The Nurture Fallacy: 5 E-Nurture Marketing Myths

16 Aug

Marketing automation companies have built a big business by creating tools for electronic “nurture” programs. Now, B2B marketers around the world are executing “e-nurture” programs designed to take prospects on a multi-step journey designed to increase prospect education and awareness, and ultimately, to lead prospects to buy.

It’s not uncommon to see B2B marketers execute complex drip and trigger campaigns with seemingly endless tracks and branches. In some organizations, nurture complexity has outstripped the ability of charting tools to diagram the planned  communication paths.

While marketers must focus on the customer journey, the current e-nurture fad fails to deliver on the value that it promises. Here are the five commonly held beliefs that I believe to be myths:

Myth # 1: “You can take prospects on an email journey”

While email remains an invaluable tool for marketing and demand generation, it is a horrible tool for guiding prospects on a linear educational journey. Here’s why: only 10.8% of email is ever opened, and only 30% of mail that is opened is actually read (the rest is skimmed).

Most nurture campaigns are built on the assumption that a prospect will internalize a core message or idea and will progress on the electronic customer journey from message to message. The fact is that very little commercial email is read, very few ideas are internalized, and very few people are persuaded by content delivered through email. While some portion of people who open may click through and interact with online content, that proportion is almost always a small single digit percentage of the overall campaign audience. By the time the next message arrives, the educational benefits of the previous message are almost always forgotten.

Myth # 2: “Content should be sequenced along an educational path”

To maximize sales conversion, email campaigns should promote the best content (based on conversion rate) vs. optimizing content to follow a progressive educational path. Nurture campaigns should be focused on sequencing content based on effectiveness by first merchandising the content with the highest impact that hasn’t yet been accessed by a particular prospect. It’s common sense: sequencing content based on performance vs educational narrative will always drive better results.

Myth # 3: “The more tracks and steps, the better”

As marketers build teams and programs around nurture strategies, they often drift towards micro-segmentation of the prospect database based on interest and sales stage. The result is an endless tree of options and content as prospect interest evolves and sales stages change.

For marketing and sales, the typical result is painful complexity and a proliferation of content required to address every interest/stage permutation. In most companies, a few pieces of content do the real heavy lifting and have the biggest impact on persuasion and conversion. A proliferation of nurture segments dilutes the impact of the best content and creates heavy demands for new content that inevitably underperforms and quickly becomes out-of-date.

Myth # 4: “Prospect activity tracking is the secret to an effective nurture program “

Since only 10.8% of email is opened, a basic nurture practice is to resend messages to people who ignore the first message to try to get their attention a second, third, or fourth time. For any email sequencing marketing process to work, it is important to understand whether the prospect opened, skipped, or deleted the message. Unfortunately, the open rate data that most marketers depend on for structuring nurture programs is fatally flawed: many email receipts that are judged as “opened” were never really opened, and some that were judged as having been “not opened” may in fact have been read.

How can this be? Email open rates are based on the loading of a graphic tracking pixel. When the pixel is loaded from the server, the email is judged as having been opened and read. So if Outlook is set to not load images (as it often is by default in corporations), most of the opens will not be recorded. In the case of email read on a BlackBerry in text form, opens will not be recorded. And when the pixel loads in a preview pane as a user tabs by the message without looking or before deleting, the message wil be marked as having been opened even though the message was immediately discarded.

Myth # 5: “Nurture is essentially a free program”

I’ve heard many marketers describe nurture as free because emails are essentially free to send. While it is true that email is cheap, nurture programs are built on top of an invaluable and perishable asset: your company’s marketing database. Email is simply the mechanism to get value from this very expensive company asset. When email database programs underperform (or when a prospect unsubscribes), an enormous amount of opportunity and value is lost.

In addition, nurture programs are often expensive to build and run. Tools like Marketo and Eloqua are pricey and typically require dedicated administrators. Sophisticated nurture programs use up the time and energy of expensive marketing programs people, and content development costs real money even when the content is produced in house.

So, Now What?

While e-nurture may be overhyped and counterproductive, the core best practices of revenue marketing should remain the same: if you produce great content, build a detailed prospect data profile, develop strong analysis-based database marketing skills, and invest in marketing/sales alignment, then you should be able to drive the maximum possible B2B revenue from your existing prospect database.

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