Email Elite: An interview with Rich Wilson from BrightWave

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In our Email Elite series we interview industry experts about ‘all things email,’ from creating brilliant, personalized experiences that drive email ROI even higher to the future of email marketing.

In this edition, we sat down with Rich Wilson, VP of Customer Experience at BrightWave, and talked about topics such as measurement and attribution, solving personalization challenges, and email innovation now and in the future.

When you work with clients on email personalization efforts, what are the most important KPIs you track?

As tools like Google Big Query, Domo and Tableau continue to become more affordable and easier to use, attribution will continue to be a more important and more effective metric for success. Our teams seek to uncover the most reliable source of truth in terms of overall effectiveness. This means we want to know how every individual dynamic element of an email helped contribute to increasing the strength of the brand-customer relationship and eventual financial success. A common mistake is to measure email as if it were media. This ignores the additive effect one email has on another in growing an ongoing relationship. The perfect world of attribution that takes into account individual messages, specific content and the overall relationship as a whole is a tough nut to crack – however, moving beyond opens and clicks to reveal financial performance is very top of mind for what we’re doing day in and day out.

“Moving beyond opens and clicks to reveal financial performance is very top of mind for what we’re doing day in and day out.”


What type of email marketing message or tactic do you feel is significantly underutilized?

The use of increased interactivity within the inbox itself is surprisingly underutilized, even by well-known brands with budget. It’s possible to develop emails with multiple layers leveraging hide and reveal states that make an email appear to work like a webpage. In-email polling, expandable menus and parallax scrolling of images allow organizations to reduce the steps a consumer needs to take in order to uncover key information or even make a purchase. Early adopters are starting to play with new inbox toys like these, but some of this technology has been around for a while and I’m amazed my own inbox doesn’t have more experiences that inspire me. Think about it…how much value would an email bring to an organization if it reduced a single page from a customer’s buying process? The problem is that most brands experimenting with inbox innovation techniques are focused on simple animated gifs or other gimmicky tricks. It’s a lot like the early days of Flash in the ‘90s. Eventually, the novelty of animation and emojis will wear off and true inbox innovation will have to improve the overall customer experience to be meaningful.

Which brands do you think are innovating in email? Why?

Selfishly, I can say that the work we did for Mizuno in utilizing home-grown progressive profiling was a big win. Likewise, I think the work we’re about to launch for Rent.com has more dynamic information integrated than anything I’ve seen lately. Virtually every piece of content in the email is based on customer data built in conjunction with the client’s data teams. The images, cost, ratings, amenities, live availability…all of it. It’s not obvious to the user, but that’s the point, right?” Outside our four walls, I think the work Sephora is doing around targeting is interesting. LinkedIn does a pretty good job of sending me relevant messages based on what I’m doing with the app. And all you have to do is dig into the Litmus blog to get a dose of instant inspiration.

In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles preventing marketers from personalizing more of their emails? What is your advice to overcoming those obstacles?

There are typically three major obstacles preventing marketers from personalizing more emails. In no particular order, they are:

Lack of Data: Only recently have we been able to actually use hyper-granular levels of customer data in a cost-effective way. As a result, marketers haven’t necessarily been collecting data for the purpose of personalization. What we see lately is an effort to reach across different parts of a client organization to forensically uncover data from business units outside marketing. It’s a bit like reaching between the digital couch cushions for loose change. It’s imperfect, but until new systems can be put online to effectively gather specific data for personalization, it’s a good way to increase understanding of customers.

Lack of Technology: Even if an organization HAS data, it’s often not connected to the systems utilized by marketing. It’s not uncommon for an organization to have a wealth of customer data living across several disparate databases in outdated systems that don’t talk to each other. Getting approval for capital expenditures to update systems takes time and limits the amount of owned data that can be readily available for personalization.

Lack of Expertise or Organizational Will: Personalization is more than changing subject lines to include a first name. True personalization is seamless contextual communication that anticipates needs based on past purchases, demographic information and output from predictive modeling. Five years ago, many marketers still saw email as a broadcast resource – just another channel. We’re at a tipping point where consumers are forcing brands to be more relevant, and taking the leap from batch-and-blast email to customer experience focused personalization requires skillsets that haven’t historically existed inside an organization. That’s why agencies and consultancies centered around marketing platforms have seen explosive growth in recent years – they have the expertise.

How will email marketing be used five years from now?

Five years is an eternity in the world of marketing technology. However, I think a couple of trends will continue. Consumers will continue the perennial search for convenience. This means other tools may emerge and compete with email as a means for consumers to communicate – especially on an interpersonal level (Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, etc.). But email stands to deliver a level of basic utility that will be hard to replace, even in the years ahead. Email will continue to be an important professional and transactional channel.

“For email to stay competitive, it will have to become more choosey.”

However, for email to stay competitive, it will have to become more choosey. Meaning, the underlying technologies will get better and better about figuring out what you do and don’t want to receive. Organizations seeking to communicate with individuals will have to have something truly meaningful to offer in order to simply get the message through. In that regard, email has the potential to become even more important than it is today. Likewise, the advent of movements like GDPR and blockchain will deliver more and more control of personal data back to consumers. If adoption of tools like the Brave Browser and the Basic Attribution Token take hold, we may find marketers actually paying consumers in micro-increments for the right just to send an email. The future is exciting, but we would all be best served to take a progressive approach. The challenge is massive and we can only tackle it in digestible chunks at a time.

Do you think email marketing is as good as good as it’s ever going to get? (why/why not?)

Hell no. The best days of email are ahead. Restrictions like GDPR and increased filtering will make email BETTER in the long run. Today’s hypomanic audience will demand better and better experiences and so long as email is one of the channels most closely tied to data, email has the potential to deliver experiences in five years we haven’t even dreamed of today.

Rich Wilson is the Vice President of Customer Experience at BrightWave, overseeing the work product from a diverse group of people on their Strategy, Technology, and Creative teams. He’s spent the last 20 years in the agency world helping brands become more meaningful to their customers. He can be reached via: @ThisRichWilson

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