Interview w/Ben Heald - Sift, Edo, Bristol Pound & St George’s

Ben Heald wears a vast array of hats. Not only is he Chairman of publishers Sift, digital agency Edo and business startup platform eFiling, he also acts as Chair for the Bristol Pound; and as a trustee of live music venue St. George’s in Bristo. He is, in short, a busy chap.

We heard Ben speak at a Marketing Network event earlier this year where he talked about marketing, communications and building a business. As email marketing specialists, however, one comment he made caught our ears. He explained that one of his most effective marketing tools was an email that he sends just once a year, and from that solitary email come leads, contacts, coffees with prospects and friends alike.

We were intrigued, so we pinned him down to find out more.

Winbox: Hello Ben, thanks for agreeing to chat with us. We wanted to talk because we saw you at the recent Marketing Network event, and you were saying how effective your ‘once-a-year email’ is…

Ben Heald: I’m writing one at the moment, actually!

Winbox: We won’t keep you too long then! Basically, you were saying what an effective sales marketing tool this one email is for you. Could you describe that email? What’s it about? Why did you start writing it in the first place?

Ben: I started doing it about twenty years ago; an update to my existing connections. Over the years the database has grown substantially, but the content has remained pretty consistent - it’s a personal message from me about what’s been going on in my life and business.  It’s honest, open, a little bit opinionated and I try to make it ‘wank-free’!

Back in the day, it was just used to promote Sift, but we have fantastic marketing teams within Sift and Edo who push put regular informative email campaigns now anyway. So my mailer is something broader and, like I say, personal.

The one I’m writing at the moment, for instance, covers the five organisations that I’m involved in. I used to call it a Sift Update, but now it’s more of a Ben Update.

Winbox: How occasional are we talking?

Ben: It used to be twice a year, but now it’s more like once a year: I’m involved in more things now, so there’s slightly less time than there used to be.

With the one I’m writing now, I’m going to send it to all my LinkedIn contacts - these days, that’s the best database of all. I don’t think anybody can maintain anything that good, not unless they’re working a database with hundreds of thousands of regular product users. For most businesses, everybody you need to contact is on LinkedIn.

Winbox: But the database you started with twenty years ago clearly wasn’t on LinkedIn.

Ben: No. I used to keep it in whatever contact management system we were using at the time. I still maintain a database for people in Salesforce now, for instance, but soon… well, I’m toying with whether or not I need to keep my own database at all: LinkedIn is really effective.

Winbox: Our take on email in general is that it’s only as good as the data you hold, so… are you vigilant with who you invite or accept on LinkedIn?

Ben: Yes. I don’t say yes to everybody. I only link with people I know, or think are interesting, and I only invite people I’ve met. Sometimes, just occasionally, if someone’s only one contact away, I might approach them, but not usually.

Winbox: Do you actively promote your ‘one email’?

Ben: No, it’s by invitation only really. It goes to people I want to send it to. It’s written to people I know, rather than being a cold thing.

Winbox: Is that why it’s been so effective?

Ben: Yes. It’s personal. It comes from me, and my contacts have been getting for up to twenty years. They know I have views on things, and in most cases they’re people I’ve developed a relationship with at some point - we’ve done business together or they worked for me, rather than bumped into each other somewhere.

Winbox: The golden egg of marketing currently is authenticity, and this is about as authentic as it gets…

Ben: It is authentic, it always has been. That’s the way I try to engage with people and talk to them. If you’re open to them, they’re open back.

Winbox: What’s the call to action?

Ben: The CTA is “make contact with me”. I’m a great believer in sitting down and having lots of talks. I do it a bit less than I used to, but I used to try and have a coffee with about 200 people a year. It’s easy if you meet people at conferences and things. I do a bit less of that now...

What usually happens is that I send it out, and I get 20 or 30 people who make contact and say “Ben, let’s talk about this/that/the other”, and after a couple of months some conversations have built that end in a new idea or a sale or a hiring. All kinds of things flow from that CTA.

Winbox: Talking more broadly, do you subscribe to any emails or newsletters yourself?

Ben: Oh yes - and people subscribe me to lots, too.

Winbox: Do any stick out particularly as must-opens?

Ben: Well, I get things that I’m interested in, from a passion or a business perspective. There are a few news ones - the Economist, the FT, the Guardian - that keep me happy and informed. I get some environmental things, some publishing things, some tech things, but I try not to read too many. I’d rather have a smaller number that I take the time to read. If I never read them I unsubscribe.

Winbox: So is there anything that would make you immediately unsubscribe?

Ben: Anything that I haven’t subscribed to. Even though spam filters are radically better than they used to be - and I think that’s why people are using email more than they used to - I nevertheless get stuff sent by people who subscribed me to something - usually American marketing teams, because they don’t have to adhere to European legislation.

When I was first subscribing to email newsletters back in the Nineties, different boundaries and laws applied. My address was added to all sorts of things and it’s simply not possible to get out of them. At some point I got added to a list that obviously said “opt in for emails”, and once you’re on you can’t get off. So I’m always being added to things off the back of that.

Winbox: So email is a valuable part of the marketing mix, here and now?

Ben: Yes. I don’t think it’s ever really been challenged. In the professional or business sectors, people mostly work through their emails fairly religiously. It’s a valuable place to put your message. If you can get your message in a trusted email vehicle into someone’s inbox, that’s the best thing to do.

The majority of business people don’t use Twitter, and those who do, don’t watch it very carefully; Facebook’s use case is more personal; then you have the rise of internal networks and Whatsapp and all. There are plenty of networks about, but there’s nothing as ubiquitous as email - if you can get in there.

Winbox: How well has email worked for the businesses you chair?

Ben: Well, on the Sift side, it’s one of the most effective thing we do. For example, AccountingWEB is our largest title, and we send an email to subscribers that goes to around 100,000 people three times a week. If we promote one of our clients in that email, they get hundreds of leads. It’s a self-targeting group, and they respond well to promotions - it’s not dissimilar to the old-fashioned trade magazines.

I’m trying to get St. George’s and Bristol Pound to learn from all my experiences at Sift. I’d like Bristol Pound to send out a daily email - Bristol Pound’s lunch of the day or best night out - because it would work in the same way, it’d be self-targeting.

Winbox: From once a year to once a day - do you think there’s an ideal regularity for email?

Ben: It depends on the business. I get emails more than once a day from Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn, which should tell you something. You know email is still the prime method of communication when the biggest social media platforms still use it to communicate with you.

Winbox: We couldn’t agree more. Ben, thanks very much for your time. We’ll let you get back to that email.

Ben: Pleasure, thanks.

Thanks again to Ben for his time and insights. You can follow Ben on Twitter here, but you’ll have to wait for an invite to the newsletter. For more expert email advice, download our ebook here.