I recently delivered a marketing automation best practices session to a veteran team of B2B marketers. While some of the ideas I’ve shared got traction with the team, at the end of the session, one of the managers spoke up and provided the feedback that her team has “plenty of experience running email marketing campaigns” and quite a few of the things I’ve shared with them are already “well embedded in our marketing routine”.

I was surprised. After all, prior to the session I did my homework. I analysed the client’s marketing system historic data, and intentionally picked just those best practices and tips that hit specific issues I’ve uncovered. But very quickly I realized my surprise had little merit. I was also reminded that it wasn’t the first time a client downplayed the importance of optimizing their email marketing practice. Why?

Because email marketing has been around forever.

Well, not forever. But long enough to receive the same kind of treatment that a single average performing student will receive in a class that’s otherwise filled with brilliant outliers and complete idiots. Yes yes, we know you’re here, but since you’re not breaking our charts with your performance scores or flattening it with your stupidity, well, just keep being the jolly good boy that you are, see you at graduation.

Think about it. Email marketing seems so easy to understand and operate. It’s not surprising that B2B marketers take it for granted. Here’s why:

You don’t need to learn how to interact with a thousand bits of fluctuating data like you do in, say, Google AdWords. Luckily, there are plenty of PPC vendors who’ll gladly do that for you.

You don’t need to figure out the black secrets of SEO, or keep track of Google’s ever changing search ranking algos. Are guest blog posts OK today? should I spend my acquisition dollars on building links, driving shares, or eating exotic cupcakes? who knows.

You also don’t need to spend hundreds of hours in the time-wasting expanses of social networks, trying to engage influencers in a non-awkward way, or just hoping Facebook hasn’t yet completely eliminated organic reach.

Heck, you don’t even have to worry too much about creative, since your recipients are usually enterprise employees who receive their emails wrapped in their Outlook client with images disabled by default, because of course they are.

No. All you need to do is this:

Define your list criteria. Write something. Send. Check the stats. Voila.

Herein lies one of the biggest fallacies of modern B2B marketing, and a trap well worth your time avoiding. Not only do marketers who avoid it see much better results than those who ignore it, but they’re also cooler people and live longer.

So here’s what you, dear B2B marketer, need to do to ensure those engagement numbers stay up.

1. Scrub your data clean. Then do it again.

This advice is as difficult to consistently implement as it is basic. Your organization has multiple data feeds into its marketing database: lists of event attendees, lists of leads received from 3rd parties, purchased opt-in lists (yikes), , campaign landing pages, and potentially a few others as well. Keeping it all clean and coherent is a chore, for sure. But it’s worth it. Here are a few way you can keep your data in shape, ideally before or at the moment it enters your database:

  • Implement an Excel template for list uploads, with validation rules that enforce things like phone number validities, country code conformity, campaign identifiers, etc.
  • Use an API-enabled data validation and enrichment service, such as StrikeIron or one of its many equivalents.
  • If you have a marketing automation system in place, use triggered workflows that kick in whenever a new lead is added to the database and address anomalies such as an empty company name field, email addresses from low quality domains, and others.

2. Work on your target group selection criteria, hard.

If you’ve ever attended a writing workshop, you’re probably familiar with the following piece of advice: Write something. Then cut it by half. And then by another half. (yes, I know I totally ignored the advice when writing this piece. Sue me.)

The same applies to your campaign lists. Whatever your initial list definitions are, consider adding more filters to trim the the resulting list further. The rationale is simple: targeted sends produce , always. Why? because the wider your distribution list, the higher the likelihood of its contents being irrelevant to the recipients, of hitting spam traps, getting marked as spam, or getting a high unsubscribe rate.

Also, you’ve spent top dollars getting names into your database, so why the heck are you so flippant about abusing their inbox and losing their ear?!

3. Use context to clear the way for your content

Imagine a high ranking official hurrying in her black executive car to an important parliament session. Policemen on motorcycles and vehicles, sirens blaring, clear the path for the car as it zips through crowded streets and traffic jams.

To get to your recipients, your content, your message, needs to fight its way through the cacophony of noise and the crowds of other marketers trying the same. Context can be a powerful tool to cut through the mess and allow your message to reach its destination.

Here are some contextual signals to use in your email messages:

  • Include a reminder of how the recipient’s email address was acquired
  • Provide indications of a recent engagement, such as an event both of you attended, a meetup or a phone call
  • If your intention is to be informative (always a good idea,) hook into current newsworthy events to accentuate the relevancy of your message.

4. Use behavioural signals to engage those more likely to respond

Most marketing automation systems, and some email marketing systems as well, can provide you the ability to collect engagement signals outside of the email channel, such as your website, or CRM. Engagement signals let the marketer know, either in real-time or in retrospect, how a person interacted with the marketing asset. Examples are clicks on email links, visits to specific web pages, application usage data (particularly useful in SaaS products), form fill outs, a video view, and more.

Using engagement signals within your email marketing program, especially recent ones, is a good practice to uphold. It:

  • Allows you to demonstrate granular relevancy. For example, you might want to update your audience about a specific feature upgrade in your SaaS product. Instead of hitting the entire database with a message, you leverage app usage data in your target group selection criteria, and send it only to those who’ve interacted with the feature in the past.
  • Increases the chances of engagement, by targeting people who have engaged in a recent period with other pieces of email marketing, with specific sections of your website, or even with your inside sales team.
  • Provides you with the opportunity to apply dynamic content that demonstrates how up to date you are with regards to their recent interactions. This tactic is widely used in B2C by sharp online retailers who deploy email campaigns to shopping cart abandoners, with offers related to the products they’ve selected. There’s no reason why it can’t be adapted to a B2B scenario.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn.