Reaching and connecting with prospects has become more challenging this year. There have been significant changes around people’s work environments and accessibility, media consumption, budgets, and priorities—not to mention considerable turnover. We’ve seen the effects of these changes throughout the year and shared our experiences with you. Now, a new report from email platform Validity, aptly titled “Disruption,” quantifies how email was affected by this year’s pandemic.
With that in mind, we’re going to explore some trends that will influence email effectiveness in 2021. Then, we’ll recommend some areas to look at as your agency prepares its 2021 new business outreach strategy. In this post, we will exclusively consider the text-only email format that has been proven most effective for new business lead generation efforts.
Relevant email trends
Inboxes are stuffed with emails
- During the pandemic, global inbox volumes “reached and maintained a consistent, all-time high...which is still trending upward” (Validity).
- Emails often don’t reach the inbox, and senders may be unaware of the emails that go missing or are filtered as spam when they don’t register as bounces. According to Validity, 1 in 6 emails failed to reach the inbox in 2019 on average—meaning many senders’ deliverability rates are below 80%.
- Deliverability was identified as the second biggest email marketing challenge faced by email practitioners in 2020—the first was data analytics and data challenges (Sparkpost’s Email in 2021).
New engagement challenges
- Email engagement has now mostly returned to normal pre-pandemic ranges, “but with historically high volumes of email being sent, we do expect open rates to continue sliding slightly...,” says Validity.
New optimal days and times to send
- As media consumption and work habits have changed, optimal email send days and times have shifted. Generally, emails sent at the top of the hour and midday are enjoying better engagement (Validity).
While this information is timely and insightful, it represents takeaways from cross-vertical emails to various audiences. Email engagement rates for the advertising and marketing industry have always trended slightly lower than other verticals.* Additionally, cold email campaigns should be expected to underperform relative to emails for opted-in audiences who want to hear from the sender. So the challenges for agency new business outreach are even greater.
When sending lead generation emails, it’s important to visualize the context in which they will be received. There will likely be dozens of emails from other agencies in your contact’s inbox, so yours must stand out and offer clear proof of value upfront, which we’ll get into in greater detail below.
*Advertising/Marketing performs in the bottom quartile for open/click engagement among Campaign Monitor’s U.S. Email Marketing Benchmarks (2020): By Day and Industry. Marketing and Advertising performs in the lowest 11% of industry verticals in MailChimp’s Email Marketing Benchmarks and Statistics by Industry from October 2019 (the Creative Services/Agency vertical was only in the lower half). Constant Contact’s comparison by industries chart (as of November 2020) placed its Marketing, Advertising, Public Relations category in the lowest-performing 15% of industries.
Building an effective email lead generation campaign for your agency in 2021
Despite its challenges, email remains one of the most effective ways to generate leads for agency new business. The question is, how do you get your email seen by the right people and make sure it stands out from the many mediocre ones?
Here, we discuss the three most important elements of a successful agency lead generation campaign. Each of these elements, strategy, engagement, and deliverability, are interrelated and necessary. If your email campaign is a stool, consider these elements as the three legs working together to hold it up.
Start with a strong strategy
Before getting into the technical aspects of engagement and deliverability, we have to start with strategy. For your campaign to be successful, you must demonstrate your right to win the business you are pursuing. Even a perfectly-crafted email will come across as ineffective if your agency doesn’t have its proof points in place.
For example, a cold email will often end by asking whether there is interest in having a call, meeting, or discussion. But if you have not equipped the prospect with the tools to evaluate whether that is worth their time, it may mean you are jumping ahead in their buyer’s journey. Give them a chance to decide if they like you before you ask them on a date.
Ideally, your lead generation outreach will include a mix of compelling proof points that link back to relevant, well-developed case studies, along with thought leadership to educate prospects about your expertise in solving problems like theirs. These assets would direct them back to your agency’s website, which should be user-friendly and demonstrate your effectiveness at generating business results for clients like them.
With their interest piqued, prospects should arrive at the logical conclusion that they want to speak with you to learn more about how you can help them.
Without the assets to support this process, emails are more likely to come across as empty, sales-y, and self-serving—significantly reducing their effectiveness.
Building an email lead generation strategy typically starts by determining the target vertical and understanding what you can offer to brands in that vertical right now. From there, you sharpen the focus by identifying the best target companies and appropriate contacts in that vertical.
Segmenting your contacts by role, you can then drill down on their pain points and what language they might respond to. Next, you can layer in any relevant background information about personal connections, past interactions, trends, or news. All of these can help inform customized and targeted messaging, and the more you put into this upfront work, the greater likelihood of payoff at the end.
When you determine appropriate target verticals, a deciding factor should be the relevant work you have to show. As you start to think about messaging, plan to leverage your relevant assets, including case studies, thought leadership, and key proof points or KPIs that can be referenced in the email itself.
Other things to consider at this stage are your goals. Will you structure your email campaign to optimize for clicks first or for deliverability? And is your only immediate goal a conversation, or is there also a relevant offer for them to engage on as they determine their level of interest? How many touchpoints will be used in your campaign, by which methods, and at what intervals?
- Be sure to incorporate phone calls and voicemails in your email lead generation campaign. A 2017 study from Xant found that when salespeople used two methods of contact together, the average contact rate rose by 161%. When a third contact method was added, contact rates increased another 55%.
- Typically, we recommend a minimum of 6-8 touches before calling it quits on a contact. After that, your time might be better spent on other contacts. In 2021, as with 2020, a few more touches might be appropriate given that undelivered emails shouldn’t count as touches, and neither should phone calls to digital directories and poorly-monitored voicemails at empty offices.
Focus on engagement
If you’ve done the strategy work upfront to create highly relevant and customized emails, you will have a head start on engagement. Here are some other factors affecting email engagement:
- Watch the length. If your email is too long, it won’t be read. Be aggressive about cutting it back to no more than 2-3 short paragraphs.
- Be human. Your email needs to look like it was written by a human being, just for the recipient. That means no bulk email, no image-based or HTML-heavy emails, and personalization that goes beyond expected smart fields like “company” and “first name.”
- Use subject lines that are neither misleading nor over-thought. Subject lines are tricky, and there are many good ideas about what works and what doesn’t. But it’s important to take those ideas on balance. We’ve learned to step back from subject lines that look like polished works of art. If more than three people have weighed in on it, and it's been run through a subject line tester and is capitalized like a book title, it's probably overdone. In our experience, people want to open emails from “real people.”
More on subject lines: Yesware has found that subject lines that are questions get about 10% higher-than-average open rates. They also found that subject lines with numbers get 45% higher-than-average open rates. Other winning subject line strategies according to Yesware: leveraging social proof or FOMO, generating curiosity, providing value, and addressing pain points. Test them out to see what works for you.
- Be polished, but not too polished. There’s a pattern here. If it’s too perfect, an email might look like it’s not a one-to-one email from a human being. In terms of tone, that means striking a balance between being too casual (not advisable) and being too buttoned-up, which may not feel relatable. In terms of email copy, speak your prospect's language and write with (seemingly) effortless precision. That means running the copy through a tool like Grammarly and doing pre-flight testing to catch the weird formatting issues that you never think are there until you test.
- More testing. If you have access to reliable testing tools, be sure to test things like subject lines, email length, and engagement rates for emails sent with links versus without. When you try something that doesn’t seem to work well, switch it up.
Something to note: Email technologies can negatively impact email campaign effectiveness. For example, as valuable as email engagement data is, the pixels in tracking software can hurt deliverability. So you may decide that it’s worth trying untracked emails without links and images to optimize deliverability and that it’s time to lean into email response rate as your key metric versus opens and clicks. These are tradeoffs that will require testing on your part.
Focus on deliverability
As we mentioned earlier, deliverability continues to be a challenge for email marketers. Be sure you have all of the current SPAM triggers on your radar as you plan your agency’s lead generation campaign.
In general, simple is better when it comes to email deliverability, particularly with cold emails. Wiza has found open rates for plain text emails are 30% better than those of HTML-based emails, in part, they say because HTML can trigger SPAM filters.
For our purposes, plain text performs best. Sometimes, we've even found it improves deliverability to remove all links and images from the email (including the signature). We suggest minimizing links to no more than one or two per email, and if deliverability issues persist, see if it helps to remove all of them.
Known SPAM triggers include:
- Too many links, or certain types of links (for example, those pointing to unsecure websites)
- Images (including the tracking pixels commonly used by click-tracking and email automation software)
- Certain words, phrases, and characters in the subject line and body of an email (view lists of SPAM trigger words here and here)
- Large image or video files
- Missing subject lines
- Sender reputation (according to Validity, this is determined by “the volume of email sent, bounce rate, spam trap hits and recipient behavior, such as positive feedback (opens) and negative feedback (spam complaints).”)
Other factors impacting email deliverability:
- IP and domain reputation (use tools like Spamhaus and Spamcop to see if your IP address or sender domain is listed in blacklist databases).
- Email authentication (this recent post from Kinsta overviews the four primary email authentication methods currently used).
- Email list management (marketers are probably more educated than others about the importance of list quality and data hygiene, but we should note the increased risk of bad data and spam traps during periods of high employee turnover—like 2020).
Creating effective email campaigns to generate leads for your agency can be trickier than it appears, even in a “good” year. 2020 has thrown additional obstacles into the mix, and 2021 will likely include more of the same. Even so, with a consistent and disciplined approach, you should expect to see positive results from your lead generation efforts. You just might have to put greater effort into the upfront work for strategy, engagement, and deliverability.
Remember that missed messages, budget considerations, and a focus on fighting immediate fires have made it less likely for many marketers to follow up this year. If you’ve built a solid campaign, don’t be discouraged by lower immediate engagement. No response doesn’t always mean no interest. Continue to test and adjust your messaging strategy, and also be aware that your work can yield longer-term value as long as it is impactful and makes a positive introduction to the agency.
On that note, be sure to re-engage some of your "missed connection" prospects in 2021— you just might find yourself in the right place at the right time.
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