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Aug 19, 2005
Case Study

B-to-B Marketer Jettisons Routine Newsletters in Favor of Irregular Email Broadcasts

SUMMARY: Red alert for business marketers sending email newsletters to house lists -- according to MarketingSherpa's new IT Marketing Benchmark Guide, your average open rates dropped 10 points in the past year. (Actually that's not a drop; it's more like a plummet.) We suspect increased filters may be one reason, but the biggest factor of all may be boredom. Your marketplace has been getting same-old, same-old newsletters from you (and/or your competitors) for a couple of years now. Newsletters used to be exciting. Now they are routine delete-button-fodder. So, how can you put the oomph back into your house list email...
As a content consultancy, you would think Smith Content has a killer email newsletter to promote their services to business partners, clients and prospects. They don't.

CEO John Starling explains, "Most marketers who send out newsletters, send them out religiously on schedule whether they have something to say or not. I get well more than 100 emails a day, not including spam, and the last thing I want is more garbage. I want people to listen when we have something to say."

He adds, "When people get email from Smith Content they should know it's something probably worth reading."

Great idea -- but how do you send a steady enough flow of communications to your house database to continue the relationship, while not boring folks with a same-old, same-old newsletter?

Once your email newsletter schedule goes away, it's easy to forget to send anything at all. So, the team decided on a minimum contact goal of once a quarter for names on their house file.

(Note: We'd never recommend this frequency for names new to file that often require a series of quick touches to start the relationship. However, the vast majority of Smith Content's names had been on file for three to four years and didn't want or need loads of inbox activity from them.)

Next, the team invented a series of different sorts of email communications. According to data published earlier this year in MarketingSherpa, even email recipients who are most interested in hearing from you don't spend more than 10-20 seconds examining a typical message.

Therefore the team decided against gathering a pile of interesting items to be published as a roundup "news from us" communication. Readers simply wouldn't spend the time wading through such a message searching for items of interest.

Instead, the team decided to focus each email blast on a specific purpose and to use their sales contact database to only send that blast to people on the house file who were likely to be the most interested. Luckily their email system was tied into the sales contact database fairly seamlessly, which meant segmenting the lists was quick and easy.

Email campaign type #1. Direct response campaigns for new business partners

Smith Content gets much of its business through a network of resellers, mainly design shops bundling copywriting services into their offerings. The main business-building goal at the start of 2005 was to get more of these partners. The team tested two different email approaches:

-> Tactic A. Integrated mail, email and phone campaign

To start the new year with a bang, the team sent a direct (postal) mail package featuring a clever "Declaration of Independence" fax-back signature form to potential partners on its list that were outside the immediate geographic area.

Why? Because as Starling explains, the team runs into these folks personally at local events frequently. So there's less need to invest in DM.

Next, the team sent the same list an emailed note to alert them to look for the package in the mail. And a couple of days later, Starling had a recorded audio message from himself planted in their voicemail boxes overnight. "Hi this is John Starling. I'm wondering if you got that email I sent you, and I also sent you a package last week. Let me know what you think about it."

-> Tactic B. Subtle, classy approach

This summer the team tested an entirely different approach with the same list of prospects. This time they sent an email only. The message featured a warm letter giving credit to various partners for Smith Content's revamped Web site. Woven in near the very end was a subdued link quietly noting that the company would welcome talking to other potential partners.

The team figured results would be lower, but by making the offer less of a shout-out, respondents who bothered to read all the way through would be highly qualified and motivated to take the next move.

Email campaign type #2. Invitations

Four times a year the team ran a daylong educational seminar for prospects and clients. Rather than bug everyone, they carefully only emailed invitations to names on the house list that had never attended a seminar yet.

To counter the smell of "whenever I get an invite from Smith Content it's that seminar again," they also launched a series of quarterly art openings at their office. Any graphic designer in North America who painted or sculpted on the side could submit his or her non-commercial artwork to be considered for a showing.

Then the team sent an 'Off the Clock' invitation to everyone on the house file to come to the 6 p.m. opening party. Smith Content paid for the cost of hanging the work, drinks and snacks, and the emailed invitations. The artist could sell their work at the show, but Smith Content refused to take any commissions.

Email campaign type #3. Relationship building warm-fuzzies

"The genesis of everything we do," explains Starling, "is if you're scarce, the world will be scarce to you. If you're abundant, the world will be abundant to you." In that spirit, the team also sent out very occasional notes when they came across a third party service that they thought their partners, prospects or clients might also appreciate.

Again, they refused a commission. The desire was to weave a community of business building among friends, rather than send out advertorial.

If you treat your house file as peers and colleagues -- rather than a list to robotically blast to -- you'll be rewarded.

Smith Content's documented open rates (yes, we've seen the reports) are in the upper 30s, slightly above average for a typical B-to-B house newsletter. Their click rates range 3% to low teens depending the call to action. Beyond clicks, the campaigns are converting at a fairly high rate.

6.6% of recipients of the multi-part (mail + email + phone) campaign faxed back a signed response form. An additional few phoned or emailed responses in.

Just .6% of the more subtle partner email campaign's recipient list responded. However, these proved to be highly qualified and every single one is engaged in active partnership meetings with Smith Content at the moment. (These fewer hotter leads are what your sales reps wish you'd hand them instead of piles of less qualified responders.)

Educational seminars invariably hit their goal of 20-25 attendees, and the program is being expanded to more locations across the US in the next year.

And people love the art openings. 100-125 prospects and clients generally squeeze into Smith Content's Baltimore-area offices. So many attended the last opening that the bar next door had to provide overflow space. "It was their best night ever, excluding festivals," notes Starling.

The most popular email campaign ever was a testimonial Smith Content sent out about a vendor they recommended to their circle of contacts. This generated a 50% open rate and 4.6% click rate from prospects, and 57.6% open rate and 12.7% click rate from clients. Plus, quite a few people sent in thank-you notes.

Useful links related to this article

Creative samples from the various Smith Marketing campaigns mentioned above:

ExactTarget - the email service provider Smith Content uses to send its email campaigns: - the contact and relationship management tool Smith Content ties into their ExactTarget account:

One Cast - the audio delivery vendor who recorded and sent Starling's voicemail to his list's phones: MarketingSherpa's IT Marketing Benchmark Guide 2005:

Smith Content:

See Also:

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