The Challenge of Open Rates in b2b Email Marketing

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I recently got into a spirited discussion in LinkedIn about email open rates and what users of various email marketing tools and marketing automation platforms should expect when they engage in b2b email marketing programs.  The net result of the discussion was that "it depends".  Seeing this as a nice blog topic, I wanted to share some thoughts on b2b email open rates and experiences I've had with my product, SalesFUSION, and what others should come to expect as a new normal.

Firstly, on the question on what you should expect on email open rates in b2b for net new lists, I read a number of responses where the percentages seemed unusually high to me.  Jumping into the conversation, I discovered most of the open rates were from vendor reports.  Clearly, vendors were being very "optimistic" in what they stated as industry average open rates for email campaigns. 18, 25, 30% were numbers that were thrown out as "normal".  So, being the good direct marketer that I am, I posted this:

"I have a campaign for a webinar we're hosting w/ David Raab this Thursday. I pulled a brand new list out of NetProspex, a source of data known to be high quality. I pulled 1K names in b2b, marketing titles, biz/tech services and sent an email blast out inviting to a very high value asset, an analyst webinar. The email executed at 10:30AM EST today.  Click on this link to view the basic stats from the email campaign report  We delivered a total of 763 - that excluded prior unsubs and bounces already in my database - sending to a total of 763.  This email was sent using SalesFUSION, our MA software. We monitor our IP on return path and have score of 97 today (95-97 on average).  4% open rate thusfar - will probably creep up to 6% by COB

The bounce rate was 17.9% and more than 75% of the hard bounce reason codes were "bad mailbox" I consider NP to be a very good data source and yet 18% of the list bounced.  Moral of the story is be cautious of what data vendors and email vendors claim because the reality is usually much more sobering. I deal with lots of our clients ticked off at 12% open rate because they got their hands on that constant contact report, which is very much irrelevant to real b2b open rates."

So, what should we expect as normal on open rates and if the new normal is 4-10% open rates, will we need to acquire millions of names just to keep our lead flow going?

Marketing automation, email marketing, and marketing tools in CRM have literally exploded onto the scene in the last few years.  SalesFUSION has been an ISV for Microsoft CRM since 2009 and we have over 125 Dynamics users leveraging our marketing solution, integrated to Dynamics CRM.  Just a few years ago, many b2b marketers were perfectly content using low-cost email blasting tools to get their marketing messages out the door.  Just a few years ago (let's go with 5-7), the inbox of the average manager in a company was much less cluttered than it is today.  Each day, many of the people we are trying to get to read our wonderfully crafted electronic prose, are buried in a sea of unsolicited information.  This is in large part due to several factors.  Firstly, most b2b buyers engage in product & service research on the web.  We want to engage with our prospects electronically and cheap email is the quickest path to do that.  To hammer  the point home, there are now several email blasting tools that live right inside of Dynamics.  Anyone with a Dynamics license and the permission to do so is now an amateur email marketer.  The end result of this is that inboxes are crowded and it's getting harder and harder to get the attention of our target recipient.

Firstly, the baseline numbers that I assert are as follows for open rates

  • Net new list - acquired and emailed for the first time - 4-8% open, 10-20% bounce
  • House list - has received emails in the past and not bounced nor have they unsubscribed - 7-15%

The numbers will increase or decrease based on subject line, the tool being used, content, time of day, day of week...etc.

The open rates of campaigns will be lower than you expect...but there are things we can do to improve our chances of getting someone's attention.

  1. Using subject swaps - this is one of the older retail email marketing tricks of the trade.  You take an email - and pre-set 3-5 variations of the email (variance in subject line only) and schedule 1 email on one day/time, and then each subsequent email goes out to the group who didn't open the last.  You vary times/days and make minor tweaks to the subject line.  This is easily accomplished, without the need to know CRM workflow, in solutions like SalesFUSION using a drip designer.  The results?  You can set your watch to doubling the open rate.
  2. Personalized subject lines - not well received in retail/consumer emails but tends to be OK in b2b.  I have experimented with this and see an average increase of 1-3% in open rates.
  3. Trigger-based emails - These are emails that trigger to an individual within a certain time period after an activity has occurred.  Examples are:  Lead fills out form - auto-enroll in multi-step email campaign; Lead visits website, enroll in multi-step email campaign.  Triggers work and have extremely high open rates at 30-45%.  Trigger emails are also known as nurture-based emails and are one of the main drivers for b2b marketers to invest in marketing automation solutions like SalesFUSION.  Some vendors that live inside of Dynamics will require advanced knowledge of workflow for this so be cautious as 90% of marketers have no skills or interest in learning Dynamics Workflow!
  4. Content linking - Once someone has an interaction or opens or clicks on a certain type of content - string together a sequence of emails that offer complementary content to the last piece of content accessed.
  5. A/B Testing - as marketers, we should always be testing and measuring.  Using A/B testing on subject lines is a great way to increase overall open rates.  Test a sample of between 500-1000 before sending a blast and use the subject that had a higher open rate.
  6. Sales-person based campaigns - SalesFUSION, with its integration to Dynamics, can auto-personalized emails so that they appear to be coming from the sales rep who owns the lead or contact in CRM.  Seeing the email coming from a person rather than an alias will increase open rates.

In short, anybody with rudimentary blasting skills can pepper a database with sales messaging but that will likely not be enough in an age where the average business professional receives 1000 marketing messages per day.  If you want to get someone's attention, the six tips listed above are a great start.

by SalesFUSION, ISV Partner

1 thought on “The Challenge of Open Rates in b2b Email Marketing”

  1. this is a great article thank you. One of the things that really interested me as a marketer is the way you talked about six things that you need to do for the e-mail to actually take a fact I was very impressed with the bounce rate and obviously very impressed with the conversion rate. I don't have a lot of time to go through the details of this e-mail right now but I'll be back shortly. The funny thing is I do recognize that your fabulous marker because I'm working with a group of people here in Ottawa today and were talking about the very thing that you're talking about in your article e-mail sans, conversion rates all that good stuff. In my business training courses I talk about these things and I'm always looking for high-value information to give to my people thank you so much for your additions I look forward to coming back soon

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