We were thrilled when Chad White agreed to sit down for an interview with our CMO, Scott Heimes. Chad is the Research Director at Litmus (one of our favorite email testing companies) and the author of a book that we consider a true staple around here at SendGrid, Email Marketing Rules.
Scott: You and I share the fact that we both started out as journalists. How does your journalism background help you advise on proper email strategies? Is there a connecting element there?
Chad: Sure, as you well know, journalists are incredibly bright people [laughter]. But seriously, there are a lot of skills that make us very good employees, in general, and that have been especially helpful for my particular path. I’m using my journalistic skills every day.
I’m watching trends. I’m collecting facts, doing interviews. I’m doing research and I’m weaving all of that together into stories.
The new twist that wasn’t around when I started, when I got my masters in journalism, was social media didn’t exist. Video content didn’t really exist in the way that it does today. Podcasts didn’t exist.
Those are the new wrinkles, but, at its core, journalism is about facts and storytelling and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 12 years in the email marketing world.
Scott: At what point were you inspired to write your book, Email Marketing Rules?
Chad: The first edition was published back in 2013, and I started seriously working on it in early 2012. Around that time, there were a lot of people disparaging “best practices.” I say, quote, unquote, because they were mainly attacking the executions of best practices.
They weren’t really attacking the underlying best practices that you were building on top of. They were confusing the two, I thought. There was also this second thread, which is this millennial “everybody’s a winner mentality.” People started saying, “The best practice is whatever is best for your brand.”
I thought that was really dangerous thinking because best practices grow out of consumer expectations. Anytime you’re thinking about deviating from best practices, you’re swimming upstream.
You’re going against what consumers are expecting of you and sometimes that can turn into a win, for sure. We’ve seen tons of special cases where that happens. However, in general, there’s not a lot to be gained from going against what people are expecting of you.
With the first edition of Email Marketing Rules, I was really trying to codify a list of what I thought were the true best practices, the core truths about what our subscribers expected of us. Also, I wanted to focus on the things that were not likely to change. I’ve taken great pains to think about what is that root issue that isn’t likely to change—the original 108 rules that were in the first edition are all in the third edition.
Scott: What did change in the third edition? How has the book evolved since the first version?
Chad: The things that are in the first edition and the second edition are still true. In some ways, the book has been a work in progress, but my goals for each book have been slightly different. Again, that first edition, I was really trying to codify a list of best practices.
The second edition, I was trying to give people more context to put around these rules, so they weren’t just paying attention to that one rule in isolation. I wanted to give them the zoom‑out, how all these things work together.
With the third edition, you’ll find a lot more checklists of tactics, checklists of different kinds of triggered email campaigns or different kinds of subscriber acquisition sources or different ways in which email and social media work together, for instance.
There are tons of lists of tactical ideas to get you thinking about: Which of these things do I currently do? Are there any of these things on this list that, maybe, are the next stop for me, in terms of my to‑do list and things I should try out and experiment with? My goal with each edition has changed over time.
Scott: It continues to get better. It’s such a great book. For you email marketers out there, if you haven’t read Email Marketing Rules, go do that! So, something that we recently discovered and really loved was your Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs. It really feels aligned with our mantra here at SendGrid of always sending the right message, to the right person, at the right time, with the right frequency, but it ranks the aspects by importance. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Chad: You have this pyramid and you have these qualities that you build upon. The idea is that in order to do the things at the top, you need to do the things at the bottom. You can’t neglect them or skip ahead.
That first layer of the pyramid is respectful. You’re trying to create respectful email experiences, respectful subscriber experiences. That has everything to do with permission and expectation setting.
Email marketing is a permission‑based channel, so it all starts with being respectful.
On top of that, the next layer up is creating functional subscriber experiences. That has everything to do with how your emails render across email clients, how they function. This is Litmus’ home base. Obviously, we’re all about making sure that you’re creating great subscriber experiences—we give people email previews in over 70 email clients worldwide.
It’s really hard to get that experience right. The inbox providers don’t make it very easy on marketers to have a great subscriber experience. They change the code that they support. Glitches get introduced when browsers change, when OS’ change. They keep us on our toes, for sure.
On top of that is creating valuable subscriber experiences. This is where a lot of the big innovation and action is today—using things like big data, AI, machine learning, greater marketing automation, and personalization. There is tons and tons going on there that will be the driving force behind a lot of the advancements we’re going to see over the next several years. The valuable layer of the Hierarchy of Subscriber Needs pyramid is really exciting right now.
Then, at the tippy‑top, you have remarkable subscriber experiences. Essentially, the idea here is that we’re social beings. We like to have things that really stand out and get us talking and give us something to share with our spouse, coworkers, or our friends.
At least, occasionally, as brands, as email marketers, we need to be creating something exceptional, something remarkable, that’s worthy of being forwarded on, talked about on social media. Then, at that point, we’re fulfilling all of our subscriber needs.
Scott: It’s a fascinating structure, frankly, for thinking about subscriber needs. I totally agree with you on the valuable layer. The most exciting things happening in email right now are all about one‑to‑one true personalization and getting to that holy grail of automated contextual experiences.
Chad: Couldn’t agree more.
Scott: How do you get to the very top of that pyramid? How do you create remarkable experiences consistently? It’s so challenging.
Chad: The trick is that you don’t have to do it consistently [laughs]. These are occasional emails that you send, that you’re spending more time on, more development on. They’re special campaigns.
There are all kinds of different ways to make a campaign remarkable. It might be a campaign that really crosses a lot of different channels, that, maybe, has a strong social component to it. It could be something that is really strong on the email side. We’re seeing a lot of cool stuff with interactive emails. That, I think, is an opportunity.
At Litmus we’ve created some pretty remarkable experiences inside of emails. We’ve had some really cool interactive emails that Kevin Mandeville has created, where we’ve put live Twitter feeds inside of an email. People could tweet something with our hashtag and then see that appear in the email seconds later. That’s pretty awesome.
Again, the trick is not to try to make every single email you send remarkable. But once a month, once every couple of months, spend some extra effort, either on the email side, or some sort of greater omnichannel campaign. There are different ways of creating that kind of remarkable experience.
Thank you again to Chad White for sitting down with us and if you haven’t already, check out the third edition of Chad’s book, Email Marketing Rules!