July 10, 2012
Case Study

Multichannel Marketing: Combining email and content marketing leads to 35% conversion rate for Elsevier

SUMMARY: Email marketing is a key element of the complex B2B sale. Its main role is to serve as the communication medium for delivering content to prospective customers. This strategy is important because those prospects conduct their own research long before making a purchase decision, and because an effective email and content strategy helps Marketing provide Sales with higher-quality leads.

Read on to learn how one B2B marketing team utilized email to improve lead generation through a combined email and content marketing strategy, and how this effort led to an average of 35% conversion to lead via online form registration.
by David Kirkpatrick, Senior Reporter


Two elements of the complex sale are now firmly entrenched. Marketing should be sending higher quality leads to Sales instead of higher quantity. And, most likely, prospects have thoroughly researched the potential purchase long before they even become leads.

This means using marketing automation software is a key tool for marketers to manage the process. It also means providing content to anonymous website visitors and, more importantly, qualified leads within the sales funnel is the heart of marketing a complex sale.

When Marketing has identified a prospect, email is the communication medium that ties all these elements together.

Elsevier, a provider of scientific, technical and medical information products and services, started to use email as the primary channel for communicating with its leads and created changes in the decision-making process to eventually turn into what Sandra de Gelder, Marketing Communications Director, Elsevier, describes as a "large license deal."

She said, "We needed to find the best way to get more, but also higher quality, leads into the hands of our sales organization."

De Gelder added that prospects were doing their research online and engaging with the company on its website to move from a consideration to a decision stage, and a key marketing goal was lead generation by way of website form completion.

This case study covers how Elsevier’s content marketing and email strategy allowed for lead nurturing and triggered content based on prospect behavior, and led to form completion conversion rates averaging 35%.


The basic framework of this email B2B effort included five elements:
  • Personas and buyer profiles

  • Buying cycle definition and qualification criteria

  • Learning plan and data capture requirements

  • Data and content audits

  • Communication plans and a content map

Step #1. Segment prospects with content

When the new email and content marketing strategy went into effect, the marketing team understood that the database included potential customers in various stages of the buying cycle.

De Gelder stated, "We had a big customer database, but we didn’t know anything about them apart from their email address and that they had engaged with us at some point in the past."

The solution was to present different types of content to the database through email sends. Depending on what type of content the person expressed interest in, the marketing team would slot those prospects into different stages of the buying cycle, as well as create a buying profile for each prospect.

For example, a prospect at a pharmaceutical company who engaged with basic scientific articles would be slotted into an early stage of the buying cycle.

Step #2. Use prospect behavior for triggered email

As the prospects in the database became segmented, Elsevier used that information to begin a conversation in the form of triggered email sends.

"We had a whole flow of communications along the buying stages," explained de Gelder. "People come in with kind of awareness -- they have clicked on something on the website or filled in a form -- and then they go through this flow with us depending on how they respond and engage with the materials that they have been given."

The marketing team created what de Gelder described as a "very complicated flowchart." To determine the type of triggered email each prospect would receive, the flowchart involved what prospects were downloading, along with their implicit and explicit behavior while interacting with the email sends and website content.

Based on this flowchart, de Geldger said the triggered email sends would "communicate something specific" with the prospects.

Step #3. Only ask for a click in the email

An important part of the entire program was placing all the content on the company website -- gaining organic SEO benefits from the original content -- and asking only for a click to that content as the call-to-action in the email itself.

De Gelder added that in some cases, to help segment the email recipient into a buying stage, the email might contain links to several different content pieces. Based on what the prospect clicked on in the email, his database entry would be updated and "enriched" with this new insight into his behavior. Then, the next communication with that prospect would be dependent on what content they chose in the email.

Step #4. Target email by prospect roles and buying stages

De Gelder said Elsevier had about 10,000 buyers in its database. These were people the company considered its highest priority prospects. Another 150,000 prospects were researchers, and were considered "influencers" or "end users" in the buying decision.

Both types of prospects received a specific set of lead nurturing email based on where they were in the buying process.

In the early awareness stage, the content was very generic with the goal of expressing that Elsevier understood the recipient’s business.

As the prospect moved through the buying cycle to the consideration stage, the content shifted and expressed that Elsevier also understood specific problems or pain points the recipient might have, and let them know the company can solve those issues with its products.

At the validation stage, the content began explaining how the solution to problems actually worked. It also included third-party validation in the form of Elsevier customer testimonials showing how they benefited from the company’s products.

Once the prospect reached the purchase stage, they were engaged with Sales, but they also still received email that compared Elsevier’s products to the competition, and explained why those solutions were the better choice.

Step #5. Get content from multiple sources

Even though a large proportion of Elsevier’s content was original, the marketing team did reach out to offer content from multiple sources.

In the early stages, most of the content came from existing original content available in Elsevier’s already published database.

In later stages, the marketing team might reach out and contract someone to write a specific content piece to offer a variety of voices.

De Gelder said, "We did notice that the better those pieces were, the more engagements we would get."

Customer content was another source in the form of success stories or case studies. These pieces helped keep the content budget down.

De Gelder outlined four main sources for Elsevier’s content:

Step #6. Use different length registration forms for prospect segmentation

Although the initial push of the revamped email and content strategy was to segment the existing database into different parts of the buying cycle to begin effective lead nurturing through specific types of content, the overall goal was to increase lead generation.

To accomplish this, the registration form was very simple. To download content on the website, the visitor would only be asked for basic information, such as name and email address. The reason the marketing team didn’t ask for more prospect information was a lot of the database entry for that person was enriched through implicit learnings based on their behavior and engagement with Elsevier’s email sends and website content.

Later in the buying cycle, once prospects had shown significant interest in Elsevier’s offerings, they were provided with a two-part "sales engagement form" that asked for a great deal more explicit information including:
  • Telephone number

  • Buying influence

  • Purchase timeline

  • "What problem are you trying to solve?"

"Our reasoning here is that we want to be pretty sure this person is serious about this purchase so Sales can be sure that they are going to have a valuable conversation with this prospect," explained de Gelder.


De Gelder described the entire revamped email and content marketing effort as a "big learning experience" for the marketing team. She said although the number of leads going through the pipeline is now being tracked, those numbers were not monitored before the program was put into place.

"We just didn’t have end-to-end lead management last year," she explained.

Because of this, there is no comparative metric on the number of leads generated, how many are moving through the buying cycle, and at what velocity.

Elsevier does have metrics on the new email campaign:
  • Average open rate of 13%

  • Clickthrough rate of 24%

  • Average conversion from click to registration form completion of 35%

De Gelder said the entire effort was about quality of lead, rather than quantity. The team also focused on helping Sales’ effectiveness by nurturing those leads early in the buying process of the typical six-month sales cycle at Elsevier, and only passing those prospects to Sales once they are very ready to make a purchase.

Creative Samples

  1. Email links to published Elsevier articles

  2. Email link to third-party source

  3. Email link to customer case study

  4. Email link to research



Aprimo – Elsevier’s marketing automation vendor

Extraprise – Elsevier’s database marketing and lead generation vendor

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