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Connecting email, social

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Despite the emergence of newer and flashier channels of communication, email remains a marketing workhorse. Still, to keep their campaigns effective, email marketers must be vigilant about keeping content relevant and databases clean, all the while keeping tabs on how trends such as social media and smartphones affect the way subscribers read and perceive email.

Integrating email with social marketing is a particularly hot topic among marketers, though many b-to-b companies aren't entirely sure how best to promote social through email or email through social. “We want our marketers to spend more time talking about the value of engaging on the social sites,” said Richard Rushing, senior director of digital strategy, strategic and analytic consulting at Epsilon Data Management, a marketing services provider.

As of now, however, many b-to-b marketers are not cross-promoting the two channels, he said. Marketers are placing social icons in their emails, but that doesn't necessarily provide the recipient with much value, he said. In addition to “share to social” buttons, marketers should consider promoting content that is on social sites—an article that is on a blog or social network page, for example—in the email.

“Take the time within an email, especially content-focused emails, to really set the stage,” Rushing said. “Give an introduction to an article and encourage them to click through.”

One of the goals of integrating email and social efforts should be to learn more about people who are interacting with a company on social sites, said Jeff Ernst, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “If you've got 500 people who like your Facebook page, for the most part that's 500 people you don't know,” he said. “You can look at their profile, but you can't email to them in an automated way. So people are trying to get them to opt in and provide more information.”

Rushing suggested including an email opt-in module on a social site, such as a Facebook page, so visitors can subscribe to emails. He also suggested using social listening tools such as Radian6 to inform email content. For example, if social sites are showing a high volume of questions or complaints about a product, the company could address those topics in its email newsletter.

In addition to integrating social and email efforts, b-to-b marketers are showing a renewed interest in optimizing their emails for mobile devices, said Andrea Fishman, partner and VP-global strategy at interactive agency BGT Partners. “As more people get iPhones and iPads—and it's easier to read [on them] and the screens are better—marketers are starting to re-embrace the concept of mobile being a good place to reach people via email,” she said.

Companies are learning that cleaner, shorter messages with two or three calls to action tend to get better responses from users on mobile devices, she said.

There's also a move toward using email for lead nurturing, Ernst said, in part because of the uptick in companies' use of marketing automation platforms, which include email and lead nurturing capabilities. For example, a marketer that collects a name at a trade show booth could contact that prospect via a lead nurturing campaign, sending a series of emails with educational content in an attempt to determine where in the buying cycle the lead is, then move it to the next step. “Email marketers in b-to-b companies need to think of themselves as lead nurturers as opposed to spammers,” Ernst said.

Ernst encourages marketers to consider a buyer's “journey,” from recognizing there's a problem, to researching solutions, to making a decision. “Email marketers need to think about tailoring their email messages, content and offers to align with different stages of that problem-solving cycle,” Ernst said.

Content can determine if an email newsletter is successful or not, said Craig Fitzgerald, editorial director at IMN, a provider of email marketing newsletters and services. “If content is off target—if it's your press kit in another form, for example—it doesn't work effectively,” he said.

Content has to be relevant, timely and well-written, of course; but, more important, it has to be completely meaningful to the subscriber, Fitzgerald said. “It isn't just a one-size-fits-all thing,” he said. “You have to invest in content production.”

Many companies are interested in using video in their emails but are still hesitant about embedding it in the message, Fishman said. “Until the technology is proven and there's a higher confidence level, we're probably not going to see a ton of investment,” she said.

In addition to relevant content, emails must have a strong response incentive, said Andrew Klein, account supervisor at marketing agency Oliver Russell. “Having a strong offer is critical for b-to-b communications, much more so than what we see in the consumer space,” he said. “Businesses, especially in this economy, are so bottom-line driven. They need to see the ROI fairly [quickly]. So using a strong offer to incent them can really help with results.”

Informational incentives can work well, though the content has to be useful and fairly original because white papers are “a dime a dozen,” Klein said.

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