Cheap, immediate, measurable and, unlike its consumer counterpart, not legally restricted to recipients who have opted in - it is little wonder that email has become a firm favourite among some B2B marketers.
Thirty per cent of decision-makers claim to have been influenced recently by a sales-related email, according to a survey by BMRB. This puts it on a level with brochures and online advertising, and well ahead of direct mail and the telephone, which scored 23% and 18% respectively.
No surprise, then, that email is the fastest-growing channel in this arena. In a poll commissioned by B2B communications specialist Cicero, 49% of B2B marketers said they expected to invest more in email over the next two years, compared with a third who planned to raise their direct mail spend.
As email use has increased in day-to-day communications, it has become the favoured way for many to receive messages. Honda emails offers to business prospects who have opted in as part of an integrated campaign run by Hicklin Slade, and achieves a useful 6%-8% response rate. The marque's corporate operations manager, Ashley Wheeler, notes that an emerging group of business prospects prefer to correspond through the digital medium. 'It seems there are people who don't want to take a phone call but are happy to read a message, even though it takes longer,' he says.
There is enthusiasm for the medium, too, at global management consultancy Hay Group, which finds e-newsletters help it maximise its marketing budget. 'They are cost-effective, 100% measurable, and have been directly responsible for a number of sales,' says head of marketing Kate Cowan. Hay uses the newsletters to strengthen relationships with clients and identify sales leads. About 31% of recipients open the message and of these, a third click through to read the content.
Yet, while Honda and Hay are clearly happy with these numbers, is email really the wonder medium its advocates claim? Disadvantages include anti-spam barriers, which can make it difficult to get messages delivered, and a shortage of reliable business address lists.
Many marketers believe email should be used with caution, and that it often works better as part of a mix than as a stand-alone medium. It is also valued more widely for raising awareness than driving sales.
According to Newsweaver, which handles Hay Group's e-newsletter, 84% of its B2B clients use the channel to build relationships with existing customers - almost twice as many as those that expect it to generate new sales leads.
The first hurdle is inevitably getting hold of good data. The list-rental market for business email is still in its infancy, characterised by limited volumes and relatively high costs. Moreover, business lists decay at a rate of about 30% a year, as executives switch jobs more frequently than people move house, which means it is essential - but extremely difficult - to keep them up to date.
'List owners are trying to keep up with changes in the market, but it's like trying to push water uphill,' says Chris Boddice, director of Liquid Communications. He adds that users need to be proactive, employing the tracking service provided by most email programs to remove addresses where messages bounce or remain unopened.
Those that take advantage of tracking mechanisms also get a leg up on those using only direct mail, as they allow companies to analyse the customer journey from initial click to purchase and prompt them where needed.
To boost sales of its breakdown service to small businesses, the AA uses emails alongside online and press advertising to drive visitors to its website. Those who register are sent regular email newsletters to encourage them to make a purchase. 'This is a sophisticated e-CRM programme that helps us track, understand and respond to prospect behaviour from beginning to end,' says Adrian Waters, head of SME at AA Business Services.
Rather than relying on bought lists, companies should look to collect their own data. Asking for an email address and permission for further contact when speaking to customers and prospects on the telephone should be a standard procedure. 'As long as your organisation is trusted you can capture large numbers of addresses that way,' says Niall Habba, managing director at The Telemarketing Company.
Habba's agency builds email lists for clients when making outbound calls, testing the addresses and making any necessary corrections before a campaign is started. Yet, proving the difficulty of getting this data spot-on, even then the accuracy level is still only 90%-95%.
Other methods of improving the chances of reaching prospects include partnering with an affiliate - a company whose customers share a similar profile and might like the opportunity to subscribe to your newsletter - and adopting the 'viral' approach used so successfully in the consumer arena, by including an option to forward the message to a colleague. 'Be sure to display this in a prominent area, and once the message is sent on, give the new recipient the ability to subscribe,' says Sarah Farr, marketing manager for Premiere Global Services.
Content is also an issue. Just because it is B2B does not mean it has to be too dry or serious. Juice Relationship Marketing recently achieved good results with an interactive game that it sent to insurance brokers on behalf of AIG. The email built understanding of the company's products and helped secure appointments with 1200 brokers. Conversion rose from 29% to 36%, leading to a return on investment of 37:1.
In most respects, however, it is considered a mistake to treat business customers too much like consumers. Instead of trying to entertain them or drive a hard sell, the ideal is to provide simple copy and link to a website that offers more information. 'A lot of brands use the medium more like a letter than an interactive communication. But in B2B too much text has a negative effect and lessens the likelihood of future emails being read,' warns Laith Clark, client services director at Inbox Digital.
One of the best uses of email in raising awareness is to provide useful information as value-added service. This is the intention of a quarterly newsletter produced by Alchemy Worx for recruitment specialist Bernard Hodes, which offers tips on a variety of HR and recruitment topics. HR professionals welcome it, as it helps them keep up with industry developments; this in turn helps the brand remains front of mind, particularly when a hiring need arises.
Some B2B marketers complain that it is difficult to be creative, but, according to Ray Welsh, head of sales and marketing at email marketing agency Mailtrack, that is far from true and in any case misses the point. 'Flashy graphics in emails don't work in B2B and should be left for consumer activity,' he says. 'Business recipients expect to get facts quickly and easily and do not want to be distracted by promotions or gimmicks.'
Images can also hit the number of successful deliveries, as big emails are often blocked by internet service providers and company firewalls trying to stem the flow of unsolicited mail. IT vendor RM discovered that as many of a quarter of its communications were failing to reach inboxes because of its heavy use of graphics, even if recipients had opted in.
Marketers can run tests first through services such as Adestra's Message Focus, one of several programs that can check a message for potential problems before it is sent out; in Adestra's case this is done by rating the email on its likely ability to evade spam filters. These services also take account of new developments in widely used filtering programs such as Spam Assassin, which are constantly changing to keep up with spammers' methods.
Many B2B experts believe that, as in the case of the AA, email is best used in conjunction with other channels. For instance, a warm-up message can alert recipients to a detailed mailing that they will shortly receive in the post, helping to boost conversion rates. Alternatively, it can act as an effective follow-up to a telephone call or piece of mail.
Yet whether marketers choose to follow this integrated approach or prefer to use email as a stand-alone medium, particularly as a regular dialogue mechanism, they must not let themselves be so dazzled by the medium's strengths that they fail to guard against its potential pitfalls.
THE CASE FOR - HERDEEP NATT CONSUMER INSIGHT DIRECTOR, TEQUILA
Email is recognised for its speed, cost efficiencies and the fact that the return on investment is highly measurable. Its strength is to bring one-to-one marketing into its own. It can serve dynamic content - from a simple salutation through to offers, images and a call to action - based on an individual's profile. This is driven very much by the insight that companies have into their customers. That, in turn, increases relevancy to the recipient, and should deliver greater levels of response.
THE CASE AGAINST - AMY GRUNDY ACCOUNT DIRECTOR, INTELLIGENT MARKETING
The problem with email is that it is impersonal. It may be the cheap and easy option, but it is ineffective in a business-to-business context. For one thing, the data will never be entirely accurate, as it is difficult to obtain and keep up to date. For another, it will rarely achieve the emotional impact of having something in your hands. Email is best used together with other channels, such as drawing attention to a piece of direct mail. Using it in isolation may cut costs, but it also means cutting corners and, before long, your profits.
CASE STUDY - SAS (SCANDINAVIAN AIRLINES)
SAS provides a range of offers to small businesses, including special prices, corporate passes and a frequent flyer loyalty scheme.
Having discovered that relatively few firms were taking up these offers, SAS tasked Liquid to drive prospects to a dedicated microsite through a targeted email campaign. The copy style and call to action were designed to be attractive to the SME market - short and focused on benefits, but with a slightly informal tone.
Once recipients clicked through to the site, they were offered the chance to win tickets if they provided information about their corporate travel activities. The site was then able to give details of the most appropriate products for them, saving them the trouble of trawling through it for relevant information.
At the same time, details of each prospect who completed the survey were emailed to the sales team at SAS, who ranked them in terms of whether to follow up with an email, phonecall or visit.
About 25,000 cold prospects were emailed. Open rates were in excess of 30% and more than 2000 SMEs completed the questionnaire on the microsite. Of these, a significant proportion - and more than any previous SAS campaign for the SME market - signed up for one or more of its offers within three months.