Calling all nature nerds: If you could never quite make sense of email marketing dynamics, Episode 576 of Marketing Smarts might be just what you need.

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Its guest is bestselling author Matt Treacey, who used his background in ecology to reframe email marketing in his book Natural Orders. "I actually found a lot of overlap between some of the stuff that I had been studying and working with in ecology and some of the basic dynamics of how an email list works," he says on the episode.

That means meeting people where they are and offering them value in exchange for their email, in the way a habitat might produce food for a particular species. It's the food they're after, in the beginning. Why else would they stick around?

"So much of it is about not spamming people, making sure you're under-promising and over-delivering, making sure that every email that you send is valuable right from the very first one all the way up to the time where you are actually sending purchase offers and promotions," he says.

"What that's going to do is set your foundations for your ecosystem, it's going to set a really strong engagement baseline, it's going to stop people churning out immediately."

He goes on to explain the ecological concept of the stages of succession: dispersal, recruitment, and establishment. And if you do it all right, your email marketing will become a "fully optimized, self-sustaining thing."

You know, like a rainforest. Or an intertidal pool.

Listen to the entire show from the link above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode.

"Marketing Smarts" theme music composed by Juanito Pascual of Signature Tones.

Full Transcript: Effective B2B Email Strategies for the Win

George B. Thomas: Do you send email? Yes, I get it, that's a dumb question. But do you send effective B2B email? Today we are talking about effective B2B email strategies with Matt Treacey. We're going to talk about what keeps him up at night with B2B emails, we're going to talk about some hurdles, success, we're going to debunk some myths, all sorts of good stuff.

Matt Treacey is the go-to email marketing consultant for some of the world's top business authors, with praise from industry leaders such as Nir Eyal, Perry Marshall, and Michael Bungay Stainer. Matt combines a track record in email marketing with an academic background in ecological science. Matt knows what it takes to build systems designed for growth.

In his bestselling book Natural Orders, he describes how to develop a healthy, engaged, and portable email marketing database mimicking the timeless growth strategies used by the most successful systems of the natural world. Engaging and thought provoking, Matt's writing and speaking inspire his audience to think differently and to consider the multidisciplinary approaches that will help them take their business to the next level.

Let's dive into effective B2B email strategies with Matt Treacey, let's get into the good stuff.

The fun part here is that we're going to talk about email strategies. I'm sure that this conversation is going to go in multiple directions. We're going to sit here and enjoy each other's company for a good 25 to 35 minutes and try to add value for the Marketing Smarts listeners.

One of the things that I love to do is ask a couple of funny questions along the way, because I find that they usually dive us into some unique answers. When you think about B2B marketers, the Marketing Smarts listeners who are listening to this, and email strategies that they might try to pull, maybe they should, maybe they shouldn't, but what keeps you up at night when you think of B2B marketers and email strategies?

Matt Treacey: The tactic of spamming people. That's the biggest thing when it comes to email. It's why it has an often poorly perceived reputation of being about spam. I think that's the worst thing.

Really, what keeps me up about email is the fact that it's so overlooked. It's the largest and most active group of people online. It's also the highest engagement channel and it's also the highest ROI. The biggest benefit of all is probably the fact that there's no other channel out there that allows you to actually own your customer data in the way that email does. It lets you basically sidestep that platform risk that so many people find themselves running into.

George: I love this already. By the way, I always understand it could be a nightmare or it could be a dream. If I'm a marketer and I just stop for a minute, and I say Matt just said it's one of the most engaging channels, it's one of the channels that I can most own out of any of them that I might be focused on, and the fact that it is just where you want to get people anyway, you're skipping the spray and pray. If you do it as a good human, this could be a great channel. I love that we're heading in that direction.

How can B2B marketers start to create a system and strategies to convert more of what I'll call subscribers, but what I really mean is people who want to end up in their inbox, want to be part of that engaging audience?

Matt: That's a good question. A lot of people are sending traffic to their website. Right? Oftentimes, they'll have some CTA on the website to take some desired action, whether it's to inquire now, download something, put your information in here. But what happens to that traffic that is very hard to get, and increasingly hard to get, is it's like filling a leaky bucket.

I sometimes say doubling your traffic is very hard, but doubling the metric that I call traffic-to-subscriber conversion (TSC) is relatively very easy. That's the amount of people that come to your site that actually convert into subscribers. There are several ways you can do this. I've got quite a long article on my own site that talks about this, and I talk about it at length in my book as well. Basically, there are some best-practice opt-in placements that you can do on certain parts of your site that are going to increase your baseline TSC, which industry wide averages around 1.95%. If you do this right, you can easily double or triple that.

The best way to completely increase your TSC massively is something I call hyper specific opt-ins. If you open up your Google Analytics and look at your top pages, let's say you're getting a lot of organic traffic, there's going to be something like an 80/20 distribution there, your classic Pareto distribution, where most of your traffic is going to maybe five of the pages on your site. Look at those five pages, look at what the search intent or the traffic intent is for those pages, and then craft something super valuable for each of those pages that is going to be something people definitely feel comfortable giving their email address for.

Not just 10 top tips for XYZ PDF trash that a lot of people send out. Give people something that they would happily normally pay money for. Then you're going to be under-promising and over-delivering, and it's going to set the subscriber relationship off to a really strong start.

George: I'll tell you what I hear when I hear you say that, Matt. I hear context and I hear specificity. There's a lot of marketers out there that I think are wielding what you're talking about as a sledgehammer when it really should be a scalpel. It should be this delicate operation that you're paying a lot of attention to, creating this contextual specific content in those high intent pages. I love that we're leaning into this, so let's double down.

You mentioned TSC, and my next question that I wanted to ask was kind of this most effective method for collecting email addresses without annoying your audience or killing traffic. In my mind, one of the things that I like to do is put words together that hopefully simplifies the complex for most humans. It's this noise versus need conversation. What would you say to an effective method of collecting these email addresses?

Matt: What I was just talking about, those different placements that you can do and that hyper specific strategy, but just zooming out a little bit, I completely agree with what you're saying. That's probably one of the big mistakes that people make with email marketing is they do take the sledgehammer approach.

If you have a list of 100,000 people, sometimes the inclination is just to send out the same email to everyone. Whereas the really high ROI that you get that I spoke about earlier—it's massive, actually. I'll have to pull up the actual figure, but it's something like $36 USD per one dollar spent, and that was a figure that I got recently, compared to something like Adwords where if you're using the channel correctly, you'll get something like $2 USD per one dollar spent. I can't think of many investments that you can make where you're going to get 100% return.

Email marketing, $36 USD per one dollar spent is insane. That all comes down to not taking that sledgehammer approach and, exactly as you said, specificity, segmentation, personalization, all of these buzzwords. We can get into how to actually do that sort of thing and why email is so uniquely positioned to allow you to do that.

George: I think the fact that we're knocking on the door of segmentation and personalization is absolutely a great direction to go. I am also glad that you brought up money. It's great that the last question talked about how we get more subscribers, but last time I checked, I can't pay rent with subscribers. It just doesn't work that way. People want to actually have hard earned cash.

When you think about B2B marketers converting these subscribers, now we have a bunch of new subscribers, how do we take those into first time buyers at a very high percentage rate so we can get that revenue ROI we're looking for?

Matt: In the whole first half of my book, I really don't even touch on the revenue question. That's because with email, exactly like what you've said, you really need to respect the subscriber relationship. So much of it is about not spamming people, making sure you're under-promising and over-delivering, making sure that every email that you send is valuable right from the very first one all the way up to the time where you are actually sending purchase offers and promotions.

I have a rule, a little heuristic that I sometimes say, educate, inspire, entertain. If you're not doing one of those three things every time you send an email, then put it away and send something that does. Taking that back to your question, that does beg the idea of if I'm just sending people these valuable emails all the time and I've put all this money into making this opt-in that is going to add all these subscribers, exactly what you've said, when does the money come into play. That's why you're doing email to begin with.

What email really excels at is a conversation with a subscriber over a long period of time. It's something that some of the other social channels don't really allow you to do. Say you have a campaign that runs for two weeks. If you're going to run that exact same campaign, that same content, over something like Instagram, people might see 20% of the posts that you put out, whereas they'll likely see 100% of the emails and interact with them, depending on your engagement rate, 60%+. You get a lot more bang for your buck. What that allows you to do is build a narrative over time.

The framework that I sometimes use for this is some of your listeners might be aware of the book called Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz. Do you know this one, George?

George: I think I've heard of it in passing, yes.

Matt: Absolute classic, one of the best marketing advertising books ever written. One of the best copywriting books ever written, for that matter. He has this concept in there called the five stages of awareness. This is massively useful for advertising, but I'd argue just as, if not more, useful for email marketing. It's a really useful framework.

Say someone is coming to your site, as we were talking about earlier, and they've put in their email address in exchange for something super valuable, then they get onto your list. The last thing that you want to be doing is hitting them with offers and promotions and straight off the bat. Some businesses this is what you need to do, time of exposure to offer is really important. You need to take all of this advice with a grain of salt, it all depends on your business. Typically, especially in a B2B context where the sales cycle is a little bit longer, someone is going to be coming into your email list at what Schwartz would call problem or solution aware.

He has five different stages; unaware, problem aware, solution aware, product aware, and most aware. In unaware, they don't know anything about the problem, they don't even know they have a problem. We're not interested in them in email marketing. When someone comes onto the site and they know that they have a problem and you're offering to help them solve that problem through this opt-in that you've just given them, they're somewhere between problem aware and solution aware. As Robert Collier said, you have to enter the conversation going on in the prospect's mind. That's exactly what this framework allows you to do.

You need to make sure that the information that you give those people when they join your email list is somewhere in between drawing out the problem that exists, so restating that problem to them so that they identify with it. It's confirmation bias, we love to see things that we already believe and have them reinforced to us. That's a good way to get your subject line opened, by the way, just reinforce an existing belief. If you're meeting them at that problem aware stage, that's a good hint for that.

Then solution aware is all about defining the solution space. You're not shoehorning your product in there, but you're exploring solutions broadly for this problem that you've identified. It might be three emails for the problem aware stage, three or four emails for the solution aware stage, and then, crucially, we're talking about specificity here, it's those people who actually engage with those solution aware emails. You're going to segment them out and you're going to say, "I know you're interested in what I'm talking about here. Here's the product that we offer."

That's the best way to convert those people, take them through the actual stages of awareness.

George: Love that. Marketing Smarts listeners, we might have hit a rewind spot. Get that notepad out, get that pen or pencil out, or your iPad, or you might be an Android user, whatever, chalk, spray paint, rewind and actually take the notes that you need.

Matt, I want to go off the beaten path for a second. I keep hearing this word that you keep saying, and I know like most marketing questions it could end with it depends. I'm hoping we get a little bit past that. You keep mentioning the word value, and emails of value. When you think about emails of value, what exactly does that mean? Is there a recipe, is there a direction, is there a framework? Talk me through that a little bit. When you're saying that, what do you mean?

Matt: Well, it depends. No, I'm joking. When I'm talking about value, what I'm really referring to is… how do I distill this down? There's no other word for it. I'm not sure how I can really back up on value or expand from there. It's something that is going to be helpful for me, it's going to help me solve a problem that I'm facing, it's going to help me overcome an issue that I'm facing, it's going to help me implement something, it's going to help me deal with something in a different way. This is what business is all about, fundamentally, it's about providing value, it's wealth creation.

Have you ever read that essay by Paul Graham, Wealth?

George: No. All sorts of good resources on this episode. Talk to me about that.

Matt: Earmark that one for later reading, just to explore this idea of wealth and value creation and what it means in business. I think the more you take things back to the fundamentals, and that's what I really try to do in my own writing and my own work is go back to these classic timeless marketing principles, like some of the old copywriting books, they'll never fail you.

I lean on the nature of metaphors a lot in my writing, like my book is called Natural Orders. I think some of these timeless principles are the best things. In a broader context, this idea of value in business, that's all we're trying to do. We're trying to help connect people up with the things that are going to make their situation better, whatever that situation might be.

George: I love this. As you were trying to unpack that, my brain went in this direction of we're trying to help somebody past a hurdle, we're trying to help somebody reach an aspirational point, we're probably leading to some type of insight that they once didn't have or know before. When I think of value, it's creating this catalyst moment for the individual, for the human that's on the other side of the inbox that you're helping. I love all of that and unpacking that.

Before we move forward, I want to give you a chance to talk about the book for a second, the title, who you think it's for, why you think it's an important book for B2B marketers to be paying attention to.

Matt: Absolutely. I've heard you mention the human element on this podcast a few times before. I completely agree, that's what it's all about. It's so easy to lose sight of that in a digital marketing world with everything going online, we forget that there are people at the other end. Even more so in B2B. So, I completely agree with that.

About the book, the idea of the book is someone who is maybe doing a little bit of email marketing, they've drunk the Kool-Aid a little bit, they know about some of the benefits of it, they know about some of the things that it can potentially do, but they don't know what advanced email marketing looks like. They're doing a bit, they're thinking, "What comes next? Where does email marketing really fit in my marketing mix and how can I use the channel to its full potential?" That's why I wrote the book. It's meant to be this 200-page accessible intro to how to use email properly, how to think about the channel properly. That's really what it is at a high level.

My background is actually in ecology, so I studied and worked in ecology briefly. Without getting into it in far too much detail, the concept of the book is to avoid some of these problems that people sometimes run into when they're doing email marketing, some of the big common mistakes when they're starting off, you should treat your email marketing database, your email list, a bit like an ecosystem.

Some of these things like poor engagement that people get, like really low open and click rates, really high unsubscribes leading to poor deliverability, leading to a poor sender score in the email marketing system, that leads to this classic top down cascade like you'd find in an ecosystem. I actually found a lot of overlap between some of the stuff that I had been studying and working with in ecology and some of the basic dynamics of how an email list works. So, there's that on that level.

The other potentially more powerful thing is it gets you away from this platform risk, which I touched on earlier. This idea of you can have all of these other channels running red hot, but if you don't have your email list, you don't have what I refer to in the book as your own walled garden, which I think is so important. You need to be nurturing this walled garden of your own, and doing it in a non-spammy way. Again, going back to what you said, in a way that respects the human. That's really what it all comes down to. I think the ecosystem analogy lends itself to that perspective.

George: So good. You kind of mentioned in there people doing some things wrong. You might know about a show called Mythbusters. I love that show. If there is a marathon, my wife knows she's lost her husband for the day. I want to give you an opportunity to just talk about when we think about B2B email marketing, what's a common myth that you would want to debunk right here on the Marketing Smarts Podcast?

Matt: Great show, by the way. I haven't seen it in many years. I don't know if it's even still running. Is it?

George: I think there's reruns, but I don't think there's new episodes that I've seen in a long while.

Matt: The biggest myth for me comes back to spam. "I have someone on my list, I have to hit them with a promotion and an offer straight away." That's not true. There are so many things that we do in marketing, especially these days, that are so data-driven. We get lost in those metrics. We're like, "I'm converting this many people straight off the bat, our conversion is up." But look at the other metrics. What are some of the things that can't be measured that you're missing out of? So much of marketing just cannot be measured.

That's without even getting into this death of the cookie business that we're all heading into and attribution. Attribution is a disaster. No marketer would really want to tell you that, but it's very hard to tell you where a purchase actually came from. That's coming from me doing email marketing, doing direct response stuff. It is very difficult. I think consider some of the intangibles, some of the things that can't easily be measured, which in my book I refer to as the illegible factors. There's a great book called Seeing Like a State by James Scott that goes into that in a lot of detail. That's a myth.

George: It's interesting that people would even think of either not or paying attention in the wrong direction on those things. I'm about to throw all of the words at you, because I like to make it action-oriented for the Marketing Smarts listeners. Are there any tips, tricks, templates, hacks that the B2B marketers can use when building a subscriber to customer email strategy or system for themselves?

Matt: There are two ways to approach this. Number one is just your high leverage, easy wins. That stuff I was talking about earlier with your traffic to subscriber conversion, that is so super high leverage. If you crack that, you can grow your list much faster.

The second thing is, again, not spamming people as soon as they sign up. Meeting people where they're at, that's also super high leverage. What that's going to do is set your foundations for your ecosystem, it's going to set a really strong engagement baseline, it's going to stop people churning out immediately. It's going to set a strong foundation for your whole ecosystem.

That leads pretty well into the next thing I was going to say, which is use this framework that I talk about. I break it down into three stages, so it broadly follows the way that an ecosystem develops over time, it's called the stages of succession. It's actually what started the field of ecology. The terms are actually still debatable, but I've broken it down into dispersal, recruitment, and establishment.

In the dispersal stage, what you're really trying to do is get people on your list and make that a good environment where they want to stick around. You want people looking forward to your emails. The Hooked model by Nir Eyal is a really good resource for that, a book called How to Build Habit-Forming Products also applies to your email marketing. Look into that. You want to build that foundation for your ecosystem. The metric that you're optimizing for at that stage is engagement.

From there, you move over to a stage called recruitment. That's when an organism comes into an ecosystem and then becomes a permanent member of that ecosystem. In other words, that's conversion. The way that you improve conversion with email marketing, going back to the reason that it has such high ROI, is because of the specificity, the segmentation, the personalization that we were talking about. There are specific ways you can do that that I talk about in the book, but you really want to find ways to make your communication more specific with your audience and that's going to be what leads to high conversion.

The final stage of your flourishing ecosystem in your rainforest is establishment. That's where you have all of the data built up, you have your little walled garden, and you can start doing really interesting things. You can follow Jay Abraham's advice of increasing repeat purchases, increasing your average order value, and increasing more initial purchases by putting more traffic into the system. It's a fully optimized self-sustaining thing at that point. You'll have the data to look in at who your top subscribers are and then target them with specific offers, and that's when the magic really happens.

George: I love the visual of B2B marketers creating their own massive rainforest. There's something that just makes me happy around that visual. Speaking of that, what are some hurdles that B2B marketers are going to face when implementing this in their organization? What should they be watching out for?

Matt: If I'm talking about the two biggest mistakes that people typically make with email marketing, I break them down into this ecosystem thing. One is called the top down cascade and the other is the bottom up cascade. The systems is either going to collapse in on itself or the floor is going to get pulled out from under it.

In the first one, the top down cascade, I touched on it a little bit earlier, it's when you don't set these strong foundations from the beginning. If you take the typical email marketing approach and you start sending people a lot of offers and putting people on the list, you're going to end up with poor engagement, and what comes with that typically is high unsubscribes. What that means is the dynamics of the list and it spirals out of control into itself, the snake eating the tail, it starts eating itself and the list collapses into nothing.

What compounds this further is the fact that your sender score in your email marketing system of your choice—this isn't official, but it is what happens—they'll put you on their junk servers. If you're consistently sending terrible emails, they're going to give you the crap servers and your deliverability is just going to get worse and worse, and that's going to be a very hard situation to come back from. That's the top down cascade.

The next one is the bottom up cascade, that's basically going back to platform risk. If you fail to actually build this walled garden, this email ecosystem of your own, then inevitably there is going to be a policy update, there's going to be an algorithm change, and you're going to have no recourse.

George: You definitely want to watch out for those hurdles. Especially if we go back to the beginning of the episode and how this could be one of the most engaging and best channels that you have, knowing those and paying attention to those is definitely key.

Let's say we're three months or six months down the road, the Marketing Smarts listeners have listened to this episode, they've gotten value and insights from our conversation. How do they know that they've reached this B2B email marketing nirvana or success with it?

Matt: That is such a good question, and not one that I've actually been asked before. It's a really good exercise, actually, to visualize what this would look like. Do you know what a good successful healthy email marketing system looks like to me? Number one, good list health dynamics, which I referenced earlier. Your unsubscribes are somewhere beneath 0.35%. Your open rates are 35% or above. Caveat to that, open rates are increasingly unreliable, they're not a good measure. They're only a good indicator. We can go into that in more detail, but to stick to the point here, list health dynamics are really strong.

The second most important thing, and this is part of that recruitment stage that I was talking about earlier, is you have data about your subscribers that is being automatically collected. One of the big things you want to do is you want to track the interactions of people. Whether they open email A, B, or C, and what that means for them. You want to set up a tagging system so that you're collecting data that actually has meaning for your business and your goals in your business.

That's what a really successful email marketing system looks like. Once you're six months down the track and you've built up all of that data, that is what allows you to move into that third stage where you can make those really interesting strategic decisions.

George: So good. This episode has been wonderful. Time flies when you're having fun. One of the other fun questions that I love to ask is around this idea of wisdom. We've all been on a journey, you've been on a journey, you wrote a book about the journey around this email marketing thing. What are some words of wisdom that you would want to share with the Marketing Smarts listeners as we close out today's episode?

Matt: I'm not going to pretend to hold any wisdom myself, so I'll use the words of someone wiser. I think I've actually mentioned him already. Enter the conversation going on in the prospect's mind. Those are Robert Collier's words. I think that's invaluable for any type of marketing, B2B or B2C, emails especially. Heed those words.

George: Marketing Smarts listeners, did you take lots of notes? I have to ask, what is your one thing, your number one execution opportunity after this podcast episode? Make sure you reach out and let us know in my inbox or on Twitter using the hashtag #MPB2B.

I also have to ask are you a free member of the MarketingProfs community yet? If not, head over to You won't regret the additional B2B marketing education that you'll be adding to your life.

We'd like it if you could leave us a rating or review on your favorite podcast app, but we'd love it if you would share this episode with a coworker or friend. Until we meet in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast where we talk with Andrew Davis about understanding your B2B digital doppelgänger and AI decision matrix, strategies for remarkable experiences and effective onboarding, I hope you do just a couple of things. One, reach out and let us know what conversation you'd like to listen in on next. Two, focus on getting 1% better at your craft each and every day. Finally, remember to be a happy, helpful, humble B2B marketing human. We'll see you in the next episode of the Marketing Smarts Podcast.

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