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Email Snob Interview: Ryan Phelan

Today, I continue the Email Snob Interview Series with a conversation with Ryan Phelan, Vice President of Strategic Services at Blue Hornet.

RyanPhelanScottWritesEverything: Ryan, thanks for joining me. Let’s start at the beginning. How’d you get your start in email marketing?

Ryan Phelan: Oddly enough, I graduated college with a degree in psychology and a minor in religion. Soon after, I saw an ad in the paper for giftpoint.com, an Internet startup that merged with GiftCertificates.com. I was already an avid Internet user and was interested in this emerging industry, so I sent in my application.

At first, I ran their affiliate marketing department and had a great time. I then got into email after talking with some clients about the right way to email their customers. From there, it was history in the making.

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 email marketing industry?

RP: Before joining industry conversations, first determine the email marketing positions you support. This will help you establish your viewpoints and “voice” as well as stay consistent in your perspectives.

The next step I recommend is to follow several different industry resources on a daily basis. There are many existing places – Twitter, blogs, and columns – that are incredible resources to read other viewpoints. These sites also provide the perfect opportunity to add to the conversation.

In the end, don’t be afraid to ask questions and continue learning. There’s never going to be a point in time where you know it all or have tried everything.

SWE: You talk about viewpoints and resources. I consider these influences as well. Who is your biggest influence in the email marketing industry?

RP: There’s no way I could nail it down to just one.  I have a lot of respect for Chad White, Loren McDonald, John Caldwell, Stephanie Miller, David Baker and Dylan Boyd.  Stefan Pollard was also a great influence in the industry and his presence will be missed.

SWE: Let’s continue in that influence vein. What would be your top three books you feel every email marketer should read?

RP: I have to be honest; I am not a big book person in general. I did read Mitch Joel’s book Six Pixels of Separation and thought it was incredible.

SWE: Haha, fair enough. Okay, let’s talk blogs. What would be your top 5 blogs for email marketers to read?

RP: My five are:

  • Mitch Joel’s Twist Image – Mitch really has an eye on the pulse of the Internet right now and the impact that a person or brand can have on the landscape. His blog puts things into perspective and provides a great look forward.
  • Chad White‘s Retail Email Blog – Chad is spot on and gives us all the real world examples of what makes email effective.
  • The Email Zoo – Andrew Kordek and company really have an entertaining look on the industry and the varied contributors keep it fresh.
  • Yours (ScottWritesEverything.com) – You have some great posts and honestly, they’re always on point and funny. I love blogs with personality.
  • Hillicon Valley – It’s all about politics and legislation that relates to online. It’s a great way to learn about what is coming down the pike and the conversations that are happening, as well as to stay ahead of the implications for email.

SWE: Nice list (with requisite brown-nosing, no less)! You mentioned implications for email. Let’s talk challenges. What do you think are the biggest challenges facing email marketers today?

RP: From list buying to blasting, we’re all in turmoil to justify the right message at the right time. We need to help retailers realize that it’s about what the customers want and need, not what the retail brands think they need to have.

I think email marketers are having a harder time getting through to executives in the face of a struggling economy. Many executives today are focused on quantifying social networks, so email has become an afterthought.

There are so many people who believe email is easy. It’s not. It’s a lot of work and if it was easy, then we would not have the challenges we have with deliverability, relevancy, cadence, and the list goes on…

There has been a lot of talk lately about growing and buying lists. Companies are pouring resources and energy into list acquisition in hopes of growing revenue, but they often fail to focus on the baseline strategies needed to generate revenue. Company after company is worried about the size of their list, and the number of their friends or followers as if it’s a contest or we’re still in direct mail talking about eyeballs. If you have a poor program, it doesn’t matter if you have 500,000 or 5 million subscribers – you’re still not maximizing the channel.

Also, the lack of engagement with most email programs continues to be a challenge. What are we missing by not speaking to our subscribers? As much as social networks are about having a relationship, so is email. We have to focus on speaking to our subscribers and building a bond with them.

It’s not just about eyeballs; it’s about relationships and creating advocates.

SWE: I like your last point about advocates. Word of mouth is everything. Speaking of mouths (okay, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here), how do you think mobile technologies will affect email marketing in the next few years?

RP: I think in the same way that you’re seeing social networks affect email. Mobile is not a standalone strategy. It’s part of a multichannel mix that lends itself to social media, email, and TV. Mobile technology is another direct response medium for marketers. In the long run, I think it will make email better and more relevant.

SWE: This may be a bit of old news, but let’s talk about Facebook’s “Project Titan.” Given what you know of it, how do you think Project Titan will affect the email marketing industry?

RP: Facebook has attracted some great people to the project and it’s going to be interesting to see it when it’s launched. Despite the flack that Facebook has gotten over privacy, people still trust them. If the privacy issues that have plagued Facebook were as rampant on another ISP, people would defect in droves. Facebook will need to differentiate itself and work on building the trust of its subscribers.

Hopefully it holds marketers to a higher standard. The ISPs are doing it, and I would assume that Titan would be built along the same lines. ISPs have really come to the table in reaching out to the industry and I would this continues with Titan.

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

RP: Sometimes I have to step back and think like a normal consumer since I often use my other emails for reference. It’s interesting to see the tactics and strategies that retailers use to get me to open the email and act. I find that I have high expectations for email, and I hold the brands that I love to – and I am an advocate for – a higher standard. You really have to be good to get me to convert.

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

RP: It’s potential. When we were kids, teachers used to say, “You have to live up to your potential.”

It’s the same with email. There is so much potential out there that it gets me charged up. Working on the agency side, I am able to work with diverse clients to help them find the potential in their programs. I get jazzed when a client asks me what they could be doing differently. It’s a blank slate, and that is so exciting.

I frequently tell clients that “consumers buy what they want and need, not what you want them to have.” I enjoy the challenge of working with these clients and helping them build lasting relationships with their subscribers.

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

RP: The ignorance out there. We, as an industry, have been preaching responsible email for years, and yet we’re still out there teaching. There are a lot of people that believe email is just for pushing out sales – 20% off, 10% off, free shipping, last day-of-the-sale messaging, etc. We will need to continue educating the industry on best practices to showcase different strategies.

My least favorite mindset is the thought that email is “cheap, fast, and easy.” Sure, it can be, but the revenue would be negligible. Email is not overly expensive, but to succeed in any channel is going to take some fiscal investment. The thought that email campaigns are nothing more than merely sending an email through Outlook is a sure sign that we have to do a better job of talking about email strategies.

SWE: Let’s say you get to give a keynote speech to the industry as a whole and it’s your personal soapbox. What would be your message to the email marketing industry?

RP: We all make choices. In the choice of the program we run, programs we put in place, messages we send, etc. It’s all a choice on how we use email marketing and whether we use it to its fullest potential.

The consumer also has a choice when they receive an email. The choice to open, read, convert, advocate, opt-out, or flag as spam. We should change our email strategies and tactics if trusting customers believe the messages we send are spam.

I would also point that it’s time for marketers to wake up and start fighting for what we believe. You want to change the way an executive thinks about email? Well, schedule a strategist from your ESP to come in and talk about it. You want to prove a point? Put the metrics in front of that executive or show how your competitors are beating them with the same strategy.

We all need to learn to stand up for where we want this industry and our own programs to go. It’s difficult, but if you can change the mentality at the top then you have a chance for it to cascade down.

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?

RP: I would ask the CEO to name a favorite company or brand and how that company or brand communicates with its audiences. Then I would ask why their brand is not creating a similar type of communication strategy.

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About Ryan Phelan

Ryan Phelan is Vice President of Strategic Services for Blue Hornet where he works with numerous companies to help them realize the potential within their email programs.  With over 12 years of online marketing experience, Ryan most recently served as director of email marketing and acquisition at Sears Holdings, where he oversaw the email marketing efforts for their Sears and Kmart brands. In this position, he developed and implemented a comprehensive lifecycle marketing strategy for delivery of relevant messaging to new and existing customers.

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