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Apr 16, 2003
How To

How to Use Email to Market to C-Level Execs: Top 4 Dos & Don'ts (Hint: Don't Rent Lists)

SUMMARY: Fascinating fact: Even in the high tech industry, big company CEOs rarely check email and almost never respond to emailed prospecting campaigns.

How do you reach them? This article includes useful tips on how to use postal DM to build your CEO email permission file, how to design HTML messages CEOs are impressed by, and when it makes sense to use email instead of postal mail.
Mid-large company CEOs are very hard for marketers to reach.

These CEOs send underlings to trade shows; they have assistants (aka the dreaded gatekeeper) whose role it is to filter out unwanted calls and junk mail; and, the media they read is hard to make a splash in unless you are already famous.

(New clients demanding, "get me in the Wall Street Journal" are the bane of high tech PR firms' existences.)

When email came along, most marketers thought, "Oh wow, a low-cost media I can use to reach right onto the CEO's desk without going through flunkies, gatekeepers or journalists. How fabulous."

To this day, one of the most frequently asked questions on marketing discussion lists is, "Anybody know an email list of CEOs I could rent?"

We contacted Ruth Ann Barrett, President Red Direct, who has spent her whole career getting marketing messages through to C-level executives at companies with $100M or more in sales. Her clients have included CommerceOne, Vertical Networks and Pivotal.

Here are her top four Dos and Don'ts for marketing to C-level execs via email (plus scroll to the end for a link to creative samples from campaigns that worked):

-> 1. Don't Use Email for Prospecting

Barrett is vehement, "The only way you can survive in email is to grow a house list and be very, very good at it. If you're doing massive mailings to rented lists thinking you're getting to top executives, think again because you're not."

Why not? Three reasons:

a. Many B2B rental files are overused and not well-selectable, and thus less responsive.

b. Merge/purge and suppression file use is almost unheard of in list rentals, so you are taking a risk when you rent that you will annoy current customers, or annoy prospects with multiples of the same creative.

c. "C-level execs are typically not heavy email users." Not even execs in the high tech field. "Most of the people using email in the high tech field are staffers and managers, or leaders of smaller companies," says Barrett.

Unless your email looks really valuable and is from a source that exec already willingly agreed to get that exact type of email from, you are going to be deleted. You generally can not skate in on 3rd party relationships, the relationship has to be your own.

Which means to email CEOs, first you have to build your own permission list (and if you are an agency, you have to build a separate list for each client).

How do you get that permission? Barrett says the old fashioned way is still the best; direct postal mail to a high quality list. To make your campaign work best:

Tip A. Customize the offer and creative to the title

Never ever send the same exact package to CMOs and CIOs, or CEOs and CFOs, etc. "Copy should be driven by their function," notes Barrett who often mails four to five different versions of a package out, each crafted to appeal to a different job title.

Tip B. Book offers work

Books have heft and pre-established value. Everyone knows what a book is, and they do not fear it will be too salesy (as all-too- many white papers are). Plus, if your brand name is not famous, a brand name authored book offer can give you a glossing of authority.

Tip C. Send responses to an online form

Even though postal mail is in, relying only on BRCs (business reply cards) is out. Execs are more than willing to go online to reply to your mailed offer (or to have their assistant do it for them).

However, Barrett warns against baldly asking for an email address in the form without noting clearly what it will be used for. Do not expect to get many happy campers if what you are planning to send is "more information" or "news." Too many people suspect that means you are going to deluge them with sales materials.

"We talk about things we'll be doing for them," says Barrett. "For example, an executive Web site where they can take advantage of high value information offers, or invitations to CEO-only roundtables."

Last but not least, do not waste your "thank you" page (the page that appears after a visitor submits their data to take advantage of your offer). Yes, say "thank-you," but also add in links and invitations for more information. For example, this is a good place for your white paper offers.

-> 2. Do Use Email to Continue a Relationship (But Not Necessarily with a Newsletter)

Once you have gotten a CEO to join your list, Barrett again advises against sending a regular email newsletter unless yours has exceptionally high and blatantly evident value to someone outside of your company.

Instead, Barrett advises that you contact your email list on a slightly irregular basis with special offers that a C-level exec would find truly special. Some suggestions:

- A breakfast roundtable with some of their peers and a famous journalist or well-known expert (who is not on your payroll)

- A poll for their opinions on newly emerging business trends in their industry

- A webcast or webinar with a name-brand speaker, and possibly one of their immediate peers as a speaker as well.

- A thank you for attending an event with a link to a video recap of it or other information they might find valuable

However, while Barrett does advise that you send a follow-up emailing with an offer link to everyone you met at a trade show, she warns, "Don't add them to your email list until they have requested it." Just because you met in person and a CEO gave you a card (or let you swipe their badge) does not mean they will welcome mass communications from you on a regular basis.

-> 3. Do Use HTML with High "Glossy-Style" Production Values

Barrett, like several other marketers we have spoken with recently, says that unless your emails to big company execs are truly one-to-one letters (in which case text-only email is absolutely called for), use the most professional-looking HTML art you can.

In fact, use the same look and production values that you would expect from a very high quality brochure sent to the same people. Just because email campaigns can be quicker in some ways than postal mail, it does not mean your art department should spend less time on the creative.

"You want to convey an image," notes Barrett. "Your image says your company has been around for a while and you have the resources to communicate expertly. Spend as much effort and attention as you would for print mail."

The result: Your email looks "up-market."

When it comes to subject lines, you are still stuck with text. "Focus on offer, offer, offer," advises Barrett.

Interestingly she advises that you test the word "free" because in some cases the rumors of filters snagging it are overstated; and if it does get through, it works better than almost anything. However, do not count on this forever, "everything changes in email, it's very volatile."

-> 4. Don't Make Them Enter Their Info Again & Again

Do not begin asking any exec to enter information into a form unless you are prepared to immediately database their answers and never ask that individual the same questions again without a darned good reason.

Do not make execs who are on your house list already fill out contact information each time they respond to one of your offers. Since you already know who they are, do not force them to enter a user name and password to enter your landing page. It is absurd to ask C-level execs to leap through hoops to respond to your marketing campaign.

Instead, use technology to pre-populate their landing page for them.

Then take it one step further. Ask them at the top of the page if they would not mind glancing at their contact info to make sure it is up to date. That way every time they respond to you, they also help you clean your list.

Here is the link to Barrett's creative samples we promised:

Barrett's company
See Also:

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