4 characteristics of successful email acquisition programs

My columns over the past few months have promoted the idea of adding email to your channel mix for B2B customer acquisition. Possibly as a result of this, several marketers have told me that they have made a New Year's resolution to test the tactic in 2013. This is admirable considering the immense pressure digital marketers often find themselves under to be testing the "next big thing" -- as in, whatever bright and shiny object has captured the attention of their CEO, the press, and industry pundits. Frankly, I'm not even sure what that shiny object will be in 2013, but I'm won't be surprised if it isn't some mobile-social thingy. However, I believe smart money will be on more companies testing email for acquisition.

Keys to success

I did promise in my most recent column to provide specifics this month on implementing these programs. And for those of you who made similar resolutions, I'd like to provide you with some of the same advice that I give to my clients. This month we'll start with the basics: What kind of company has the best chance of success using email to acquire new customers? I've identified four key characteristics of successful programs:

Their target audience is small and medium-sized businesses
If you are marketing to Fortune 500 companies, it is extremely hard to achieve the scale you need to make email marketing cost effective. The list sizes just aren't there, and the CPMs can be prohibitively high. If you have an extremely valuable offer, email might be viable, but direct mail or inside sales approaches probably make more sense. Yes, I just wrote that.

They have a very compelling offer
You are an uninvited guest, so you need to show up with some really good wine. Free trial offers, dramatic cost savings, and exciting promotions all have proven effective at getting emails opened. White papers are OK, but they don't tend to attract those ready to make immediate transactions. (If you're building a prospect database, however, they are very effective). You might never get a second chance to email to this person, so you need to swing for the fences right away.

They can disrupt their prospect's view of the marketplace
This is undervalued in email acquisition. In many instances, your prospects aren't aware that there is an alternative to a product or service they are currently using (e.g., using a cable provider versus a telecommunications company for voice and data in a small business). Or maybe you provide an inexpensive self-service option in a market accustomed to full service. In both of these examples, search marketing won't help because people aren't searching for solutions they don't know exist. In this case, your subject line reads like a good display ad.

They only work with reputable vendors and use quality lists
Personally, I only partner with third-party providers with actual ownership of the permission to email and that will transmit my client's offer. If the product you sell is a qualified email address, you are going to do everything in your power to keep that address viable. You don't sell it, and you don't abuse it. As the saying goes, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Anyone willing to sell you a list of names is bound to have fleas.

Another very important success factor is how the marketer itself approaches using email as an acquisition tool. Those that are the most successful treat it as just another advertising channel. This means they focus on list quality in the same way they choose where to run display advertising. It means they pay attention to CPM, but they measure it against the quality of the list and don't treat it as an absolute. If they determine that CPSs are lower in the channel, they shift money from other channels. Finally, it means they don't do the work themselves; they work with a marketing partner. Yes, I realize that is self-serving. But you'd be surprised how many companies that wouldn't think of managing their own display advertising see no issue executing their own email.

Barriers

So conversely, are there any key barriers to successfully using email marketing for customer acquisition? It just so happens that there are two major ones:

Internal misperceptions and disagreements about CAN-SPAM
I won't belabor this point because I've talked about it in prior columns. Suffice to say, you can absolutely send an email to someone without their permission. Doing so does not violate CAN-SPAM, though you are unlikely to hear that from your email service provider. Which leads me to No. 2...

The belief that all email marketing should be centralized in the company and with the company's ESP
Maybe this is obvious, but the fact is that your internal email team and its ESP are in the business of delivering permission-based emails to an existing customer base. They think in terms of retention, cross-sell, up-sell, and customer service. These are all good things, of course. But it has also been drilled into their heads that using email for acquisition goes against all the rules and must be shunned. So you really can't expect them to embrace an acquisition program with open arms. The good news is that you don't need them for this task.

It's not too late to make this one of your marketing resolutions for 2013. Pilot programs can quickly scale and are easily implemented. You might find that email is your lowest-cost acquisition channel (many others already have). At the end of 2013, would you rather report to you CEO that you've tested a new mobile-social thingy and the results are still unclear, or that you've lowered customer acquisition costs 20 percent? I know which conversation I'd rather have.

Chris Marriott is a data-driven digital marketing consultant.

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