Write Better B2B Marketing Emails: Lessons from 10 Years of Data

Adam Smartschan

Partner & Chief Strategy Officer

Every business-to-business marketer wants to know how to improve their email marketing. Opens and clicks often result in leads, and that’s why we do what we do.

But how do you write better B2B marketing emails?

There are a lot of theories and opinions out there. Problem is, they often contradict each other.

Some marketing articles will tell you to personalize everything. Others think it’s a waste of time.

Some folks swear by A/B testing, even with tiny lists. Others don’t bother unless you’re sending to 50,000 people or so.

Some blogs advocate short, simple writing. Others tell you to get technical and show your smarts.

Where do you even start?

We decided to let the data tell the story.

Writing better B2B marketing emails

Writing Better B2B Marketing Emails: 10 Years of Work

As one of the first pure-play B2B marketing agencies in the country, we’ve been doing this a long time. We’re turning 16 this year, and we’ve been using email marketing the entire time.

That means we have access to a treasure trove of data. Today, we’re cracking it open to help you improve your B2B email marketing metrics.

Here’s how we did it.

Our Data-Gathering Methodology

First, we exported data on hundreds of email sends. Then we filtered our spreadsheet to make things manageable.

  • We only looked at the last 10 years of email campaigns. Things have changed a ton in B2B marketing, and what worked in 2005 isn’t relevant anymore. (Yes, it’s an arbitrary cutoff. We know.)
  • We eliminated emails that went to fewer than 500 people. This eliminated re-sends, tests and internal notifications.
  • We removed obvious anomalies, like outage notifications and rate changes.

This gave us a sample of more than 100 emails, including:

  • Monthly newsletters (our bread and butter for years)
  • Monday Marketing Tips, which we’ve been doing for about a year
  • Personnel announcements
  • Holiday greetings

So, what did these tell us about writing better B2B marketing emails?

(Spoiler alert: A lot.)

Lesson #1: Email Marketing Data Lies to You

It’s easy to want to judge B2B email marketing effectiveness quantitatively.

I mean, isn’t this simple?

if (open rate > 25) {   result = “Good”;} else {   result = “Bad”; }

Be careful about judging your emails this way.

Our raw data shows what looks like a dramatic drop in effectiveness. Open rates are, on average, about half of what they were in 2010 and 2011.

We should panic, right? Are we failing at writing B2B marketing emails?

Not exactly.

That data doesn’t tell the real story.

First off, our list is about 10 times the size it was a decade ago. Back then, friends and family made up a decent percentage of our recipients.

Those are the people who will:

  • Open every single email, and;
  • Never become a qualified lead.

A 40% open rate among 1,000 recipients is 400 readers. A 20% open rate among 10,000 recipients is 2,000 readers – a 5X increase. We’ll take the second, particularly when those 1,600 new readers are prospects and leads.

Second, times are changing in business-to-business email marketing. Email clients are more and more aggressive in filtering promotions and mass sends. Company networks are flagging content before it hits the inbox. And readers are getting jaded, since they’re overwhelmed with messages every day.

In that environment, you’d expect open rates to be lower than 2010. If yours are, don’t worry. You’re fine.

Click Rates Vary, Too

Email click-through rates can be equally unreliable. Our 32 most-clicked emails (with phenomenal CTRs) all either:

  • Went out to a list filled with friends and family;
  • Included a job posting and a link to apply, or;
  • Talked about a promotion or new hire.

We’ll take those clicks, absolutely. But it’s apples and oranges to compare the activity of a friend or job seeker with a possible buyer.

The lesson? When you’re comparing email data, make sure you’re being skeptical. Look at similar tranches of mailings. And don’t obsess over top-funnel metrics like OR and CTR. Instead, focus on the number of qualified eyeballs you’re getting.

Lesson #2: Eye-Catching Language Gets Clicks

Here are the subject lines of emails that got us a ton of worthwhile readers:

Those aren’t as “all over the map” as they seem.

There’s a common thread: eye-catching language.

Look at those lines and you’ll see:

  • “Beer”
  • “Hate”
  • “Power”
  • “Ahoy, Matey!”
  • “Friendster”

Each of those words has a way of stopping the reader in their tracks.

Who wouldn’t want to be enjoying a cold one rather than poring through business emails?

“Hate” and “power” are big words.

“Ahoy, Matey” is an anachronism – way different than what you normally see in your inbox.

And why the heck is someone mentioning Friendster?

Looking back, we aren’t surprised at the interest those subject lines generated. Inboxes are crowded places. To get read, an email needs to leap off the proverbial page and demand attention.

Lesson #3: Appeal to a Broad Audience

Technical writers love to get specific.

That has its place. On the blog.

A key tenet of writing better B2B marketing emails is to reach out to a big audience.

This is borne out particularly in our year-old Monday Marketing Tip email series. The top performers all speak to something a broad swath of our readership experiences.

“Good” topics included:

Less popular topics included:

  • An update to domain authority scoring
  • Determining the right Google Ads CPL
  • B2B holiday marketing tips

The last one is a particularly good example here. Our B2B holiday marketing tips blog is hugely popular. It ranks high on Google and delivered thousands of visits in Q4.

In an email, it flopped.

The lesson? Get specific on your blog, and appeal to your whole audience in email.

Writing Better B2B Marketing Emails: The Bottom Line

No two companies (or mailing lists) are alike. But our decade’s worth of data uncovers some universal email marketing truths.

Here are our top three B2B email marketing tips:

  • Don’t freak out over “bad” open and click rates. Who you’re sending to impacts them, and all engagements are not equal.
  • Stick to powerful language in your subject lines. You only get noticed if you demand attention.
  • Stay general in email, speaking to broad topics. Get specific elsewhere, where users can find you via Google search.
Adam Smartschan

Adam Smartschan heads Altitude's strategic marketing and branding efforts. An award-winning writer and editor by trade in a former life, he now specializes in data analytics, search engine optimization, digital advertising strategy, conversion rate optimization and technical integrations. He holds numerous industry certifications and is a frequent speaker on topics around B2B marketing strategy and SEO.
Adam graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in 2007. He grew up in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, just miles down the road from Altitude's headquarters in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.