Any email marketer who’s spent time in the B2B world can tell you that it’s a whole different ball game than B2C. There are more destinations for a sender to monitor and inquire about when a deliverability issue rears its ugly head.
There are more possible reasons why the deliverability issue occurred because there are typically more layers of filtering to get through before you hit the inbox.
And there is less accuracy in the email metrics I’m always suggesting you follow oh-so-closely.
If you are new to B2B email marketing or want a fresh look at common deliverability challenges B2B marketers face, we have you covered.
Deliverability experts from Epsilon, Netcore, Campaign Monitor, Pardot & Marketing Cloud, ActiveCampaign, Hubspot, Zeta Global, iContact, SocketLabs, and yours truly help you understand some of the advantages and disadvantages of sending to a B2B list. And how it differs from B2C.
So let’s begin…
7 Ways To Optimize Your B2B Email Program
Following the data is always important for an email program’s success, but with B2B, it’s easier said than done since marketers are not able to accurately know who has engaged with an email.
You could throw up your hands in frustration. Or you could embrace the fact that traditional email metrics are not as effective when it comes to properly informing your decisions in B2B and invest your energy in other ways to track your success.
Here are 7 ways to cut through the noise and ensure your B2B email program is fully optimized:
- Always authenticate! Dare I say, this is even more important for B2B than it is for B2C. At the very least, have SPF / DKIM set up.
- Send mail that is valued by your recipients. This is important, no matter what kind of email you’re sending or who you’re sending it to. If it doesn’t improve their life in some way (by teaching them something, offering a product/service/discount that genuinely makes their life better, or even just making them laugh), then don’t expect a positive result when you hit ‘Send.’
- Look out for larger trends within your bounce messages. A lot of corporate domains are employing 3rd party filters like Proofpoint or Mimecast to increase the security of inbound mail. A larger pattern can emerge quite easily when you realize that the handful of seemingly unrelated domains you’re being blocked by all return the same bounce message, indicating they all use the same anti-spam technology or share the same mail servers. The good news here is that fixing your delivery issue at 1 corporate domain might actually solve the issue at multiple destinations.
- Pay attention to the trends in your data because while open and click rates might not be as accurate as they are on the B2C side, a sudden dip or spike in your existing data can still speak measures. Spotting those trends early (or being notified by Kickbox’s real-time alerts) is the key to proactive deliverability monitoring.
- Track metrics beyond email – include data points such as increases in web traffic and/or conversions around the time you send emails in your equation for measuring email performance. Tracking these activities at the customer/recipient level can help you create different buyer personas within your mailing list, and personalize their content and sending frequency accordingly.
- Be mindful of your content. Link quality is important in B2B. Your sender reputation is, too (including IP and domain reputation)! But spam filters used by corporate domains tend to be more focused on content than those used by B2C providers, and one of the main drivers for a high spam score in content is link quality. Particularly if you’re using 3rd party links, double-check that they are not driving your mail to the spam folder due to a poor reputation. Come to think of it, Kickbox has some deliverability tools to help with that.
- Explore other ways to measure recipient engagement & interest. Progressive profiling is one way to understand your email audience better because you directly ask recipients for more guidance about what they want over time (i.e., frequency, content type, etc.). You can also encourage certain types of engagement that provide more accurately measurable feedback, such as:
- Prompting recipients to reply to your email by asking a question
- Requiring them to click through to ‘read the entire article’
- Asking recipients to rate your message quality by providing links for ‘Great’, ‘Okay’ and ‘Not Good’ or even using smiley and frowning faces
- Providing links to future product roadmaps or pages related to your CTA
- Asking them to participate in polls about new features or product development
Excelling at B2B email marketing may seem daunting at first, but it’s entirely possible as long as you understand what your audience finds valuable. You can achieve this by following industry best practices for list collection and management and identifying just a few data points that allow you to measure and track your success (and failure) over time.
Notable Differences Between B2B & B2C Sending + Tips to Improve Deliverability
While many businesses have moved their email hosting on to a cloud-based service, some that might also host B2C accounts (ex: Google or Microsoft), there are significant differences in how mail is filtered between the B2B and the B2C type of accounts.
Some features include domain-wide enablement of two-factor authentication (2FA), archiving tools, access to additional security services or tools, and IP/Domain level blocking.
While many of the challenges to delivering mail are the same between B2B and B2C domains, like email authentication and consent, there are several notable differences.
Businesses tend to have a lower tolerance for spam, stricter anti-phishing and anti-malware filtering (some of these may even edit the message’s content before the recipient receives it), and additional challenges around rendering due to the email clients commonly used by businesses.
Due to the unique nature of B2B email, the challenge of getting messages delivered to recipients is going to vary from domain to domain. You’re not dealing with one provider and millions of consumers, but potentially hundreds of providers with tens or hundreds of users. Meaning you’ll need to adopt a significantly different style of messaging to your subscribers.
To improve your delivery rates, consider:
- Shorter messages – no one has time to read a short novel while working.
- Deliver great summaries and links to additional materials.
- Use rich text emails as these have a lower chance of rendering poorly in virtually all email clients (I’m looking at you Outlook).
- Build a simple call-to-action with value for the reader, such as click to book a meeting or reply for more information.
- Filtering technology could be more rudimentary than commercial filters requiring more individual domain level troubleshooting.
It’s important to step back and ask yourself what you would do if you received this same message. Does the message look and sound professional? Is the recipient the right person for this message? Am I solving a problem that they are currently having? Do I have the proper consent to send this message?
Unlike B2C domains, where you can work with a postmaster group to rebuild and repair a damaged reputation, you may not have the same luxury with a private business domain. Get on their bad side, and you might never deliver mail to the domain again.
Practical Tips When Facing Blocks From B2B Domains
One of the specific challenges of B2B deliverability is that lists tend to be composed of so many different small receiving domains – whilst a B2C list usually contains an overwhelming majority of Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo addresses.
It makes troubleshooting issues more difficult, because each of these individual domains has its own filtering rules; and those rules can be much stricter too (of course, companies try to limit the amount of marketing mail that their employees receive). And if that wasn’t enough, whilst large mailbox providers have well-established processes in place for reviewing mitigation requests from senders, the IT Manager at RandomCompany.com might not care too much about helping you out.
If you’re facing blocks from B2B domains and feel overwhelmed, here are my practical tips:
- Go back to the basics of email marketing!
- Make sure your emails pass SPF / DKIM authentication.
- Run your content through a Spam Assassin-type test to see if anything is being flagged up (I tend to use Postmark’s free tool). Email content can still play an important part in spam filtering at enterprise domains. Review your creative and your code thoroughly.
- Check if your sending IPs and sending domain are listed on any block list (you can use the MXToolBox blacklist check, for example).
Most importantly, try to see if there is an underlying pattern behind the various receiving domains, so you can cut to the chase and address the main underlying issue. To do this, you can:
- Look at the bounce codes received. They sometimes include information about what caused the block (for example, a listing on a specific blocklist).
- Look for separate domains returning the same bounce message / verbiage. Corporate domains tend to outsource their filtering to external providers. Identifying which anti-spam vendor is blocking you makes it easier to address the issue at the source. You can try running a Google search for the error message to see if it leads you to any particular anti-spam vendor.
- Look at the MX records of the domains blocking you and see if several are using the same hosting provider – the block might happen there, rather than at the individual domain level.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the divide between B2B and B2C best practices has grown increasingly blurred in the past few years, as many B2B domains now use Google or Office365 infrastructure.
This means that B2B senders, just like B2C, should aim to build and maintain a good reputation over time. This can be a challenge for brands sending irregularly / to very small volumes because they are not able to generate enough recent sending history for Google and Microsoft to analyze.
If this is your case, start by making sure to send several times per month; to boost your monthly volumes, think about extra content you could send, and consider grouping several separate mail streams on the same IP / sending domain (but remember that they will then affect each other’s reputation!).
Unique B2B Challenges & The Importance of Educating Your Teams
B2B senders will face a unique set of challenges in reaching the inbox, which can include:
- Use of 3rd party security software such as Proofpoint, Mimecast or Barracuda creates an additional layer of filtering to reach the primary inbox in addition to the recipient’s mail server or mailbox provider.
- Link monitoring (also called bot click) technology can inflate open and click rates, making email engagement difficult to report accurately.
- Higher stringency for recipient’s mail acceptance policies may require that a sender’s email sending domain and/or IPs be added to the recipient organization’s allow list.
- Internal pressure to send high volumes of mail without a clear focus on engagement and/or direction to send mail to contacts who have not yet opted into a brand.
- ABM approaches encourage marketers to send bulk mail that is not permission-based.
My top tip for B2B marketers is to educate your internal teams about the importance of aligning a bulk sending strategy to practices that support a healthy sender reputation.
You may face internal pressure from your team to send high volumes of mail without a focus on engaged contacts or send bulk mail to contacts gained through non permission-based sources.
Educating your team around email sending and deliverability best practices can help you to gain internal buy in to create a strategy that’s more likely to surface more of your brand’s mail to the primary inbox.
Three Major Difficulties With B2B Sending
Did you like my mail?
Scream into the void dot com
You changed jobs again???
I manage anti-abuse for Pardot, a B2B focused product, and Marketing Cloud, a B2C focused product, so I get to witness, firsthand, the differences between the two sending experiences.
I’d say there are three major difficulties with B2B sending, specifically:
- B2B senders are at the whims of the receiving server’s IT team
Major consumer inbox providers are not going to wake up tomorrow and say, “You know what, I think today, we’ll reject all mail where the sender has an ‘a’ in their name.” There would be pandemonium.
However, a small business can come up with any rule as they please, and they can add or modify those rules at any time- and you’d never be able to figure out how to adjust your mail to reach the inbox.
One of my favorite John Oliver websites is https://screamintothevoid.com/, which is exactly what it sounds like. You type whatever you want to type, and you send it into the void, and that can feel pretty equivalent to sending email to a business.
Does your mail disappear? Is it stuck in quarantine? Did a spam filter rule decide to delete it because your subject line had 2 emoji in it instead of the maximum of 1? ¯_(ツ)_/¯
- Data cleanliness can be a headache
In a study conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, individuals born in the latter years of the baby boom (1957-1964) held an average of 12.3 jobs from age 18 to age 52. While I’d like to see a more recent study, it does confirm people move jobs a lot, which naturally means work emails change just as frequently.
Compare that, for a second, to your personal email account. How long have you had it in comparison to your work email? People are not likely to abandon their personal email accounts and spin up a new one, so ongoing data maintenance is often less of a struggle for B2C senders.
- There is decidedly less feedback loop (FBL) data
Even though there are some ISPs that don’t participate in a traditional feedback loop (cough, Gmail), B2C senders see a significant amount of data from feedback loops, which helps guide their overall email strategy, creative, and process.
When it comes to B2B, however, IOwnMySmallCornerOfTheInternet.com doesn’t provide FBL data. Without that data, B2B senders generally have a harder time getting a complete picture of how their subscribers feel about their mail.
The good news is, it’s not all doom and gloom! B2B senders have an advantage when it comes to non-automated data in the form of customer replies. Since B2B mail tends to be sent from an “individual” as opposed to a company, B2B senders will often receive replies to their mail that can help give a better sense of how a campaign is being received by an audience.
While it can be tempting to hide all those replies off to some other inbox that no one ever checks or deals with, the replies you get from your recipients can provide some really valuable insight into your campaign’s performance and how it is being received.
You can use that unconventional data to guide your overall sending strategy, adjust your messaging as needed, and improve your deliverability.
B2B? Hard mode.
Replies are an advantage
Use them to guide you!
Cutting Through the Filters To Reach The Inbox
B2B mail recipients don’t want to receive unsolicited emails (spam) any more than B2C mail recipients, and Security teams and Postmasters have a variety of customizable third-party software options to protect their servers and their employees’ inboxes from spam.
These protective measures may include the use of anti-spam and security software (Proofpoint, Cloudmark, Symantec, etc.); verifying the sender’s IP and Domain reputation against Real-Time Blocklists (Spamhaus, Spamcop, Barracuda, etc.); and the built-in security features of office software (Office365, GSuite, etc.).
As such, sending emails to different business domains can vary depending on their use of anti-spam software and different thresholds for spam filtering.
Given that business domains have strict anti-spam filters in place, B2B deliverability can be challenging!
To maximize their inbox placement, B2B marketers should have express consent to send emails to their audience. Otherwise, marketers run the risk of their emails being marked as spam and damaging their domain reputation and the deliverability of all emails sent from their domain to that recipient domain.
When it comes to B2B marketing, spam rates are less indicative of recipients’ receptiveness as many private domains like businesses, schools, and government networks don’t offer feedback loops.
Marketers won’t see the spam complaints from those B2B recipients in their email results, however, these spam complaints will impact their deliverability. Marketers can use other metrics to gauge user engagement, like trends in open rates, click-through rates and unsubscribe rates over time.
Marketers should also ensure they have set up DKIM authentication for all their sending domains with their Email Service Providers (ESP), so that the receiving server can verify that the marketer has authorized the ESP to send emails on their behalf.
To help differentiate their emails from other senders, the marketer should, where able, set up SPF domain alignment, and use their domain for all links in the email.
Given the strict anti-spam filters used by business domains, marketers should request their recipient’s Security team or Postmaster to set up allowlisting at every checkpoint where incoming emails are verified.
Make sure that the allowlisting is correctly set up using a combination of the ESP’s IP addresses, the Friendly From domain and the Return Path/Envelope From domain.
Some B2B spam filters place greater emphasis on content filtering rather than on engagement as in B2C filters.
To avoid triggering these filters, marketers should refrain from linking directly to files and using link shorteners. They should make sure they have a good balance between image and text and ensure their links lead to content hosted on their site as often as possible.
It’s also important to be mindful of subject lines, though this is more for user engagement than for content filters. The subject line should concisely reflect the email’s content, and the email content should deliver what was promised by the subject line.
People are generally less tolerant of promotional mail in their work mailbox, so marketers are wise to lead with value-add content instead.
B2B marketers should be cognizant of the fact that as people change employment often, work addresses are more likely to become inactive faster than personal addresses.
As such, it’s important to regularly audit their email lists and remove the dormant contacts with no activity or engagement in over 6 months.
In conclusion, B2B marketers need to follow similar deliverability best practices as B2C senders if they want to successfully deliver to the inbox. Consent, respect for the recipient’s experience, timely list management and monitoring results will go a long way towards achieving a B2B marketer’s goals.
B2B Is A Different Beast, Here’s How To Tame It
Delivery and deliverability for B2B marketers is definitely a different beast than B2C.
In some ways, B2B can be very easy because the clients I work with often have very high engagement due to the nature of how the relationship is built between customer and sender, although I think I’ve just been very lucky.
But in some ways, B2B can be an elusive beast to tame. B2B often has a lot more layers of decisioning added in before an email is delivered. B2B has to deal with a larger percentage of their recipients sitting behind an admin’s decisioning for acceptance and filtering, whereas B2C often has the majority of their volume dealing with just the Big 3 (Gmail, MSFT, VMG).
B2B receivers don’t provide FBLs so being able to quickly identify and remove complainers is out the window. B2B issue resolution is often more time consuming and elusive because there are so many more gatekeepers to identify and pass through, and each has its own rules.
The caveat here is that there are huge security, filtering, and spam protection providers out there that serve a large number of B2B receivers, so if you can solve the problem for one, you often are solving for many. And lastly, although not least, B2B engagement metrics are far more skewed, so it can be harder to find the pulse on how you are doing. For example, you may see:
- Inflated clicks as more aggressive security appliances interact with messages for security check
- Lower opens in email readers that auto-suppress images (versus a Gmail that uses their proxy so they can autoload images)
- Lower opens due to corporate-level filters that quarantine or bulk based on a company’s specific security needs
What’s my tip for B2B? I have a few, but I know there will be more from the brains that power this blog..
- Become BFFs. Yes, that’s right, I said it. Make sure you start off the relationship right and get on that safe sender list. This is a sure-fire way to get to the inbox. This can be done on an individual level or if you have a partnership with the corporation you are mailing, have the admin add you at the top. If you don’t have a relationship with the admin, educate your customers on how they can protect their mail from being bulked and this can be done on the signup page, in welcome emails, etc.
- Maintain and keep bounce processing up-to-date.
Send wanted content and make sure it’s clean. If you use third-party domains, they can easily hinder delivery if their reputation isn’t up to scruff.
- Authenticate (trilled in a sing-song voice).
- Use what you can from campaign metrics, but really focus on your homegrown metrics. Know what they are coming to your business for and find ways to measure that. You can then tier your customer groups and mail accordingly.
- Give choice and control. Provide customers a preference center, don’t forget engagement metrics can be skewed, but the customer voice here is clear.
- STAY RELEVANT, and they will search for your mail and may even help send enough feedback to their admins to adjust those security filters.
And as with B2C, engagement is always important, be it with the email or through other points of contact. Although engagement isn’t as big of a player here regarding filtering, it helps keep your list honest and clean.
It will also help to temper complaints, key indicators used for fingerprinting, by making sure your audience is as engaged with your messaging as possible. Continually mail a customer who never engages or mail them content that isn’t relevant, and you’re bound to get noticed by the filtering appliances, not in a good way.
Although engagement targeting can be flawed due to false positives with non-human/bot activity, it does help to minimize traps and dead accounts.
As with B2C, view your program holistically and use as many data points as possible and compare them to trending over time, patterns between streams, and patterns of activity with your users across email and other channels.
Be accessible and easily managed, and offer up as much choice as you can to your customers. If you have a wall blocking you from seeing what your customers want, create a window.
4 Ways To Improve Your B2B Deliverability
When it comes to deliverability, marketers are bound to face challenges, whether a B2B or B2C sender. However, sending to B2B presents a unique set of challenges, but there are ways to navigate B2B sending complexities.
For one, most B2B domains have stricter filters and applications to protect sensitive information – such as employee details, proprietary and intellectual property, or confidential communications, for example.
Filtering is specific to each domain – and this filtering will have specific sets of rules on what it will and will not accept. This can include legit mail being quarantined, placed in spam, or blocked.
Factors that influence B2B deliverability are usually customized with specific settings by the domain host – whereas B2C domains are more likely to accept your message outright.
B2B and B2C domains differ in that B2B providers/domains don’t provide as much leeway with senders while bigger mailbox providers may overwhelmingly accept your emails. B2B domains are using strict spam filters and applications to make sure that they only accept what it deems appropriate and legitimate email.
In turn, this can affect senders who are sending legitimate mail to B2B domains. These protections are out of an abundance of caution.
To help improve and keep your deliverability consistent at B2B domains, consider the following:
- Be sure you are sending very specific, targeted and relevant emails to the most active recipients at those domains. Keep a “quality over quantity” approach when planning your sends and sending cadence.The more legitimate your emails appear, the more likely they are to be accepted by the domain.
- Engagement is a key factor for good deliverability, so be sure your segments are established, and list quality is up to par. Make sure your content reflects your recipients’ interests, as B2B domains will consider content as well.
- It’s also helpful to ensure you are authenticated (DKIM at the very least) – this is a good way to verify yourself as a sender, especially if you are sending from an ESP or third party service.
- Lastly, if your recipients are able to – having them add you to a safe senders list – or adding language in the header/footer of your email asking them to do the same can help ensure that future messages have the best chance of making it to the inbox. Being on a safe senders list can potentially bypass some of the aforementioned filtering and give your emails the A-OK to be passed on to the recipient.
Trust Factors Play An Increasing Role In Boosting Inbox Placement
I think one unique challenge that B2B marketers face is that the inbox providers in this space are dealing with a major increase in sophisticated abuse, so authenticating properly is more important than ever to help a sender with the “trust” factor.
It’s still critical for all senders to properly authenticate, but the difference in effectiveness for specific methods on the B2B side can be eye-opening.
In 2020 that means your bulk mail should achieve “alignment” between your DKIM signature and your message’s “Friendly From:” – the domain your subscribers see that you send “From:” should also be present in your DKIM signature.
Why is it so important? We looked at data from earlier this year that showed a major difference in open rates at Office365 and GSuite for senders with DKIM domain alignment vs. those that used a shared DKIM signature (standard at many ESPs) – 110% higher at Office365 and 67% higher at GSuite. Generally, differences largely indicate a much higher inbox placement rate.
As we get into 2021, achieving DKIM alignment will become even more important as it’s a requirement for exploring new formats like AMP and BIMI. We’ve also noticed that domain hosts are encouraging their customers to adopt DMARC, which is fantastic – but it also requires DKIM alignment for most brands that utilize a 3rd party ESP.
That’s not to say DKIM alignment is the golden ticket to the inbox – there aren’t any. You still have to follow regular marketing best practices and send permission-based email. But the data shows it can play a part and it’s necessary to take advantage of more modern email marketing features, so I think it should become an immediate priority for senders not currently set up this way.
Protecting your domain and achieving higher open rates is a win for any organization – especially after all 2020 has thrown at us.
Successful B2B Email Programs Require Active Management
Great deliverability for B2B marketers is much more challenging to achieve in comparison with B2C. The first important factor is that there is a much wider diversity of spam filters and defense systems that B2B messages must navigate.
While there has been major consolidation to products like Office365 and Google’s Workspace (Gsuite), many of these installations have additional layers of filters that businesses have established to protect their users from potentially debilitating phishing campaigns.
This means there tends to be exponentially greater scrutiny on B2B mail before it reaches an inbox.
The second factor is that performance data for studying and optimizing email delivery is much less clear for B2B email.
For example, a) there is almost no feedback loop data (complaints), b) open rates tend to be far lower, and c) open and click data are less accurate because non-human interactions (NHI) – phantom engagement activity caused by 3rd party services or filters that are automatically “test clicking” incoming email links to ensure safety– are much more pervasive.
Lastly, the common sender tactics that might help keep email out of the spam folder (such as targeting smaller audiences for better engagement) can be more difficult with so many B2B filters that are less focused on measuring and incorporating user engagement in their formula for determining inbox worthiness.
B2B filters have different goals and are more focused on productivity value from the perspective of the business vs. the logic of B2C filters, which see bulk promotional content in a different light.
The combination of these issues means that B2B mail requires more active management because the variety of issues impacting deliverability can be so vast and complex.
B2B marketers also have to have solid technical configurations. Using proper authentication and being careful about what URLs are present in their message and their use of HTTPS can go a long way in reducing NHI and overall message scrutiny.
Continuous review and testing of the qualitative issues such as message content are always important.
But, in general, all factors have to be measured more carefully in a B2B environment than for B2C messages because, depending on the nature of the business, the impact of failed messages can be higher (for example, your service simply may not work) and can therefore have a larger impact on ROI.
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