B-to-B e-mail marketing: From sleepy to creepy?

Unwanted e-mails from businesses and brandsThe amount of information that companies know about the behavior of their customers has been growing, thanks to the “digital footprints” people leave all over the place when interacting with companies and brands via web surfing, e-mail and e-commerce.

Still, up until now, there’s been a polite dance wherein the companies don’t acknowledge the degree of that knowledge. Call it a sort of digital politeness.

But that seems to be changing, as the stakes have grown higher for engaging with customers via online, social and e-mail communications rather than traditional advertising.

Take Pitney Bowes in the B-to-B world, for example. In recent months, its marketing staff has sent out e-mail communiqués to their opt-in customers containing messages like, “We notice it’s been a while since you opened an email from us.”

That creepy little missive is as impertinent as it is likely false. Considering the wide swath of people who use the Microsoft Outlook e-mail platform – and many of those use preview panes and have set their default preferences to block images – in reality Pitney Bowes doesn’t actually know if its customers have been reading its e-mail messages or not.

It’s also unclear whether Pitney Bowes really wants its opt-in recipients to go away rather than just browbeating people into engaging with their e-mails more.

This has manifested itself in e-mail messages sent asking if customers are still interested in receiving e-mails so they can “continue receiving the latest from PB.” But despite this implicit threat to be dropped from Pitney Bowes’ e-mail database, ignoring those e-mails doesn’t seem to result in that actually happening.

Rather, it’s just a continuation of more borderline-creepy e-mails with messages chiding the recipient for potentially missing out on “valuable information about supplies, offers, discounts, new products and thought leadership pieces.”

Thought leadership pieces? The leaders of Pitney Bowes may think quite highly about their company and its “vaunted” position in industry … but self-describing itself as being the fount of industry-leading knowledge is a surefire way to get laughed out of town.

Just like the obnoxious teacher’s pet in school or the crashing bore at a cocktail party, no one enjoys interacting with a know-it-all who just can’t wait to corner you and tell you all about his or her latest feats of accomplishment.

In a world where most businesses are spending more effort than ever trying to collect e-mail addresses for ongoing engagement with customers and prospects, here’s a little reminder to them: Try disseminating content that is actually of value to people … which is what will get them to engage with you.

More often than not, that content won’t be about their products and services.

Sometimes “permission slips” aren’t enough when it comes to e-mail deliverability.

Bounced-emails-undelivered-emailsIn case you’ve been wondering how much marketing e-mail actually reaches its intended targets, a recently released benchmark report from e-mail scoring and certification services provider Return Path has some answers. It finds that only about 75% of “permissioned” e-mails are actually making their way through.

That means one in every four e-mails are either hitting a spam or junk folder, or are being blocked by ISP-level filtering.

The report was based on analysis of data from Return Path’s Mailbox Monitor service, which tracks the delivery, filtering and blocking rates for more than 600,000 e-mail campaigns.

Interestingly, the delivery stats for business-to-business marketing e-mail aren’t much lower than for business-to-consumer e-mail. This was considered somewhat surprising because of company-level filtering systems like Postini, MessageLabs and Symantec that are installed at many large corporations. Presumably, they do a more thorough job of filtering e-correspondence.

The Return Path report also included a few cautionary notes for marketers:

 Many e-mailers believe that whatever gets deployed and doesn’t bounce must be reaching inboxes. But senders are notified only when the e-mail is a hard bounce – not if it has ended up in a spam or junk folder.

 Relying on rented e-mail files in the B-to-B world can be dangerous, as those files can be riddled with spam traps. Commercial entities are always on the search for new prospects and leads … but merging a good in-house list with a few of these bad boy rental lists can result in compromising the entire database.

 In the consumer sector, many marketers aren’t paying close enough attention to inbox placement rates. For example, data about Gmail shows that while many marketers are ostensibly achieving a 90%+ deliverability rate, fewer than one in five of those emails are actually being directed to the “priority” inboxes within Gmail as designated by the recipients. And you can bet that precious few of the other ~80% are getting any sort of attention at all from consumers.

More details about the Return Path report can be found here – well-worth checking out.

Online Display Ad Effectiveness: Skepticism Persists

Online Display AdvertisingAs the variety of options for online advertising have steadily increased over the years, the reputation of display advertising effectiveness has suffered. Part of this is in the statistics: abysmal clickthrough rates on many online display ads with percentages that trend toward the microscopic.

But another part is just plain intuition. People understand that when folks go online, they’re usually on a mission – whether it’s information-seeking, looking for products to purchase, or avocational pursuits.

Simply put, the “dynamic” is different than magazines, television or radio — although any advertiser will tell you that those media options also have their share of challenges in getting people to take notice and then to take action.

The perception that online display advertising is a “bad” investment when compared to search engine marketing is what’s given Google its stratospheric revenue growth and profits in recent years. And that makes sense; what better time to pop up on the screen than when someone has punched in a search term that relates to your product or service?

In the B-to-B field, the knock against display advertising is even stronger than in the consumer realm. In the business world, people have even less time or inclination to be distracted by advertising that could take them away from their mission at hand.

It doesn’t take a swath of eye-tracking studies to prove that most B-to-B practitioners have their blinders on to filter out extraneous “noise” when they’re in information-seeking mode.

This isn’t to say that B-to-B online display advertising isn’t occurring. In fact, in a new study titled Making Online Display Marketing Work for B2B, marketing research and consulting firm Forrester Research, Inc. reports that about seven in ten B-to-B interactive marketers employ online display advertising to some degree in their promotional programs.

And they do so for the same reasons that compelled these comparnies to advertise in print trade magazines in the past. According to the Forrester report, the primary objectives for online display advertising include:

 Increase brand awareness: ~49% of respondents
 Lead generation: ~46%
 Reaching key target audiences: ~46%
 Driving direct sales: ~41%

But here’s a major rub: Attitudes toward B-to-B online display advertising are pretty negative — and that definitely extends to the ad exchanges and ad networks serving the ads. Moreover, most don’t foresee any increased effectiveness in the coming years.

That may explain why Forrester found that fewer than 15% of the participants in its study reported that they have increased their online display advertising budgets in 2011 compared to 2010 – even as advertising budgets have trended upward overall.

When you look closer at display, there’s actually some interesting movement. Google has committed to a ~$390 million acquisition of display ad company Admeld. And regardless of the negative perceptions that may be out there, Google’s Ad Exchange and Yahoo’s Right Media platforms have created the ability for advertisers to bid on ad inventories based on their value to them.

Moreover, new capabilities make it easier to measure and attribute the impact of various media touchpoints — online display as well as others — that ultimately lead to conversion or sales.

But the negative perceptions about online display advertising continue, proving again that attitudes are hard to change — even in the quickly evolving world of digital advertising.

E-mail early birds? The worm may be turning differently.

Best time to deploy marketing e-mail messages.One of the great benefits of the “online everything” world in which we now live is the ability to evaluate nearly anything about marketing not with hunches or speculation, but with hard data.

A perennial question is what time of day is best to deploy marketing e-mails to customers and prospects. The higher the propensity to open and read these messages, you’re closer to the goal of converting eyeballs to clickthroughs … and to sales.

ReachMail, a Chicago-based e-mail service provider, recently studied a large sampling (~650,000) of the millions of consumer and business marketing e-mail messages it sends out for clients daily in order to determine open rate differences based on the time of day. It normalized the data to account for different time zones.

What ReachMail found was that there are differing peak open rate times on weekends versus on weekdays:

 Weekdays: Peak e-mail open rates are between ~11:30 am and ~2:00 pm.

 Weekends: E-mail open rates begin trending upward at ~11:30 am, but don’t peak until ~4:00 pm.

John Murphy, ReachMail’s president, had this to say about people’s weekday e-mail open rate behaviors: “You would think it would spike in the morning, but they’re looking at work e-mails in the morning. Once they’ve cleared out their inbox, they’re looking at marketing e-mails in the afternoon.”

ReachMail’s conclusion: It’s best to deploy weekday e-mails between 10:00 am and Noon. For weekend e-mails, deploy them between Noon and 3:00 pm.

And this additional tidbit also: Don’t assume e-mails sent during the week will perform better than those deployed over the weekend. “People’s engagement rates are up there on the weekend,” Murphy maintains. “It’s our habit of checking e-mail all the time.”

He’s sure right about that.

B-to-B e-Newsletters: Just How Engaged are Recipients?

B-to-B e-NewslettersIn the B-to-B world, marketers are sometimes disappointed with the open rates for the e-newsletters they deploy to their customers and prospects. While some are opened by a large proportion of recipients, it’s common experience for e-newsletter open rates to hover around 20%-25%.

Does this mean that e-newsletters are a poor substitute for B-to-B print media? Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know how these results compare. After all, just because trade magazines are delivered to recipients doesn’t mean that they’re ever read.

It would be nice to compare B-to-B reader dynamics between print and online media, but with quantifiable statistics available for only one side of the equation, that’s pretty difficult.

However, GlobalSpec, the technology services company that operates a vertical search engine of engineering and industrial products, is able to provide us with a few additional clues. It has just published the results of its 2010 Economic Outlook Survey, which queried more than 2,000 U.S. technical, engineering, manufacturing and industrial professionals on a variety of business topics.

As part of the GlobalSpec survey, respondents were asked about their e-newsletter reading habits. And it turns out that more than half of the respondents (~55%) reported that they read work-related e-newsletters daily or several times a week.

Another 30% of respondents reported that they read e-newsletters once a week or several times per month. That leaves only 15% reporting that they rarely or never read e-newsletters.

What’s more, the readership of e-newsletters appears in increasing. In GlobalShop’s 2009 survey, only ~40% of respondents reported reading e-news daily or several times per week. So the increase in activity over just the past year is substantial.

The takeaway news is that more people in the B-to-B segment are “engaged” with e-newsletters than ever before. Whether you’re achieving above or below the 20%-25% open rate threshold is likely a function of the quality of your content … along with how good you’re doing with targeting the right names in your database.

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