What Sales Can Teach B2B Email Marketing

Much has been made of the kinship between email marketing and direct mail.

Take a close-up snapshot, and it’s easy to spot similarities between a single email message and a direct mail piece, for example, a subject line with the same ability to intrigue as the teaser copy on an envelope or benefits-oriented copy that’s easy to skim.

But I’d like to put forth another notion.

Pull back and do a slow, wide-angle pan to get the bigger picture. What do you see? B2B email marketing resembles… the sales process.

Whoa, you say. Isn’t permission-based email, with its high response rates and high return on investment (ROI), the darling of online marketers?

No denying that. But at the same time, email marketing may be the most effective sales tool since the advent of, well, the telephone.

Think of how a business-to-business (B2B) email campaign unfolds. After you send out a message with a can’t-pass-up offer (say a free seminar with an industry expert as the speaker), what happens next? If you’re smart, you’ll send out a round of messages thanking each recipient for signing up. And then a message after that signed by your area sales rep and including that person’s direct telephone number.

Get the picture?

Once the marketing director gets a B2B campaign under way, the recipients should fall pretty quickly into the hands of the sales team. If they don’t, you’re probably not running a successful campaign.

So why is this significant?

First of all, noting the convergence of sales and marketing is not an original thought on my part. In fact the merging of sales and marketing functions is a hot new topic on the conference circuit. John Coe, president of Database Marketing Associates Inc., spoke about it at the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) annual meeting last fall.

Coe and others will be discussing sales and marketing integration at the DMA’s Direct Marketing to Business conference in San Francisco next month.

I’m going to offer two reasons why it’s useful to think of B2B email marketing as close kin to the customer-centered sales process.

Remember Your Business Objective

When you plan a B2B email marketing program, you should have a business objective in mind. Ask yourself how your campaign can result in a specific number of sales of a high-end technology product, for example.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, it’s more difficult in a B2B environment to “connect the dots” between email marketing and offline sales.

But to launch an email marketing program with click-throughs or conversions to sign-up (or download) as your ultimate objective is rather shortsighted.

Hang out with your salespeople as much as possible to find out how they interact with prospects and customers. Find out what steps they go through and what questions they ask, particularly when it’s a complex, high-end product for which it may take six to nine months or longer to close the sale.

This is primary market research — inside your own company!

Think of B2B Email Marketing as a Process

The sales process, or “buying” process as we should call it in our customer-centered approach, has some recognizable steps.

Find out what your prospect’s pain is, determine whether she has the budget and authority to fix it, and ask what the timeline is (how urgent is it?).

These are broad questions that even a good salesperson may take weeks to get answers to. They should sound familiar to email marketers.

For example, is the person who receives your email message the decision maker? If not, can you coax him into passing along your carefully crafted message to others in the department or company?

The point is to think of your email marketing campaign as just that — a military campaign with multipronged attacks, staged in a carefully thought-out sequence over a long period of time.

I’ve never been a fan of sales as a profession, probably because of my background as a journalist. From the vantage point of the newsroom, the advertising department was “the enemy.” We didn’t want to be tainted by appearing to give positive coverage to big advertisers.

But I’m convinced that the sales folks — and the sales process — have a lot to teach us email marketers.

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