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Email Snob Interview: Loren McDonald

I’m excited to once again continue the Email Snob Interview series. Today, I talk email with Loren McDonald, Vice President of Industry Relations at Silverpop.

LorenMcDonaldScottWritesEverything.com: Loren, thanks for jumping in. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a bit about your background.

Loren McDonald: I was first exposed to email marketing back in 1998 when I was working in the Audience Development practice of USWeb/CKS, where the email marketing practice reported to me. I could see that the industry had to move to direct permission-based list-building approaches.

I really got my feet wet in late 2001 as CMO of NetStruxr, a commercial real estate marketplace. Here, I fell in love with the immediacy and measurability of email marketing.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, I produced about half a dozen print newsletters at Arthur Andersen. They were tremendous marketing tools, but I had little lens into their actual engagement. My experience at NetStruxr blew my mind, and, especially after the response from one of our VCs, when I presented our email results, I knew that email marketing was my future.

I subsequently started my own email and search consultancy where I worked with a variety of clients, from retailers to banks implementing email programs, especially list rental campaigns [Email snobs and geeks: please note the word “rental:” No CDs were ever purchased  ]

During this period I worked with a few ESPs. Ultimately, I landed the role of VP of Marketing at EmailLabs (now Lyris) in early 2003. A key part of my role was thought leadership–writing, speaking, studies, and working with clients–which ultimately led to joining Silverpop in January 2008 in a full-time “evangelist” role. The rest, as they say, is history.

SWE: Needless to say, you’ve been around the block quite a bit and know just about everyone in the industry. Given that deep involvement in the email marketing industry, what would be your recommendations for someone who’s looking to get involved in the “conversations” of the industry?

LM: I’d suggest a 3-prong approach:

1. POV or Voice. Develop a point of view and a unique voice that you can use to distinguish yourself in the dialog. Whether it is driven by your background, current role or industry, you can bring an individual perspective to the conversation–that is vital to good dialog.

2. Outlet. Pick the spots where you feel comfortable contributing and where you can be fairly active. It is probably better to be active in a few places rather than being spread out. So dive in, whether it is your own blog, a community blog, Twitter, a LinkedIn group, community or whatever.

3. Tribe. To have a good conversation you need to have followers or a built-in “Tribe.” These are typically like-minded folks (though not always) that you can count on for engaging in great dialog and sharing. Then just do it.

SWE: Definitely a great way to go about that. Speaking of tribes and influence, who is your biggest influence in the email marketing industry?

LM: It would be tough for me to point to just one person, so I’ll mention a few:

1. David Baker, Razorfish. David is just the smartest person I know in the industry. He is always thinking at a different level from many of us. David simply makes me rethink my ideas and pushes me to move my thinking to a whole new level.

2. Bill Nussey, CEO of Silverpop. Long before I joined Silverpop, I had tremendous respect for Bill and the company. I genuinely now respect how Bill has approached the email marketing industry focusing on building innovative technology overlaid with best practices and thought leadership. He, like David, is wicked smart. Our conversations force me to think toward the future state, but also how technology can help solve email marketer challenges.

3. Niti Chhabra. Niti’s name probably is unknown to most, but we worked together at USWeb/CKS and then again in 2001-2003. Niti taught me everything I knew about email marketing at that point.

4. Stefan Pollard. Stefan and I worked closely together at EmailLabs. With his background at Habeas and some very high-volume senders, he taught me a lot about the inner workings of the deliverability and anti-spam worlds.

Most importantly, I loved just discussion email practices with Stefan. He would always see a side to an issue that I hadn’t considered. As I’ve written elsewhere, Stefan’s passing truly was a loss to the industry but as an influence and sounding board to me personally.

SWE: Great list there. I never got the chance to meet Stefan personally, but I feel like I met him through the kind words of the countless tributes that came in the wake of his passing.

Moving forward, let’s talk about books. What would be your top three books you feel every email marketer should read?

LM: Well, there are a lot of great email marketing books out there–starting with Bill Nussey’s “The Quiet Revolution in Email Marketing.” But I’m going to mention some non-email books:

1. Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout and/or “The New Positioning” by Jack Trout with Steve Rivkin. These books are more than 40 and nearly 25 years old respectively, but are probably the seminal books on positioning.

Blandness is one of the biggest weaknesses I continue to see in email marketing. So many emails are undifferentiated, unexciting–simply electronic versions of ads and direct mail pieces. I think, at the heart of it, commercial emails are like branded products. They need to be positioned so that they can own the recipient’s mind over competing messages.

2. Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin. Like a lot of business books, this one is simple and straightforward. You can run to a new company, or you can stay put at your company and find a way to make a difference and be indispensable.

The email marketing industry in particular and the broader marketing world at large need more linchpins. We need more marketers who can drive change within their organizations. This book should motivate a few people to do just that.

3. Any good business strategy book. A few of my favorites are classics like:

Email is a powerful communications and marketing channel. But at the end of the day, to be truly valuable, it has to support your company’s core strategies.

These and similar books will give you the tools to have a dialog with management on the vital roles that email can play in helping drive and support critical business objectives and processes.

SWE: What about blogs? What are your top 5?

LM: My five:

  • 1. Mark Brownlow’s “No Man is an Iland” — Mark simply does the best job of anybody in the industry, covering all sides of an issue and often testing theories in his own emails.
  • 2. Seth Godin. Random stuff that usually states the obvious but is always a good reminder of the right way to do things.
  • 3. Email Wars. Dylan Boyd always does a great job sharing good and bad email examples and analyzing the latest trends.
  • 4. Jay Baer’s “Convince and Convert” — While mostly on social media, Jay often discusses email marketing and its intersection with social media. Jay just gets it right.
  • 5. Mashable. Again, primarily about social media marketing, but Mashable is always on top of the latest social marketing trends and happenings.

SWE: We’ve talked about influences. Now let’s talk challenges. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing email marketers today? How can these challenges be best fought?

LM: Corporate Relevance — Corporate respect and relevance is the 640-pound gorilla in the room. As I write this, I just got off the phone with a client at the CPG company who is battling someone in the brand group over whether they should even be using email marketing as a channel.

Email marketing is the marketing workhorse, but it isn’t sexy and doesn’t get the buzz and attention paid to social and mobile, even though they lack comparable ROI. Email marketers and the industry itself must communicate email’s role and value in achieving corporate objectives better.

Email’s biggest challenge has long been that even when done poorly, it delivers a great ROI. Marketers have to establish that “aha” metric that convinces management of email’s contribution and commensurate resources needed to deliver a world-class program.

Get respect and appropriate resources, and the right email marketing team can tackle minor challenges like deliverability and relevance.

SWE: Let’s stay in that challenge vein. How do you think mobile technologies will affect email marketing in the next 3-5 years?

LM: The explosion in smartphones and now iPads and soon the broader tablet devices makes email marketing even more vital. As these devices become so prevalent and with better HTML rendering, consumers will become more, rather than less, engaged with well-executed email programs.

SMS will certainly grow in popularity, as well as mobile apps, Twitter, and location-based channels such as FourSquare. These might replace some email usage for some people, but email will remain a strong marketing channel because of its bigger content palette (length, images, layout, navigation, etc.).

SWE: Speaking of apps, let’s talk about Facebook. We’ve heard about Facebook’s “Project Titan.” Given what you know of it, how do you think Project Titan will affect the email marketing industry as a whole?

LM: Assuming that Facebook does launch a Web mail server later this year, it is ultimately a good thing. Having another email entrant will clearly create more deliverability and rendering challenges for email marketers. However, anything that continues to foster use and viability of the email channel is a good thing.

While it is still speculation, a Facebook entry might actually make our inbox life a bit easier. Our email streams tend to fall into three camps: friends/family, work, and commercial messages. Facebook could evolve into the account that most of us use to communicate with friends and family and our Hotmail/Yahoo/Gmail/AOL/etc. accounts become our commercial message accounts.

The other aspect is that someone who can control the consumer inbox will have the opportunity to dominate multiple channels of communication: social, email, SMS, voice. As the largest social network, Facebook will also clearly make its email solution a key means of sharing conversations and content into the network.

Facebook has certainly had some missteps with some of its products. A Web-based email offering will probably have some hiccups as well, but Facebook will probably get it right eventually.

SWE: Intriguing view there. We’ll see what happens. Okay, fun questions now. How has your work in email marketing affected your personal use of email?

LM: Well, first, I expect more from the newsletters and commercial messages I receive. I pay less attention to those emails whose design and content don’t measure up.

I’m sure I read emails differently from most people. I view them without turning on images just to see if they are readable. Because I subscribe to so many, I also pay little attention to emails that offer “15% off and free shipping” because almost every email I subscribe to says the same thing.

So, while my wife probably pays attention to those discount offers, I’m looking for emails that tell me the senders know who I am.

I do have to say, however, since I got my iPad, I have enjoyed email more as just a consumer. (Yes, I finally got in my plug for the iPad, on which, in fact, I wrote my answers to these blog questions.)

I’m able to relax in the backyard, living room, or wherever and go through my emails comfortably in a way that I don’t on a desktop/laptop or smartphone.

SWE: What’s your favorite thing about email marketing? What gets you revved up (in a good way) about email?

LM: Metrics. The one thing that hooked me on email in 2001 was its measurability. I can spend hours looking at email statistics trying to uncover meaning and insight. I’ve never been very good at puzzles, but baseball statistics have fascinated me since I was a little kid. Email marketing metrics give me that same feeling of exploration and discovery.

SWE: On the flip side, what’s your least favorite thing about email marketing?

LM: Inertia. We as an industry spend so much time arguing about whether a pre-checked box is good or bad, or double opt-in versus single opt-in, or “buy versus “rent,” etc.

Now, these conversations are often entertaining and provide plenty of Twitter and blog fodder. I’m as guilty as anybody of fostering these arguments, but I wish we could move the conversation along.

The good and bad news is that thousands of companies and marketers push the send button for the first time every year with little or no idea of what they are doing.

But, with literally tens of thousands of blogs, articles, whitepapers, and webinars on email marketing, it is surprising that people don’t take advantage of this educational content. It is almost as if we need to establish the equivalent of a driver’s test or certification before someone can send a commercial marketing message.

Accountants have to pass the CPA test and lawyers the bar exam. Perhaps we need something similar for email marketing? Hmm…

SWE: We just need an acronym, like CEM (Certified Email Marketer). Anyway, let’s say you were giving a keynote speech to the industry and it was your personal soapbox. What would be your message?

LM: Using the “Rule of Three,” I’d talk about these three things:

1. Think outside the box (or bun if you’d prefer). Too many marketers focus on incremental improvements to their current programs. Step back and figure out how email can solve business challenges and contribute to your company’s core business objectives–then attack those areas.

2. Just do it. Quit making excuses that you don’t have enough time, resources, budget, respect, expertise or whatever. Stop. Build the case. Then fight until you get the resources. To steal from Seth Godin, become a linchpin.

3. Step up to the thought-leadership plate. I’d ask that client-side email marketers start carrying more of the advocacy load. Too many of the voices in the industry are people like myself: those who work for vendors and agencies.

We are starting to see more people like yourself and Andrew Kordek speak up, but we need a lot more. Something I’m personally focused on is recruiting and encouraging more client-side marketers into the role of sharing and evangelizing.

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

LM: First, I’d ask the CEO if customer retention and repeat business were key business objectives for his or her company. I’ll presume the answer is yes.

Next, I’d ask how she planned to communicate with these customers.

Finally, I’d close by saying, “Email marketing is like the elevator in this high-rise hotel. Without it, it is pretty tough to get to where you want to be.”

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About Loren McDonald

McDonald’s role at Silverpop is to educate clients and prospects on best practices and emerging trends in email and engagement marketing. He has 26 years of experience in marketing, consulting and strategic planning. McDonald has written more than 400 articles and blog posts and is a frequent speaker at major industry conferences. He has held executive marketing positions at companies including Lyris, Inc., EmailLabs, USWeb/CKS and Arthur Andersen.

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