Email Marketing Tips For Start-Ups

Argyle is a social media marketing start-up and we're obviously big believers in the power of social as a marketing channel.  But we're also old school in the sense that we invest very heavily in email marketing.

I was employee #1 at an email marketing start-up earlier in my career.  I spent four years with the company and learned a thing or two about email marketing along the way.

Here are a few email marketing tips to keep in mind for your early-stage company:

Email Early, Email Often.  At Argyle, our email list was most important marketing asset for the first year.  (Our Twitter following is quickly catching up today.)  We collected addresses at every customer touchpoint and sent very frequent emails - usually weekly.  We fired out a message every time we had something remotely interesting to say - new product features, new blog post, whatever.  Momentum is important early on, so any glimmer of hope is worth celebrating and sharing.

Be Entertaining.  Our product was pretty weak for the first year, so we had to manufacture reasons for people to like us.  So I resorted to entertainment.  Our early emails had subject lines like "Hold On To Your Butts" and pictures from to illustrate new features.  It was all about getting attention, sharing our personality, and making friends.  

Invest In Automation.  We used MailChimp for a long time because it is by far the best bang for the buck - great features and a strong API for peanuts.  And we hacked together some very basic hooks into Salesforce and a few auto-responders.  As soon as we had a full-time marketer and a few sales guys, we dumped MailChimp and moved our email marketing (and landing pages) to Pardot - a very specialized B2B marketing automation platform that integrates deeply with  (We also gave very strong consideration to Marketo - it is more powerful, but also more expensive.)  Today our email marketing programs are incredibly complex.

Email Like An Executive.  It is obvious that you should use email to keep in touch with your customers.  It is less obvious that you should use email to keep in touch with prospective investors, prospective partners, and strategic prospects.  I have a couple email lists that I email ~monthly with company updates and strategic content.  I do it all through Pardot and track the responses very carefully - just like we track our customer marketing emails.

Regarding Competitive Misinformation

This has become an increasingly common marketing interaction:

  • A prospect tweets about their experience evaluating Argyle.  Or a blogger mentions Argyle in a post.
  • A competitor swoops into the conversation saying "Hey - you should check out our product!".

I don't have a problem with this whatsoever.  Social is an amazing competitve equalizer.  There are no protected markets - most customers are highly visible and often talking about their business problems and buying process.  At any given time, it is pretty easy to track down someone that is evaluating one of our competitors or one of our customers talking about Argyle.

However, stuff like this crosses the line:

(Sendible is a tangential competitor to Argyle based in the UK.)

As the CEO at Argyle, I have unique insight into the claim that "lots of users" are leaving Argyle for Sendible.  Turns out that this claim is false. 

We are building *very* aggressive customer acquisition machine at Argyle.  We win business with great products that solve meaningful problems and a transparent, consultative, and affable sales team.  While we're happy to highlight differences between Argyle and other offerings, we never disparage or flat-out lie about our competitors.

We're overly transparent because it is good business and the right thing to do.  And because the market is always watching.

Should Marketers Rent Or Buy?

Brian Halligan - HubSpot CEO - gave a great marketing startegy interview on earlier this week.  In the interview, Mr. Halligan drew an interesting parallel between renting and buying as an online marketer:

Marketers are traditionally renters. They rent space on shelves, they rent space in Adwords, they rent space at tradeshows or they rent giant lists to cold call from. None of this is anything they own.

We believe that the best way to market a product or service is to create assets that you own and can nurture. Things like unique content, links, Facebook fans, Twitter followers are assets that stick around and, from a monetary aspect, can cost a lot less than the old model.

I dig the analogy.  Here is my addition $.02:

  • For start-up marketers, it probably make sense to begin with a rental strategy to find your audience and hone your message.  It takes a lot of effort to develop "owned" marketing assets, so I suggest investing wisely.
  • Halligan makes the argument for quantity over quantity.  Even though he has internal data to support his claim, I think that this is a fine line.  HubSpot generates a ton of content and I read none of it.   Other companies and bloggers publish less frequently, but I read every single piece they produce.  Depends on your target customers - are they sophisticated or are they beginners?
  • Creating is more valuable than sharing in the long run.  I'm blown away by the number of social media marketers that seem to think that curation is just as important as creation.
  • Content marketing is a habit.  The recent rebirth of The Boggs Blog is my effort to get back in the habit.

Free Trial? Or Request A Demo?

We recently made the decision to drop the "free trial" call-to-action from our site in favor of a "request a demo" call-to-action.  A few reasons why:

  • We're a sales-driven company, not a marketing-driven company.  In other words, we expect to qualify, demo, and close accounts over the phone.  We don't expect customers to sign up without speaking to a rep - though it has happened quite a few times!  
  • Our pricing starts at $149 per month, which prices us out of the e-commerce model.  We recently launched a $499 per month offering and we plan to launch another up-market product in the near future.  So we're migrating away from the "free trial" market.
  • Free trials customers often don't have the best experience with our application.  We're targeting SMBs with a focus on those that know what they're doing - so our app is a bit more complex than that of our low-end competitors.  Free trials can sometimes leave customers confused, whereas demos let us frame the value, explain the app, and get the customer up and running more quickly.
  • Requesting a demo is pretty strong interest indication and requires the prospect to clear a higher hurdle that a free trial - so our lead volume might drop, but lead quality might increase.  Not a bad trade off if you ask me!
  • Free trials attract all kinds of ne'er do wells - spammers, competitors, hackers, etc.  A simple qualifying step keeps these goofballs out of your app and precludes lots of headaches. 

Thoughts?  We're watching the results very closely - will be interesting to see how the change plays out.

More Product Or More Customers?

Earlier this week, a very smart person asked me if I would rather have "more product or more customers" - in effect asking if it made more sense for Argyle to make very near-term investments in product development or customer acquisition.

I said "more product" without hesitating and then proceeded to give what was probably a rambling, incoherent justification for my answer.

Here is a more structured argument:

1.  The best marketing program is a great product - especially considering the social media-fication of the Internets.  And doubly especially considering that we're selling a social media marketing product to social media marketers that LOVE to talk about social media marketing to other social media marketers.  The better the product, the more people talk about us, the more people talk about us, etc.  Phil Libin - CEO of Evernote - makes a similar case in this video.

2.  I'm not interested in filling a weak funnel.  We're already generating revenue, but I'm not ready to crank up the marketing spend just yet.  Our website is OK and getting better.  Our app is good and quickly becoming great.  We can keep humming along with a primarily hustle/social driven marketing program, grab the dollars that we can, sink a couple more months into product development, and then make big marketing investments once we feel better about the payoff economics.  Why spend money to drive targeted traffic to a semi-complete site/product?

3.  We don't have a lot of resources.  Given our stage, we need to spend on things that build permanent value.  $10k on software development builds a feature that we'll always have and that makes our product much more compelling.  $10k spent on marketing will give us some customer acquisition insight...but only temporary insight and at a very small scale.

Note that I'm not a "build a product and worry about making money later" kind of guy.  On the contrary, I LOVE selling and look forward to selling/marketing Argyle like the rabid wolverines that we are.  We're just not there quite yet.  But we will be very, very soon.

And the correct answer to the "more product or more customers" question is actually "both - as quickly as possible".  :)


Prediction - HubSpot Will Acquire An ESP In 2010

The ExactTarget / CoTweet deal got me thinking...and here's one of many thoughts:

HubSpot is going to buy an email marketing service provider 2010.  And I have a few pretty good ideas of who it could be.

Here's why it is going to happen:

It is blatantly obvious. 

The guys at HubSpot have built a fantastic B2B lead management machine with some nicely integrated SEO, blog, and other content tools.  (And probably more - I'm not an expert on their platform.)

Email is the obvious missing piece.  I think HubSpot already provides customers tools for simple nurturing campaigns...but my hunch is that there remains MUCH room for improvement. (What about mailings that are independent of a lead form or the HubSpot platform?)

I also suspect that many of HubSpot's low/mid-tier customers would gladly dump their existing email vendor for a reasonable, integrated offering from HubSpot.

(Yes - email marketing kinda goes against the inbound credo.  But if you do it right, email marketing makes inbound marketing MUCH stronger.)

Email marketing isn't easy...

...and it certainly can't be dumbed-down into a grader.  (Zing!)  Deliverability, workflow, reputation, best practices, etc. all have a steep learning curve - both for the customer and the vendor.  The best email marketing apps are highly specialized and get all of the little details just right.

Instead of trying to build it all in-house, HubSpot would be smart to buy a platform and all of the email marketing product/industry expertise that comes with it.

They've got to keep pace.

Eventually, HubSpot will to start bumping into up-market vendors like Marketo, Eloqua, and - all of which have very strong email marketing components, either native or through amazingly tight integrations.  Thus, it would take them a long time to build out a feature-complete email platform that is strong enough to compel marketers to switch from their existing vendor.

So they'll buy a mid-tier vendor, integrate the platform with HubSpot, happily accept the top-line bump from the new contracts, and make up a lot of ground with their biggest competitors - all in one smart acquisiton.

They're flush with cash.

HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan recently said that the firm's next financing round would hopefully come from public markets, which means that their last round came at a great valuation and gives them a nice, long runway to grow...a runway presumably lengthened by the gobs of cash they're raking in every month.

A $8M - $15M acquisition is certainly in their sweet spot.  And the list of email marketing vendors that match that profile is fairly short.

PS - Here's why it won't happen:

  • They won't be able to get a good price from a good ESP.
  • Despite everything I just said, HubSpot seems like a builder...not a buyer.
  • I'm just taking a wild guess.

Changing Times For Marketers

You better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone.

Bob Dylan said that to beautifully articulate the rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement.  I'm just appropriating completely out of context to explain the sink-or-swim situation soon facing marketers.

(Instead of taking the time to craft an original thought - I'll gladly/lazily refer you to this great entry from Forrester forecasting the tectonic shifts facing marketers over the coming months and this "trends for 2010" post from eMarketer CEO Geoff Ramsey.)

The long and short of my perspective is this - I hate being marketed to...or marketed at...or however you want to describe the dim-witted shortcuts that pass for "marketing" these days.  (See Dell, iContact, and Sarah Palin.) 

Unfortunately, interrupt-driven - and lowest-common-denominator - marketing will always exist because - to some degree - it works and because it often provides to only mechanism for super-broad reach. 

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon.  And it comes from relationships generated from the opt-in, personalized promise of email marketing and the influence and insight from the social web. 

The technologies and tools are there - marketers just need to step up their game, get smarter, get personal, and stop spraying/praying. 

Return On Tweeting

I think I coined my first acronym a few weeks ago and feel compelled to broadcast it to the interwebs so that I can lay claim to it before it becomes the new LOL or ROI or FMFL.

ROT = Return On Tweeting


Joking aside, the acronym spawned from an email exchange with a friend in which we discussed Twitter's emergence as a mainstream social platform, its inevitable emergence as a real deal marketing channel, and some early-stage technologies that enable marketers to measure the impact of their Twittering - their ROT.

Case in point - in addition to my personal stream of consciousness, I tweet off/on as Kenan-Flagler Business School.  Last week, I tweeted (or twote?) Michael Porter's lecture on campus and used my friend Adam Covati's service to shorten the URL to this:

instead of this:

The short URL from idek not only lets me squeeze in enough characters to serve the link, but it also lets me track the response.  Kenan-Flagler has 135 followers as of today.  Per idek, my link to the Porter press release was clicked 29 times.  I didn't post the link anywhere else, so we can safely assume that all of the clicks came from my tweet.

Some quick math yields an astounding click-through rate:

29 / 135 = 21%

For those of you unfamiliar with online/email marketing - that is a ridiculous number.  If I were an ecommerce site and had 135K followers instead of 135, the 21% click-through rate would represent revenue.  Even better - it represents high margin revenue because Twitter is a free least for now.  (I look forward to testing other types of links and Tweet constructs.)

In my opinion, the strong conversion comes from a mix of the following:

15% - Twitter is still largely comprised of early adopters who voraciously consume information from the service.  I probably could have posted a link to just about anything and gotten a similar response from this crowd.  Yes - I'm talking about you @djwaldow...  :-)

15% - Kenan-Flagler's followers are MBA applicants desperate for any crumb of information that will help them improve their app and chances for acceptance.  This is actually a good thing - I'm aggregating these people and building a conversation keeps them engaged with Kenan-Flagler.

70% - Twitter is the real deal.  Marketing is about conversations...and so is Twitter.  The next Google?  Probably not.  The next Facebook?  Umm.  There is a reason that FB tendered an offer to acquire Twitter...and a reason Twitter declined...and a reason that the forthcoming FB homepage rev looks awfully familiar...

As for the measurement piece - it is a little rudimentary for now, but will get better with time.  There are a handful of apps out there now - and more to come for sure - that enable marketers to aggregate their Twitter and other social web activities, measure the effectiveness of their programs, and ultimately tie it all back to an ROT.

Believe me, this post could go on for much longer.  I'm a big fan of Twitter and continue to be amazed by its utility and evolution as an Internet powerhouse.

I wish more of my friends/family would sign up.  (Mom, Dad, Erin, Evan - HINT!)  It is a great way to keep in touch...

PS - If you're still a Twitter skeptic, then you should try following keywords in real time on during the next big event - televised or otherwise.  You'll be hooked immediately.  The commentary from the masses is WAY more entertaining and sometimes more insightful than the blatherings from the mainstream media talking heads.

This Is Your Pharmacy

I just got the following phone call:
This is your pharmacy. A member of this household has a prescription that is ready for pick up.


A member of this household has a prescription that is ready for pick up.


A member of this household has a prescription that is ready for pick up.


Either the record player was broken, or that was the worst customer service phone call I've ever received in my life. It is unbelievable that Eckerd/RiteAid wouldn't invest a little more time/effort into a communication that reaches so many of their customers.

Even worse - why am I not getting an email telling me that my prescription is ready? My cell phone is just as susceptible to intercept as my inbox. Plus, the message contains no private medical information.

How to Build a Customer Advisory Board

I've spent a fair amount of time over the past few weeks prepping for and following up on my April call with Bronto's Customer Advisory Board. We call it the "BCAB" for short.

While prepping for this call and previous calls with the board, I did a number web searches in an effort to learn more about building and managing a customer advisory board. (Bronto has never had one and I don't have any experience with this sort of thing.)

Though the Googles yielded some helpful resources, most of the results were press releases from companies announcing the formation of their customer advisory board, re-affirming their commitment to building a customer-focused business, blah, blah, blah.

So I did what I've done many times over during my Bronto career - I gave it my best shot and learned some lessons in the process. Hence, the following end-all, be-all post about building and managing Bronto's customer advisory board.

(I'm going to skip the "what"and "why" for customer advisory boards and jump right into the "how".)

What are you trying to do?

During our initial planning phase, we wrote a brief description of what we intend our board to become:

- An opportunity for Bronto customers to provide feedback and advice on the direction of our company and our product.
- A mechanism to ensure that our product direction aligns with customer needs as well as their current and future email marketing plans.
- A venue for customers and Bronto leadership to exchange ideas on the state and direction of the email marketing industry.
- An opportunity for board members to leverage the collective experience of Bronto and their fellow board members in an effort to further their email marketing initiatives.

It was important for us that the BCAB be a win/win, for Bronto and our board members. We knew what we wanted out of the program and quickly came to the conclusion that we were more likely to get the desired outcome if we made the experience worthwhile for our participants.

With these objectives in mind, we planned our first call. Prior to the call, we sent brief surveys to all of our members that asked our members a few simple questions:

- What would make the BCAB experience successful?
- List 3 driving forces that contribute to your success with Bronto.
- List 3 restraining forces that contribute to your success with Bronto.

(I got the driving/restraining forces questions from Pragmatic Marketing.)

The survey framed not only our first call, but subsequent calls as well. I spent a lot of time processing the results and then presented them to our board members in the first call. I felt like this was an effective means to get everyone "on the same page" and to set the tone for future meetings. Plus, our board members appreciated the opportunity to hear the email marketing perspectives and challenges of their fellow members.

Choose members carefully.

We recruited a fairly diverse set of board members. They range from CEOs to Marketing Specialists, E-Commerce sites to Non-Profits, high-power users to somewhat lessor power users. It is important to note that all are Top 50 customers in terms of annualized value to Bronto - so they all have a significant stake in email marketing and, more importantly, Bronto.

Also, most of the members already knew me very well, so gaining their trust and soliciting their honest opinions proved pretty easy.

The "all kinds of customers" approach was helpful initially. We were able to get a broad perspective of "what our customers are thinking" in very short order. However, it has since been somewhat of a limiting factor. We're not able to dig in on special topics as much as I would like precisely because our membership is so diverse.

I plan to recruit a few more members and form a couple "sub-committees" to rectify this problem. We'll have more sub-committee calls and fewer "all hands" calls. I suspect that we'll get better feedback and our board members will enjoy a richer experience.

We have 10 members and have thus far conducted all of our activities via phone and web conference. It has been challenging to keep 10 participants engaged on a call, but doable. 5 to 7 make for a better phone call - hence the "sub-committees" idea.

Don't talk. Just listen.

I would be lying if I didn't say that this is the hardest part.

While it was a strong start, Bronto's first customer summit devolved into a sales/entertainment event. (This is the risk you take when you put me in front of an audience.) We (read: I) have since gotten much better at asking the right questions and then listening for the answers.

Other articles I've read about CABs suggest hiring a facilitator. I suppose this would be a pretty good idea, though I think that we've done pretty well without one. As long as you can keep listening - and keep your cool! - when your members are brutally honest and as long as you're not afraid to walk right into situations in which you know that your members will be brutally honest, then you should be fine without one.

Extend the involvement.

For me, the most valuable asset of my board is knowing that I can call any of them out of the blue to bounce around an idea or to ask for an opinion on a very specific topic.

Though you'd have to ask them to be sure, I suspect that the members enjoy the high-touch approach and the satisfaction of knowing that they play a significant role in our product development process.

Make it happen.

It goes without saying that you can't talk the talk without walking the walk. Our board needs to know that their input drives change at Bronto. Thus, we make sure to discuss only the topics that we're honestly willing to change. We then take the appropriate action based on customer feedback and our best judgment.

I like to start our board calls with a quick rundown of our recent product initiatives - particularly those that involve BCAB feedback - in order to illustrate the board's impact.

So that's a lot. Hope it helps.



The shenanigans I just called was for's annual marketing blog Reader's Choice Awards.

Chris Baggott of ExactTarget was the winner in the email marketing category.
You might think I'm crazy, but I'm going to ask anyway:

Am I reading the same Chris Baggott blog as everyone else?

ExactTarget is without question a leader in the email marketing space. They have a great product, lots of good customers, and, as founder of the company, Chris is obviously astute. On the other hand, at least for me, the blog isn't quite up to par.

Case in point - check out the posts that are nothing more than press releases. A pretty weak effort in my opinion.

Or check out this particularly stirring post. (Yes - it is a blank post.)

Also, note that (potentially below-the-belt shot coming...) MarketingSherpa uses ExactTarget to send their email newsletters. I suspect in a trade exchange in which MarketingSherpa helps promote ExactTarget. Nothing wrong with this - just awkward given the circumstances.

That said, the blog boasts plenty of good content and I certainly do not contend its consideration as a top email marketing blog.

However, for the sake of comparison, take the MailChimp blog - which wasn't on the ballot. For me, it is much better - even if it is produced by a low-end provider. It is fresh, practical, and the right blend of high level articles, tactical how-to's, and the obligatory marketing fluff.

The ExactTarget blog just isn't all that - and it certainly does not come with a bag of chips. Call my beef with "victory" what you will - cynicism, sour grapes, boredom, whatever. I call it shenanigans.

Fun Time Focus Group!

Fellow Brontos and I recently hosted our first ever focus group/user group/customer summit/whatever you want to call it. (We've been calling it Bronto Summit 0.1.)

My only previous focus group experience stems from the IBM hardware focus groups I used to attend. I'd get $100 cash and free dinner in exchange for spending 3 hours in a dingy IBM meeting room hemming and hawing the finer points of desktop PC ergonomics. (What fun!)

Our recent focus group - although a bit non-traditional - was a much more rewarding experience. Here are a few thoughts after the fact:

  • We're on point with the new release. The vast majority of the "we would like to have" feature suggestions are already in the release. If not in the release, they're on the 6 month roadmap. So - we're definitely keyed into what our customers (and future customers) want.

  • Thad - Bronto Director of Engineering - added a number of tasks to his to-do list. Our customers have interesting ideas and we're listening.

  • It was amazing how our customers talked to each other about how they use Bronto, their thoughts on email marketing, and how their experiences and businesses shape their strategies. (Fellow Brontos and I merely facilitated much of the conversation.) Personally, I found it very rewarding to hear customers tell how Bronto helps them solve their business problems.

  • The meeting manifested the beginnings of the Bronto "community" - customers with shared experience using a product that helps them meet their goals and that they love to use. As such - I'm sure that we'll do more of these in the future - locally and elsewhere.

We Are All Witnesses

Lebron. Lebron. Lebron. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Yes - he's good. Scary good. Chance to be best ever good. Chance to be best ever. (Talk to me when he's working on his 6th NBA Championship...)

He has single-handedly carried the Cavs all season, he is by far the most exciting player in sports and he already refers to himself in the 3rd person. He is without question a basketball deity.

That said, the latest "Witness" ad campaign by Nike is a bit much. "We Are All Witnesses" to Lebron's first playoff basketball - check the site - - watch the video at the top right.