Invoices occupy a sweet spot for business: they are one of the few types of mail that are promptly opened and read. A surprising amount of invoices, however, are devoid of any kind of marketing message. Since you have the complete and immediate attention of your customers—the first step in any sales cycle—putting a message on your bill or invoice is an opportunity that shouldn't be ignored.
"The biggest advantage is that it's something the client is already receiving from you, so it's not overly invasive," says Melanie Wright, the marketing director for Abstrakt Marketing Group, a full service marketing company in St. Louis, Missouri.
Besides this stealth superiority, you can insert a wide range of messages on the invoice. For example: announcing a new product, upselling a service package, asking for customer feedback, sharing a testimonial, offering a free white paper, or acknowledging the customer's loyalty. It's not so much what you put on the invoice as it is capitalizing on a new touchpoint and reconnecting with your customers.
Just say thank you
Abstrakt's Wright notes that they've used invoice marketing to give updates on products and services. They also nurture relationships by reminding their customers to use them for upcoming projects, discreetly asking for referrals, and requesting testimonials. "Those little details and touches and customizations play into [business-building]," she says.
Putting a simple thank you or other sincere note of appreciation on the invoice can pave the way to future sales, too.
"Instead of using your traditional carrier envelope, put [the invoice] in a nice envelope," recommends Daniel Glickman of FirmFlair, a marketing consultancy in Sherborn, Massachusetts. "Change the perception that [the invoice] is a penalty of doing business with you. It's not a downside, it's one of the benefits." For added impact, send the thank you in its own envelope inside the main invoice envelope.
Glickman emphasizes that any invoice message must complement—not contradict—your overall messaging. For example, a business that markets itself as giving personal customer service would send the wrong tone with a message on an invoice that sounded cold or bureaucratic. Still another mistake would be to come across as pushy or hard selling if you usually cultivate a warm, low-key tone in your other advertising.
"You're sending an invoice to get paid for the work you're doing. The question is, why did they hire you in the first place? You don't want to contradict that," Glickman says.
Working together is key
Which department owns invoice marketing, accounts payable or marketing?
"It's definitely a joint effort," says Abstrakt's Wright. "I could have a million ideas for what I think would be great for invoice marketing and then I would run that by our accounting department [to have them] review the functionality of it as well as the professionalism and legal aspect."
Abstrakt relies on both internal and external collaborations to enhance the power of their invoice marketing. For example, Abstrakt partners with a web design firm to handle services that they don't cover themselves. But instead of sending them just a regular invoice, Abstrakt takes its own advice: they include customer feedback on projects that the design firm executed and even gives them leads for new business.
It is generally agreed that messages on invoices should be short, direct, and few in number—one, or sometimes two at most. As with a renewal series, variety is key.
"If your customers see the same thing on every invoice, they're going to quit looking at it," says Jerry Ellis, vice president of sales and marketing for Lanvera, an outsourcing company in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that delivers documents to customers through print and electronic means. "If [the message] changes all the time, now your customer is going to be trained that you're doing promotions or marketing in the invoice, so they're going to look at it."
Ellis recommends putting the marketing message upfront on the invoice so the recipient sees it right away before they get involved in the financial transaction of paying the bill. Since the bill is primarily text, using graphics is a keen way to draw the customer's eye.
"The entire back of the carrier envelope and even certain portions of the front can be used to put a marketing message on it, too," he says. "The message on the outside could be the full message or 'Look Inside For' something more."
Marketing messages also work well on bills sent electronically, and even offer a distinct advantage over snail mail. Not only can the bill be paid immediately, but it can also be embedded with a link that takes the customer to a new landing page with a fresh marketing message. Response can be tracked to identify what language or offer was most appealing.
Outsource your invoicing
Having a third party company, like Lanvera, handle the myriad details of invoice marketing can be a real time saver for a small business, as Nisly Brothers discovered. The small, family-owned trash hauling company, located in south central Kansas, was founded in 1957 by the father of the current president, Marvin Nisly.
Nisly takes advantage of invoice marketing to keep his business at the forefront of his customers' minds through a variety of messages, from promoting new products and announcing enhanced services—such as open top containers and e-billing, respectively—to non-sales-oriented, appreciative messages at Thanksgiving and Christmas that nurture relationships.
Although he doesn't track specific results to particular messages, one message does stand out in his experience.
"We got an extremely strong response when we did a survey that asked customers to rate our company in different areas," Nisly recalls. "If they included their account number, we'd enter them in a drawing for a gift certificate. We got some helpful feedback from that. I was amazed."
Nisly's business sends out around 3,000 pieces of mail every quarter. Outsourcing the printing, handling, and inserting to an outside vendor has freed Nisly's small staff to go onto other jobs. "Now, when we're finished building the invoices and uploading them to Lanvera, we're done," he says. "It's been a huge savings for us."