Using Email to Move Prospects Closer to Purchase

Where does customer acquisition stop and customer retention begin?

Silly question?

Maybe not, when it comes to business-to-business (B2B) email marketing.

We use the term “acquisition” when we talk about an email campaign that uses rental lists, or sponsorship ads in e-newsletters, to build an in-house list of email addresses.

Once we have an in-house list, the parlance shifts to “retention” marketing. OK, we got ’em. Now if we can just make the sale…

But it ain’t that easy. The names in our house database are not customers; they’re merely prospects.

In fact, the more attractive and substantive the offer — a free white paper, an invitation to a Webcast — and the more complex and high-priced the product or service, the more likely it is that the names we collect through an acquisition campaign are a mixed bag.

Some are tire kickers (I’m guilty of this myself), some may be qualified prospects, and a very few may be “ready to buy.”

Using email marketing, how do we separate the qualified leads from the deadbeats — and cull from these the ready-to-buy prospects?

This is the continuum of acquisition to retention. Our challenge as B2B email marketers is to help move the qualified prospect step by step to the point where he or she is ready to buy. Note that I say “help.” If it’s a hard-to-explain, big-ticket software application, the process could take anywhere from six to nine months. And other tactics besides email will surely come into play: telephone consultations, customized demos, face-to-face meetings, and so on.

Let’s take as a given that the features and functionality of complex, high-tech B2B products and services — not to mention the value proposition — are difficult to convey through an email message.

How can we persuade our hot prospects to move closer to purchase? How many times should we email them? What do we say? What can we offer them?

Here’s a scenario that offers some basic guidelines:

Email 1

Your offer must have real value for your target audience. Think of a white paper as an extension of your email message, something giving you more room to explain the benefit of your complex product or service. Don’t be too sales-y or too technical. Make the guide easy to read and credible.

Include at least three links that go directly to your landing page. Be careful here. Tread lightly; don’t be intrusive. Ask for the least amount of information possible in exchange for downloading your white paper.

If this message is successful, you’ll collect a name and an email address for your in-house list — and a prospect.

Email 2

It’s generally accepted that once every two weeks is the right interval for follow-up in email marketing.

Email again to those on your culled house list who downloaded the white paper. Ask them a few questions. Did they enjoy reading the white paper? Do they have questions? As an offer, include a link to a “resource” page on your site where they can learn more.

If it’s a text message, embed several links to a landing page where prospects can tell you how they would like to receive more information and when: by email, telephone, snail mail? (An HTML message can include fill-in boxes to enter this information.)

Be polite, conversational, and light-handed. If your product really has value, your recipients probably won’t balk at giving you the name of their company, snail mail address, and phone number.

Response rates (i.e., click-through and conversion) to this message will let you know if your “baby steps” approach is working. And you can segment these respondents by preferred communications channel as well as by how often they want to hear from you.

If it’s every week, put them in the hot-prospect file. If it’s once a month, put them in the warm file. Once every six months — they’re not ready to buy.

Email 3

This goes to the segment that didn’t respond to the second message. Be polite but direct. Are they still interested in hearing about your product? Should you follow up with them in six months? Would they like a telephone call? Again, provide embedded fields on the landing page or in an HTML message so that they can answer quickly and you can capture the information. If you get no response, put this group in the “not interested at this time” file.

Your email campaign is rolling… But you haven’t converted your hot prospects to customers. You may not even be close. What happens next?

Next week: another look at how we can connect the dots when it comes to linking B2B email marketing with sales.

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