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Email Snob Interview: Bill McCloskey

For this next installment of the Email Snob Interview Series, I go C-Suite, talking email with Bill McCloskey, Founder and Chairman of Email Data Source. (ed. Now, Bill is the founder of Only Influencers.)

BillMcCloskeyScottWritesEverything.com: Bill, thanks for declaring yourself an “Email Snob.” Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get your start in email marketing?

Bill McCloskey: This August will mark my 10th anniversary of being a full-time entrepreneur. But I’ve been involved in internet advertising since 1998 when I worked at Silicon Graphics as their 3D on the Web Evangelist. Silicon Graphics had a vision of 3D on the Web that was much like Second Life is today: an avatar-based 3D environment. Through this, I really saw the value of using vector graphics in advertising on the Web. I produced the first 3D Web Banner–a tribute to the Mars landing–which was sponsored by Pepsi.

In 2000, I launched a company called Emerging Interest, a matchmaking service between interactive advertising technology vendors and the agencies and marketers that were too busy to do proper due diligence on these technologies. In 2003, one of my clients asked me to find a vendor that could provide competitive intelligence for email marketing. I couldn’t find one.

Over the next few months, I began developing what became Email Analyst. In 2005, we rebranded the company as Email Data Source. We now have the largest database of email marketing messages in the world. Over 30 million pieces of email creative going to 2003 are archived in our database and accessible to our customers. It represents the only historical record of email marketing creative anywhere.

SWE: Wow, that’s pretty involved, but an excellent resource. Let’s talk about involvement. What would be your recommendations for someone who’s looking to get involved in the “conversations” of the email marketing industry?

BM: The real conversations in the industry happen in private–not in a blog post or a tweet. This is one of the reasons I created a private list for email marketers called the Inbox Insiders–so leaders in the industry would have a private, safe environment to discuss the issues they were facing.

The other place to get the real scoop is at conferences–usually at the bar at 2 am. Some of the best email conferences I’ve attended have been run by vendors, not trade or media publications. The ExactTarget User Conference is outstanding, whether or not you’re an ET client. The Email Insiders Summit, which is a conference I helped MediaPost launch, is also a great place for the private networking that is so important in any industry.

SWE: Who is your biggest influence in the industry?

BM: It is important to me, as the Industry Curmudgeon (a role I take seriously), that I be as little influenced as possible by other people’s ideas. Sometimes it is important not to drink the industry Kool-Aid. I’ve been in this industry for a long time and have seen “the next big thing” come and go many times.

That being said, the people I have the most respect for are those that work in the trenches and speak from personal experience. People like Sal Tripi of Publishers Clearing House, Andrew Kordek of GroupOn, and Dela Quist of AlchemyWorx. These are people whose opinions I respect and usually agree with.

SWE: Speaking of opinions, how about books? What would be your top 3 books you feel every email marketer should read?

BM: Any books that quote me on the cover, or republish one of my articles would be a good start. Apparently my blurb on David Daniels’ and Jeanniey Mullen’s book “Email Marketing: An Hour a Day” just got translated into Chinese.

Of course, I’m kidding. I really don’t read a lot of books on email marketing. Being a good email marketer is not about reading books, but rather to read the data that your programs are running. Every market and every industry has their own tips and tricks that work for them but do not translate well to other channels and markets. Experience is the key–not what you read in any book.

SWE: I would agree with that, absolutely. Okay, how about blogs?

BM: As you can probably guess from my other answers, I’m not much of a blog reader, either. It is important to keep in the back of your mind that many of today’s blog stars and “thought leaders” rarely have any practical experience in what they’re writing about. You really see this in the field of social media marketing. I’ve been astounded by the amount of fluff and nonsense I’ve read from the current thought leaders in this space.

Time would be better spent thinking about your own program, diving into the data and making sense of it, than any blog that I’ve read. But there are some superstars out there: Tamara Gielen writes from the heart. Bob Frady is not afraid to speak his mind and ruffle a few feathers. And anything Dela Quist writes is worth reading.

SWE: Good stuff. Let’s change gears. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing email marketers today? In your opinion, how can these challenges be best fought? Also, what can your company, Email Data Source, do to help marketers take on those challenges?

BM: A couple of years ago, I got up at Ad:Tech and denounced the industry for doing little to promote the benefits of email marketing and not counteracting the negative articles related to spam. It was very clear to me, from having looked at our own data, that not only was email marketing one of the greatest traffic drivers on the net, but that few brands realized this.

Email marketing has always faced a negative PR problem and I’m still not seeing pro-email marketing stories being promoted in the mainstream press that I’d like to see. We also face the problem of not being the newest glittering bobble in the box. Email is a relatively old technology, albeit one that works, and is not as sexy as talking about Social Media or Mobile, neither of which have proven themselves as successful a marketing channel as email.

At Email Data Source, we’ve been publishing a series of case studies drawn from the data we collect that show the positive ROI effects of email marketing. But we need more of these stories getting out into the business press.

SWE: You mentioned mobile. How do you think mobile technologies will affect email marketing in the next 3-5 years?

BM: Certainly mobile will become more and more the device people check their email on, so designing email creative for viewing on various devices will become increasingly important. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. With the introduction of the iPad, the definition of mobile is changing.

From the standpoint of advertising at the local level, tying ads to a GPS device has the ring of the holy grail. As a consumer, I want a device that will tell where the best pizza joint is or where my bank’s ATMs are located. Devices that can make this easy, without disrupting me with irrelevant offers, will win the day. But I think people are going to be much less tolerant of unwanted messaging on a mobile device than they are in the email inbox.

SWE: How about Facebook’s “Project Titan?” Given what you know of it, how do think Project Titan will affect the email industry?

BM: Some of the blog posts I’ve read about this border on the irresponsible, claiming that Project Titan will be “the end of email marketing as we know it.” I predict this will have zero effect on the email marketing industry, based on what I know about it now, which is not much. But I do know that Facebook is the last company I would trust my email privacy to.

SWE: Okay, a fun question now. How has your work in email marketing affected your personal use of email?

BM: I’m not sure that email marketing has had any effect on my personal use of email, but I will say that I miss the days of the handwritten letter. Over the last year, I lost a close family member. One day I sat down and re-read all the old letters I’d saved over the years. There is something sad about the loss of the letter to communicate with loved ones that email doesn’t replace. That is a loss for culture, history, and humanity.

SWE: Wow, I hadn’t thought of that. But I would agree with that. Let’s keep it light though. What’s your favorite thing about email marketing? What gets you revved up (in a good way) about email?

BM: The data.

I never get tired of looking at the data we capture at Email Data Source. We recently added Reach and Inbox Delivery data and the comparative list sizes and delivery of all of the major brands is fascinating. We’ll be monitoring open rates in the next few months as well.

Having access to all the competitive data is fascinating. One thing is clear: list size has little direct connection to success in driving traffic. It is clear that lists that are properly tested, segmented, and targeted far outperform lists many times their size whose programs are not well-managed. The data is clear on this.

SWE: Love it. Okay, on the flip side. What’s your least favorite thing about email marketing?

BM: The lack of resources devoted to doing email marketing properly. Most email professionals are under-resourced, do not have the time to do the proper analysis of their programs, and have to battle on a daily basis the higher-ups who don’t understand that “blasting” their list is not the best way to achieve a positive ROI. I’ve spoken with marketers that have watched all the good work they’ve done setting up best practices for their email programs dismantled in order to drive more short-term revenue.

The lack of education by higher-ups on proper email practices and the lack of resources assigned to email programs to achieve better results is a major problem for the marketing industry as a whole.

SWE: I couldn’t agree with you more. Seriously. Okay, here’s an interesting question. Let’s say you were giving a keynote speech to the industry as a whole and it was your personal soapbox. What would your message be for the email marketing industry?

BM: I delivered that keynote in the Netherlands last year and my message then, as now, is that you need to treat email marketing as its own special marketing channel. People should feel like they are part of an exclusive insiders club by being smart enough to subscribe to your mailing list. Invitations to special events, coupons, special sales just for email subscribers–do everything you can to make people look forward to opening your email.

As an industry, we talk about delivery and best practices, but little time is spent talking about creative. The best marketers spend tremendous amounts of time testing different creative to see what will work. Getting people to not only want to sign up for your list, but to look forward to it in anticipation boils down to creative execution, something we don’t spend enough time talking about.

SWE: Last question. If you were stuck in an elevator with the CEO of a company that doesn’t utilize email, what is your “elevator speech” for email marketing?

BM: I’ve actually been in that situation. The first thing I say is that you are probably doing email marketing without even knowing it. One of the biggest shocks when we demo Email Analyst is when we show a brand manager what we’ve collected on their brand. The jaw drops open as they see email after email representing their brand which they have never seen before.

I was at a trade show once when the head of marketing for a large brand came up to our booth and told me that they wouldn’t be interested in our service because they didn’t do email marketing. In fact, they had specifically banned their affiliate marketing partners from using email. I was able to pull up over 200 emails in a 30-day period all driving traffic to the brand’s website.

Email is the most effective marketing channel out there. Do it right, or someone else will do it for you in ways you didn’t anticipate.

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About Bill McCloskey

Bill McCloskey is the Founder and Chairman of Email Data Source and was named one of online advertising’s 50 most influential people by Media Magazine and one of the 100 people to know by B2B Magazine. Mr. McCloskey was the founding columnist for MediaPost’s Email Insider, helped launch the Email Insider Summit, and has written for Clickz and other publications on interactive marketing.  He frequently speaks at major trade conferences around the world.

Prior to Email Data Source, Bill founded and ran Emerging Interest, the leading evaluator of online advertising technologies for advertising agencies and marketers as well as The Rich Media SIG, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating agencies and marketers on emerging marketing technologies.

Bill also created and moderates The Inbox Insiders, a private, invitation-only email discussion group consisting of the most influential and important C-Level email marketers, analysts and technology vendors.

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