online marketing psychology

May 22, 2010

The effectiveness of text e-mails in B2B marketing

copywriting Mad Men Don draper thinking

E-mail marketing had been done in a traditional way in our company. Templates customized to the individuals that were in our database. Nothing automated or batched.

A while after I started working here, the idea came to try and re-hook the people in our database that we had lost contact with.

This was the start of a 'real' e-mail campaign in which we would try to convince the audience to sign-up for a trial of our software platform.

I read a lot of ebooks, case studies and blog posts on the subject. E-mail design, subject line testing, call to action, well targeted audience, delivery times, etc

After crafting the first email (of course I didn't use a custom design!), we sent it to 200 people. Good open and click rates (27.5% and 10%). The campaign helped to get a couple people to trial our product.

All good so far. So it was only logical to try the same approach for a different product of ours.

The template was reused, content rewritten and a different call to action added.
Three hundred fifty emails were sent out.
After one week I checked the stats.
13 percent of the mails were opened and a click rate of less than 1 percent.
That means 3 people actually did what the e-mail was intended for.


I was expecting to get at least the same rates or better (of course!).

So what was different? I immediately blamed the e-mail list we had used for the second mailing. Unlike the one for the first campaign this wasn’t composed of people that we had been in contact before. It was more of a database that we had collected from various sources.

I shared my ideas with my colleagues and blamed the list.

The next day one of my colleagues called me over. He had send out a e-mail for the same product to a larger audience. And he did get response. One day later there were already 50 replies waiting in the inbox. Including people that had ignored the first e-mail. (I know, mailing people because they ignored a first mail is a bit tricky, but let’s forget that here.)

So what was different this time?
  • The second email was a simple text email, no HTML, no images.
  • The call to action was different. The first e-mail tried to convince the reader to click and signup for a trial. The second had a simpler message: can we please have the contact details from the IT manager.
These two elements allowed for an essential thing to happen: the forwarding of the email. Apparently people in our list weren't the decision makers themselves. They forwarded the text version to the appropriate person and not the HTML version. (Come to think of it I have forwarded very few HTML emails myself.)
Second was the call to action. Even if the first person receiving the email doesn't have any idea what you are talking about, he can provide the contact details of someone you asked for. Since the buying process for most of our products is a long one, the contact details are of great value to us.

So what did I learn?
  • Target audience: not only know who exactly your are sending the email to and develop your content accordingly. But more important, know your clients buying process! Who is involved in the buying decision? Appropriate and simple  call-to-action.
  • E-mail design: fancier is not always better. A lot of work to design emails can be avoided if it is not needed. And in this case the simple text email improved the forwardibility of the e-mail.
Less is more in practice.


  1. Nice post.

    I've been trying to implement this very same ideas in my company, but clients want "flashy" e-mails. I'm in the process of collecting some data points, like yours, to strenghten my position on this.

    Keep up the good job!

  2. I found it counter intuitive as well that flashy emails can have less impact than text ones. So I can imagine it might be difficult to convince your clients about it.

    Hope this can help make your case Ricardo.

  3. Excellent post. Confirms our experience.