INTRO: Email Discussion Group Basics
* Why This Special Report
So much attention is focused on banners, email marketing and ecommerce upgrades these days, that one of the most powerful forms of Internet marketing has been almost ignored by the media: email discussion groups.
The good news is marketing through email discussion groups is inexpensive, easy-to-implement and effective. That's probably why so many web-savvy small businesses have used them for years as a marketing tool. The purpose of this report is to bring tactics and resources to business marketers for medium-large companies who may not have tested email discussion groups before.
B2B marketers can use email discussion groups to:
- Upsell current customers
- Reach more deeply into large companies and increase contacts
- Learn more about customers' true needs and desires
- Extend average account lifetime
- Effectively advertise to highly qualified buyers
- Spread word-of-mouth and "buzz" about products
This Special Report is written for the group novice, although more advanced marketers may find particular details of interest as well.
An email discussion group is a discussion forum that takes place between members via email.
The term "email discussion group" can be confusing because as the Internet's evolved, the term has also evolved. You may have heard of the following, older, terms instead: "Email Discussion Lists," "Mailing Lists", and "ListServs". While the first term is a perfectly good term to use, please be aware that "Mailing Lists" also can refer to non-interactive newsletter lists; and, "Listserv" is a trademarked term referring only to lists using technology from L-Soft Corporation. That's why it's probably safer just to use the term "Email Discussion Group" as we do.
Email discussion groups are a lot like online bulletin boards (also known as message forums) except for one critical difference. Members can see each other's questions and comments, and post messages in response to them -- but instead of merely appearing on a Web site, these messages and responses are automatically emailed to every member.
This is a profound benefit. As you may know, getting busy businesspeople to visit your Web site can be difficult. However, with an email discussion group your messages go right into that executive's email in-box where they are more likely to be read. Another way to look at it is that email groups are much more convenient than bulletin boards, so businesspeople are more likely to participate in them.
In fact many online community-building experts, such as Amy Jo Kim, author of the book, "Community Building on the Web", recommend targeted Web sites start with email discussion groups before plunging into bulletin boards.
PART II: Using 3rd Party Groups to Get Your Message Out
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* Finding Groups
There are already tens of thousands of email discussion groups on the Internet. The majority are for consumers; but there are a growing number of groups for businesspeople. Where can you find them?
- Ask trade associations related to your industry if they run groups.
- Check with business publishers, including trade magazines and major Web-only publishers such as Internet.com.
- Research lists of groups already being hosted on free services such as eGroups, eCircles, eCircle-uk.com and Topica (see Resources for hotlinks.)
- Keep tabs on new lists started by publishers specializing in groups for professionals, such as Audette Media and Chinwag.
- Survey your own customers formally or informally (for example, have your business development reps ask favored clients if they belong to any groups.)
If you don't find any, make a note in your calendar to research again at least once a quarter. Email discussion groups are springing up rapidly and you don't want to be caught short
* Joining Groups
There are usually two different ways to join (also known as subscribing to) a group. Usually a group has a sign-up box on a Web site. You can also subscribe to a group by email by following the directions commonly found at the end of every message sent out. So, if you can't find the Web site just ask a group member to forward a message from the group to you so you can use the directions.
(Note: In some cases group rules prohibit forwarding. In other cases only people who have been "pre-approved" by the leader of the group -- commonly known as the moderator -- can join. Then, simply email the moderator for permission and the rules to join.)
Usually joining an email discussion group is free. In fact, groups are such a powerful marketing tool that most moderators encourage participants to ask their colleagues to join free.
QUICK TIP: Popular email discussion groups can generate lots of messages -- some over 100 a day. Consider setting up a special email address just to receive your group messages so they don't overwhelm your normal in-box. Later, when you've made sure the list is perfect for your marketing efforts, you can switch to your regular box so you're sure not to miss anything. Many marketers set up email accounts at Hotmail, Yahoo or another free service just for this purpose.
Another tactic is to sign up for the "Digest" version of a list. This means instead of receiving each message as a separate email, you'll get all the messages compiled into one single email a day. We recommend AGAINST doing this. If you're like most marketers, you'll never have time to open and read these digests. Instead you'll probably save them to a folder and ultimately erase them when they get old. Non-digest versions are actually easier to deal with -- you may get a lot more messages but you'll also know what's going on, and be able to dive in to participate on occasion, just by browsing their subject lines.
* Participating in Groups
When you join a group, you should receive an automatic bounce-back message with that group's rules of behavior. Typical rules include the sorts of things you would expect at any in-person cocktail party or industry get-together:
- No blatantly commercial or self-serving messages (also known as "Shameless Self Promotion")
- No rude, angry or otherwise unprofessional tones of voice
- No "off-topic" messages, even if you think everyone on the list will be interested in them
Also, much like any in-person gathering, each group has its own tone of voice as well as current ongoing discussions. To avoid sounding foolish or like an obnoxious interloper, you should always wait a week or two and examine current messages before actively joining in the discussion. This is commonly known as "lurking." The only time it's best to announce yourself right away is when the moderator's rules invite you to do so. In that case, keep your introduction brief, factual and personal rather than making a sales pitch for your company.
When should you participate? When you have something of value to add to the ongoing conversation, or you have a professional question that you hope your peers on the list can answer.
Well-known ecommerce consultant Philippa Gamse of CyberSpeaker.com says, "I think email discussion groups are absolutely invaluable, especially to businesses who sell services -- it's an incredible way to promote yourself as an expert and get known.
"Example, associations are a major market for me. They tend to hire people that they've head of, and use a lot of referrals -- cold calling is almost always a total waste of time. So, I hang out on the American Society of Association Execs' group and contribute my expert advice freely where relevant. It takes time, but as you get known, you see yourself being recommended when they ask each other for referrals -- that's the best marketing possible."
Shel Horowitz, Author of the book 'Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Busy World', says, "I've used B-to-B discussion lists extensively and can count over 50 new clients (plus lots of book orders) from my participation."
Gamse relies on the following rules to participate effectively:
"1) Absolutely adhere to group etiquette, and keep postings brief and to the point.
2) No commercials -- your contribution is a commercial in itself.
3) You must have a signature file including your Web site -- this is the way you brand yourself (or your product) as you continue to showcase your expertise -- sooner or later they'll click to see what you do."
Following rules like these, PR firm Middleberg was able to generate substantial industry buzz for their B-to-B client, Yellowbrix. Middleberg's Sara Topolosky says, "We only submitted messages when it would be seamless to current conversation." To make sure their postings were a "value add" to the community, the team carefully followed each forum for a few weeks prior to posting in order to identify preexisting discussions.
Middleberg developed a "shell describing the product" with wording pre-approved by YellowBrix. "They gave us leeway to change the beginning and the end of each message so it fell into what was going on in the discussion." Topolosky says. "It's important not to just say 'I work here, this is my product, blah, blah blah.' At the ends of postings we also asked 'this is only one tool, what else are people using?' to continue the conversation."
Topolosky notes such grassroots campaigns are notoriously hard to monitor, "people read the post but they don't respond. They save it for another day until it's relevant, etc. So to determine effectiveness we look at the moderators' acceptance and audience response in terms of comments sent in reply to our posts."
As you might imagine, this particular campaign was very successful by those standards. The moderators accepted 80% of all posts; 40% generated additional comments within the online community; and, 60% of the forums generated at least one independent enquiry sent directly to the company. In addition, 100% of feedback was positive. And to date one sale can be directly attributed to this campaign.
* Advertising on Email Discussion Groups
B2B advertisers are quickly finding that email discussion groups are a highly responsive forum for their message. That's because most groups are very topic specific, and members are by their nature highly involved in that topic. Let's face it, any businessperson who invites up to dozens of daily messages from a list to their in-box is probably extremely interested in the topic discussed. Otherwise they would certainly unsubscribe!
Carole Brummage, Senior Marketing Manager for Eudora by QUALCOMM tested text sponsorships on two professional discussion groups targeted to her product in Fall 2000. Brummage says she has tested a wide variety of online marketing tactics to reach professionals, including banners and blast email marketing. Turns out her discussion group sponsorships are one of the most successful media for her -- averaging almost four times higher than the average B-to-B banner click through rate!
Brummage credits her agency, Big Bang, for making great media buy recommendations. She also notes that she and her account rep Nigel Benjamin always subscribe to an email newsletter or discussion group for at least a few weeks before they green light any sponsorships.
You should expect to pay anywhere from $50-$250 per thousand for highly targeted B-to-B email discussion group sponsorships. Some groups, especially those run by non-commercial entities such as associations, will accept monthly sponsorships for a relatively low figure. Many groups are only now beginning to accept sponsorships -- simply because there wasn't much of a market prior to this Fall. So, even if you don't see any ads on a group, it's always worth contacting the owner and making an offer.
Your ad will almost certainly be in text-only, as most B-to-B groups are not in HTML. Quick rules of thumb for your creative include:
1) Text email doesn't allow for underlining, bold or italics, so don't add them to your creative.
2) Be sure to add your complete URL, including the "http://" beginning. Many email programs will not be able to hotlink a URL without it!
3) Don't fill the entire space allowed with copy. Make your ad easy to read by allowing ample white space around key points.
4) No single line should be longer than 60 characters across including spaces. Otherwise your copy will break lines awkwardly in many people's email programs. Set your right margin at 5 1/2 inches and write your ad in 10 point Courier type to see how it will break on the screen.
4) Use a strong offer and headline. Nothing clever, just something very compelling and clear even to the glancing eye.
5) Don't put your ad in ALL CAPS.
PART III: How to Launch and Run a Customer Email Discussion Group
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* Why start a group?
There are many reasons to start an email discussion group for your company or product. Here are three of the biggest:
- There isn't a popular email discussion group for your industry niche already, and professionals in it definitely think of each other as peers in a community.
- Your product or service is highly technical or complex to implement so your users might appreciate a forum where they can swap ideas and tactics; especially if it's moderated by an expert.
- You already organize industry events or seminars and you've noticed that attendees are eager network with each other.
* Launching a Group
Starting a group is much, much easier -- and cheaper -- than you may think it is. In fact, you can do it in under an hour for absolutely nothing!
The three top free services on the Web which you can use to start a group right now are: eGroups, Topica and eCircles. Their sites give clear instructions that any non-techy can follow easily. All you need is a group name, topic, and a list of email addresses of people you are sure would not mind being invited to the list.
These free services make their money by selling ads that appear on every message sent. If you'd rather not have any ads on your group (or you want to sell your own ads), check their paid options. Generally the amount is a nominal monthly fee.
You should also investigate SiteGroups an ASP, which for just $5 per thousand messages sent, will allow you to set up and run a group from a Web page that looks just like your company site. Their interface also makes it easy to place house-ads you may wish to insert for your own products (or any ads you might sell to third parties.)
Last, but not least, you can also license software to run a group from your own server. The most well-known providers are L-Soft and Lyris, although there are other, equally reputable firms.
CAUTION: Don't start your group by spamming people -- even your customers -- with email invitations! Just like any other kind of email, you should only send invites to people you have a personal relationship with.
To avoid spam, you can send invitations to your targeted list through other means such as snail mail, notices in opt-in newsletters, and during telephone conversations. You should also encourage word-of-mouth marketing by asking your initial members to spread the word. If your group is valuable to them, you'd be surprised how many members will refer it to their colleagues!
* Moderation 101
A mentioned above, the leader of a group is also known as the moderator. Just like the moderator or host of any other forum, this person is responsible for setting the tone of discussion and getting things going with pertinent questions. Moderating takes less time than you would think. Most groups only require an hour or two a week.
John Audette, CEO and Founder of Audette Media, has been moderating professional discussion groups for more than five years. His top three tips for successful moderation are:" (1) Create a nurturing environment. Don't allow personal attacks, rants, flames, etc. maintain a professional atmosphere. (2) Know when to prolong a discussion thread -- and when to kill one. (3) Know how to stimulate discussion when the need arises."
It's recommended that at least two people be tasked with moderating. Terri Adkisson, Founding Player of MindJazz a professional course facilitation firm, who also moderates the Dallas 'Company of Friends' email discussion group for business magazine Fast Company, says, "It works better with several moderators. If I'm out of town there's somebody else who can accept or reject messages, allow new people join and deal with it if somebody posts something objectionable."
Objectionable posts are generally not frequent on B-to-B lists, but you still have to cull them carefully out lest they annoy participants. The worst offenders are marketers blasting the list with a sales message; and, regular participants who go on vacation leaving on an auto-reply for their email system.
Adkisson says her group has overcome these troubles by routinely posting the rules, "We send a list of rules every month on the first. Since we've started that we have not had any problems."
* Marketing with your own group
While you can't use your group as simply a vehicle for commercial messages (why would anyone join?) you can use it for effective marketing in the following ways:
- Run ads for your own products as a routine footer to all messages. Update these every few weeks so they still catch attention. Rita Parikh, Director of Marketing for SiteGroups says, "This can cut down on your marketing costs. For example, Fedex could run an ad for their new international routes in a group they moderated for Fortune 5000 mailroom managers!"
- Dispense so much helpful advice via your group that your brand is positioned as the expert in the marketplace. Several executives at the multinational interactive ad agency Outrider moderate professional email discussion groups. Executive VP Global Marketing Bill Hunt explains, "It positions us as experts. There's a lot of credibility given if we walk into an engagement -- Here's Detlev and 15,000 people read his I- Search. It does look great on our corporate resume that these people are on our staff."
John G. Agno, a business coach with Signature Series Inc, runs an email discussion group for his peers at other companies entitled, 'Coach to Coach Network.' He says, "I apply the Law of Reciprocity. I dispense valuable information and the recipients think well of me and therefore look for opportunities to connect (read: refer) me to people I can help."
- Gather valuable customer feedback by asking your group members questions about their needs and desires. Often you'll get more valuable information if you toss out a question and sit back and allow the group to discuss it amongst themselves than if you just surveyed them one on one.
- Go deeper into a company and grow your contact list. If you're marketing to a medium-large company you may need to reach up to a dozen "influencers" for an important sale, or perhaps sell the same product to peers in a dozen different divisions. One of the easiest ways to reach them is by word- of-mouth. Professionals often forward messages from email discussion groups to their peers, so it's a great way for you to reach into an entire company.
Carl Ayers, a Publisher at United Communications Group (UCG), runs free email discussion groups as a companion service to the company's premium-priced subscription newsletters for the professional healthcare industry. So many people forward UCG group messages to their colleagues, who then join the group too, that Ayers estimates on average 2/3 of group members are colleagues of paid subscribers. He takes advantage of this by running house ads for his products and services in the messages.
When considering a launch, look at your marketplace from the point of view of potential participants. Chances are you'll find more than one community of interest. Some groups may be defined by title/job function, company size, industry or region. Target your most important community and launch from there. If people believe they are in the company of a targeted group of their exact peers, they are more likely to participate eagerly.
Owning a successful B-to-B email group is akin to placing your brand as the leader of a passionate discussion in the very heart of your marketplace. That's exactly where you want to be!
* To learn more
'Community Building on the Web'
Book by Amy Jo Kim, $23.95
'Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Busy World'
Book by Shel Horowitz, $18.35
* Web sites where you can start groups free
* For-Fee group enablers (Note: this is just a short selection.)