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Email Snob Interview: Chris Donald

I’m excited to continue the Email Snob Interview series today by talking with email with Chris Donald, Partner and VP of Sales and Marketing at The Inbox Group.

chrisdonald-ballgameScottWritesEverything: Chris, thanks for jumping into the fray.

Chris Donald: Scott, thank you for this opportunity to be included in the interview series. The Email Snob Interviews have always been one of my favorite posts to read. You rock as always!

SWE: Thanks, I appreciate that. All right, let’s get started. I’d love to know how you got your start in email marketing.

CD: I started in email marketing back in 1996 while promoting a couple of travel websites I had created (KeyWest.com and FloridaKeys.com).

The idea was to keep people up to date on the news from Key West and extend offers and discounts for lodging (especially the Bed and Breakfast accommodations), watersports, restaurants, and nightlife on the island. People could subscribe to our newsletter and, even back then, choose what type of offers they were interested in. We also included local stories like where the locals drink and dine. It was hugely successful and created great interaction with readers as well as drove traffic to the sites.

After selling those websites, I started eNews Builder in 2000 with a partner. I honed my skills in email marketing over the next 9 years while working with Fortune 500 companies and many large non-profit and political groups.

In September of 2009, I started with the Inbox Group, and that’s where I am now.

SWE: Given your deep involvement in the industry, what would be your recommendations for someone who’s looking to get involved in the “conversations” of the industry?

CD: The funny thing is I’ve always been an under-the-radar guy up until about a year ago. But given that, here’s what I’d suggest:

  • Find a few blogs that pique your interest and offer your viewpoint in the comments.
  • Or better yet, start your own blog and write about what you think is important in the email marketing industry.
  • If you’re not on Twitter, sign up and start by following some of the email marketing minds I mentioned on the Email Guide.
  • Get involved on LinkedIn and some of the great email groups there.

This should give you a good start and an easy way to get into the conversation. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to others. The email marketing industry, for the most part, is great at welcoming new people to the group.

Also, it’s important to have a sense of humor!

SWE: Haha, yes it is. Seeing as how you’ve gotten more and more involved in the industry over the past year, let’s talk about influences. Who is your biggest influence in the email marketing industry?

CD: My biggest influence in my email marketing career is someone some here may not recognize: Jeff Mesnik. For 10 years, Jeff was a partner at IMNINC (I Make News). Jeff and his brother Peter started IMN and created one of the best email marketing platforms on the planet. He was talking to me about relationship marketing back in 2000.

Currently, I’m a big fan of the blog author group over at The Email Guide.

And, of course, Mr. John Caldwell. Even though he is quite senile now, he does occasionally manage to say something relevant about email marketing every once in a while. (Though I’m pretty sure most of those comments are swiped from Ryan Phelan. #PUNKED)

SWE: (Note to John: I was not involved in that burn at all.) Haha, let’s talk books! What would be your top three books you feel every email marketer should read?

CD: I clearly don’t read enough books, but I have a couple:

1. Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (by Robert Fulghum).
If you run your email marketing and social media with these rules, you’re bound to succeed:

  • Share everything
  • Play fair
  • Don’t hit people
  • Put things back where you found them
  • Clean up your own mess
  • Don’t take things that aren’t yours
  • Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody
  • Wash your hands before you eat
  • Flush
  • Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you
  • Live a balanced life — learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some
  • Take a nap every afternoon (Ed. Wouldn’t that be nice?)
  • When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up, and nobody really knows how or why. But we are all like that.
  • Goldfish, hamsters, and white mice (and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup) — they all die. So do we.
  • And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learn — the biggest word of all — LOOK.

2. The Truth About Email Marketing (by Simms Jenkins)
Written in 2008. This is a great book for any email marketer, and especially Newbies, to get the real lowdown on email marketing.

3. Follow and read the industry blogs. Because the email marketing world continues to change, it’s best to read posts on respected blogs and industry sites to keep a pulse on what’s happening as well as trends within the industry.

SWE: You mention blogs. What are your five favorite blogs for email marketers to read?

CD: Sorry, I’ve got 8… I don’t follow direction well.

  • The Email Guide — Great community and very good authors on their blog.
  • Deliverability.com — Great content from the industry.
  • Red Pill Email Blog — Email marketing knowledge with an attitude from John Caldwell.
  • The Email Wars — Always a good read with posts by Dylan Boyd.
  • The Email Zoo — Rory always has something interesting and useful in his posts (Ed. As well as the other authors, including myself!)
  • Email Insider — Some of my favorite industry thought leaders post here.
  • Xan Pearson’s The Social Junction
  • And, of course, Scott Writes Everything — one of the most creative and thought-provoking blogs on the planet (I’m guessing that’s enough sucking up to you, eh?)

There are many more…

SWE: Haha, always fun to have someone list this blog among their favorites, whether genuinely or not! All right, let’s move on to the meat and potatoes. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing email marketers today? How can these challenges be best fought?

CD: Normally I would say deliverability and subscriber engagement. But I think I’ll go with “Paying for the Inbox for $1,000, Scott.”

It seems email marketing is always fighting for its share of the inbox and most pundits write either about how the inbox is shrinking or how email is dead. I personally and professionally think they are wrong. If email is dead, then stop using it. Then let me know how that works for you.

As email marketers, we understand that trust, reputation, relevance, and relationship are what drive successful email marketing campaigns. What we continue to fight are the sins of: the spammers, the blasters, the phishers, the scammers, and the uneducated email marketer. And worst of all, the companies that continue to underfund their email marketing departments.

Email marketing is not free, and it’s not cheap. It is, in most cases, the most affordable marketing channel which in turn provides one of the highest ROI when managed correctly by a seasoned professional. Email marketing should be one of your most important marketing channels; give it the respect and budget it deserves to do it right! That will expand your inbox reputation and your bottom line.

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

CD: I think mobile email will continue to grow. Nielsen reported in August that email accounts for 41% of all mobile internet use (though I think that’s heavily weighted by business) with Social right behind it. I think as mobile internet access becomes even more affordable, we’ll see those numbers rise.

I still think for consumers, their desktop email is still the inbox of choice. I do think that SMS and MMS will continue to be integrated into business processes and be used more for transactional messaging and notices than can be handled with 140 characters.

SWE: You mentioned social. Given what you know about Facebook’s “Project Titan,” how do you think that initiative will affect the email marketing industry?

CD: Well, it’s about time! I’m surprised it took them this long to try it. That said, I don’t see it as an email marketing killer. I don’t see people making that their only email account. I think more often than not, most people will forward their Facebook.com email address to their regular email address since most people like getting their email in one place.

As Facebook looks to continue revenue growth, the question should be asked: “Will they sell unfettered access to reputable email marketing from large advertisers or a company’s fan base?” It probably has been or will be discussed. (Though I would hope that would be not be the case.)

That said, I see a market correction coming–a sort of Social Media downsizing if you will. Facebook is already like many people’s personal inbox: A lot of crap with a few gems. That alone will drive down users and interactions.

I also see many of these Social sites as the ghost towns of the Internet in 5-7 years. Surely, with the Internet landscape changes that will come, other sites or mobile applications will target and compress the interactions and messaging of the user.

SWE: Interesting perspective. I can envision that sort of scenario as well. Okay, fun questions now. How has your work in email marketing affected your personal use of email?

CD: I don’t think my email use has changed much over the years, though I do tend to look at marketing emails with the “What’s Good–What’s Bad” question in my head. I will occasionally look into my Junk Folder to see what and why message were sent there.

I do tend to unsubscribe from marketing emails and newsletters when they stray from the best practices and stop being relevant and/or lose their value to me.

SWE: What’s your favorite thing about email marketing?

CD: I love the challenge of taking a not-so-effective email marketing plan and turning it around. I enjoy doing all of the homework and getting down to the real problems of why email campaigns failed and then resurrecting them. If there’s a heartbeat, we can usually create engagement and trust where it might have been lost.

I also enjoy educating and reaching out to help those just getting started. I also think that as email marketers, we need to call out those that are giving bad advice and calling “bullsh*t” when needed. There are plenty of false prophets and pundits that just need to be reined in.

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

CD: Budgets and ignorance.

Not to sound like a broken record, but too many companies don’t give email marketing the budget it deserves and just as many rely on people whose email marketing IQ doesn’t reach room temperature. Email marketing, without some professional management or real industry knowledge, can be a really bad idea. I’ve heard some people say, “Well doing something is better than nothing.” I do not believe that’s true.

SWE: Okay, you’re giving a keynote speech to the entire email marketing industry and it’s your personal soapbox. What’s your message?

CD: The email marketing community as a whole has done a great job of policing the industry by adopting many of the best practices that have elevated it to the level it enjoys today.

My advice would be to continue to refine and segment data and personalize content while building the relationship. Let’s all find ways to expand the inbox.

My main issue (and I’m going to take some flak for this) is with the email marketing companies that cater to the $10 a month crowd. For the most part, making the entry level of email marketing so cheap is like giving an 8-year-old fireworks and a book of matches. Sure, they may set them off safely, but there’s a better chance they blow off a finger.

All self-serve ESPs should have education as their top priority. Although Inbox Group does offer self-serve options, but they only make up 10% of our business. We also have a 90-day managed process for self-serve clients so they don’t get to fly solo until we’ve walked them through the process for 3 months and make sure they understand how email marketing is done right.

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?

CD: I don’t have an elevator speech; I have questions. The first is why not? Why would you not use what has been proven to be one of the top, most affordable marketing channels with the highest ROI in the industry. Then I would ask if he or she had time for a short meeting to discuss how email marketing done right could increase their bottom line as well as increase brand awareness and integrate with social media.

And then, of course, tell the CEO to fire his or her marketing manager for gross negligence!



About Chris Donald

Chris is currently a Partner and VP of Sales and Marketing at Inbox Group, based in Dallas, Texas, where he oversees U.S. and International sales of the Inbox Group email marketing service (SaaS). Chris has worked on the front lines of Internet sales and marketing since 1995 and directly in email marketing since 2000.

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