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Email Snob Interview: Chester Bullock

For my next subject in the Email Snob Interview series, I decided it’s appropriate to switch my focus to the client side, particularly now that I’m on the vendor side of the email marketing house. As a result, this time I chat email with Chester Bullock, eMarketing Specialist for AAA Arizona.

ChesterBullock-240x300ScottWritesEverything: Thanks for jumping in, Chester! Let’s start at the beginning. I’d love to know how you got your start in email marketing.

Chester Bullock: When I graduated from college (1994), the web was just starting to take off. I was hired into IT at Copper Mountain ski resort in Colorado. I was doing “social” before it was called that (Usenet anyone?), publishing my “Somewhat Daily Reports” about snow conditions. It was a totally underground thing, just me–not endorsed by the company at all. It must have been a good idea because another resort started doing something similar a short time later (The “Steamboat Straight Talk Ski Report”).

Anyhow, I told them this “Internet thing” was going to be big and we should have a website. We were the third ski area in the world with an official website, and the first one built in house. If you want a laugh, go to the Internet Archive and look up the early versions. I have been involved in Internet-related marketing and technologies ever since.

SWE: We got to know each other because we’ve both been heavily involved in the “conversations” around email marketing, you particularly so in the past year or so. What would be your recommendations for those who want to get involved in the email marketing community?

CB: Don’t hesitate to ask questions. The people I have met in the email industry are incredibly gracious and helpful. The biggest names in this business have been extremely kind and helpful to me, and I really appreciate that. But I never would have known that if I hadn’t asked. From the outside, it might seem like some kind of clique, but it really isn’t. These people are genuine.

The social side is different. There are still some super helpful people, but there are also a lot of big egos and, in my mind, too many people trying to make a go of it on their own. You can throw a pebble in the air and hit a social media consultant or self-proclaimed expert these days. I have never been a big fan of the blatant self-promotion thing, so these people bother me a lot. Probably part of why I do better on the brand side than doing my own consulting thing.

SWE: You mention how email folks are incredibly helpful (and I completely agree, by the way). Who is your biggest influence in the email marketing community? Why?

CB: Joel Book and Andrew Kordek. Both of these gentlemen have been tremendous resources for me. They encourage me to constantly think outside the box, and have not hesitated when I have had a question. I try really hard not to abuse that. The amount of knowledge both of these people bring to the game is astounding, and I feel very privileged to know them.

SWE: Let’s stay in that influence idea. What are your top three books (email-related or not) that all email marketers should read?

CB: My three are:

  1. Good to Great by Jim Collins. Every senior executive reads this at some point. I kept hearing quotes from it from a former CEO. I read the book and learned he was using it like statistics–only telling the story he wanted to. This helped me better understand the CEO (and that he couldn’t really be trusted), but also helped me articulate a lot of things I felt about building a team. If you really read the whole book, there is a lot of great stuff in there that people need to consider when they move into management and become responsible for teams of people and the success of a business unit or company.
  2. The Mirror Test by Jeffrey Hayzlett. This book prompts you to ask the hard questions about your business. The kinds of questions that are in the back of your mind, but you won’t ask because your judgment is clouded by emotion. It is also illustrated with great examples of the author’s own poor choices. I am a pretty straightforward person, and Mr. Hayzlett is as well, so I really appreciated what he had to say. That also means it may not be for everyone.
  3. Anything written by David Meerman Scott. His premise that social really just boils down to real time is something a lot of people and organizations still don’t get. In order to better understand how email fits into the picture, we also need to understand the needs and desires that social fills people. Never hurts to know about all the channels that we use to communicate.

SWE: Nice list. What about blogs?

CB: Wow, this is tough. I use Pulse News on my iPad and have two tabs filled with email and social blog feeds. I guess the top ones now are:

It really isn’t fair to limit the list though, as there is a ton of good content out there. I should also toss out a mention for one of the best resources I know–though it’s not a blog per se–OnlyInfluencers.com, the invaluable email list that is run by Bill McCloskey.

SWE: Let’s talk shop. Given your unique view from the customer side of email marketing (working for AAA), what would you say are some unique opportunities for email in terms of customer communication?

CB: Email is still incredibly portable. You can get it on a mobile device, on the desktop, or at a hotel kiosk when you are traveling. It is easy to archive and search, and lends itself well to a number of applications in nurturing a relationship with a customer or building one with a potential customer.

SWE: What sort of overall effect do you see mobile having on email marketing as a whole in the next 3-5 years? Any paradigm shifts?

CB: Rendering I think is the biggest one. I’d be in favor of a new mime type to address mobile devices. I don’t think that there are any massive paradigm shifts though, because email is still good at what it does. You can only convey so much in an SMS before the user has to go to a web page, read an email, or make a phone call. For the space that my company is in, mobile can be really useful, but the crossover into what we do via email is fairly minimal.

SWE: In light of mobile and social, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing email marketers today? How can these challenges be best fought?

CB: The biggest challenge is the hype. It started last year when a very uninformed reporter declared email dead. People need to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of each communication medium and build plans around those. Social and Mobile are almost looked upon as the latest incarnation of the Holy Grail. I remember when websites were going to fill that role. We now know that isn’t the case.

SWE: For email campaigns, what are the top three questions you believe marketers should be asking themselves before they hit send?

CB: My three questions:

  1. How am I providing value to the subscribers of this list?
  2. How am I going to measure success?
  3. Am I taking advantage of an opportunity to test?

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

CB: I don’t hesitate to reply to companies that have something wrong in their campaigns. The latest example would be Qdoba emails not rendering correctly in Gmail. I replied to them, letting them know and suggesting a fix. Of course, this was met with a response of “We don’t monitor this inbox,” which led me to start asking questions about this practice in the industry groups I am a part of. I don’t agree with this policy at all. You should ALWAYS be listening and responding to the feedback, no matter what channel it is coming in on.

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

CB: The theoretical ability we have to meet the needs of every subscriber. It isn’t always practical, but you can also do little things to serve the needs of the subscriber while furthering your business goals. For example, in our preference center, we recently added an option to choose which time of day you receive email from AAA Arizona. We now send our emails at three different times of day–mid-morning (10 am), mid-afternoon (2:30 pm), and early evening (6:30 pm). It’s still too early to tell what the impact has been, but it seems like the right thing to do.

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

CB: Fighting the battle for the inbox at the ISP level. The seemingly moving targets the ISPs have to put in place because of the spammers can be frustrating. Our customers trust our brand (it’s what our brand was built on), but because it is so easy for a spammer to impersonate us, the digital world has to be weary. To that end, I am glad I don’t run my own mail server. The headaches would be an order of magnitude higher, I’m sure.

SWE: Let’s say you are giving the keynote speech to the email marketing community as a whole. It’s your personal soapbox. What’s your message?

CB: I am more excited than ever to be involved in email marketing. At a large number of organizations, it is finally gaining the respect it deserves as a marketing channel. For the first time, the arguments of list quality versus list quantity are being own. Companies like Best Buy are demonstrating that with a reasonable amount of resources, you can take a campaign to the next level by creating 18 million unique versions of an email on the fly, tailored to the customer preferences and habits.

I have always been a data person, and email lets me leverage data in ways marketers have always hoped to. The Holy Grail will never be obtained, but email marketing can drive more than its fair share to the bottom line when done properly.

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

CB: How many seconds does Jeffrey Hayzlett say you have these days? 118?

The first 8 seconds to hook them: “I can improve customer retention for this company using email marketing.”

And then the remaining 110 following:

Email marketing allows me to take the vast knowledge you have about your customers and tailor a campaign to fit with their needs or desires. While the term “relevance” has become cliche in digital marketing, email can truly be relevant to a customer and spur them to make the decision to continue doing business with you. New customers are expensive to acquire, and email is an extremely cost-effective way to keep your brand in the forefront of your current customers’ minds.


About Chester Bullock

Chester Bullock is currently an eMarketing Specialist for AAA Arizona.  A veteran of the Internet, he built his first website in 1995 and was doing social media when its name was USENET. He currently sends 65 email campaigns a month for AAA, and is a believer that Subscribers Rule.  A 100% telecommuter, he resides in Denver, Colorado with his wife and 3 children.

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