DELIVERING DIGITAL | EPISODE 3

From annoying to engaging: Email automation done right

In this episode, we'll discuss the right ways to automate personalized emails at scale.

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Introduction

Email’s dead. Long live email. No matter how advanced your marketing, email is still a channel you neglect at your peril. In this episode, Derek Dysart joins Peter Navarra, Director of Technical Strategy at Connective DX, and Ben Burns, Sitecore’s EXM product manager, to discuss automating personalized emails at scale.

They discuss strategies to:

  • Move from mass email blasts with 2% conversions to targeted ones with upward of 50%
  • Implement easy-to-execute team processes
  • “Hear” and respond to your customers when they tell you, “Stop sending me emails about X!”
  • Learn how to automate emails that enchant rather than annoy your customers.

Read the episode transcript →

 

 

 

 

Transcript

Derek Dysart:
Gentlemen, welcome to the podcast.

Peter Navarra:
Hey, Derek, how’re you doing?

Derek Dysart:
So why don’t you take a minute to kind of both introduce yourselves.

Peter Navarra:
Yeah, so my name is Peter Navarra. I’m director of technical strategy for Connective DX. I’m really providing the Sitecore practice leadership at our agency, and, yeah, I am happy to use EXM.

[laughter]

Ben Burns:

Hey, my name is Ben Burns. I’m the product manager for EXM working at Sitecore. I’ve been with Sitecore for the last 2 years. I take care of the road map, look at the priorities, see the places where we can add features and functionality, really just keep improving it.

Derek Dysart:
Sure, so EXM, for those that may not know, is Email Experience Manager. It’s Sitecore’s ability to personalize email and use the marketing platform to drive content through that channel. I’ll let either of you kind of jump in on this. What’s kind of been the genesis of EXM, and, you know, what is its history?

Peter Navarra:
Yeah, you know, email in Sitecore has actually been around since about 2011. It was originally called Email Campaign Manager, and since then we’ve seen a couple versions of Email Campaign Manager. Around the 2014, 2015 time frame, Sitecore really took a hard look at what they were doing with regards to, like, their marketing platform, not just their content management, but how do we make this about the full experience? And so, with that we saw the creation of Sitecore 8. With Sitecore 8 we also saw a lot of branding. You know, it turned from just Sitecore the content management system to Sitecore the experience platform a little bit, and so with that we also saw the rebranding of Email Campaign Manager to Email Experience Manager. Then from there Sitecore 8 really tried its hardest to provide an email platform, and it was not exactly perfect, you know? It had some challenges.

Ben Burns:
I believe so.

[laughter]

Peter Navarra:
And so, you know, one of the—you know, not to go too far into the details here—but one of the hardest challenges that was actually present with Email Experience Manager was the fact that it was a stand-alone module. It was a module that you had to install separately from the rest of your Sitecore ecosystem, and, I mean, let’s be honest, the developers that were doing this were having a really hard time doing it and for a myriad of reasons, whether it was either the lack of availability of documentation or the lack of understanding the documentation.

Peter Navarra:
There were definitely some challenges within the product itself in terms of bugs. List Manager was really the Achilles heel, I think, of 8.x and the entire platform.

Derek Dysart:
Sure. I think you, Pete, you gave a really good presentation of a—and we’ll kind of dive into it—Symposium, but I think one of the points you made in there is that there were a lot of kind of failed implementations—

Peter Navarra:
Yeah.

Derek Dysart:
—of getting EXM up and running and so I think—or maybe this is a question better for Ben. What did Sitecore do in the approach to kind of where EXM is at today?

Ben Burns:
Yeah, I think it was kind of a lot of different factors in place, so part of it was, as Pete mentioned, you have the complexity of the implementation, and that becomes a specialist skill. You’re only going to implement this thing—all being well, you’re going to implement it once, so the people who’d implemented it successfully, they were done. They moved on.

Derek Dysart:
Uh huh

Ben Burns:
And for the people who then had struggles with the complexity of the implementation, they would sometimes be done in a different way because they just wouldn’t pursue it any further. And so what we really wanted to do with adding EXM as the platform was to take out that extra step so you didn’t have the added complexity, you didn’t have the added, I guess, kind of points of failure where you had the risk in there and just make it much more of—a more available option. And it was kind of, for us, very much a proactive step. You know, it’s not a coincidence that it was timed with the release of 9.0.1.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Ben Burns:
It was part of xConnect being there, part of xConnect and List Manager and the new marketing automation as well. You know, it was very much we—certainly when I was looking at it two years ago that road map was laid out. Okay, well, let’s get from 3.3—

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Ben Burns:
—let’s fix everything we need to fix. Let’s make this robust. Let’s add the ____________ rebus [spelled phonetically] messaging bursts as well so we—

Derek Dysart:
A huge win, by the way.

[laughter]

Ben Burns:
Glad to hear it. So we’ve got the queueing system. We’ve got the retry system, so everything’s much more robust. Everything processes better. Everything works. It works, right? And so I don’t think we would’ve had the confidence previously to—you know, a couple of years back—to put it in the platform and say, hey, go for it, you know, use it. We were almost like, okay, you can use it if you want, but it’s slightly at your own risk whereas 9.0.1, 9.0.2, and then future releases we are like, this is it. If you’re using XP and you want to send messaging, come to us because it’s already here.

Derek Dysart:
So I kind of alluded to it earlier that, Pete, you had a really good demo that you did at Sitecore Symposium. Why don’t you, like, talk a little about the genesis of that and kind of—and what exactly it was.

Peter Navarra:
Yeah, so, the idea for that demo and really what was leading up to the Symposium actually was formed in January of this year, and it came out with—it was kind of aligned with the release of 9.0.1, which also was the first time we saw EXM and version 9 of Sitecore. And so when I took a hard look at what EXM was doing with 901, I mean, from an outsider, not being with Sitecore but being involved with Sitecore for the past 11 years, I was like, oh my gosh, it works. It works as advertised. I was like, wait a second. I didn’t have to do anything. I just used the platform. And I started realizing that, like, List Manager was fixed, and, like, the whole xConnect implementation, which is marvelous, is assisting in the process of, like, managing all the interactions that are getting logged in xDB—

Derek Dysart:
Yup

Peter Navarra:
—the experience database.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah, and I think we’ve kind of mentioned it a couple times. For people that may not be as familiar with Sitecore, xConnect is kind of the API for all of the kind of analytic and personal information data that Sitecore is tracking, and then kind of xDB is where that’s stored, so it’s kind of—it’s sounding to me like the Email Experience Manager is able to, like the rest of the platform, leverage that customer data.

Peter Navarra:
Yeah, so, you know, me being an advocate for Sitecore and really an advocate for email because the past four years I’ve been working with clients that have had challenges with EXM, for me this is a win. Okay, you know what? Let’s advocate for this, but how do I advocate? I can’t just say, “Okay, yeah, EXM has some issues, but now it doesn’t,” and I can’t just say, “Yeah, it just works” and show some fancy slides. It has to be shown, and they have to experience it for themselves.

Derek Dysart:
Yup

Peter Navarra:
So I had this idea of running a live demo in a presentation setting and the live demo—everybody told me don’t do a live demo at Symposium or at a conference because, well, the conference Wi-Fi is going to suck or maybe the AV is going to not be so great or, you know, there’s a myriad of things that could go wrong. The demo gods aren’t going to have favor on you.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Peter Navarra:
But I couldn’t—I couldn’t just do that because that doesn’t get the message across. The message is I am telling you that you can use EXM, but I am showing you because you experience it in live time—

Derek Dysart:
Yup

Peter Navarra:
—so I created a proof of concept and I actually submitted it as a talk for the SUGCON, the Sitecore User Group Conference 2018, which we had in Berlin earlier this year.

Derek Dysart:
Uh huh

Peter Navarra:
And so, I actually gave that presentation at that conference. It was my first time kind of doing a proof of concept. It was a much smaller scale. It was just—I was trying to—what I was trying to figure out is will this work in a conference setting? I had faith in EXM. It was my presentation skills [laughs], so from there, the proof of concept presentation and that particular live demo setting was phenomenal. The response was amazing. It just worked. I knew it was just going to work, and so from there I’ve been on a crusade. Over the last probably four or five months I’ve done about six or seven different user group meetings both in Canada and the US, and so leading up to Symposium was like, you know what? We’re going to scale this up more. I’m going to do a couple other things, and so my presentation for Symposium was really around the idea of I want to educate people with how to use EXM. If you’re a marketer, if you’re a developer, I’m going to provide you information, depending on those roles, what you’re going to see, what you’re going to get so you can use EXM. And then I thought, you know, I’m going to have a little fun with it. I mean, anybody who knows me in person is understanding I’m a very jovial guy.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Peter Navarra:
So, you know, we’re here in Orlando in Walt Disney World and, you know, we’re going to Universal Studios tonight. And I was just like, well, how about I make it a Harry Potter theme? But I don’t want to use that IP. I want to create my own IP. So, you know, as Sitecore people do, we like to make fun of the name sometimes. So instead of Hogwarts I called it Corewarts and the School of Dispatch Wizardry and Email Witchcraft. So that was kind of the theme and the idea behind it was people would—during my demo people would come to a website that I created, fill out a small Sitecore form—that’s how I got the email address—and then, through kind of some cool trickery that I did with content testing layered on top of personalization, I sorted the entire group into four houses of Corewarts. And so that’s how I did four different segmentations. All of my emails were personalized based on what house they were in. So they would see their house logo out on top of all their emails. That was showcasing, like, the personalization that’s inside of EXM. And the experience in their email was matching the experience they were seeing on the website because on the website whenever they were into a house all the logos changed the house that they were in. It’s the same experience. So from there they received a slew of emails talking about how you get involved with EXM, how you get started, and to give them a jumping ground to be able to be confident and say tomorrow when they go back to their offices, hey, you know what, let me try this.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah, and I think in the demo, I think, it also shed a light on something that was new in the version 9 platform, being able to use marketing automation.

Peter Navarra:
Yes.

Derek Dysart:
So in your demo you showed how when somebody goes and signs up they get put into an email sequence. I think it probably goes, you know, just even a step back beyond the Sitecore side of it if it’s like why in this day and age are we talking about email, and despite email being declared dead many times—

[laughter]

—it is probably one of the highest converting channels for doing advertising of any sort, that, you know, it’s been shown over and over that email is a very solid channel for converting your customers. People will pay attention to email, so it’s, you know, I think it kind of goes without saying why should you care about email, but I think it’s if you don’t, you’re giving up a huge channel that is increasingly important.

Peter Navarra:
Yeah, and you know, Ben, I don’t know what you’ve been hearing over the last little while, but, you know, to me a lot of the clients kind of looking at email as a whole but looking at EXM and some of the other options available, they’re always looking at it from just the mass distribution side. Okay, how many emails can I actually send in one day? You know, can I do 4 million? Can I do 75 million in a month? You know, how many can I get out? When I look at this, look, you know what, that’s great. You can do batch sending. That’s great but when I start to connect the dots that, hey, I just performed an action on your website and 10 seconds later I have an email saying, hey, you just did this, are you interested in something? —kind of continuing that experience—I’m actually having a conversation with my email as I’m, you know, interacting with the website.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Peter Navarra:
That’s not mass distribution. That’s automation working with personalized email messages in an automatic fashion.

Derek Dysart:
Well, and you’re getting a lot closer to your customer, right?

Peter Navarra:
Yeah.

Derek Dysart:
You’re, you know, it’s a tailored experience—

Peter Navarra:
Exactly.

Derek Dysart:
—for that person, so whether it’s, you know, whether it’s a marketing message or you’re onboarding a new customer and taking somebody through a sequence, that marketing automation can make it that, you know, they’ve gotten this email. They’ve taken the action in that, so now they’re ready for the next step, you know. Maybe if they haven’t taken that step in a particular amount of time maybe you give them a gentle reminder to do that step, so it’s an interesting platform that goes well beyond just kind of the hey, let’s blast out an email to millions of people that, you know, there’s a sale on this website.

Ben Burns:
This is the thing, right? The crazy debate about it all. For every sort of blog article saying that email’s dead, there’s another one reporting that email is the first thing people look at on their smartphone when they wake up. Like, it’s crazy how its reach still exists, and it’s that kind of accessibility that really helps. I think the success of email as well leads to that temptation, right? If you can send out an email to a million contacts and, you know, you can get a 2% click conversion, those numbers are enough and the cost of sending an email is low enough that you can actually—

Derek Dysart:
Yu

Ben Burns:
—do a good enough job, right? And the last five years, seven years of email marketing has been that kind of story of, like, okay, this is good enough.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Ben Burns:
And what the jump is to get from kind of stage 1 to stage 2, right, is because you can have that 2% conversion on a million, and what you really want is to find the targeted 10,000—

Derek Dysart:
Uh huh

Ben Burns:
—and get something that converts 20, 30, 50%. But of course what you then need to do is you need to scale that out from the 10,000. So you can create all these individual segments, you can find these nurture streams, you can be welcoming, you can be converting and that has to scale out and manually you would need a massive marketing team to do that.

Derek Dysart:
Yup

Ben Burns:
But with marketing automation you bill out the plans, you set the rules in place, and you let it run and, sure, you know, there’s tinkering and tweaking to do but you can take a 1, 2% marketing team and you can blow out what you could have dreamed of doing 10 years ago.

Derek Dysart:
Sure.

Peter Navarra:
And between having that integrated platform where I can do both the mass dispatch to a million customers but also the automatic kind of triggered fashion of really getting personalized—

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Peter Navarra:
—in the same system and having the same experiences and as an author or marketer using the tool, my experience in creating these is the same as I am to create my own webpages.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Peter Navarra:
So it’s a win when you can do all of that in the same platform.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah, and so kind of going back to your demo, it was, you know, once people are enrolled so that, I think, you took some general segmenting information and, you know, you enrolled them in—it’s kind of an educational journey of here’s step 1. Here’s some information. They go through all of that. I guess at the end of the day I think one of the key points that I think, you know, it’s not too—you can’t put too fine a point on it is how much custom code—you come from a very technical background. You know, you might be ready—you know, the first thought is I’m going to solve this problem by writing code, but, like, how much custom code was involved in doing this automation process?

Peter Navarra:
Yeah, you know, with the automation process and the actual email experience management process, there was zero—and I’ll take the lie detector test—there’s zero custom code in that solution.

Derek Dysart:
Uh huh

Peter Navarra:
What I showed you was the core 9.0.2 vanilla platform in its entirety working as it should without any custom code with just my HTML and CSS.

Derek Dysart:
Sure. So really the only custom code is just, you know, branding.

Peter Navarra:
To make it look good.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah.

Peter Navarra:
Right?

Derek Dysart:
Right.

Peter Navarra:
So that’s the message because, I mean, and I could have—you know, there were a couple—when I was thinking about how do I do the magic sorting where I’m sorting the houses—you know, because I have a technical background and I actually don’t come from a marketing background—I was like, oh. My initial reaction was I’m going to go use Sitecore Forms, and I’m going to go create a custom submit action. I’m going to put a randomized statement in there that when they fill out the form, I’m just going to randomize it and then store it in their contact profile, and that’s how I’m going to do it. And I was like—but I stopped myself and I was like, no. I don’t want custom code—

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Peter Navarra:
—to affect that. So I sat back and I was like, how do I use the platform?

Derek Dysart:
Yeah

Peter Navarra:
And it was like a revelation came to me of I’m going to take content testing as my randomizer and then layer personalization based on the content test that was shown.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah, and so that’s another part of Sitecore where they allow for multivariate testing of, you know, you put out content, you want to see which content drives engagement, and you just kind of wrote on that randomization part just kind of to help serve that demo.

Ben Burns:
My understanding is you’re using the same method for the website as you are for the email, right?

Peter Navarra:
Absolutely.

Ben Burns:
—consistent across both?

Peter Navarra:
Yeah. I’m using—you’re talking about the personalization rules.

Ben Burns:
Yeah, yeah.

Peter Navarra:
Yeah, I’m using the exact same personalization rules on the website as I am in the email, the exact same personalization rules.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah. So you’re authoring the email in the same sort of environment and using the same tools that you would to author the content—

Peter Navarra:
Absolutely.

Derek Dysart:
—the content management system.

Peter Navarra:
Absolutely.

Derek Dysart:
Great, great. So Ben, I know you’re—you presented at Symposium kind of some of the stuff that is coming out with the latest version of Sitecore. Why don’t you talk to that a little bit?

Ben Burns:
Yeah, and it kind of feeds into a little bit what we were talking about in terms of the out-of-the-box offering that we can give—

Derek Dysart:
Yup

Ben Burns:
—right? Like, we’re in the double-edged sword with Sitecore, right? I hear this every time. Sitecore can do whatever you want it to do.

Derek Dysart:
Sure.

Ben Burns:
Right? Which means that it has unlimited possibilities.

Peter Navarra:
But you just have to implement it.

Ben Burns:
Right.

[laughter]

Yeah, which, like, you just have to have infinite time and resources to do that, right? So what we want to sort of hone in on the product team—you know, we’re talking to people like Pete and talking to other customers—is really understand what kind of the 80% of scenarios for 80% of customers would be and try and give a starting point and a kind of jumping-off point for that out of the box, you know. We’re not suggesting that, you know, this is going to be perfect for everyone. It’s still going to need some, you know, market input. It’s going to need reskinning, restyling, but we want it to be able to provide something that can get people up and running quicker. We kind of think of them as accelerators, right? So one of the new things in 9.1 is the templating concept for marketing automation. So marketing automation is going to have the ability to take a campaign and you can then save that campaign as a template for reuse, right, and sharing. And that can be administered from, you know, a senior marketer passed down to a junior who can then use that. So once you have a nurture campaign, right, you can put the pieces in place. So the rules are in place to say we’re going to nurture off the back of web behavior and here are the kind of pages we use for product A. And then you can build in the flow and you can say so the thing we want to do once someone’s shown an interest in product A, we’re going to send them email one on day one. And then we’re going to listen and see if they interact with that and based on their interactions we’re going to branch off in different paths. And let’s say you do that for three weeks. So there are three repeats of that kind of waterfall effect.

Derek Dysart:
Uh huh

Ben Burns:
And that’s for product A. You’re done as a senior marketer. Then you hand it off to your juniors. They can build B, they can build C, they can build D, and it’s consistent, right? And they don’t have to go and reinvent the wheel. They don’t have to get developers involved. They‘ve just—they’ve got enough to get them running. And then, of course, they can look at the test results and they can optimize from there. So that’s one of the really cool things from 9.1 is having that template functionality in marketing automation. One of the next things that we wanted to do to feed into that, particularly kind of looking at the nurture idea—so nurtures are super cool because as a marketer you can look at behavior and you can say I think you’re interested in that. But actually, something that EXM and marketing automation historically has kind of handed off is kind of subscription controls or preference sensors. We very much had the historical ethos of, sure, here are the tools. Go and do whatever you want with it. We wanted to make something a little bit more enabling with 9.1, so we created an extra set of facets on the contact, which basically allows you to operate a preference sensor. So you can—most people will be familiar with it when you’re looking into your account and any website it’ll say, hey, here’s all our list of mountain bikes, sports bikes. You tell me what you’re interested in, and we’ll just message you about that.

Derek Dysart:
Uh huh.

Ben Burns:
Right? So then you have marketing automation working hand in hand with preferences and people can then opt themselves in and out. That’s where you then start to get to this almost set it up and let it run scenario where once you’ve got your nurtures in place you’ve got your own—as a marketer, you’re making kind of best guesses about people’s intentions based on their behavior, but then you can actually overlay their explicit feelings. So, you know, if somebody keeps browsing something and you keep messaging about them, but they then say through the preference sensor, hey, you know what? Don’t message me about that. I’ll do my own—

Derek Dysart:
Stop sending me messages about bikes.

Ben Burns:
Right.

[laughter]

You then have this nice element where the marketer has insight, but the recipient has control, and I think in a post-GDPR world, any kind of empowerment you can give to the recipient is just going to give people a better perception of your brand and a better experience. You know, marketing at its core, at its best is helpful—

Derek Dysart:
Yeah.

Ben Burns:
—and the helpful message is the right message, right time, right person, right? We all know this.

Derek Dysart:
Yup

Ben Burns:
And so we’re building in tools for 9.1 to make that easier for marketers to do so much, much quicker. Again, the Sitecore story is if you want it, you can build it, but now we’re giving you something at least to start with. So that’s all cool, right? So we’ve got preference sensors in there. We’ve got all these templates out of the box. As a marketer, you can go crazy, right? You know, you’ve got everything there without much barrier. As long as your data is there—

Derek Dysart:
Sure.

Ben Burns:
—you can really—you can set up a thousand nurture programs. You could set those running, which is awesome for the marketer, but the recipient? Imagine you’re a recipient. You go to a website that you’re interested in. I’m not going to name names, but there are large e-commerce sites out there where you can browse around. You can check your inbox the next day, and you’re going to have a list of emails saying, hey, we thought you might be interested in this, right?

Derek Dysart:
Yeah.

Ben Burns:
And you’ve triggered a dozen programs, so you get a dozen emails. And what do you do? You either don’t engage with it, you unsubscribe, or you complain about it. You know, the intention is good. You know, the targeted intention is the right intention, but the result is pestering. It’s not what you want.

Derek Dysart:
Yeah, there’s definitely a balance to be struck.

Ben Burns:
So what we wanted to do for 9.1 is introduce kind of limit management, so that kind of rules of engagement idea, so we created a little admin console. You can go in. It’s very, very simple. You can set limit of emails per day—

Derek Dysart:
Uh huh

Ben Burns:
—per week and per month and contact will not get any more than that.

Peter Navarra:
Does that vary—just out of curiosity—does that vary by subscription, or is that as a whole?

Ben Burns:
That’s as a whole.

Peter Navarra:
Okay.

Derek Dysart:
Nice.

Ben Burns:
Yeah, and, again, you can then take that and extend it, and I’m sure people will, but it’s built into the dispatch. It’s built into the actual engine itself, so it’s reliable. It’s supported. You know, you can take it further but—

Peter Navarra:
I don’t have to weed my segment out to just make sure I’m sending to the right people.

Ben Burns:
Right. So, you know, you then have templates and preference sensors and, you know, the send limits all working together. It gives you a couple of tools for the marketer and a couple of things for the actual recipient, hopefully to just get the quality of messaging right, you know. Then you’re in that place where you have the small, targeted messages with 50% conversion, and then you can scale it out. You can find all the niches within your recipient base.

Derek Dysart:
Great, great. Well, gentlemen, thank you so much for your time today. I think this has been very fascinating to look at kind of what’s available with email within the Sitecore platform.

Peter Navarra:
Yeah, absolutely.

Derek Dysart:
Great.

Peter Navarra:
Thanks for having us, Derek.

Ben Burns:
Thank you very much.

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