Ryan Welmans is the Founder and CEO of Sopro, the award-winning B2B prospecting service that’s transformed email marketing from the grandad of digital to a lead generation powerhouse. As anyone who has listened to Ryan previously will know, he brings together the rare combination of deep technical expertise with a relentless commercialism.
In short, if you are interested in understanding the power of email for driving B2B sales, Ryan is the only source of insight you need.
In this interview, we will be asking Ryan about the reason email prospecting has never been more powerful, the secrets to a successful campaign and how to stay on the right side of GDPR whilst still driving serious ROI.
Ryan, thank you so much for joining us.
Dan: So I want to start with a fairly open question to begin with. Email marketing has been around forever, in digital terms, and for many brands continues to be the number 1 route to market. I just wonder, do you see that changing anytime soon? Are there any technologies on the horizon that could either threaten the role of email or indeed make it even more impactful?
Ryan: Good question.
It’s a bit of an evolutionary space as it is, I mean I think the email marketing of 25 years ago is, well, you almost wouldn’t recognise modern email marketing in that and obviously it was almost exclusively above the line. You know, not particularly personalised, generally kind of mass mailouts. And where it’s sort of evolved into today – certainly the Sopro version of email marketing – highly personalised, super targeted. You know, really high response rates from a very almost sniper rifle approach to getting messages out.
So I think there are a lot of changes that have taken place and plenty more still in the pipeline. What’s going to threaten it? I think regs have cleaned up the space a bit in recent years, I know with the introduction to GDPR, for example, there was probably a short term reduction in outbound activity while companies kind of found their feet and got some assurances that actually they weren’t going to be and hauled off to jail or subject to big fines for doing marketing, particularly on the B2B side. So that is yeah something that’s it’s taken a while for people to kind of really get the confidence back on that front.
I think a few years ago people would have said social is going to take over. You’re just going to message people directly through this platform or LinkedIn or wherever else you might be able to engage with them. And again, has that really taken shape? I don’t know what your LinkedIn inbox is looking like these days but mine are a pretty unholy sort of bun fight of connection requests and I think it’s perhaps a bit more spammy than is likely to be effective in marketing nowadays. So there’s not too much threat coming from that side.
I think you’re actually gonna see email marketing go from strength to strength I think right now, cost per sale or cost per meeting – however, you want to measure the kind of contribution to marketing funnel from a particular channel – email has consistently reduced, to I think, right now it’s at its most effective point. Generally, it’s the lowest cost per whatever your metric is compared to any of the other channels in play, and that’s only coming down.
Email marketing is just going from strength to strength. Certainly, over the next decade you’re going to see more of it and it’s just going to continue to improve itself.
Dan: I find it really interesting, right. Because as you say, not so long ago, everyone was predicting the death of email as a consequence of social. I think it’s fair to say that generally the emergence of 1 channel rarely leads to the destruction of another, right? Television didn’t kill theatre or radio. These things tend to add to the ecosystem as opposed to cannibalising one another.
That said, there’s no question that, as you say, email for many brands is actually achieving perhaps more than it’s ever achieved before. which I think certainly few people – myself included – probably would have predicted. Why is that? The technology hasn’t fundamentally altered. What is it that’s enabling smart brands – I say smart brands because clearly it’s not working for everybody – to actually make more effective use of this than they ever have in the past?
Yeah, I think it’s just the approach that’s evolved. The Sopro business model is predicated on, well we wanted to build the unimprovable sequence. What would it look like if you had access to all of the technology, all the people, the experience, the processes, what would be the unimprovable way that you could put B2B outreach in place? And email formed a big part of that. But even back then it was obvious that things like personalisation were gonna play a huge part, right. 25 years ago they weren’t really in the frame, but nowadays, you know, you’ve got a prospecting platform in place in most cases.
I think we’re past the stage where email outreach or email prospecting is a set of processes and a couple of people, it really is a platform that’s highly sophisticated, it’s very very bespoke tech that’s going to do 1 thing really well. And yeah, all of a sudden you can then start to pretty quickly and easily incorporate really high degrees of personalisation into your messaging. Totally conversational. I think in the days gone by you were seeing a lot of marketing emails going out that looked like marketing emails. And they were, you know, really great descriptions of products or services. And using that kind of text, that works really well on a website because you want to explain all of your features and perhaps throw special offers into those emails as well and you know it’s a bit of time urgency. But actually, that stuff doesn’t really work.
To generate responses from email now, you’ve got to, you know, “Hi Dan, I’m just around the corner from you. I’d love to catch up. It would be great to grab a coffee. How are you doing next week? I think it might be able to help you with this or help you with that.” That’s the kind of thing that’s gonna get a response because it’s human to human, right? It’s a person. You haven’t even really mentioned the product or service or any of that marketing stuff. So I think we’ve moved into a far more sophisticated and more conversational approach to this channel in general. I think that has played a huge part in the overall acceptance of it from a recipient’s perspective and success rate as well. And then there’s just other things like once you’ve got a prospecting platform in place that’s going to handle things like deliverability. Long gone are the days of – in fact I am at risk of naming a high volume kind of email sending platform – obviously in the old days you could very easily land in a junk folder or not make it into the inbox and really it’s kind of game over. You know if you’re not getting into the inbox, you’re not being read so that’s a game-changing thing.
I think the idea of having a platform that handles deliverability testing, you know things like domain warm-up. So 1 of the things that Sopro has is an email awesomeness checker which is going to check the text contents and the actual kind of code wrapper for any given email well before it goes anywhere near being sent just to ensure that actually it is going to make it into an inbox. So we will take out any terms that are known to be likely to trigger an inbox spam filter.
To be able to platformise these things is so far from the old days of email marketing now that the results are just immeasurably different.
Dan: Yeah. I think what I love about this is, and I think this is true of 99/100 transformations, is if you take each component of tech in isolation, it is probably not that new. But I guess it’s the process and the way that you’ve assembled that and the underlying kind of systems that have enabled you to achieve something new.
Ryan: It’s the power of tiny gains. It’s one of the central mantras of our business. If you chip away at this %, you’ve got 2% over there, where are you getting your emails from, how new is your data? And before you know it, the compounding effect of every single one of these tiny gains, and you’re 200% up on your overall campaign output.
We obsess over this stuff. So campaign optimisation for example, it’s obvious that not every campaign is going to hit the ground running. You’re going to need to tweak something. But the impact of actually having a clear data set that shows campaign performance by industry, or job title, or company size or by geographic region, looking at the delivery rates, open rates, response rates, lead rates, on a segmented basis. You do that at the end of week 1, at the end of week 2, you’ll double your performance in month 2 every single time just by switching off the segments of data that are not providing you with a good output and doubling down on the segments that are being responsive.
It sounds obvious but you need the tech to do it and that tech wasn’t there a long time ago.
Dan: Yeah, and it strikes me that that’s powerful stuff from a sales perspective as well in terms of your messaging to your customers, right? because you’re able to remove a lot of the uncertainty and guess words there. The fact that you can say that you know do this achieve x in this sector and it looks a bit like ABC, etc. And you only really get that with that degree of kind of specialism and channel focus.
I mean so much attention has gone on to kind of overarching content strategies in the last ten years and for good reason, right? But I love it when you kind of get these examples of actually just a brand or a company or a platform, just absolutely nailing one particular channel.
Ryan: I think so and actually our content strategy is literally that. I mean we’ve put so much effort into just publishing our stats – so we publish all of our live cross campaign stats directly to our website every day, you can go and look at performance by sector and it gives a lot of confidence in, you know, if I was looking at a campaign in this sector to this sort of target base I can see that actually it’s gonna come in at this kind of lead rate and I can translate that into a cost per lead or a cost per opportunity pretty easily. It’s hugely useful.
We’ve just actually released another – it’s called the state of prospecting – stat centre on our website recently where you can literally slice and dice, it’s interactive, you can look at the data every which way you can imagine and review it by region and you look at it over the last five years. What’s changed? What are the trends? I mean it’s very useful.
Dan: If you had to kind of narrow it down to like 3 or four things that you were like, get these things right and you’ve got a great foundation. What might those 3 or four things be?
Dan: I think you get a little bit conditioned to it, don’t you? I think it’s not necessarily that you ever fully buy into it, but I think like anything in life, the more that you do something, the easier the kind of setbacks become and the more able you are to kind of, you know, shrug the challenges and disappointments off.
Ryan: Okay, so I mean to start with, what is the prospecting campaign? At its most fundamental you’re going to identify and engage with the right people in the right companies and generate conversations with them. So it’s got to start with your targeting. So, defining that target base. You’ll have a good idea of that, most businesses have got a sense of where they’re targeting. It’s worth interrogating that. And then within those businesses there are specific job titles that you’re going to go after, but once you’ve turned that targeting into a list of people – which is no mean feat – you’ve then got to source the contact details for all of those prospects, right? And it’s not a case of, let’s say we’ve got 20,000 people in our CRM because we’ve been doing this for the last twenty years and great we’ve got all of our data there already, we’ll just plug it into an emailing system. That well that will never work because of the way that data works, It’s almost like ah a radioactive half-life, right? You wait a year and 50% of it’s out of date.
People change jobs every couple of years on average now it’s just a transitional environment. But yeah, your data just degrades at such a rate, if you’ve got data that’s 20 years old, literally you can be in situations where 80% of it can be out of date and you end up blacklisting your domain gives you firing emails out to email addresses that no longer exist and all sorts of stuff.
Build your email and contact details fresh for your campaign. That’s probably thing number 1 because you’re not getting anywhere unless that’s the approach you’re taking. The next, I would say, it’s gotta be deliverability. It’s got to be your technical setup. If you’re not getting into the inbox, nobody’s reading anything, so depending on how you’re sending your messaging, you need to be warming up your domain. There are quite a few things. Yeah, you’re going to get your DKIM records and your SBF records set your DNS set so that your emails are going to be recognised by a recipient email server. And so there’s usually a bit of technical involvement there and you just can’t overlook the importance of it. It’s maybe not obvious but it’s absolutely critical.
Personalisation. You’re not going to get anything response wise unless you’re adopting just a totally personalised and conversational approach. That’s probably number 3. I think I’ve touched on it just now.
Who in your business is managing this channel? And you’ve got to think of prospecting as a channel that sits alongside you know, perhaps your PPC or your events or all the other channels that you might be running. And it’s not something that’s five minutes a day or an hour a week, once it’s established it’s definitely going to be your primary channel it’ll be where you’re identifying more prospects than any other channel, engaging with more and delivering more opportunities into your sales pipeline than any other channel. So it needs to take centre stage and that means you’ve got to allocate bandwidth resources to it. Either that or hire the experts to have somebody doing it for you. It’s gonna involve multiple people and you know potentially more than a full-time role to actually do it properly. So taking it seriously is a must.
Probably the last 1 is you’ve got to use a platform now. I’d say 20 years ago it was always a choice you’d use excel or you might use Microsoft access instead of a CRM system because actually yeah, it’s just a database and you can kind of know you got your contacts and you can store a status, but nowadays if you look at even the free version of Hubspot for example, as a CRM stack, it’s just insanely functional. The stuff that it does and integrates with your website and your marketing systems and everything else. Who builds a CRM nowadays? You just wouldn’t go anywhere near that as a challenge. I think B2B outreach is at that stage where you just need a platform that handles all of this stuff for you rather than trying to do it in-house.
Dan: I listened to another of your interviews and there’s 1 particular point you made which is very specific but it really resonated with me because I’ve seen this go so badly wrong in the past with different companies, particularly where they perhaps haven’t really done a lot of email marketing in the past.
You made a recommendation of actually using a slightly separate domain to mitigate the risk a little bit. I just wonder if you could expand on that because I think that’s a major fear factor for a lot of businesses.
Ryan: So that’s the approach that we’ll take with most of our client activity. It tends to run through an alternative to the primary domain, and what that means is its domain variant that’s similar and actually, a lot of companies now have 2 or 3 on ice ready for marketing activity when needed – and that’s a sensible approach to take. You don’t need hundreds, you just need a few.
I guess the critical thing here, the real danger that you’re looking to avoid with this is blacklisting your primary domain because then all of a sudden, even your standard day-to-day emails that you’re sending to clients and whatnot are ah not gonna be arriving or they’re not going to be arriving to the inbox. In order to do that you would typically message from an alternative domain. Just keeps things safe.
I would say there are other things that you can do because you still want to keep those domains in good working order because it is a pain to have to migrate to another one, so you do things like warm up a domain prior to starting to use it. So for a few weeks before you just get kind of email activity running in and out of an account and that does make a difference to when your campaign starts its initial deliverability. A lot of the time, the difference between scoring an 8/10 and an 8.5/10 might be that there are 1 or 2 blacklist servers out there that might be listing your domain. And then you can apply and get yourself delisted. You’ve got to stay ahead of that side of things.
There’s the way that you’re constructing your actual email. Is it being sent in the form of an Outlook email or a Gmail email? They all arrive looking slightly different to a recipient mail server and that does um that does come into play when it’s making its decisions.
Got to keep your volumes down. So if you’re sending tens of thousands of emails a month you’re very quickly going to start to not land in an inbox. So yeah, we typically keep our campaigns down to a rate that a typical salesperson would be able to do if they were dedicated to finding and sending the email. Yeah, you’d probably be able to do maybe fifty a day so that’s usually the amount that will structure a campaign to deliver at.
There’s a whole kind of world of science that goes into this um this deliverability and yeah, using alternative email domains is just 1, actually. The approach that we take at Sopro, and particularly for larger clients of ours, we might have multiple email domains in use at any 1 given point in time and we sort of load balance across those.
Dan: That’s awesome. So since the origins of GDPR in 2018, a lot of businesses became extremely cautious with email marketing. I just wonder, how should B2B brands take full advantage in light of GDPR and any other regulations? How should they continue to take advantage of the kind of unique opportunities presented by email without stepping over that line? Where does that line sit?
John: So I think you’ve got to start with having total confidence in where the red lines are, right. There are almost a few areas that you need to understand, so what data am I allowed to process, where am I allowed to obtain it from, what am I allowed to do with it in terms of marketing messaging. GDPR covers some of those things but then in the UK, we’ve got PECR which is the marketing rule set that governs what you can send to who and under what circumstances. And then yeah those rules differ between B2B and B2C, so you’ve got this kind of myriad scenario with different rules. And that’s just in the UK. You start looking at kind of multinational campaigns and going to Europe and the US and very quickly you’ve got to understand lots of laws. So yeah, it gets complex quickly. You just have to totally understand the rules in every location that you’re targeting. What that then gives you is confidence to sail as close to the wind as you want and you can move your campaign to its most performant state within those rails of a kind of legal um acceptability.
So that’s generally the approach that we take and there’s not too much that’s left to kind of interpretation. Really, you just need to know what you can do in that location and then brilliant go and do everything up to that and no further.
For example, there are a couple of countries in Europe that you’re not going to be able to directly email with marketing communications. So just exclude them. You’ve got other channels that will get you into those places but where you can you should take full advantage of that.
I think the important thing is to understand what wasn’t well understood at the point when GDPR came in was this difference between B2B and B2C. It’s a game-changer because you can do email outreach in B2B, you can’t, without consent, in B2C. It’s also worth everybody understanding that you are fine to process personal information. There isn’t a law outlawing that or anything like that. You just need to be able to demonstrate why you’re doing it. You can very easily conduct a legitimate incest interest assessment on your campaign. We do this for every client campaign to assess and validate that you know you have got legitimate interest to process this personal data. You’re totally confident then when inevitably, you’re going to get a request from a customer or an angry recipient saying: “Oh where do you get my data from or why have you got this, you know GDPR, you’re not allowed to process it.” And actually, there’s just a reasonable, polite response that can inform that customer actually in the B2B space, totally fine, we’ve got legitimate interest basis for processing and actually, we are allowed to contact you.
Dan: Stepping back from email slightly. I Just wonder to what degree it should be aligned with the broader content strategy? You’ve kind of alluded to this previously so I think I have a sense of what you might say, but do you view it as a distinct channel with its own very specific goals and metrics or should it be considered part of a broader set of touchpoints?
Ryan: Yeah, so we’ve probably done kind of every version of this over the years, sort of totally isolated email outreach and then you know campaigns that perhaps incorporate the latest white paper as an attachment on an email or perhaps a call to action to get prospects to a gated content environment and probably everything in between.
But it’s been proven so many times over the years that it works so effectively just as a totally separate channel standalone. Everything’s so easy to report now you’ve just got such a clear and more or less immediate visibility of cost per prospect engaged, cost per response, cost per lead generated, cost per whatever your sales process is. One of the things that email outreach does is just short circuits that whole merry dance of you know nine content touchpoints and now getting to read the whitepaper and maybe meet them at an event and it’ll have at least 1 call. Actually, you can go straight to a prospect that you don’t know, if you’ve got the right approach, then you’re straight into a meeting and you kind of go right to the finish line. And that’s how you’ve got to look at it because it’s just so effective at doing that.
Dan: I’d be interested in talking for a moment or two about Sopro specifically because I know from having spoken to a number of people, how impressed they’ve been with the process that Sopro has and the confidence that that gives. It’d be fascinating just hear you talk about that for a couple of Minutes.
Ryan: We’re in a great place now where I think perhaps a sort of 4 or 5 years ago when we’re starting out and you know those early client days where you really define these processes, maybe not so much. And with an email campaign like Sopro deliver, you’ve generally got a sequence of engagement in most cases. For us, that’s going to be a four-stage email sequence and there’s going to be a number of slightly different messages. But you won’t send those back to back. There’s going to be a week or so between each message and yeah, that means your email engagement sequence per prospect is going to run over a period of about a month so what it means is week 1 you might maybe you’re contacting 50 new people every day, right? But actually, week 2 comes in and you’re contacting 50 new people every day but you’re also getting your message 2 out to the people from week 1 but in week 3 you’ve then got 3 sets of messages going out.
I mean first of all, as you can imagine the complexity around scheduling four sets of messaging and excluding the responders from each stage and everything that goes into that so you have to take this kind of super disciplined and system-driven approach to anything like that just to keep it working. But yeah, there is a timeline to get there and that’s a big part of our onboarding communication, Just to set the scene, what the volumes are going to look like, what the likely responses are going to look like, what the likely lead flow is going to come back like, and we calibrate all of the expectations against the industry averages. So yeah, we take a pretty scientific approach to it now. But it helps.
Dan: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much, Ryan. I knew this was gonna be good, but it has surpassed even my significant expectations. I’m obsessed with brand and content, but every now and again it just all comes down to 1 very specific channel, approaching it with the right systems and the right process in the right way.
Thanks so much for your time.