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An MVP Story

March 8, 2017 Leave a comment

Eric Ries recently asked for favorite MVP stories on his blog, The Leadership Guide.  Here is what I submitted.

Back in 2002 I was involved with a company that had some interesting Flash technology around which we built an Email Marketing Agency.  In 2002, Email Marketing was not the Juggernaut it is today, and we were able to build small, one-off, rich-media email campaigns for our customers.  However, the agency model was not very scalable and we found ourselves in need of a pivot to survive.  

Our biggest client, a large cruise line company, did most of their own creative work and was beginning to think that maybe they were spending too much money with us since our fees were primarily for our creative services.  We began to wonder if we could sell our email services separately as a SaaS offering.  We had a pretty good backend for sending and managing email, but in order to sell it as a Service, we needed to answer a couple of questions:

  1. What kind of UI would be needed to allow customers to be totally self-service?
  2. How fast did the system need to be?
  3. And, how much would customers pay for such a service?

Remember, this was before Email Marketing was a thing.   Before MailChimp, ExactTarget, StrongMail, or Constant Contact even existed.  So, we had 1 potential client and a handful of questions to answer.  MVP time…

So in short order we built what you might call a “man behind the curtain” solution.  A very simple web page – an HTML form actually – to collect all the data necessary to set-up an email campaign.  The customer would need to give it a name, tell us when to send it, what the subject line would be, etc.  They could then upload a csv file of recipients, and an HTML file for the email itself.  

The web form, when submitted, would send all the data via email to our lead Engineer, who would immediately grab all the data, upload the file of recipients, manually transform the HTML into a multi-part email document, rehost any images, manually create any landing pages and redirect pages (for tracking clicks) and fire the whole thing off.  We used a simple ASP script to fire off the emails 1 at a time.  We tracked the opens and clicks using our web server and could upload the stats daily to our “app”.

We showed our app to the customer and they agreed to use our software to send their next campaign to a list of 3 million of their customers.  If I remember correctly, we charged them a $3 CPM (cost per thousand), for a total of $9000. Considerably cheaper than the Agency fees we would have normally charged.  

The campaign was a success and we were able to get answers to our 3 basic questions.  From that first campaign we knew that at a minimum we had to automate the process, provide an Email content editor, provide image hosting, proper reporting, and basic CRM capability. But our idea was viable, and people would pay for it.   We used that MVP, and the lessons learned, to build out one of the industry’s first Email Marketing SaaS platforms.  

The Death of Email Open tracking? Long live Email Open tracking.

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

So the big news this week in the world of Email Marketing is that Gmail will begin to use an image proxy server for all images in an Email Message.

Gmail blog – images-now-showing

The Good the Bad and the Ugly

What does this mean to the Email Marketer?  Well, the most obvious ramification – and where most of the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth is coming from – is that it may become much more difficult to track recipient Open Rates since the tracking image that is typically used will no longer be coming from the Marketers server, at least not in the same way it has historically.  While this will only apply to Gmail, Gmail’s market share continues to increase and accounts for around 3% of opens (www.emailclientmarketshare.com).

The Good

  • Gmail users will now see images by default in their emails
  • Good for users – an arguably better user experience
  • Good for marketers – more of the marketing message is now visible by default
  • Good for marketers – possibly more accurate unique open rate measurement (what?)

The Bad

  • Marketers may have to change the way they track unique opens
  • Multiple opens will be harder to track – but not impossible (read on)

The Ugly

  • UserAgent data will be suppressed – or worse, invalid.  This means no Geo data, no browser data, no referer data, no time data.
  • This move has the potential to increase Spam and increase the amount of irrelevant marketing messages recipients see

The Bigger Picture – Privacy vs. Responsible Marketing

I am sure if you are interested you can find your fill of articles on the interwebs about the death of open-rate tracking as it relates to this action by Google, and how to work around it.  But I have seen little to no discussion on the arguments for even tracking open-rates at all.  The subject is almost universally viewed as a necessary evil for Email Marketers.  However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and claim that not only is email open tracking essential for marketers, it is essential for consumers!

I have had the opportunity to have this discussion with Google themselves.  I spent some time consulting with them on their own Email Marketing efforts, and a significant amount of that time was spent convincing them that they needed to track opens.  As responsible marketers, it is essential to track opens.  What is the difference between a “spammer” and a responsible marketer?   Both use tracking images – one nefariously, the other to measure engagement.  Where good marketing breaks down and where consumers start to get resentful, is when that marketing isn’t targeted, or becomes irrelevant.  For example, tampon ads during the Superbowl.  Nobody objects when they are thinking “I’m thirsty”, and then notice that their favorite beer is on sale.

Responsible marketers want to know how to target their messages.  Not because of the ethics or the morality of sending Spam, but because of the ROI.  The most profitable and affective Email Campaigns are those that are highly targeted and relevant.  How do they get that way?  With intensive testing and measurement.  The very definition of Spam is messaging that is unwanted, unasked for, or irrelevant.  As responsible marketers, knowing when, how often, and who is opening a message is essential in determining whether or not to send the next one.  Knowing how – or if – any particular recipient interacts with a message is at the very core of making sure that future messages are as closely aligned with that recipients interests as possible.   Responsible Marketers track email opens because Responsible Marketers are not Spammers.

What now?

So what are marketers to do?  Well, I think that in the long-term the move by Google could actually help marketers.  Just the fact that Gmail recipients will see images by default should be a boon for click-thru rates.  Email Marketers will need to make sure that their tracking images are properly configured.  It turns out that tracking images will still work pretty much as it has in the past if ESP’s have their servers configured properly.  Useragent data may also still be possible to retrieve if everything is done properly.

If you are interested in a discussion on how to continue to use tracking images effectively, here is an article that I found interesting.

How Gmail’s image caching affects marketing and email tracking

The relationships that companies have with their customers is based on trust.  What this means for the Email Marketer is that they need to continue to put their best efforts into understanding their customers and delivering the most relevant messages possible.  It is good to understand that modern Spam filters have evolved away from simplistic checks like opt-out language and tracking-images, and now rely heavily on transparency.  Trusted sources, closed-loop DNS records, reliable reply-to addresses, and CAN-SPAM compliance are what get emails delivered.  Circumventing these measure will continue to erode the trust of consumers.   At the end of the day, this move by Google should give consumers more reasons to trust the marketers whose messages they have let in to their inboxes.

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