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Thanks to the say-anything-to-sell-anything sales tactics used to hawk permission e-mail marketing opportunities over the past few years, many advertisers in the business-to-business (B2B) sector have unwittingly embraced a faulty syllogism that often results in unsuccessful campaigns.

This flawed logic works as follows:

1. E-mail marketing is related to traditional direct marketing.

2. A traditional direct marketing campaign often consists of just one mailing.

3. Therefore, you can likewise limit an e-mail marketing campaign to just one mailing.

One could construct a similar syllogism to prove that all Internet stocks will rise, but that doesn't make it true.

In the traditional direct marketing world, advertisers often limit a campaign to one mailing because of cost considerations (creative, printing, postage, etc.), and, more importantly, because they can tell a complete story in one mailing.

For example, a mailing might consist of a letter from the CEO, a collection of favorable testimonials and press clippings, a feature comparison chart, an order form, and whatever else the marketing professional thinks might help close a sale. Recipients can read all of this material or only some of it, and they can read it out of order in a non-linear fashion.

E-mail marketing works differently. People tend to read e-mail messages -- even those formatted in HTML -- from top to bottom in a linear fashion. This linearity actually works to an advertiser's advantage because it provides more control over recipient behavior. However, cramming the material from a traditional direct marketing campaign into one e-mail message (as advertisers often do) results in an overly long message more likely to confuse rather than persuade.

Advertisers fare much better when they tell an ongoing story with a common theme over a series of e-mail messages (e.g., a letter from the CEO in the first message, favorable testimonials and press clippings in the second message, a feature comparison chart in the third message, and so forth).

This methodology, which can best be described as "serial storytelling," has existed for thousands of years in other forms of communication for good reason -- it works. For an example, just watch an episode of General Hospital, Survivor, or The Sopranos, all three of which use serial storytelling to keep viewers hooked week after week, month after month, year after year.

Using serial storytelling in an e-mail marketing campaign is particularly important in the B2B context because business-oriented products and services are generally more complex than their consumer-oriented counterparts. The more complex a product or service, the more an advertiser must educate a prospect before it can close a sale.

In a typical multiple message B2B e-mail campaign, some recipients inevitably respond to the first installment, but many other qualified prospects do not. These fence-sitters don't respond for a variety of reasons -- they delete the message because they're busy, they misunderstand what the product or service does, they like what they see, but want to learn more, etc.

By the third or fourth installment of a well-orchestrated campaign, these fence-sitters typically begin responding. Some of them even request earlier messages in the campaign that they deleted before realizing the value of the product or service being pitched. Nothing spells success like requests to resend previous advertisements.

E-mail marketing cannot live up to the hype that accompanied its rise to prominence. Nonetheless, when used in conjunction with powerful techniques like serial storytelling, e-mail marketing can deliver solid results. The key to developing such techniques lies in understanding e-mail marketing's strengths and weaknesses -- easier said than done, but certainly a more fruitful endeavor than relying on faulty syllogisms.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neil Squillante founded and manages LandingPage Interactive, an online marketing agency in New York City that helps companies generate leads, sales and referrals. Prior to his online marketing career, Neil practiced law at Willkie Farr & Gallagher in New York City. Contact him at njs@peerviews.com.