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Email Snob Interview: Matt Blumberg

For the next edition of the Email Snob Interview Series, I talk email with Matt Blumberg, Co-Founder, CEO and Chairman of Return Path.

MattBlumbergScott Writes Everything: Matt, thanks for joining me. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me a bit about your background.

Matt Blumberg: I’ve worked in the commercial internet scene since 1994, which sounds like an awful long time ago! Until 1999, I was the GM of MovieFone’s (777-FILM) online business. Back in 1996 or 1997, we built a very cool email application called MovieMail, which was probably one of the first real commercial email programs. You signed up with your email address, a zip code, and preferred movie genres, and you got a customized email every Thursday with show time information that was relevant to you, links to buy tickets, and paid advertising from Hollywood.

This was a long time ago–so long that it was basically before there was much of a concept of the “email service provider” industry. We did everything from scratch and quickly built up a list of 500,000 to 1,000,000 subscribers by promoting the service on our website and through the interactive phone service. Although it didn’t generate a ton of revenue for us on its own, it taught me a lot about email.

Return Path’s original product and business from 1999, Email Change of Address (ECOA), was a clear win based on the experience I’d had with MovieMail. People switched ISPs or jobs, never came back to tell us, and all we were left with was a pile of bounces. That’s the business problem that ECOA was designed to solve. Since then, Return Path has changed a lot and is now 100% focused on email whitelisting and deliverability, a related but different problem.

My only other experience with email marketing, such as it’s been, has been advising organizations where I’m a Board member–a mix of for-profit, non-profit, and educational institutions. It’s been good to have “client side” perspective in recent years.

SWE: Given that you’re deeply involved in the industry, what would be your recommendations for someone who’s looking to get involved in the “conversations” of the email marketing industry?

MB: There are a few conferences where the “email echo chamber” hangs out–MediaPost’s Email Insider Summit, the DMA’s Email Evolution Conference, and MarketingSherpa’s Email Summit. I’d also suggest reading some relevant books and blogs, but more on that in a few minutes.

Finally, there’s a lot of noise on Twitter about email. We put together a useful list of email wizards that makes it simple to follow a bunch of people en masse.

SWE: Since you’re mentioning noise, let’s talk about influence. Who is your biggest influence in the email marketing industry?

MB: I’m not sure I have a single biggest influence in the industry. I met with Lester Wunderman once years ago–he is widely known as the “Father of Direct Marketing”–and my meeting with him was impactful to me, but it was a long time ago.

Seth Godin’s original book, Permission Marketing, and his concept that all email should be “anticipated, personal, and relevant,” has proven to be timeless. Plus, Seth is a great speaker and quite entertaining. We had him speak at an event we did a few years back and it was definitely a highlight of the day.

Ken Magill gets an honorable mention just for his willingness to call it like he sees it as a journalist covering the space for over 12 years.

I also have a ton of respect for lots of fellow entrepreneurs who have either created major innovations in email or just built great businesses, from Anne Mitchell (the original whitelist at Habeas) to Scott Dorsey from ExactTarget (who quietly built a >$100mm independent email service provider with a smile on his face and an awesome culture) to Deidre Baird and Michelle Eichner, who did the amazingly difficult job of bootstrapping a startup, Return Path’s competitor Pivotal Veracity, and sold it to Unica earlier this year.

SWE: What are your top blogs for email marketers to read?

MB: Here are my top five:

SWE: Most of the email snobs I’ve interviewed have mentioned your book (“Sign Me Up”) as a great resource for email marketers. Other than your book, what would be your top books you’d recommend email marketers read?

MB: I read voraciously, so narrowing down to a small list is tough!

  • Seth Godin’s Big Red Fez — Even though it’s about web design, not email, it is a great simple interactive design philosophy.
  • Christopher Locke’s Cluetrain Manifesto — This reminds all of us who design websites and email that we are designing for real people to use them.
  • Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen — Because no one should ever be tortured by watching a boring, dense, redundant presentation.
  • Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail and Free — Both of which remind people that we liberate the way we think about business models on the internet (and even sometimes offline) from conventional thinking.
  • Jack Trout and Al Ries’ Positioning — the classic book on marketing, messaging, and owning a “slot” in a consumer’s mind.

SWE: Great list. Let’s talk shop. You’re one of the industry’s leading minds and thought leaders on deliverability and fighting spam. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing email marketers today in those areas? How can these challenges be best fought?

MB: The biggest challenge around deliverability is the continued fragmentation of receiving systems and rule sets and individual-level filtering, which makes navigating the world of delivery and deliverability more complicated. This can be combated by marketers if they pay hawkish attention to metrics and understand that metrics around reputation, complaints, and engagement are just as important (at a minimum!) as more traditional metrics such as opens, clicks, conversions.

SWE: Outside of deliverability, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing email marketers?

MB: The biggest email marketing challenge in general is the combination of inbox clutter and subscriber fatigue. As email marketing gets more and more mainstream, and as social media continues to evolve and grow as use email to power it, more companies are sending more emails to the same people (who, by the way, have the same amount of time in the day to read email).

SWE: What affect do you think mobile technologies will have on email marketing? How do you think it will affect deliverability?

MB: Smartphones take people’s limited attention and make it even more limited. The notion that you have 8 seconds of time and 6 inches of monitor space to get someone’s attention probably gets clipped by 70%.

Marketers have to design for smartphones and make sure they present the right email depending on which client is in use. Smartphones shouldn’t really have much of an impact on deliverability (at least not that I can think of right now).

SWE: Fun questions now. How has your work in email marketing affected your personal use of email?

MB: I’ll email my wife and ask her <grin>. You know how you hear stories that all gourmet chefs want to eat are hot dogs? Or how NBA stars like to play golf to relax? I still use email a ton personally, but I probably do mix it up with handwritten notes and phone calls for a more personal touch here and there.

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

MB: Email is still really the only form of mainstream advertising in the history of mankind that’s requested.

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

MB: Spammers have given it a bad rap. I always describe it as “peeing in the pool.” Try telling someone you’re an email marketer at a cocktail party and watch them run the other way!

SWE: Let’s say you’re giving the keynote address to the industry as a whole and it was your personal soapbox. What would be your message for the email marketing industry?

MB: Email is not free. Don’t treat it that way. Resource it up, and unleash its full potential!

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

MB: See above–and then I’d add that the Direct Marketing Association’s stats about ROI by channel routinely show that email is the most effective channel.

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About Matt Blumberg

Matt Blumberg founded Return Path in 1999 because he believed the world needed email to work better. Matt is passionate about enhancing the online relationship between email subscribers and marketers so that both sides of the equation benefit. It is with great pride that he has watched this initial creation grow to a company of 150 employees with the market leading brand, innovative products, and the email industry’s most renowned experts.

Before Return Path, Matt ran marketing, product management, and the internet group for MovieFone, Inc. (later acquired by AOL). Prior to that he served as an associate with private equity firm General Atlantic Partners and was a consultant with Mercer Management Consulting. He holds a B.A. from Princeton University.

You can learn much more about Matt by reading his email marketing and entrepreneurship blog Only Once — one of the first CEO blogs on the Internet.

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