evaluate your sending practices. It could be you’re sending too often, too infrequently or that your recipients are just no longer interested in your content. Mix it up. The happier your recipients are, the happier you’ll be with your deliverability.
> Make sure your marketing automation vendor sets a high bar for assisting you with deliverability: Don't settle for a platform provider that can't help you deliver at rates in the high 90s. Here's a checklist of things to ask for from your provider:
Unique/dedicated IP address and domain – should offer dedicated domains and IPs
Published average delivery rate across all of the provider's customers (not just the 'top 10 best IPs')
Authentication – must support all types, including SPF, Sender ID, DomainKeys and DKIM
White listing – should be able to provide ramp up knowledge and the ability to whitelist at all major and many smaller ISPs and inbox providers, internationally
Experienced, dedicated deliverability staff – should have contacts at all of the large ISPs and inbox providers, and have the ability to work through smaller ISPs' issues on your behalf
Spam content scoring – with real-time, useful feedback that can help you improve your campaigns
Inbox monitoring – should include national and international domains
Deliverability alerting – should be able to inform you of issues before they become significant and should offer ways to take steps to correct and improve
Inbox preview – should offer, at a minimum, the tools to check the rendering of your email in many provider web and client based email clients.
Send-rate throttling – should have current knowledge of ISP and inbox provider throttle rates, the ability to monitor and keep mail servers set to the optimal delivery settings for each