Everyone's looking to do more with less these days. After comparing the cost of postal mail (about a dollar apiece) with the cost of email (about a penny apiece) any B2B marketer is going to prefer using email as the medium for staying in touch with current customers and inquirers. No-brainer, right?

But here's the rub: Most B2B companies have email addresses for only a fraction of their customers. And, even worse, if their privacy policies call for opt-in, only a fraction of that fraction are emailable.

Consider the case of Cisco Systems, the networking hardware giant. While 45- 50% of Cisco's global house file contains email addresses, only 29% of those are opted in. That's a mere 14% of the house file that can be contacted via email.

Clearly a dire situation when you're trying to cut costs. So, what are the options for business marketers to increase their customer coverage via email? Here are four approaches that can work.

1. Append email addresses purchased from third-party providers

The cheapest and fastest route to jump-start your email-address collection is via data append. For pennies per record, you can expect to append valid email addresses to 10-30% of your file. Some best practices:

  • Select a reputable vendor, such as FreshAddress, Walter Karl, or TowerData.
  • Try append only on the names of those with whom you already have a business relationship, like customers or inquirers. Appending email addresses to prospect names, though tempting, should be avoided.
  • Nor should you ask the vendor for the email addresses of additional contacts at sites where you do business. Stick to the contact names already in your database.
  • Once the appended email addresses have arrived, treat them with care. Email expert Regina Brady of Reggie Brady Marketing Solutions suggests that your first few communications should explain why the recipients are hearing from you, and place the opt-out prominently at the top of the message.

2. Revise your permission policy

Just as the B2B world has ducked the Do Not Call list, it's time for business marketers to rethink their early decision to apply opt-in policies to their email communications.

If I attend a tradeshow and exchange business cards with a vendor, I fully expect to receive email—as well as postal mail—from that vendor. That's how I stay informed as a business buyer. So, as long as opt-out is offered, and respected, it's my view that a business relationship implies willingness to receive email and that the well-established standards of opt-out ("notice and choice") should be the rule of thumb for business marketers.

It appears that this view is gaining some traction. Theresa Kushner, director of customer intelligence at Cisco, says that, although Cisco has consistently been an "opt-in company," opt-out is now "under discussion" relating to B2B email policy.

Dave Lewis, CMO of Message Systems of Columbia, Md., states that the better approach to permission policies should be based on neither opt-in nor opt-out, but on customer behavior. "The rule should be whether the customer is engaged," he says, "as indicated by such behaviors as clicks, downloads, purchases, and answering survey questions. For too long our focus has been on list size. We need to move toward list quality."

3. Be more proactive in collecting email addresses

When you look at the cost savings, the business case for aggressive email-address collection is very clear. So educate your customer-facing personnel on the importance of gathering email addresses, and weave a collection program into your current business processes.

According to Robert McCarty, Cisco's manager of marketing foundation data services, Cisco has a standard practice of making outbound phone calls to its SMB (small and midsize-business) customers to gather email addresses. The SMB marketing team also works with distributors and resellers, asking them to allow Cisco messaging to go out to customers from whom the distributor has email permission. In the large accounts, the calls are made by the named account managers who cover that company, but Marketing provides them with suggested topics to improve the call's effectiveness.

To comply with restrictions that exist in certain countries, Cisco does not offer any incentives to customers to share their email addresses. "It's better to give a compelling, persuasive reason," says Kushner. "Plus, we promise that no salesperson will call."

Here are some tips on email-collection best-practices:

  • Explain to your customer the benefit of providing an email address. Give a good business reason, such as "We want to keep you up-to-date on new technical developments."
  • Service touchpoints may actually be the most effective collection points, versus outbound marketing communications.
  • Create a Web-based preferences page, where customers can manage their subscriptions and indicate what kinds of email, postal mail, and phone calls they'd like to receive.
  • Avoid blanket permissions that apply across brands or business units. Says Lewis, "The more options you give them, the happier both sides will be. You may find that they'll opt to receive things they didn't know were available before."
  • Place an email-collection device on your homepage, and deeply in your site as well.

4. Make sure your email communications are relevant

Stop blasting! Once you have an email address, your mission shifts to maintaining its status—preventing customers from opting out. Relevant, timely, targeted communications are the key. We all know this, but not all of us are doing it.

Tektronix, an engineering instruments company in Beaverton, Ore., has solved the relevance problem by communicating with customers through a strategy it calls "incremental profiling." Based on product interest, Tektronix sends an email or makes an outbound call with an information-based offer.

For example, to customers who have indicated an interest in spectrum analyzers, Tektronix might offer a paper called "Fundamentals of Real-time Spectrum Analysis." If the customer bites, Tektronix asks for more detail about product interests: Is the customer looking for radar, surveillance, Wi-Fi, RFID, or other subtopics within the spectrum analysis?

The result is better segmentation, greater relevance, and—best of all—response. The program is generating 46% clickthrough rates and 9% response rates, meaning the customers opened, clicked, and took some action to continue the dialogue.

Says Tektronix's Martyn Etherington, "We get not only high response rates but also a good profiled database. The hard part, though, is the rigorous planning that goes into setting up the dialogue streams in advance. We involved our sales peers in developing the questions to go into the email conversations." (Etherington relies on an email-dialogue tool called i-OP to manage the communications.)  

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image of Ruth P. Stevens

Ruth P. Stevens consults on customer acquisition and retention; teaches marketing at business schools; and contributes to AdAge, Biznology, and Target Marketing Magazine. Crain's BtoB named her one of the Most Influential People in Business Marketing.