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Email Marketing & Social Media Interview: Kristin Hersant of StrongMail

Posted on Feb 28th, 2011
Written by Lee Odden
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  • Email Marketing & Social Media Interview: Kristin Hersant of StrongMail
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    Kristin Hersant As a long time and trusted marketing agency, TopRank Online Marketing gets to work with some amazing B2B technology and SaaS companies. One of those companies is StrongMail.  Today Kristin Hersant, VP of Corporate Marketing joins an esteemed group of marketers and thought leaders ranging from Guy Kawasaki to David Meerman Scott interviewed here at Online Marketing Blog.

    Kristin is a firecracker of smarts and energy towards online marketing. Her company StrongMail is the leader in an array of email marketing and social media marketing services. Read on to learn more about the future of Email Marketing and its intersection with Social Media:

    Please share a bit about your marketing background and StrongMail. What types of companies do you serve?

    I have held a variety of B2B Corporate Marketing positions spanning from program management to event marketing, PR and marketing communications. The industries I’ve worked in include internet advertising, online marketing, desktop software, enterprise software and magazine publishing, which have all contributed in one form or another to my position here at StrongMail. I joined StrongMail in 2004 and have loved every minute of our explosive growth since then.

    StrongMail provides email marketing and social media solutions to some of the world’s biggest brands including InterContinental Hotels Group, Travelocity, Viacom, T. Rowe Price and Zappos. Our solutions offer the highest ROI of any enterprise email service provider, which means that we make a lot of sense for B2C companies sending over 1 million messages per month and offer exceptional ROI for companies who send over 5 million messages per month.

    How did StrongMail get into the social media business?

    StrongMail became a social media marketing provider in 2009 through a series of strategic acquisitions. First we acquired PopularMedia, a Sequoia Capital backed company with a suite of social media products that we integrated into our platform. We currently offer Social Studio, a suite of social media marketing tools that is comprised of a referral marketing platform (StrongMail Influencer), a content sharing tool (Social Notes) and a social media management tool (Social Direct.)

    Last year, we also announced the acquisition of two NY-based web firms that we combined to form StrongMail’s new boutique email and social CRM agency. This compliments our suite of technology tools with the strategy and creative expertise that brands need to effectively leverage the channel. All of our social offerings are available either in conjunction with or separately from our email platform, and our social media clients include Castrol, and Discover Card.

    A big challenge for many email marketers is deliverability. What are some of the common issues companies are facing?

    Controlling spam has become a major problem for ISPs worldwide. On average, 90% of all email sent is categorized as “unsolicited commercial email” or spam.

    When you narrow that down to look at the burden on one ISP, of the 8 billion email messages that Hotmail receives globally each month, 5.5 billion are blocked at the gateway and 1 billion are marked as junk. That’s a lot of unwanted email… and unfortunately not all of that is sent from the Nigerian fraudsters and prescription drug pushers that we traditionally think of when we think of spam. A fair percentage of what ISPs classify as “unwanted email” comes from legitimate senders, including many of the brands that we know and trust.

    In an effort to improve the Inbox user experience for their customers in 2011, the four major ISPs (Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail and AOL) have all announced plans to change the way that they block and filter email this year. Among other things – including adding social functionality to the Inbox – they have announced that they are going to start factoring engagement into their filtering algorithms.

    What this means is that it’s now going to be critically important that your subscribers not only open and click on your emails, but that they do so on a regular basis. If they don’t, it could potentially affect your overall email deliverability and negatively impact revenue driven from the email channel.

    To manage through this shift, StrongMail recommends employing a combination of two things:

    1)     Carefully scrubbing your list to either remove or attempt to re-engage non-responders after 6 months of inactivity.

    2)     Implementing marketing tactics to increase subscriber engagement as soon as possible.

    If you’re interested in learning more about how the Inbox experience is changing in 2011, I encourage you to download our December whitepaper on the subject, “The New Rules of Deliverability: 2011 and Beyond”.

    Except the intersection with social media, (I’ll ask about that shortly) what’s the most important change in email marketing over the past year? Any surprises?

    In addition to what I mention above, there appears to be a migration from batch email marketing towards triggered email marketing automation. Marketers have been talking about it for years, but we’re finally seeing a shift towards more wide-spread adoption. This is a result of technology advances that put easy-to-use workflow-building functionality into the hands of marketers and a drive for enterprises to generate a single view of their customer across all channels.

    We recently published a great case study on this with InterContinental Hotels Group that I recommend reading if you’re looking at a similar program.

    Many companies are implementing Email and Social Media Marketing solutions independently but you’re a strong advocate of a synergy between them. What are your recommendations for companies looking for best practices and an approach to making their email marketing more social?

    When social media first started gaining momentum, many industry pundits were saying that it signaled the death of email. Neilsen set out to prove that hypothesis, and fielded a study that broke internet users in to four groups – three focused on varying levels of social media usage and a fourth group did not use social media at all.

    Then they overlayed email usage on top of those segments and discovered that their hypothesis was wrong. In fact, the more engaged a person was with social media, the more heavily they consumed email.

    Email Consumption

    This intersection of highly engaged email and social media users tend to be more active online – generating reviews, recommendations and comments in forums. In many cases, this segment also contains your most influential brand advocates.

    The good news for email marketers is that, these influencers are already in your email database. The most successful socialized email marketing programs target these influencers with something of value that incentivizes them to spread the word about your product or service. We’ve seen brands drive as much as six figures in additional revenue off of one socialized email program that was targeted in this fashion. Another was able to generate 8,500 new subscribers off of one email campaign using a similar strategy.

    The key is to be thoughtful with your email and social media strategy. Provide your influencers with genuine, true value in your campaigns, and if you can make them look like a hero by providing them with something of value to share with their networks, even better.

    Simply integrating passive social sharing is good, but it will yield a much lower lift in click-throughs.

    Companies that have been involved with social media publishing, sharing and networking for a while often find themselves overwhelmed and looking for efficiencies through tools. What types of social media tools do you recommend? Is there a process for evaluation that you’d recommend?

    Every smart social media strategy starts with listening, so your first investment should be in a listening platform like Radian 6, Attenisty or Alterian’s SM2. In addition, you need a social media management console to schedule, track and respond to your mentions across social channels. StrongMail has one called Social Direct, but other popular ones include HootSuite or even Tweetdeck, which is free. If you’re a large enterprise that has a team of people tweeting on behalf of your brand in a customer service capacity, you should look at Co-Tweet.

    Additional technology investments could include a community platform like Jive or Lithium (if you determine that’s right for your business), or a referral marketing platform like StrongMail Influencer.

    But to be honest, most enterprise level social media marketers are still investing in internal education and training. I heard a great quote last week… “Social media is too young to be a science. It’s still an art.”  This means that the right strategy and set of tools is going to be different for every brand. The good news is – like email marketing – there is a wealth of free information out there for you to help devise your social media strategy if you’re budget strapped. However if you don’t have time, there are also plenty of agencies to help you quickly build a strategy that makes sense for your business.

    “Social Media” is the darling topic for many business publications, blogs (including this one) and even mainstream media. Do you think at some point there will be a social media bubble? If so, when do you think it will pop?

    That’s a great question… Gartner’s hype-cycle shows that every new, promising technology will enter the trough of disillusionment before it enters the plateau of productivity. By that theory, we are absolutely headed for a bubble-burst, but it’s not certain when that will happen. I suspect that it will have something to do with a consumer privacy backlash. Social media is free for a reason… Mark Zuckerberg might not think consumers will ever care about how their information is shared, but I think they eventually will. Companies should make sure that their data management practices and privacy policies are above board and clearly articulated in their privacy policies in preparation for this.

    In the recent StrongMail webinar, 2011 Social Marketing Business Forecast, Jeremiah Owyang talked about social media budget allocation for the coming year. What are some of the shifts in priority that you’re seeing with companies that are maturing in their social media programs?

    Mature social media marketers are starting to shift their limited budget dollars from traditional agencies (that maybe handled their PR or advertising campaigns) to boutique agencies that specialize in social media marketing. This enables them to generate significantly higher returns from their social media marketing programs. Our agency is doing some groundbreaking, data-based Social CRM Marketing work in this area that is producing incredible results for our clients.

    ROI is a big topic when it comes to social media marketing. How does email marketing help facilitate or achieve greater business value from social participation?

    I just spoke at OpenDialogue’s Social Media Marketing Conference in Toronto and 2/3 of the audience came from a marketing background, whereas less than 5 people in the audience came from a PR background. That is a significant shift from who owned social media a few years ago. Marketers are taking over… which signals a shift towards needing to prove ROI. In PR, that’s a fuzzy metric.

    Email marketing is a direct marketing discipline, which by nature means that everything needs to be tracked and measured. Social media metrics are more engagement focused, however smart marketers need to start analyzing those metrics in conjunction with their email marketing metrics, purchase metrics, customer lifetime value metrics to build a holistic picture of each consumer’s value to your company. This is the holy grail of social media marketing ROI, however I don’t think it’s that far off for companies with the right organizational structure and integrated technology infrastructure.

    What are some of the biggest myths, misconceptions or outright misinformation you’ve been seeing about email, social or a convergence of the two?

    Probably that social media is going to kill email, which I alluded to earlier. Social media is just another channel to add to the marketing mix. Did television kill the phone? No. Did Email kill the phone? No. Did Email kill direct mail? A little bit… but I don’t think social media can be compared in the same way. Email is literally an electronic version of mail… so of course it’s going to affect the usage of print. But it’s never going to kill it completely. And social media is most certainly *not* going to kill email.

    What are you most optimistic about for online marketing in 2011?

    The move towards engagement filtering by the top ISPs is driving increased pressure for email marketers to up their game. As any marketer who has ever been blocked by a major ISP know will tell you… once you’re blocked, it can be quite a challenge to get unblocked.

    The four major ISPs aren’t making the specifics of their algorithms public, nor have they announced exactly when they will start junking emails based on lack of subscriber engagement. However by taking steps to increase subscriber engagement now, you will not only protect yourself from being negatively impacted by this change – you will have the added bonus of improving the performance of your email marketing programs.

    Email marketers are paying attention. According to a recent StrongMail survey of just under 1000 global email marketing executives, 52% cited increasing subscriber engagement as one of their top priorities in 2011. This makes it the #1 initiative for email marketers in 2011 – followed by improving segmentation and targeting and integrating social media with their email marketing programs.

    In my opinion, this is awesome news for everyone. Its forcing email marketers to evolve and start paying attention to engagement metrics on an ongoing basis – not to mention keep their lists clean – if they want to continue to have their email delivered. This is going to hurt lazy email marketers and spammers, but that’s the point. But if you’re on top of this change, it will only create a win-win situation for consumers, ISPs and brands alike.

    For in-depth examples of how brands are successfully increasing subscriber engagement, I recommend downloading our whitepaper on the topic, “The Ultimate Email Marketing Guidebook: Increasing Subscriber Engagement.”

    Thank you Kristin!  For more insights and to connect with Kristin on the social web, visit her on Twitter or her blog on the StrongMail website.