There’s a veritable ton of fantastic content out there surrounding email marketing advice—and I love digging through all of it. But once in a while I find myself going down a narrow rabbit hole to learn more about the views and ideas of one individual…
This happened to me some months ago when I discovered the brilliance of Chad S. White, the Head of Research at Oracle Marketing Consulting.
Chances are, if you work in email, you’ve heard his name. Chad has been featured in more than 100 publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His insights have also appeared in a number of books about email, such as “Holistic Email Marketing,” “The Truth about Email Marketing,” and more!
Unsurprisingly, Chad has also authored his own book, “Email Marketing Rules” (now in its third edition), and has served as lead email researcher at four of the largest email service providers—Oracle, Responsys, Salesforce, and ExactTarget—as well as at Litmus and the Direct Marketing Association.
After reading a number of his publications, I just knew I had to reach out to Chad and see if he’d be willing to chat with me about email! As a fellow #emailgeek, he got back to me super quickly and has agreed to answer 8 of my burning questions in today’s very special blog post.
Without further ado, I’d like to invite you to dive into my Q&A with the one and only, Chad S. White!
Email Marketing Interview with Chad S. White
Q1 – Hey Chad! Great to have you with us. As a marketer, I know the people love a little transparency. So to kick things off, why don’t you tell us all a little something about yourself that we might not find on your professional LinkedIn bio.
What you won’t find on my LinkedIn page (yet) is that I’m an aspiring novelist. I’m actively working on a dystopian sci-fi epic series. I’ve got a near-final version of book 1 and am about a quarter of the way through a draft of book 2. Plus, I’ve got an idea for a romantic dramedy that I’ve been sketching out.
I’ve wanted to write novels since I was in high school and I worked at two publishing houses early in my professional career. And writing three editions of Email Marketing Rules has given me the confidence that I can finish book-length projects. My wife Kate, who’s now a two-time author herself, has also been super supportive of the long hours it takes to write.
Q2 – I love the old Henry Ford quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — In your opinion as a researcher, what do you think is the difference between what the people claim to want, and what the data tells us they really want when it comes to email marketing?
In email marketing, what people say and what people do are both important. The former is zero-party data, which we get during email signups, account registrations, and other form completions, as well as from preference centers and progressive profiling. The latter is first-party data, which we get from email engagement—that is, paying attention to what messages our subscribers open, which calls-to-action they click on, and what they do post-click on our websites, in our apps, and via our other channels.
There are a couple of issues with zero-party data that cause marketers problems. First, brands don’t always ask the right questions to make the answers truly actionable. A classic example is apparel companies asking subscribers their gender as a way of determining what kinds of products to show them. Not only is the question of gender culturally fraught today, especially among younger people, but the answer isn’t as useful as it could be if you asked a much better question like What kinds of apparel are you interested in? That question not only addresses gender fluid and neutral attitudes, but it also addresses the husband who’s interested in your brand so he can buy clothes for his wife, for instance.
And second, even when you ask the right question, subscribers’ answers can change over time. For example, someone who said they were interested in soccer when they signed up might switch over to running marathons a year later. People change, so you shouldn’t treat zero-party data as written in stone.
That’s not to say that first-party data is better. There are pitfalls there, too. For instance, it takes time to build up first-party data, so early in a relationship and after periods of disengagement, you’re much better off trying to collect zero-party data to use as a baseline. Also, determining the level of intent or interest with first-party data by looking at the number of signals and the strength of those signals is key. Is someone interested in skiing if they look at one set of skis for 2 minutes? Maybe. But if they also look at ski boots and poles, that’s a much stronger signal. Plus, first-party data can have a much shorter half-life of usefulness than zero-party data.
So, marketers really need to use both zero- and first-party data, especially as third-party cookies go away.
Q3 – The average email marketer doesn’t have access to a ton of analytic data with respect to their email campaigns and programs—especially considering policy changes like Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection. What would you say are the most important email analytics for marketers to pay close attention to moving forward, and why?
The most important email analytics you should pay attention to are the ones that align with your business objectives and campaign objectives. It’s critical to recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all answer here.
If you’re a retailer, for example, then it’s appropriate to focus on email marketing revenue, cross-channel revenue per subscriber, and metrics that are expressed in dollar amounts. However, if you’re a subscription-based company, then it’s appropriate to focus on email engagement and how it correlates to customer retention. If you’re an ad-supported media company, then it’s appropriate to focus on email clicks and web traffic.
And even if you are a retailer, you hopefully send campaigns that aren’t about sales conversions. When you’re trying to drive engagement instead of sales, it doesn’t make any sense to measure that campaign by revenue.
Beyond that, I encourage marketers to give the most weight to bottom-of-the-funnel metrics like conversions, subscriber-centric metrics like revenue per subscriber, and omnichannel metrics like customer lifetime value. These are less likely to lead you astray than top-of-the-funnel metrics like opens, campaign-centric metrics like revenue per email, and email-only metrics like direct email marketing revenue that ignore the channel’s influence on omnichannel behaviors.
Q4 – Speaking of Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection, it’s been about a year since they launched it. Seeing as how Apple Mail is one of the leading email clients overall, what have you found to be the biggest impacts of this change to businesses? What’s your email marketing advice to them? Do you think other email clients will begin following suit?
In the wake of MPP, the biggest impact has been on how lists are managed and how email audiences are selected, particularly among larger senders. That’s because MPP obscures opens, which have been central to managing inactivity and determining subscriber engagement for well over a decade. According to Validity, brands’ struggles to adapt to MPP is already evident, having caused inbox placement rates to fall from a long-time average of about 86%-87% to 82%-83%.
The central problem is that the void caused by the loss of open signals has to be filled with something else. Email clicks are taking on heightened importance, but even the smartest strategies to increase clicks won’t be enough to fill the void entirely. The next most logical way to get more signals is to look at omnichannel behavior, such as web visits, app activity, and purchases.
However, most brands aren’t able to connect all of those dots currently. The incredible interest in customer data platforms (CDPs) is a sign that brands recognize the need to gain this 360-degree view of their customers and be able to mobilize this data quickly, including for email marketing audience selection. But once brands have that data, they then need to build and refine engagement models that maximize their email audience while maintaining strong inbox placement. That will be a long-term project.
As to whether other inbox providers will follow suit, Yahoo seems almost guaranteed to follow in Apple’s footsteps at some point. However, I find it difficult to believe that Google and Microsoft will follow as well. Unlike Apple and Yahoo, which are focused on consumers, Google and Microsoft are B2B companies. They care a lot about how their decisions affect businesses.
I also think that Google, as the pioneer of engagement-based spam filtering, will be particularly hesitant to walk away from this highly effective innovation. After all, you can’t have engagement-based spam filtering if senders can’t see what has been the most frequent signal of engagement. We’d be rolling spam filtering back to the mid 2000s. Not pretty, especially for consumers.
The upshot of this is that marketers will almost assuredly be operating in an environment where they need to manage two very distinct subscribers groups: one where you can see real opens and one where you cannot.
Q5 – Let’s talk about something near and dear to our hearts here at Dyspatch: AMP for Email. In your experience, do you see AMP’s interactive email functionality becoming a centerpiece in email marketing 10 years down the line, or will it remain a niche functionality that only a handful of trendy marketers will enjoy the benefits of?
I’m a fan of the potential of AMP for Email, but the standard has faced a tremendous number of headwinds, including Microsoft halting its AMP for Email pilot, Apple’s MPP demanding marketers’ attention, and the pandemic putting a premium on email production speed and flexibility. All of that has turned AMP for Email into the niche solution that it is today, especially in the US market.
To change this dynamic, two things probably need to change. First, AMP for Email needs to get much easier to use. There, new no-code solutions are helping. And second, another major inbox provider needs to support it. AMP for Email seems to run contrary to Apple’s focus on privacy, so that leaves just Microsoft, which has already piloted it without further action. Not super encouraging.
That said, I do think that 10 years from now that AMP for Email will be in wider use, but I don’t think it will ever be a centerpiece. Why? Just look at the adoption of real-time content and CSS-based interactivity, which are the two feature sets that AMP for Email rolls up. Both of those have been around for well over 5 years and enjoy decent support, and they’re both still niche solutions. That doesn’t mean they’re failures by any stretch. It just means that marketers are appropriately thoughtful in the use cases in which they choose to incorporate that functionality. Unless both Apple and Microsoft support it, AMP for Email will likely see similar adoption.
Q6 – Email deliverability is one of the less ‘sexy’ aspects of email, and yet one of the most important. What advice would you give someone who doesn’t know where to begin with optimizing their email campaigns for deliverability? Where’s the first (or best) place to start?
Email deliverability is complex for sure. A great place to start is to tag the subscribers that you gain through each of your audience acquisition sources. What you’ll likely find is that one or two of your acquisition sources account for a big portion of your spam complaints, hard bounces, and inactivity—all of which can negatively impact your deliverability. Having that level of insight allows you to put more safeguards in place where they’re needed, or to even discontinue using the most problematic acquisition sources.
Q7 – Some people may think that email has become a stale medium, but us #emailgeeks know that’s far from the truth! Email is constantly evolving and the next innovation is right around the corner. Do you have any predictions for what the email marketing trends in 2023 might look like — and even beyond that?
When someone says that email marketing hasn’t changed in decades, it simply confirms for me that they don’t know anything about email marketing. As you said, email marketing is an evolving channel, perhaps more than people realize.
Earlier this year, I keynoted at the ANA’s Email Evolution Conference and I kicked off my presentation by listing all of the changes that have impacted email marketing just during my 15 years in the industry.
That list includes:
- Smartphones, smart watches, and voice-assistants
- CASL, GDPR, and CCPA
- Engagement-based filtering
- DMARC & BIMI
- Advanced analytics
- AI, machine learning, and predictive analytics
- Modular email architecture
- Omnichannel orchestration
- Dark mode
- Annotations, Schema, and JSON
- AMP for Email
- Mail Privacy Protection
That’s a ton of change! And there’s absolutely more change on the horizon.
Over the next few years, I’m most excited about the continued de-siloing of email marketing and the adoption of omnichannel marketing that’s being fueled by innovations like customer data platforms (CDPs).
Consumers don’t interact with channels. They interact with brands. And with CDPs and better integration across channels, marketers will finally be able to treat their customers and email subscribers like the omnichannel beings they’ve been for quite some time now.
Long-term, I’m really excited about AI and machine learning. These tools will get much better over the course of this decade and will be essential to helping marketers send the right message to the right person at the right time at scale.
Q8 – Final question for the day! As a marketer, I love being marketed to (for better or worse!) What about you? Do you have any favorite email lists you subscribe to? What types of emails do you look forward to receiving each week?
After 15 years of subscribing to more than 100 brands at a time, I’ll confess that I’ve become pretty jaded. It’s hard to not critique an email as I’m reading it. The emails I currently enjoy the most help me stay up to date on what’s new, particularly in entertainment, like the emails from Fandango and HBO. Among retailers, I’ve really been enjoying IKEA and Williams Sonoma, which do a fantastic job of mixing up their messages and being inspirational, avoiding the hard-sell promotional drumbeat that dominates so many other retailers’ programs.
As much as I know that great copywriting, design, and strategy make a huge difference in email marketing performance, the emails that I enjoy the most are from the brands that I care about. I think that’s evidence that email marketing programs tend to perform really well even when they’re not doing things perfectly. Useful content and a clear brand voice are definitely the foundation of a program with growth potential.
Closing Advice & Recommended Reading
Today Chad has handed over a treaure trove of email marketing advice! We’ve covered topics like:
- Zero-party data,
- AMP for Email,
- email analytics,
- email deliverability,
- Apple Mail privacy,
- Chad’s favourite email lists,
- and even upcoming trends in email for 2023 and beyond — including AI!
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Chad! It’s been a pleasure to connect with you, illuminating to learn from you, and I hope our readers will continue to follow your career as closely as I will. Wishing you the very best from myself and the whole Dyspatch team, and hope to collaborate again in the future.
For anybody looking to connect with Chad, you can find him on LinkedIn or pick up a copy of his 5-star book, Email Marketing Rules on Amazon!