I'd been working in email marketing for quite a while before I took on my first B2B campaign. Of course I knew that B2B campaigns needed to be handled differently than my usual consumer outreach, and I thought I'd made the necessary tweaks.
What I didn't realize is that minor tweaks to generalized email marketing tactics aren't enough to create a successful B2B campaign. If you're a beginner learning the ropes or a veteran B2C marketer making the shift, trying to work with anything other than a purpose-built B2B email marketing strategy is a recipe for disaster.
I learned from my B2B blunder, and in an effort to save other marketers from similar mistakes, I've put together a guide to building a tailored B2B email marketing strategy.
Why B2B emails require B2B strategies
General email marketing tactics don't work for B2B campaigns for the same reason two nearly identical doors still require different keys: you're trying to get different people in the door. Here are a few specific ways in which general email marketing tactics fail when employed on B2B campaigns.
Most email marketing campaigns target individuals, but B2B campaigns target companies—or rather, multiple individuals at a company. Whereas an individual getting a B2C email is responsible for every stage of their own buying journey, a company's purchasing process involves people in all sorts of roles.
When you identify a B2B target, you're really identifying a group of targets—and your strategy needs to account for the differences among multiple contacts within a company.
What this means in practice: To reach people effectively, you need to be sending different emails to different individuals within the same target company.
Buying something on your own doesn't take very long. To paraphrase one of my favorite Ariana Grande songs: you see it, you like it, you want it, you got it. Easy. (In my case, there's usually also a "you check your bank balance" somewhere in there, but that's a bit of a mouthful for a pop lyric.)
For a company, on the other hand, the purchasing process can be a lot like herding cats. Getting multiple departments to coordinate on a decision, especially one that requires a budget approval, takes a Herculean effort—and Herculean patience.
What this means in practice: Since email marketing campaigns last the length of the customer journey, expect your marketing cycles for B2B companies to take a lot more time.
Email tone and content
Consumers know that they're consumers, so when you're writing B2C emails, you can be more obvious about the fact that you're trying to make a sale. Content like promotions, discounts, and sale announcements fit in a B2C campaign but would feel strange in an email to a business.
B2B emails tend to perform better when they focus on providing information and resources. Educational content like trend reports, industry benchmarks, how-to guides, and webinar recordings help prove your brand's value to a B2B subscriber.
What this means in practice: You'll need to source entirely new content types and formats to use for your B2B campaigns—repurposing B2C content is out of the question.
6 key strategies for designing a B2B email campaign
You get it: B2C or generalized email strategies are a no-go for your B2B campaign. But telling you what tactics not to use without giving you any to replace them wouldn't be very helpful of me, would it? Here's how to nail your B2B email marketing campaign.
1. Profile your target customers
When targeting a particular B2B company, you're really targeting that company's buying center—the group of people who determine whether or not the company purchases your product.
The buying center includes six main roles:
Initiators are the first people at a company who become aware of and interested in your product.
Users are the people who will be using your product day-to-day once the company decides to make the purchase.
Buyers are the people who handle the logistics and administrative aspects of a potential purchase, including budgeting, contract terms, renewals, etc.
Deciders are the people who ultimately decide whether or not to approve the buyers to move forward with a purchase.
Gatekeepers are the people (usually administrators) who control the flow of information to and from other members of the buying center.
Influencers is a catch-all group that encompasses anyone within an organization that influences the decisions and opinions of other members of the buying center. (In other words: everyone else at the company.)
If you've done any marketing in the past, you may be familiar with the ideal customer profile (ICP), or the audience vignette created by outlining your prospective customers' demographics, behaviors, characteristics, challenges, and needs. Your B2B targets are groups, so you'll need to expand your ICP to incorporate different columns for each different role in the target company's buying center.
2. Think like a buyer
With a customer profile matrix in hand, you can step into the mindset of each member of your target customer's buying center in order to better understand what kinds of emails fit each role.
For example, an Initiator or a User will likely be interested in a how-to guide that relates to an aspect of the User's job. If you sent that same email to a buyer, who primarily deals with the purchasing and renewal of a product rather than its actual function, it would probably get sent straight to the trash.
The more customized your emails are to your targets' actual needs, the more effective they'll be—and the fewer unsubscribes or spam reports you'll get.
3. Use email segmentation
When I'm running campaigns at scale, the thought of tailoring my emails to each individual at a company would send me running for the hills.
Email segmentation tools (which are built into most email marketing platforms) allow you to group your subscribers according to their characteristics. Instead of grouping contacts by company or industry, create lists for each of the different buyer personas. With as few as six segmented lists, you can hit everyone on your target list with content that's customized to their interests and needs.
4. Plan your campaign in stages
The B2B email marketing cycle should more or less mirror the B2B customer journey. By planning your campaign around the stages of the customer journey, you can ensure that your emails are relevant not only to who your target is, but also to where they are at a particular point in time.
There are five main stages of the buyer journey, and different types of content are best suited to each stage.
Awareness: The target is learning about your brand and product but isn't seriously thinking about making a purchase yet. How-to guides, eBooks, thought leadership, and other educational content can help the target grow familiar with your brand.
Consideration: The target is specifically interested in your product, but they won't reach the decision-making stage until they've gathered more information. Case studies, customer testimonials, and product demos can provide more information about your product's value and push the target toward making a purchase.
Decision-making: The target is interested in buying or trying your product and is now considering things like budget and return on investment in order to determine whether they're ready to buy. Free trials, discount offers, and cost estimates can influence your target in the direction of a purchase.
Retention: Once your prospect is a customer, your goal is for them to buy more of your product, renew their subscription, or otherwise continue your customer relationship. Product tutorials and high-level educational content can help your target get the most out of your product's features and encourage them to remain a customer.
Advocacy: Targets who are loyal customers can help boost your marketing efforts by becoming brand advocates—they'll tell others about your product and bring in new targets. Surveys and referral program offers can engage customers in more active brand advocacy.
5. Use templates
Email templates are another valuable tool to keep in your work-smarter-not-harder toolbox. Building a solid library of high-quality templates takes time, but you'll thank yourself later when you're able to crank through hundreds of emails in a day and still clock out by five.
The key to using templates is that the email recipient shouldn't be able to tell it's a template. Build a library of templates for each different type of email that you typically send, using the same brand elements across the board but ensuring each template is still visually distinct. Each of my campaigns has a different template for:
Gated content delivery emails
Curated content roundup emails
Newsletter and what's new emails
Educational and thought leadership emails
Case study and report emails
Event and webinar emails
Maintaining a template library won't only simplify your process, but it'll also ensure that you can take time off with the peace of mind that whoever fills in for you will have pre-made email skeletons ready to go.
6. Save time by automating
Email marketing automation allows you to complete detailed tasks that would be impossibly time-consuming to do manually.
For example, you might set up an automation that tags email contacts with any new information you receive about them, like demographic details and job characteristics. With a robust tagging system, you can target hyper-specific audiences like "female executives in the biotech industry" or "past attendees in the Los Angeles area" with just a few sort filters.
Your email marketing platform's sequencing function will also allow you to set up drip campaigns to be sent out over a period of weeks. That's a pretty common example, but there are plenty of others as well:
Add and update contacts based on form submissions on your website.
Segment your subscribers into different lists based on their behaviors (e.g., event attendance).
Send colleagues relevant updates about new subscribers, email lists, and sales leads.
Much like my template library, my email marketing automations let me sleep well knowing that things are running smoothly without my human brain.
Best practices for B2B emails
You could create the most perfect B2B email strategy the world has ever seen, but it still won't do much if what's inside the email isn't up to snuff. Quality packaging and structural integrity are key to a successful burrito, but everyone knows that the good stuff is what's inside.
Write great subject lines
Granted, this tip does apply to all types of email marketing. All email marketers should be checking to make sure their subject lines are short enough to be seen in the inbox (Mailchimp says the magic number is 60 characters or fewer).
But B2C emails have a much higher likelihood of succeeding in spite of a bad subject line. I personally can't stand the way the alcohol delivery app I use writes its subject lines, but I open all of their emails anyway because I like being able to buy my wine without putting on shoes. But when I'm at work? A cold email with an annoying subject line is going to get sent to spam right away.
The point is: the busier your targets are, the more important your subject lines will be. Place your email's value-add (the resource, tool, or offer it contains) at the front of the line. Make your call-to-action clear—tell the recipient what you want them to read, watch, submit, or sign up for right away.
Personalize as much as humanly (or automatically) possible
I mentioned before how important it is to automate certain functions of your campaign, like email segmentation and audience targeting. Within the email itself, you can use import fields to make sure the email is addressed to your recipient by name, to include their company in the subject line, and to add in other information that helps your email look less generalized.
Like subject lines, custom fields are more important for B2B emails than consumer blasts. Most of the emails from that alcohol delivery app contain just one large graphic with a coupon or deal—it's not addressed to me by name because it doesn't need to be.
When writing B2B content, it's easy to drift too far into professional mode and wind up coming across stiff and robotic. Remember that you're still writing to people, even if your targets are brands.
Think from a human's perspective: what kinds of business emails do you pay attention to? Which subject lines do you open, and which do you send straight to the trash? Leading your campaign empathetically will help you connect with your targets.
Keep things scannable
If you take time to think about what email strategies work best on you, you'll likely find that the most effective emails are pretty brief. Business people are busy, and few people have the time to get through an email that's packed with text.
Keeping your emails brief doesn't mean you can't still give them substance. You can pack a lot of information into an email with smart formatting and a little bit of strategic design. Besides, the goal is to get them to click through to your content, so it's ok to place the good stuff after the jump.
7 B2B marketing email examples that stick the landing
I get a lot of emails at work from B2B brands, many of which I subscribed to on purpose. For at least the first few emails, though, I'm evaluating them to decide whether I want to unsubscribe or if this brand's content is worth reading. Just because a brand is great doesn't mean their emails will be—there are plenty of companies killing it on the stock exchange but floundering in my inbox.
Remember that you're not just looking to get your recipients to click through, download, or register in the short term. You're also looking to prove that your content is valuable, well-curated, and pristinely presented so that your recipients want to see what's inside the next email you send.
Here are a few B2B emails that I've received personally that not only got me to open them but also impressed me with what I found inside.
New user email: Smartsheet
Buyer persona: User
Journey stage: Retention
It's essential to communicate to your recipients that you're not wasting their time. New users are beyond the purchasing stage of the buyer journey, so you're at risk of losing their engagement if they decide they no longer find your emails useful. The first emails after a company buys your product need to prove to them that your emails have a clear value-add and are worth opening.
Smartsheet's new user email uses large photos and minimal text to convey to the recipient that they're sending over useful resources and nothing else—as a project management and time tracking tool, their brand knows more than most how little time business people have for cold emails.
Using design to clearly title, subtitle, and attach images to your emails will ensure that people's eyes are drawn exactly what you want them to see, as soon as they open your email.
"What's new" email: Datawrapper
Buyer persona: User, Influencer
Journey stage: Awareness, Retention
Company updates are the email equivalent of someone walking up to your desk and starting to talk about themselves. If you have the time, and you're in the mood for a chat, that can be a perfectly lovely way to start a conversation. But if not, you're not only going to dismiss that person in the moment, but you're also going to start avoiding them whenever you have work to get done.
The key to update emails is to clearly tie your bits of news to things that directly impact the user (or potential user). For example, Datawrapper's company update leads with a new dark mode feature rollout for their platform. This is both a company update and a product update, which helps readers see the value of the email up front and encourages them to keep reading.
Download delivery email: Gallup
Buyer persona: Initiator, User
Journey stage: Awareness, Consideration
When I request a download from a website, it's usually a report or dataset that I need for a project I'm working on. I'm almost always in the middle of my workflow when I submit a download request, so when the email arrives, I have zero interest in doing anything except downloading what I need and moving on.
The only thing that could catch my attention while I'm in that flow is something else that could help me with the task at hand. The Gallup email below is one extremely rare example of a content download email that actually got me to open another piece of content that I didn't specifically ask for.
I downloaded this State of the American Manager report while working on a piece about business operations and people management, so when I saw a link to a resource on "transforming your outdated performance management practices," I clicked—the topic seemed like it held pertinent information that could be valuable for my project.
When you're sending any B2B email, put yourself in the mindset of the person you're sending it to. For downloads and other emails that are designed to arrive at a particular point in time, give them what they want and not much else.
Live event and webinar email: SlashNext
Buyer persona: User, Buyer, Influencer
Journey stage: Awareness, Consideration, Decision-Making
If I ever got a physical invitation that included long paragraphs about the history of the event, the host's backstory, and a few other topics only vaguely related to the event itself, the invitation would be in the garbage before I even got to reading the date. You don't clutter your mailed invitations with a bunch of unnecessary information, so don't do it to your emailed invitations, either.
Of course, when you're cold emailing invitations, you do need to at least explain what the event is and why someone might be interested in attending it. Take a page from SlashNext's book—their invitation makes the most of a small amount of space by including a bulleted list of actionable information that attendees will hear during the webinar, but it doesn't extend beyond two paragraphs total, so it still feels light and efficient.
Trend report email: Spotify
Buyer persona: Influencer, Initiator
Journey stage: Awareness, Consideration, Decision-Making
Trend reports are, by definition, cutting-edge. Though gimmicks are usually a big red flag in B2B emails, a trend report email gives you some room to experiment with (tasteful!) out-of-the-box design. Take Spotify's 2022 Wellness Report, for example, which arrived in the form of one long infographic in the body of the email. It's bold without being tacky or overwhelming, and it captures the curiosity of the recipient right away.
Curated content email: HoneyBook
Buyer persona: User, Influencer
Journey stage: Awareness, Retention
Curated content emails are some of the most fun to put together and to receive. Sending out recaps of your recent content can drive a ton of traffic from people who wouldn't have come across your posts organically, but you don't even need to include your own content for one of these emails to be effective.
If you have a talent for it, curating a collection from around the internet gives you an opportunity to become something of a tastemaker in your readers' inboxes, leading to skyrocketing open rates as people increasingly look to you for the cool information they won't find on their own.
No matter what kind of curated content you're sending out, it won't matter if your email looks overpacked or messy once the reader opens it. It can be tempting to want to jam-pack a ton of links into these emails, but that will only leave you with an email that looks like it belongs on Hoarders. Stick with just a handful of links paired with large photos, larger font, and very few (if any) link descriptions.
HoneyBook's content roundup emails are super sparse, but in a way that I think most readers appreciate—I was able to give this email a quick scan and know right away whether I wanted to click through or close out.
Newsletter email: Embroker
Buyer personas: Gatekeeper, User, Influencer
Journey stage: Consideration
Although they can be similar to curated content emails, newsletters give marketers a little more wiggle room to write. People know what newsletters are, so when they open them, they're doing so when they have a free moment to actually read what's inside it.
That said: quick, clean takeaways are still the surest pathway to newsletter success. Notice how Embroker uses actual headlines for the news articles included in its email—even if you're not including links from news sites, modeling your own "headlines" after real news outlets can lend your newsletter a "must-know" tone of voice that will engage readers right away.
Why a top-notch B2B email marketing strategy pays off
It takes some time and effort to learn how to really succeed at targeted B2B email marketing, but that investment is worth it—according to Campaign Monitor, the return on investment for B2B email marketing (when done correctly) is 4,200%, or $42 for every $1 spent. For small business owners especially, email marketing is often the number one way to get the biggest bang for your buck. And since email marketing is easy to automate, you can improve your profitability even further by getting more done while your tech handles what would have taken hours to do manually.
B2B email marketing is undeniably tricky, but taking time to do it right pays off. The learning curve may be steep, but it's worth climbing.