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Making a Great First Impression with Your B2B Email Nurturing

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by: Kristen McKenna (@IBMforMarketing)
04 April 2010

You never get a second chance to make a great first impression. This saying applies to so many situations – dating, interviews, writing, reading and the list goes on.

First impressions set the tone and are often hard to reverse. This is true in almost every aspect of life, and it is especially true in B2B email nurturing.  The initial impression of your marketing campaign can make or break the future interactions and relationship with a prospect. So when attempting to connect with and nurture a prospect, how do you avoid having the door slammed in your face?  How do you drive real engagement?

Angela Hribar, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of GlobalSpec, Inc., commented in a recent post on the Chief Marketer blog on research by her company on how B2B buyers buy.  Among other findings, her company's research identified the critical importance of that 'first impression' and how it is a key element in overall engagement and in staying top-of-mind in a buyer's consideration set:

During the initial research phase, the survey showed 42% of B2B buyers evaluate four or more suppliers, but as they move closer to procurement, only 26% get quotes from four or more suppliers.  Those that drop off the list are often those who did not provide the right level of information to buyers or did not meet some other perceived or real need in the buyer.

Often our early touchpoint with a prospect -- and a critical tool for nurturing as a B2B marketer -- is that individual nurturing email. It’s a less intrusive than a call, it gives you a chance to be up front without being overbearing and in a Web 2.0 world, it often is the preferred method of contact early on in engagement with a prospect.

Nurturing emails are also critical because B2B buyers often pursue long buying cycles.  According to MarketingSherpa in its "2010 Email Marketing Benchmark Report," 59% of B2B purchase decisions take longer than three months.  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.

Clearly engaging a buyer via nurturing email is critical, but of course, just sending an email doesn’t mean it will be effective and not immediately met with the delete button.

So what is the key to effective B2B email marketing?  How can you make the best first impression?

There are three critical stages when nurturing a B2B prospect via email. First, you want your email to get opened. Second, you want your email to be read. And third, you would like to receive a response, or drive some type of action.  Below are some insights into how to do this.

Getting Your Email Opened

Once your email has reached an inbox, it’s out of your hands. You no longer have control over what a recipient does with it. That’s why it’s important to control as much as you can before the email reaches its destination.

Sender: First, your nurturing email is best if it comes from a real person – first name and last name – whenever possible. This makes it more personal and less likely to be viewed as spam. Even if the actual email address is, put a user name as who it’s from – John Smith instead of My Company.

Send time: Second, pay attention to what time your email will land in the inbox (this can vary quite a bit from when you send it, especially if you are sending email internationally). The IT Manager at ABC, Inc. isn’t likely to even glance at an email that came in at 3:02 AM or 11:47 PM (unless (s)he is 'that type' of IT manager).

Subject line: Third and most important is the subject line. Your emails are judged on the subject line the same way a magazine article or blog post is judged by its title and the same way a person is first judged on his/her demeanor (and proper handshake). Right or wrong, that’s how it is.

Your subject line has to be creative and insightful while also being short, timely, relevant and to the point. It’s a delicate balance between attracting attention, being totally ignored and pissing people off.

Here are some examples of good subject lines in some recent emails I’ve received:

“Came across this article you might find interesting” – leverages the social media concept of peers sharing relevant information.

“Quick Question” – lets me know the email is going to be short and to the point.

“Kristin, follow up” – shows persistence without being a stalker – professional persistence, and with a hint of personalization.

On the opposite side, here are some examples of bad subject lines that have me reaching for delete almost immediately:

“RE: RE: RE: Meeting Request” – Persistent is good, constant resending when I have not responded is bad. Know when to throw in the towel.

“Dogged Persistence” – This line has me locking my door, closing the blinds and setting the alarm; I’m frightened of the stalker potential this conveys.

You probably have three seconds to get someone’s attention in your subject line. You have to intrigue your reader but make sure what you say in your subject line has something to do with what you’re talking about in your email. If the two are completely unrelated, your next email is sure to be blocked from that inbox. We want to entice people but not trick them.

Getting Your Email Read

Once your email has been opened, you want the prospect to read what you have to say – all of it (or at least most of it). This is where length is pretty important. If you are engaging with a prospect that is early on in your nurturing process -- i.e., you have not yet built a relationship with this prospect -- then they are not yet invested in you and your solutions. Thus, your email won’t get them invested if they are forced to scroll three times to see it all.

"Think above the fold," comments Rebecca Kelley with Web firm SEOmoz in a post on the firm's blog.  "As with newspapers and landing pages, you'll want to try and present your most compelling information in the top half of the email.  If users have to scroll down to get to the good stuff, most of them won't see it."

This means you need to say just enough to make the prospect want more -- it's nurturing, not hard selling. The next step is for the prospect to ask for the whitepaper download, monthly newsletter or weekly podcast or whatever the next step may be in your nurturing process.

It’s also key to target the content to that particular company’s pain points and business needs. My colleague, Adam Needles, refers to this as 'segmenting by relevance against a persona,' and it's critical.

Be relatable and make it about them. Content isn’t about you, it’s about the customer. You have to talk to them about them – speak directly to that person’s role and address their individual business needs. Keep it simple and talk to them like a friend offering advice to solve their problem(s). This will require some up-front research on your part – there is no way around that. But you can't take short cuts.

Getting a Response to Your Email

Ultimately, we want an increasingly-substantive level of engagement with every prospect we nurture. We want to stay in touch and be relevant as the buyer goes through his/her process, help shape the direction of that buyer's search for a solution and then get a chance eventually make our pitch.

So the first rule of thumb is to set expectations. You aren’t going to get everyone -- and you certainly won't hook every buyer on the first email -- but if you market yourself and your solution correctly, you can get a few good ones that have growing interest in your company.

In the spirit of being all about the prospect, you don’t want to hound him/her for a meeting or a teleconference. What you are trying to do is build a relationship -- that's the key to nurturing. And you want to be presenting incremental information that actually aids the buyer's decision-making process.  Further, your email should give you the to-do for follow up, not the prospect. Remember, this prospect hasn’t asked for your email or your solution -- there's no relationship yet.

When you make it all about the recipient, you do all of the work. This means the next step will also be yours – you will send another email or make a follow up call. It might even be good to give them a teaser like a cliff hanger on the season finale of your favorite television series of what they can expect next. Perhaps you have a whitepaper or podcast the prospect might find interesting that you will be sending in your follow up email. Remember, you have to tell them just enough to keep them wanting more.

"Where the buyer is in the buying cycle should dictate what offer is presented to them," comments Carlos Hidalgo of The Annuitas Group in a recent blog post.  "As a non-qualified lead, the chances of me being ready for a demo are slim at best, so why offer it?  The best plan of attack is to create an offer map that aligns individual communications and offers with the stages of the buying cycle, which includes customers. And if you don’t know what to offer ... ask your customers, they’ll tell you."

It’s a pretty simple (remember, we like to keep it basic) guideline for getting your foot in the door -- and then staying there as your nurturing continues.  Always keep it simple, make it all about the prospect and keep them wanting more – and your email marketing won't go wrong.


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