Recently I sat down with Aaron Bolshaw, Act-On’s Group Manager of Database Marketing, to talk about email. Email has been the stalwart producer for the most marketers for years, with the highest ROI of all channels, but it’s undergoing the same kinds of changes that other tactics are. Here is the conversation Heather and Aaron had about email, edited for length.
HEATHER: Where do you think the future of email sales and marketing is heading?
AARON: Someone recently said, “It’s not inbound, it’s not outbound. It’s ‘all-bound.’ You’ve got to do all these things and more.” Business email has been around forever, but inbound is about the strategies and tactics that get people to come to your website and fill out a form. We refer to that as “attract and capture.” We run email in conjunction with all those strategies and tactics. Maybe what’s most important is this: Email is still the way people say they want business to communicate with them. So it’s not going away in the foreseeable future.
HEATHER: What have you learned about creating effective email campaigns since you joined Act-On?
AARON: I actually had a long history as an email marketer – and as an Act-On customer – before joining the company, so I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot all along the way. Here are the things I think are most important:
- Always test—try a few different tests right away: Do a plain Jane text email (make it HTML, but make it look like text), and test engagement of a straightforward email vs. the fun graphic kind.
- As you go up the scale in titles (Like CEO) in an organization, people don’t care as much about seeing their name in subject lines as their business name.
- Really understand what the motivators are for your audience – when we go after a sales audience we very much talk about sales (their wallet motivates them). CEOs, on the other hand, are very interested in understanding how to do all this online marketing because their role is expanding bigger than ever before; they need to tackle more with less and still remain stewards of the company). Marketers are the easiest crowd. We like content, and LOVE design, so it’s important that things look pretty because we judge books by their cover very quickly.
- Use responsive design in your emails! If you’re not, you’re missing out on half the engagement you should get, because you aren’t getting across all the devices that your prospects are engaging with content on.
HEATHER: Data’s become a key piece in effective email outreach. What are some helpful takeaways for leveraging data for email?
AARON: Before you decide to grow your database, first look at the data you already have.. If you don’t understand what you have, you’ll be in a constant loop of doing the wrong thing. Ultimately when it comes to data and emailing, make sure you have the best of both worlds with “profile information” – title, position, who the person is – this is contact level data. You also want profile data of who they work for and what industry they work in. If you don’t have these things, you’re not ready to begin running smart email campaigns to these people.
Also, behavioral data is a goldmine. The most effective email combines behavioral data and profile data with where your prospects are in a buying cycle. You need to understand what your prospects are doing, and when, and what they’re interested in. Once you have these, you can create more targeted messaging for those folks who actually care about what you’re talking about, so they engage more with your content, which really powers up an email program.
HEATHER: What aspects of behavior are most crucial to the buying process? What should people try to figure out?
AARON: Who’s opened what and who’s clicked on what has been around for a while, but unlocking this to show a history of it to see what they’ve engaged with, and when, is really powerful. I might send an email message out in week 1 that talks about SEO 101, and I’ve got a bunch of people that click, open and download that eBook. That’s great. Then in week 2 I send something out about landing page optimization, and I’ve got a different set of people that are engaging with that. Being able to capture that over time and still show a holistic view of each person’s journey and what they’re interested in is extremely important. But going beyond email clicks and downloads, I need to know who’s on my website, when, what pages they’re looking at, and be able to assess the heartbeat of their interest level quickly.
For example, suppose you go to my website right now and visit the Act-On pricing page. There’s a really good chance that you’re going to get a call in about 10 minutes. It starts with us knowing that you’re doing this, and we get that information from the behavioral data. That’s how organizations are scaling faster and faster. For software-as-a-service companies, you’ve got to have this – or it’s game over.
HEATHER: Fast response time makes a huge difference. Inside Sales and MIT did a study showing the longer you wait the chances of you closing a deal decrease, which makes sense. After you wait a certain amount of time, response actually negatively affects your chances of closing a deal.
AARON: Yeah, I remember reading that. The first person who reaches the prospect has a 70% chance of qualifying the lead and also closing the deal. We are very cognizant of those response times. We like to be the first to contact our leads.We know when we beat our competitors to the phones, it gives us a better chance at closing business.
HEATHER: So how are you so quick with the phones? Is a lot of that using account-based marketing/sales?
AARON: No, because ultimately the behavior rests on the individual. Yes you have to understand who they are and where they work, whether there might be a fit there. Act-On isn’t going to do well with government-owned waste treatment centers, but it starts with the behavior of an individual at a micro level.
HEATHER: How do you get all the data you need from people? Are you giving them long forms to fill out, or filling in most of their data using other technology like scraping or databases?
AARON: All of the above. On a form you want to make it short and have the bare minimum possible. There are some technologies we use that, on the back end, will try to assess where you are and fill in a lot of the gaps for us. When you talk to data providers, you’ve got to figure out what’s the unique identifier for a person and a business. A person’s easy; that’s their email address, but businesses are starting to line up behind websites for their unique identifiers. We try to ask for that for sure, which also helps prove that the company is mature enough in business for us to be able to help them out. You also want to do the sniff test, and if their website looks like Windows 95, you have bigger problems than marketing automation can fix.
HEATHER: How are you using firmographic data to enhance your outreach and campaigns?
AARON: One example is how we integrate very select data partners with our CRM. This helps us understand more than just your industry and SIC codes for targeting. It gives us a huge leg up and enables us to do some really cool targeted campaigns. In late June we did some technology-focused campaigns on companies that were using a CRM that didn’t have marketing automation. We had crazy engagement on these campaigns; 3x higher than expected. That’s because we were calling out (without being too spooky) that this class of technology users can really benefit from marketing automation.
HEATHER: Well, that makes sense, because it’s completely relevant to your audience. Great email campaigns need messaging that resonates with their audience.
I was talking to a prospect the other day at a well known tech company, and they were sending the same email to everyone from a CEO to a CTO, IT manager, and more. I doubt the average CEO would be at all interested in that email. It wasn’t even the best email for an IT manager because it looked like an essay with blocks of text. Their response rate was pretty bad, and when they showed me everything it was pretty obvious why.
AARON: Oh no! I hate stories like that. We can do so much better with the right tools. We do a careful job creating and delivering messages out by the who’s going to receive them. We have a great story to tell each of our three personas, but each of those stories is vastly different. What’s great is that it can be basically the same information, but we can use dynamic content in our emails that says “if the title is this, then show them this message,” “if the title is sales, show them this message,” “if the title is marketing, then show them this message.” A few years ago, at another company, I used to do batch and blast messages. I had one shot, and that’s how I lived. I knew there was going to be a lot of crossover, but I just accepted it and said, “That’s all I got.” Now, it’s much more like programming. I can now say send this message out to this persona at this specific time. It’s really cool.
HEATHER: The last time we talked, you mentioned having different messaging through the funnel, and scoring leads as they move through funnel. Are you scoring those differently?
AARON: The difference is more in messaging than in scoring. Downloading a white paper at the bottom, top or middle of the funnel gets scored the same way. But At the top of the funnel the messaging is much more bite-sized, with quick actionable value. In the middle of the funnel we beef up our messages a bit to show we can really the problem we believe causes your pain. At the bottom we give them very solution- and decision-specific material such as data sheets and how to select a vendor, buying checklists, that kind of thing.
HEATHER: Aaron, it’s been great having this discussion with you today. Any parting words?
AARON: My pleasure, happy to share with you what’s cooking in Email marketing.If your readers are interested in diving in further… we’ve put together an Email Marketing Toolkit. It’s got a 15-minute getting started video, some white papers: one about email basics, another about building a list and the third about email deliverability.