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Email is the foundation of most marketing programs -- and for good reason. For 79 percent of B2B marketers, it’s the most effective channel for demand generation, according to Content Marketing Institute. Plus, as Ann Handley, chief content officer for MarketingProfs, pointed out, email is the only digital channel where people (not algorithms) are in control of when and where your content is exposed and to whom. But B2B marketers must rethink how to stand out in today’s crowded inboxes.

At the most basic level, rising to the top of the inbox is a matter of establishing trust. The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer survey found global mistrust in business, with the sharpest decline in the U.S., where 42 percent of buyers reported not knowing which brands they could trust. Buyers want to trust that you'll deliver relevant emails at the right time. Establish that trust, and recipients are more likely to prioritize, open and respond to your messages.

Applying AI To Bridge The Trust Gap

Many marketers have mastered the art -- and science -- of optimizing email through testing, trial and error, and tweaks. However, they have been limited to intuition, best guesses and tests spread out over days and weeks to identify preferences by segments. Because the technologies and methods to date aren’t applicable in real time, it’s simply not possible for humans to learn and optimize before opportunities are lost.

Now, marketers are applying the latest technology -- namely, artificial intelligence (AI) -- to achieve this goal and spark personalized interactions at scale. AI can quickly zero in on the most predictive attributes in a data set to make an intelligent recommendation, and progressively improve through machine learning. Moreover, it handles in seconds what it takes marketers hours, days and weeks to accomplish -- and eliminates human error in the process.

Not only does AI make it possible to personalize and deliver messages to the right audience at the right time, but it does so in an automated fashion. Emails that are personalized in the moment and triggered by insights into each recipient’s behaviors outperform batch-and-blast emails that appeal to the lowest common denominator. In fact, AI-powered email helps marketers in four core ways.

1. Reach Recipients At The Right Time

According to the DMA "Email Benchmarking Report" for 2018, the average B2B email open and click-through rates across industries are 15.1 percent and 3.2 percent, respectively. In other words, send an email to 1,000 recipients, and it’s likely that only 150 will open it, and a mere four or five will click on the embedded link.

With AI, marketers can dramatically improve those numbers. AI can identify when each recipient is most likely to open a message -- something that is time-consuming for marketers to determine. Even when marketers have this insight, they can often only select send times to align with broad factors, such as time zones. They certainly don’t have the means to select the ideal time for each individual. But AI does. If someone is more likely to open emails on the weekend versus a weekday and in the morning versus the afternoon, AI will send emails accordingly, greatly boosting the odds of an open.

Seventh Sense is just one example of these AI-powered tools. It integrates with platforms like HubSpot and Marketo and, based on your email data, determines the optimal time to send emails for maximum engagement. Optimail is another solution that uses AI to automatically adjust the timing of email sends.

2. Establish The Right Cadence

Another key element in getting email subscribers to engage is sending just the right number of messages. Frequently bombarding recipients with emails increases the chances of someone opting out of your communications. But sending emails too infrequently can make you feel like the long-lost relative who drops in out of the blue with an ulterior motive. During those gaps where you fail to make an appearance, a competitor could be effectively engaging with your prospective customer.

AI eliminates the reliance on broad assumptions, instead determining the optimal cadence based on each recipient’s preferences, personal habits, time zones and history of activity. In fact, AI can pinpoint which subscribers' engagement increases the more frequently they hear from you.

3. Send The Most Relevant Messages

If you aren’t saying the right things, it doesn’t matter when your email arrives. AI quickly learns the best combination of subject lines, body copy and images for any given recipient. Using natural language processing, it can create subject lines, body copy and calls to action that can even outperform those written by humans. The technology is so advanced that publications including The New York Times, Reuters, The Washington Post and the Associated Press use it to crank out articles.  

It does this by calling upon all the data you collect about your email subscribers, site visitors and customers. For instance, seeing that a person has visited your website, AI can personalize a follow-up email with a relevant subject line that optimizes the open rate and body copy to encourage a click-through.

This not only improves the return on your email, but offloads you and your team of time-consuming A/B testing. In fact, you can test even more elements and variations and send out the best emails to each individual.

4. Engage Throughout The Customer Life Cycle

Impersonal, bulk email designed to fill the funnel is going by the wayside. Next-generation email empowers B2B marketers to engage prospects and customers more effectively throughout the buying journey and customer life cycle based on each person’s preferences.

If you’re ready to apply the power of AI to your email marketing, keep these tips in mind:

• Only use AI once you've figured out a workflow or process you can improve at scale.

• Validate that the product you're considering is truly AI-enabled instead of simply making rule-based decisions.

• Pilot the AI-powered solution before completely relying on it.

Deliver value with every message, and recipients will trust your emails are worth their time. As they engage, AI will continually tailor your messages to better serve each recipient. The result is higher engagement and the foundation for a trusted relationship.