Reflecting on the Future for B2B Email

With the holidays just a week away and the new year soon upon us, now is a good opportunity to revisit my predictions for B2B email in 2011 (“How to Prepare for B2B E-mail’s Future“).

This year, it became clear that email is no longer the only channel by which marketers communicate. Nevertheless, email certainly remains the king of the digital channels, with an installed base of email accounts growing to 3.1 billion in 2011 and expected to grow to nearly 4.1 billion accounts by 2015.

Despite the pundits’ predictions, email is neither dead, comatose, nor on life support. In fact, it continues to evolve.

Over the next four years, according to the Radicati Group’s Email Statistics Report 2011-2015, corporate email accounts will increase faster than consumer email accounts because of the growth of affordable cloud-based email services. These allow businesses to extend email services to workers who did not have access to corporate email.

The Multi-Channel Evolution of B2B Email Marketing

In 2011, many B2B email marketers expanded their email strategies beyond just sending monthly newsletters and alerts. Busy B2B subscribers now demand more and expect you to send them relevant messages through multiple channels.

Subscribers have begun to expect you to keep the conversation going via social media and mobile channels. Witness the increased activity for B2B users on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social networks and likely on your own corporate blog, too.

In 2011, customers expect you to follow and respond to their questions, comments, and concerns in these social channels. They also expect your other customers to respond to their messages as well via your LinkedIn group, on Twitter, or your blog.

Addressing your customers across all these channels is now an expectation to facilitate stimulating engagement with your customer and prospect base.

Understanding Your Audience

2011 also saw B2B email marketers begin segmenting their lists beyond traditional practices (geography, industry, and company size). Many now use behavioral traits to segment their mailings.

These behavioral traits include clicking on the email, browsing on the website, or discussing with the sales representative. Segmenting email campaigns based upon this “in-market” data allows marketers to build a deeper relationship with their customers through understanding their needs and motivations.

This behavior-driven approach has yielded three times to five times the return in revenue per email over traditional broadcast messages.

Rethinking How You Collect Email Addresses

Unfortunately, my prediction that B2B marketers will move away from assumed opt-in in favor of explicit permission as the minimum requirement for email marketing did not prove true this year.

B2B marketers have traditionally assumed that anyone who attends an event where their brand was present or is on a list they purchased is eligible to receive their marketing emails.

While it remains true that B2B emails are generally exempt from the “permission” requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act, meeting the legal minimum requirement for your B2B email campaigns is still not the optimal email marketing strategy.

As a B2B marketer, you put your brand and your email program at risk when you send email campaigns without recipients’ explicit consent. Your subscribers are becoming more selective about what email they want to receive. They will opt out or file spam complaints if you violate their expectations.

Emailing without permission can taint their impression of your brand. They can slam you and your brand in social media channels even if you meet legal minimum standards.

As more customers rely on others’ reviews in making decisions, negative word of mouth is certainly not the best strategy, especially in markets with relatively small or close-knit target customer bases.

The Last Word

Following many years of little change to the B2B marketer’s approach to email marketing, 2011 proved to be the year of email marketing maturity.

Marketers began focusing on customer centricity, lifecycle programs, and data-driven, multi-channel marketing strategies to drive their email campaigns. This approach allowed them to begin to know their audience beyond just their firmographic profiles. Behavioral data offered more insight into their concerns, business problems and needs, and which channels they prefer for communication.

The influence of social media also had an increasing impact on B2B buying habits and behaviors. Customers look to these channels for reviews and information about your products and services.

Unfortunately, explicit permission to market even to B2B recipients did not get the foothold that I had hoped. I look to 2012 as the year when B2B marketers go beyond meeting CAN-SPAM’s legal minimums and focus on protecting their brand reputation in the B2B space.

In a future column, I will look toward 2012 and predict how marketers will continue to engage and drive the conversation with customers, analyze how the interaction with customers and prospects will evolve, and discuss the implications on your email marketing strategy.

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