Chad White: Thanks for including me in this series. I’ve enjoyed reading them.
SWE: You’re one of the best-known people in the industry. Just about every one of my previous Email Snob interviews has referenced you in some way. Let’s talk about how you got started. Tell me a bit about your background.
CW: My background is actually in journalism. I was a writer and managing editor, mostly at Conde Nast and Dow Jones, for eight years before getting into email marketing. I’d covered the retail industry for most of that time, but toward the end was covering venture capital and private equity. I hadn’t lost my interest in retail, so I decided to start the Retail Email Blog after my brother showed me how easy it was to create a blog.
It was an eye-opening experience: “I can be my own publisher,” I remember thinking. “This will be awesome.” Six months later I’d published three major research reports and tons of blog posts… and had exactly 50 RSS subscribers.
I’d been working on my blog in addition to a full-time job and the 12-hour days and working every weekend was wearing me thin. I was ready to quit. I sent some emails of thanks to some folks who had been really nice to me and told them I was done. One of those people was Jeanniey Mullen. She said I should continue my research and blogging as part of the Email Experience Council, which she’d founded just months earlier. I said yes and the rest is history. (Thanks, Jeanniey!)
SWE: Sounds like we have something in common (the 12-hour days, etc.). Let’s talk about getting involved in the industry. Given your deep involvement in the space, what would be our recommendations for someone who’s looking to get involved in the “conversations” of the email marketing industry?
CW: One of the great things about our industry is that there is a lot of open sharing. There are lots of email marketers active on Twitter, great blogs, and sites like the Email Marketers Club where you can ask and answer questions.
SWE: Who is your biggest influence in the industry?
CW: Gees, it would be hard to name just one.
I’m heavily influenced by Aaron Smith and Lisa Harmon, the founders of Smith-Harmon. They’re super smart, great managers, and fantastic people who genuinely care about their employees and clients. They go the extra mile and it’s pretty inspiring to work with them.
SWE: What would be your top three books you feel every email marketer should read? (Email-specific books or not)
CW: Despite marrying a bibliophile and having a library room in our house, I’ll confess that I’m not a big book reader–especially not for email marketing, which evolves so quickly that information can become totally out of date in two or three years. I focus my energy on keeping up with industry blogs, research reports, and trade publications like MediaPost, ClickZ, and Internet Retailer.
SWE: That’s fair. You mentioned blogs. What are your favorites?
CW: Lots of great blogs out there, but my top five would be:
BeRelevant: If you only have time to subscribe to one blog, this should be the one. Tamara Gielen posts lists of interesting articles, posts, whitepapers, etc. about email marketing.
No Man is an Iland: This is hands down my favorite blog. Mark Brownlow is very thoughtful and his posts dive deep into a topic, citing lots of different sources. His reporting is more thorough than many industry publications.
StyleCampaign Blog: Anna Yeaman runs an email marketing agency in California with a lot of fashion and retail clients. The topics she writes about are right up my alley.
WhichTestWon: Anne Holland shares an A/B test each week and challenges you to guess which version performed better. It’s a great reminder that small changes can have huge performance implications.
Deliverability.com: Curious about deliverability issues? This is where you can read all about it. Its list of contributors is deep and impressive.
SWE: A great list of blogs there. Let’s talk about industry trends now. How do you think mobile technologies will affect email marketing in the next 3-5 years?
CW: My sense is that we won’t be talking about mobile email in 5 years. Mobile email will just be email.
Thanks to the iPhone, more smartphones are rendering HTML emails and mobile browsing is converging with desktop browsing thanks to advances like Android. Needless to say, this convergence will necessitate changes in email strategies and design. Should be exciting.
SWE: We’ve all heard about Facebook’s “Project Titan.” Given what you know of it, how do you think Project Titan will affect the industry?
CW: I don’t know a ton about it, but it will likely raise the bar for email relevancy just like the addition of social elements to Hotmail, Yahoo, and Gmail have. The inbox of the future will have more distractions and promotional messages from Target will have to go head-to-head against status updates, app alerts, vacation pictures, and viral videos.
On a personal level, I don’t know why anyone would trust their email to Facebook, a company that has repeatedly demonstrated its disdain for its users’ privacy. I actually began the process of permanently deleting my personal Facebook account over the weekend. I love social media–and Twitter, in particular–but Facebook likes to change the rules to suit themselves. I’ve grown tired of Facebook undoing my privacy decisions every six months.
SWE: Great point there. I’ve thought about doing the same. Okay, fun questions now. How has your work in email marketing affected your personal use of email?
CW: My tolerance for permission abuse is extremely low at this point. If I purchase from a retailer and unclick the email sign-up box during checkout then still get email from them, I don’t hesitate to report them as spam. Unfortunately, that happens pretty frequently.
On a lighter note, my work has also affected my wife, who now subscribes to more retail email than she used to. I think she got tired of having to ask me which retailers were having sales.
SWE: Haha, my wife would probably do the same. All right, what’s your favorite thing about email marketing? What gets you revved up (in a good way) about email?
CW: I love how easy it is to test small changes–and how those small changes can have a significant impact on performance. To me, that’s super exciting. I also love how quickly email marketing is evolving. The story is always changing, which makes the research side of my job much more interesting.
SWE: On the flip side, what’s your least favorite thing about email marketing?
CW: When I meet people outside the industry and tell them I’m in email marketing, I’d love for them not to quip, “So you’re the one that sends me all that spam.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of that. As an industry, we have a long way to go toward earning the respect of consumers.
The other thing that really frustrates is the reluctance of CMOs to invest in email. I remember talking to an email marketer last year who had to really fight to get resources to create a birthday and anniversary triggered email program. That program paid for itself in two months! There are few investments in this world that start generating pure profits after just two months. It’s a sign of how underappreciated email marketing is. It’s probably also a pretty clear sign that there are a lot of CMOs out there not making good decisions.
SWE: Let’s say you were giving a keynote speech to the industry as a whole and it was your personal soapbox. What would be your message for the email marketing industry?
CW: I’m actually giving a keynote later this month at the DMA’s Retail Marketing Conference and while the core of the talk will be about using email for multichannel engagement, I plan on starting off by discussing how “Email is cheap, but email marketing is not.”
There’s a line of thinking that email’s ROI goes up when costs are cut. While that’s true, I firmly believe that longer term, higher ROIs will only be achieved by investing more. Too many email programs are resource-starved and in the next couple of years, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will grow exponentially.
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?
CW: I wouldn’t say a word. If they don’t recognize the value of even having an email program at this day and age, I’d be worried they wouldn’t respect the channel.
I’d be much more interested in talking to a CEO that knew they needed to make improvements in their existing email program. That’s a conversation I’d be really excited to have.
About Chad White
Chad White is the Research Director at Smith-Harmon, a Responsys Company, an email marketing strategy and creative services agency. The founder and author of the Retail Email Blog, Chad is an authority on email marketing strategies and trends in the retail industry. In addition to working with Smith-Harmon clients, he regularly writes research reports on email marketing best practices and trends, and is an Email Insider columnist for MediaPost.