January 08, 2002
Case Study

How to Upsell Business Services Clients with an Email Newsletter

SUMMARY: Are you considering starting an email newsletter for your customers - or would you like some ideas to improve your newsletter's results?  Here's a new Case Study about a company in Virginia that grew their sales to large institutions by half a million dollars last year, and have already lined up significant 2002 sales, just by using a simple weekly newsletter. Most interesting: Hear about the five unique kinds of articles they include in every single issue in order to up-sell customers on more services and to keep accounts longer.
The past two years have been a crazy time to market business services. At first the economy was surging so strongly that marketers had to work harder to get their message heard over the roaring crowd. Then the bottom dropped out, and everyone scrambled again, this time to hang onto current clients and to acquire new ones on as small a budget as possible.

Matrix Group International, a Web and intranet development firm in the Washington DC area, was caught in both battles. At first they were one of hundreds of small Web development firms trying to get attention, and then they were a larger firm in an abruptly contracting field.

Rather than offering Matrix's services to every company that could use them, President Joanna Pineda decided to target two specific markets: substantial non-profit organizations and financial services firms. This enabled her to not only tightly focus her marketing efforts for much greater impact, but also to develop a style of communication that suited these two marketplaces.

Pineda discovered four key factors were true of both large non- profits and financial services firms' investment decisions in business services:
1. Many committee members or levels of approval are involved
2. Decisions can be influenced by what their peers are doing at similar institutions
3. They budget for the year in advance, and usually stick to that budget.
4. Decisions to change plan mid-stream can take several months to be approved.

Back in the days when the company was a start-up with almost no marketing budget, Matrix Group's most successful marketing tactic had been to position Pineda as an educational emissary to the two industries. She frequently spoke at conferences, wrote useful (non-salesy) articles for trade publications, and was a featured guest star on The Washington Post's online chats about technology and business. The Company's other marketing asset was Pineda's own warm, outgoing personality (she's known for hugging clients.)

However, soon Pineda was too busy managing Matrix Group's growth to continue this time-intensive outreach schedule. So, she cut back on appearances and developed a weekly email newsletter to take their place. Each issue (link to samples below) contains five key elements that enable Matrix to up-sell, cross-sell and hold on to current clients longer, while reaching out to new prospects:

1. Warmth and personality -- each newsletter starts with a brief 100-200 word note from Joanna herself, often talking about her personal life. She's mentioned her wedding, her cats, her love for the X Files TV show.

2. Peer case studies -- whenever Matrix completes a new project for a client, such as an online bookstore, a content management system, a virtual trade show, etc., Pineda adds a case study about the project to that week's newsletter issue. She notes, "It's not meant to be a sales pitch. It's a soft sell. Here's something interesting that someone in your field did."

3. Immediate education -- each issue includes two-three educational tips and statistics relating to the Internet and intranets. These are not necessarily directly related to Matrix's services. Instead they are indirectly related, and often so handy that clients can't help but pass them on to colleagues (who often then become clients themselves.)

Sample tips include, "Watch what you say on public mailing lists", "High-speed net subscribers surpass 9 million" and "Make all your Web forms international."

4. A seminar offer -- once a month Matrix Group holds a luncheon seminar in their conference room on a different topic, such as "How to create an email newsletter." Pineda chooses topics based both on client suggestions, and on ways she can grow and hold on to their accounts. For example, early this fall she offered a seminar entitled, "Planning your next-year's Web budget."

Again, although the seminars were developed as a sales tool, the detailed descriptions in the newsletter make it clear seminars are chock-full of useful content -- not sales pitches. (In fact most marketers promoting via free Web events would probably get better attendance if they used Pineda's copywriting tactics. Samples in the links below.)

Notably the seminars are not free. Attendees pay a token fee $15-25. This means attendees take the seminar a bit more seriously and RSVPs are more likely to actually show.

5. Fun -- Pineda ends each issue on an up-note with a fun Web link of the week, such as unusual entertainment sites. She says, "I find myself that my own surfing gets very stale. I go to the same sites." So she thought her customers might enjoy learning about new sites too, even though it's not directly related to work.

All of this content is contained within each issue so that readers don't have to click to a site to read entire stories (which can annoy people.) Even though Matrix has plenty of in- house designers who could whip out HTML issues, Pineda decided to send in text-only format because so many of her readers are in large organizations whose email systems don't allow HTML.

She says, "One of our largest clients uses Groupwise from Novell and it doesn't support HTML. We are also finding that corporate IT managers are blocking HTML emails, and blocking emails if they have script or Flash imbedded in it."

Although the newsletter was immediately popular and successful, Pineda was concerned about sending such a personal-sounding letter to executives, "Some folks might think it's weird for me to be talking about cats in my note, they might be turned off by it."

So, she developed a second email communications series of "missives" to counterbalance the newsletter's informality. These notes (see sample link below), written in a serious business tone, are emailed using a special subject line, "Matrix Confidential Communication, Re:… " whenever Pineda has news to share regarding hosting changes, software bugs or Internet bugs that might affect clients.

Sometimes the missives proactively inform clients when Matrix has caught or prevented a bug that might have hurt their site. "We tell them we're on top of it, before they have to worry and ask us." Sometimes the notes educate clients about bugs that might affect their own IT departments.

Pineda's tech team subscribes to a bug tracking email discussion group and cull through more than 100 messages a day to find bugs that are important enough to alert clients about, which ends up being about one every two-three weeks.

While she can't track exact sales, Pineda is sure the newsletter in 2001 was responsible for at least half a million dollars in new business, both from current clients expanding accounts and from new clients who received pass-along newsletters.

Plus, the newsletter has already helped Matrix Group get a strong foothold onto 2002 sales targets. For example, the newsletter's case study on building an online bookstore inspired more than half a dozen clients to add bookstores to their 2002 site revamp plans.

And, although unusually no one RSVPed to attend this fall's budget-planning seminar (generally about a dozen clients and prospects attend seminars), the offer directly affected 2002 sales. Pineda explains, "We got dozens of phone calls. I think people didn't want to reveal their plans in front of their peers, so they asked if we could meet with them separately. So we got tons of face-to-face time with clients." After helping clients set their budgets, Pineda made a further offer. "We offered to lock in prices -- they're not obligated to buy, but they know what the cost will be when they're ready to do the project in June or whenever it's scheduled."

Clients and prospects have forwarded the newsletter enough that in many cases multiple executives in each organization get copies. 25 different people at one client site have all opted in -- which means Matrix is regularly in the in-box of everyone who influences the Web decision committee.

Reader feedback has been very positive about the format of the newsletter. Pineda says, "You'd be surprised. After each issue I get at least six, if not more, emails from people saying oh thanks for the message, how are the cats doing, say hi to your husband…. Well wishers." She adds, "People say they read the personal message - they want to know what's up with Joanna - then they scan the table of contents, and then they click on the fun link. If there's something that's useful for them in the table of contents, they'll read further."

Clients also love the formal missives. "They say it makes us seem really big. Most companies don't spend their time writing useful updates like this. I've gotten so many comments like, 'Oh my president walked in saying, 'Oh my god! Is our Web site protected from this worm?' and I could hand him a message from Matrix.'"

That sort of reassurance means clients stay with Matrix Group even when other, sometimes cheaper, developers try to woo them away.

Useful links related to this article:

Matrix Group International

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