4 qualities of an intent-driven marketing automation email program

Innovation — even in increments — can help you build a more robust strategy.

Two recent studies measured ROI for social media versus email, and they appear to contradict each other. One said social media was first and email second for ROI, and the other said the opposite. Who’s right?

I don’t know. But I know it’s the wrong question because email and social media don’t play the same roles. Much of the difference comes down to capturing, measuring and acting on intent. Social media is about growing relationships, while email cultivates and persuades prospects to act.  

For a B2C company, email still has priority when looking at attribution numbers. But in all of my years in B2B, whether as a marketer, an agency person, a consultant or a fractional CMO, people have considered email an important channel but have overlooked its true potential for fulfilling company goals. 

The perspective has been this: “We have this marketing automation platform. We’re going to build a few automations and then go on to something really challenging.”

I don’t mean to minimize how B2B companies use email, but I see plenty of room for us to expand our use of marketing automation and email to move our companies forward. That’s where intent comes in.

Intent makes the difference

As an email marketer, everything you do, especially in B2B, is about cultivating and recognizing intent. When you shift your email perspective from “I have to sell more stuff” to “I have to grow intent,” that changes how you approach email all the way through the sales process. 

Prospects go on your website in smaller numbers to look at your products or services. You have to determine whether they’re serious before you invest time and money in phone contacts, the discovery process, putting together a proposal and going through the rigorous request-for-proposal process. 

Across the board, email is a lead-generation tool. Its primary purpose is to qualify the reader to go to the website and convert, whether you want a macro conversion (requesting a sales contact), a micro-conversion (downloading a white paper or registering for a webinar) or a full conversion (purchase or renewal). 

When we focus on intent, we see email’s uses and value differently. 

Many factors influence intent. A Forrester WAVE matrix of leading vendors is one. Being featured in influential industry publications is another. So are the customer’s previous or potential use, thought leadership from company experts, conference participation and personal contacts and helpfulness through industry associations and companies. 

Just as many factors influence intent, customers themselves can signal intent in subtle and obvious ways. That’s why companies should invest in an email marketing automation program that can recognize and act on them.

These are my four “must-have” qualities for an intent-driven B2B marketing automation program:

1. Complex automations

It begins with knowing your customer journey, beginning with the prospect stage and moving through the sales process all the way to “closed won.” The complexity is immense. That’s why you need automation tools designed expressly for B2B needs.

As an email marketer in B2B, you might think you don’t need to understand your company’s unique sales funnel. You’re wrong. You need to know every pipeline stage from the sales side. 

That’s because every pipeline stage marks an intent point. Ask yourself, “How can I recognize this stage and get the prospect to move on to the next?”

One way is to develop automations that use your target market, your sales team’s approach and your best-customer profile recognizing signals from each stage. These look at decision points such as where people click on your website, whether they’re new or returning visitors, present or past customers and where they go on your website.

Consider the complexity factor if you’re thinking about buying or signing on with a marketing automation platform. It must address every sales stage and allow you to build complex automations that lead prospects to the next stage while helping you learn and grow from the previous stage.

2. Silent periods

As marketers, we’re not accustomed to being told to be quiet unless we have a harebrained idea. Our job is to be loud (appropriately so, of course). But many sales cycles have times when we need to be quiet, stop sending emails and leave the work up to the sales team.  

You can understand and build in those silent periods when you look deeply into each stage of your sales funnel. When you work with your sales team to understand the conversations between sales and prospects in each context, you’ll learn when an email message could end up competing with what salespeople are talking about. 

You’ll also learn when a quiet period goes on too long. If sales hasn’t heard from qualified prospects after a defined time, you can use email automation to reactivate them. 

B2B reactivation is different from its B2C counterpart as a communication strategy. In B2B, reactivation is a middle-of-life move, not end-of-life. If a prospect goes quiet, your marketing automation can recognize that from your CRM platform and then trigger re-engagement. Work with your sales team to develop a unified messaging system for this stage.

3. Precise metrics

Your marketing automation reports must be extensive and comprehensive. You won’t get an accurate picture of your performance if you rely on aggregate reporting. 

That can work for B2C marketers, who can lump in all the detailed reporting for an entire program, like a welcome, onboarding or purchase series, into an aggregate success rate.

But the complexity I spoke about earlier in your B2B automations demands a comprehensive look at each stage. You must review each email in that stage to measure its success. How many prospects did it push through to the next stage? How many went on to “closed, won” or “closed, lost?”

Your KPIs must account for that complexity because you need to look at each segment or target vertical throughout your process. You’re also looking at how your marketing automations performed at each step and how they were tagged by source, vertical, intent, dollar amount, and other factors.

If you rely on aggregate reporting, optimize your reporting for detailed reviews at every stage and how they ladder up to the sales funnel and actions. 

The key to this is working closely with your sales team. The idea that sales and marketing should be independent is a myth. To be effective, they need to be joined at the hip. Yes, they have different processes and motivations, but the relationship should be more symbiotic, needing connection and coordination.

Talk regularly with your sales team and understand how they do things and the information they need and collect, which brings me to my final point.

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4. CRM agility

You should know every inch of your sales team’s CRM system. What information do they gather? What can you ask your sales team to enter to help you make better decisions on email automations?

Salespeople want to know sales things. Marketing people want to know marketing things. In the middle are intelligence and cooperation. Salespeople can add data into the CRM that informs your automations and lead the team to know if a lead is “closed, won” or “closed, lost.” But marketers have to be careful to ask only for important and appropriate information.

The source of all your information is on the sales side because that’s where all the action is. 

Know how your sales team enters information and what they collect at each stage. Figure out how you can take that data to use in your triggered messages. 

But don’t ask for too much data during the discovery or sales process, or for data you won’t use in your automations or measure success.

Wrapping up

Let’s go back to those studies that pit social media against email. Some people love social media more than email. Others see more success with email. Does it really matter?

Studies love to pit marketing channels against each other. But when they don’t have the same function, that’s like comparing apples to oranges. Social media and email serve different purposes, but each should complement the other in your marketing strategy.

Email has been the primary channel for both B2B and B2C marketers for years because it works. It’s the only channel where you can mess up and still make money. But you make more money when you do it right.

We marketers must become more sophisticated in using email to make more revenue and hit more goals. Take an honest look at your marketing automation program. Is it linear or flat? Does it truly align with your sales process? Does it let you work in partnership with your sales team?

If your automations are not complex, 2022 is the year to start working on that. You don’t have to renovate them from top to bottom all at once. Use incremental innovation, in which you begin by making a small, important change and then build on it. Add a different string to your marketing automations every month. By the end of the year, you’ll look back to see a more robust program. 

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About The Author

As the co-founder of RPEOrigin.com, Ryan Phelan’s two decades of global marketing leadership has resulted in innovative strategies for high-growth SaaS and Fortune 250 companies. His experience and history in digital marketing have shaped his perspective on creating innovative orchestrations of data, technology and customer activation for Adestra, Acxiom, Responsys, Sears & Kmart, BlueHornet and infoUSA. Working with peers to advance digital marketing and mentoring young marketers and entrepreneurs are two of Ryan’s passions. Ryan is the Chairman Emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board and a member of numerous business community groups. He is also an in-demand keynote speaker and thought leader on digital marketing.