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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of HTML Email Marketing

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By Marc Bane, Bane Marketing & Communications

Back in the .com days, it seemed that anyone who could learn a desktop design program was suddenly a “graphic designer.” The result was a new genre of garish logos, and print ads that were impossible to focus on long enough to even care what they were peddling. Now, more and more people are learning to use simple tools to generate basic HTML designs, and almost all of the major email marketing services provide HTML templates that are relatively easy to use. While these products provide formatting wizards and spam testers, there is one thing they don’t provide – a basic understanding of direct response marketing principles. This is the primary reason why many of today’s B2B marketers achieve disappointing response rates. The following are some guidelines and warning posts that may help improve your results.

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder – List-Quality is the Dominant Criterion for Success

Any direct response communication consists of three components: the target prospect list, the offer, and the creative (copy and graphics). Direct marketing wisdom – not to mention common sense – dictates that the quality and accuracy of your prospect list are by far the dominant criteria for success. After all, no matter how carefully you craft your offer or how elegantly you deliver it, it’s tough to sell snow shovels to people in Florida. B2C companies live and die by the quality and nurturing of their marketing databases. These marketers know that better quality and segmentation generate higher response rates and allow you to target the specific offers to specific prospects. It never ceases to intrigue me how little time and resources many B2B companies invest in this crucial piece of the pie. Often there is nobody dedicated to maintaining the marketing database, sales team members are reticent to contribute their contacts, and there is little or no budget to acquire third party data or develop new contacts through simple telemarketing.

Direct marketing experts have estimated that it takes about five times the resources to sell a new product to a new client than it takes to sell a new product to an existing client. Despite this statistic, even B2B companies with large customer lists don’t properly exploit this valuable resource. Their customer databases may contain little more information than the product sold and the person who either maintains the product or issued the original purchase order. With a little more effort they could ascertain the key buying influencers at these accounts and add this information onto the database. Of course, there are some great opportunities to use third party mailing lists from industry publishers. Since these are opt-in lists, there is no concern about spamming, and deliverability is very high. They are a very good option or supplement to your own marketing database, but they seldom offer enough segmentation to target your offer specifically to qualified prospects. As a result, you can end up paying for less relevant email addresses along with the relevant ones. With your own lists, you also have more flexibility to test variations in the subject line, headline, offer and graphics. Bottom line – make the investment in your marketing database. It will provide exponential returns on your investment in copywriting and HTML graphic design.

If You Want Me to Respond – Make Me an Offer

The second most important component in the direct response mix is the “offer.” Many business-to-business email marketers use HTML emails for electronic distribution of display ads that simply inform people about their company and products. Used in moderation, there is nothing wrong with using email to disseminate information about your company and build your brand, but this is not direct response marketing, so don’t expect direct responses. If you’re looking to generate leads, you want to make a specific offer to which someone can respond. Even if you’re selling high-ticket software, services or equipment with proprietary pricing, you can still offer free whitepapers, gap analyses, consultations, research findings, or other products or services of value to begin the sales process. Make it a limited-time offer to discourage “looks interesting – will review later” syndrome.

Many companies now use email direct response marketing to sign-up prospects for free webinars or seminars where they can showcase their products or industry expertise. This is a great application for HTML email campaigns since free participation is the offer, and the date of the event is a built-in time limitation.

Copy and Graphics Should Enhance the Attractiveness of the Offer – Not Just the Email

The third component of a direct response communication is the “creative.” The creative part of a direct response piece is the copy and graphics we use to craft our offer. While this component is ranked in importance considerably below the list and offer, it can still make a significant difference in your response rate, especially when using HTML. HTML adds a whole new dimension of graphical display to email messages. Used properly, it is a way to grab attention and make your offer compelling. Used improperly, it is quick ticket to the delete button.

The ability to use photos and other graphics to grab a prospect’s attention provides an added mechanism to reinforce the value of your offer. Make sure yours are relevant and compelling – otherwise they will compete with, rather than complement, the effectiveness of your overall message. When an HTML email is opened, the reader’s eye should be immediately drawn to a graphic or copy line that reinforces the main sales proposition. That will usually be something that the prospect will gain or lose by accepting or not accepting your offer. The reader should be able to understand the offer with a quick scan of the email. He should not have to read the entire message to figure out what you are trying to sell. Use different graphics for different email offers. Newsletter and editorial publishers build brand by using the same templates in every issue. Direct response email marketers that use the same template over and over again risk losing the interest of prospects with each subsequent emailing.

Communicate with People – Not with Companies

Even in B2B direct response marketing, your email message should be designed to motivate a person, not a company. Companies don’t press the reply button, people do. When possible, point out what impact accepting the offer could have on the reader (more successful project, career advancement, a leg up on his or her colleagues within the company or at competitive organizations, etc). Explain exactly what they will get and what value they will receive as a result of accepting your offer. Even if the offer is free participation in a webinar, you are asking prospects to divert valuable time from their schedules. You need to be clear on why this will be a good investment of that time. Even a roster of high-profile industry pundits on your agenda is not always enough to answer the prospect’s perpetual question: “What’s in it for me?”

Insecurity is Opportunity

A good direct marketing piece usually end with some reference to what the prospect may lose out on if he doesn’t act on the offer. Industry consolidation, a beleaguered economy, and a tough, unforgiving regulatory climate have made our colleagues in the energy business extremely risk adverse. People are just plain afraid of making mistakes that result in penalties, lost profit opportunities, or damage to their careers. Exploiting these fears by pointing out legitimate risks and offering legitimate solutions for their mitigation, can be an extremely powerful way to begin and/or end a direct response offer. Have some doubts about this theory? After reading the title of this article, how many people do you suppose decided to read on to learn about the “Good” as opposed to the “Bad and Ugly” of HTML email marketing?

It’s Nothing Personal . . .

Finally, understand that even the best HTML emails are the equivalent of form letters. Even if it has a personal salutation and several references to the individual company, the prospect knows that this same communication has gone out to hundreds or thousands of other people. HTML emails are never a substitute for a plain text emails when the prospect knows the sender personally. If this is the case, a simple text email with a low keyed subject line like: “thought this might be of interest to you,” will usually achieve considerably more success. If you want to present the offer in HTML format, add a link that will allow the person to view the offer on a webpage.

Client Testimonials

Driving Force; Adjunct to our Executive Team

Marc is a seasoned marketing professional with an exceptional combination of energy knowledge, hands-on marketing skills, and creative talent. His marketing campaigns were the driving force behind our highly-successful “Build Our Brand” strategic business initiative. Marc is a team player, and we were proud to have his marketing leadership as an adjunct to our executive team.

-Michael Peterson
Former Managing Principal –
The Structure Group
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Trusted Advisor

Marc is a highly experienced corporate marketing and communications professional with the skills and talent to execute a wide range of quality marketing communications programs quickly and cost effectively.  But more than just his skills, Marc is a trusted advisor who placed the best interests of our company first.

– David Delasanta
Executive Vice President

ThermoEnergy Corp.
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Builds Brands; Penetrates Markets

I’ve watched Marc work his magic at both GreenFuel Technologies and Excelergy Corp. I’ve never met anyone else who could penetrate a new market or build a brand faster.

-Cary Bullock
Former Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder
Excelergy Corporation
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Former CEO –
GreenFuel Technologies
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Exceptional Abilities

Marc’s exceptional ability to articulate the value proposition and vision of new technology is a valuable asset to any company looking to capture mindshare in the media and market share in the industry.

-Larry Dinkin
Board of Directors and Cofounder –
InEnTec LLC

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Quickly and Cost Effictively Launchs Quality Programs

“Having worked with Marc at several organizations over the past 20 years, I have always been impressed by how quickly and cost-effectively he can launch quality marketing programs.”

-Dr. E. Ted Prince
Founder and CEO –
Perth Leadership Institute

Builds Customers

Marc’s direct marketing support for the Information Builders sales seminar programs put our sales team face to face with more than 9,000 customers and prospects in a single year.

-Marc Koppelman
Former Director,
PC Software Sales –
Information Builders

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Ability to Simplify Complex Technology

Marc’s unique ability to present complex technology in simple and easily understood terms, combined with his talent at transforming product attributes into clearly defined benefits, quickly builds market visibility and generates sales leads.

-Martin K. Goldenblatt
Former Vice President Sales
Greenfuel Technologies

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Talented and Experienced

Marc not only has the experience to develop effective marketing strategies, he has the talent to execute them quickly and cost-effectively.

-Steve Swenke
Former President and CEO
Metrum Technologies

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Unquestinalble Difference in Quality

There is an unquestionable difference in the quality and effectiveness of your marketing campaigns when a professional like Marc is running the show.

-Chris Cazer
President –
Osprey Systems
Former CIO –
Excelergy Corporation
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Delivers Cost-Effective Results

Marc Bane is an excellent tactical and operational marketer of energy software and technology. He delivers cost-effective results by increasing brand awareness and a predisposition to a company’s value proposition.

-Kevin Monagle
Associate Partner, Energy & Utilities
IBM Global Business Services

Former Sr. VP and Founder
Excellergy Corp.
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