Wednesday, February 14, 2001

Using a Seminar to Generate Qualified Leads
by Debbie Weil

How far can business-to-business (B2B) email marketing push a prospect along the continuum from initial contact to purchase?

We've looked at some good first steps: buy sponsorship ads in targeted e-newsletters, build an in-house list with double opt-in B2B lists, or use other, offline tactics. But what happens next?

How can an email campaign push qualified B2B prospects into the waiting arms of your sales team?

The answer is that there is no definitive answer. That's what's fun about the B2B email marketing space right now. The big-ticket niche is still relatively new and unproven. As long as you clearly define your objective -- generating qualified leads, for example -- there are several ways to get to your desired result.

Here's what's hot right now: the duel between seminars on terra firma and "Webinars" online.

Not surprisingly, the high-end email solutions providers are practicing what they preach -- the high response and interactivity of email marketing -- as they experiment with both these tactics. Market leaders such as MarketFirst and are inviting opt-in prospects to "learn more" by registering for a seminar. MarketFirst is offering an on-the-ground seminar, a Webinar.

So which type of venue is more effective in generating leads? As always, the devil is in the details.

On Terra Firma

MarketFirst is currently running an email campaign that is resulting in an unexpectedly high number of conversions. The hope was that 1,200 people would sign up for a free, offline seminar over a period of three months. Instead, according to Director of Marketing Scott Leatherman, registration is at 1,900 after only one month.

Why such high conversion numbers? In my opinion, it's the quality of the messages MarketFirst is sending in addition to the richness of the offer. (The identical HTML message was also sent out two weeks in a row. Was this part of the strategy? I didn't sign up till the second one caught my eye.)

MarketFirst is using a technique that I recommend to any savvy email marketer: write your acquisition message as if it were a retention communication to an existing customer.

Include useful, highly relevant content. Don't be sales-y. And think about the customer experience at every step. Your communication has to appear seamless, from the click that opens your email message to the registration on the landing page.

The MarketFirst message starts off with "Dear [your first name]," followed by a recent factoid from a Jupiter Research report asserting the cost effectiveness and high response rate of email marketing. Of course, a quote from Jupiter immediately establishes the credibility of MarketFirst's message.

Next we learn that marketing automation can be phenomenally effective if it's done correctly.

And then come the offers, primary and secondary. The primary offer is a personal invitation ("you are invited") to a seminar near you, run by industry experts and "sponsored by MarketFirst Software." Sounds good. Oh, and there's even a one-sentence bio of the expert leading your seminar, along with links to the bios of other speakers.

Another link directs you to the news and events page of MarketFirst's site, giving you the times and geographic locations of upcoming seminars as well as information on related tradeshows and conferences sponsored by other organizations. Nice touch.

Now comes the secondary offer: If you show up in the flesh at the seminar you register for, you will receive a free copy of B2B marketing guru Barry Silverstein's most recent book, "Business to Business Internet Marketing: Seven Proven Strategies for Increasing Profits Through Internet Direct Marketing."

Not bad, huh?

The invitation letter is signed by Scott Leatherman and includes a direct phone number for those who prefer to register by phone.

Here's the kicker: Less than 24 hours later, MarketFirst sends an automated thank-you with your registration information. Included again is the link to the seminar information and location page.

On the Web

Depending on whom you talk to in the industry, the Webinar is the latest and greatest way to generate qualified leads. Or it's last year's gimmick.

Whichever it is, is currently running an appealing, if slightly flawed, email campaign, using a PostMaster opt-in list. Like MarketFirst's, the email message is straightforward and credible and includes a double offer. In this case, it's a free, downloadable white paper (in PDF format) along with an invitation to "join"'s CEO in an "online seminar" on February 20.

When you click to the landing page, you realize that the company is also pushing sign ups to this page through a direct-mail campaign. Does it mean we're on the "B" list if we didn't get the mailed invitation?

The copy tries to make us feel OK about this: "If you did not receive a mailed letter invite, you can also register by simply entering the word 'guest.'" But credibility breaks down a bit at this point.

Interestingly also sent the email invite twice, once in HTML and once in text format, about 12 hours apart. Either it's a glitch or an effective way to make sure I see the message.

In conclusion the execution of B2B email marketing is still in the trial-and-error phase. But a few best practices stand out.

Whether it's an on- or offline offer (or a combination thereof), speak to your prospects coherently and intelligently. Treat them as respectfully as you would a customer. If possible, show and tell by demonstrating your technology through your own campaign. Avoid the hype.

They'll listen.

Debbie Weil is President of Wordbiz.Com, an online strategy firm specializing in B2B email marketing, messaging, and Web content that maximizes the customer's experience. Her clients are B2B Web-based businesses that are on versions 2.0 or 3.0 of their sites and are still not turning visitors into customers or generating enough qualified leads. Formerly Web Content Marketing Manager for Network Solutions Inc., Debbie has worked with numerous Internet start-ups in the DC/MD/VA tech corridor. She has a special interest in young U.S.-based technology companies that want to grow globally using online marketing techniques. In her pre-Web life, she was a journalist (reporter and editor) for 15 years.

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