Feb 282006

Agile Marketing

Agile Marketing

As I wrote about last week, Return Path has been using the Agile Development methodology and Rally Software as our product development framework for about a year now.  It’s worked so well for us, that the concepts, and even the tools, have started to spread virally to other parts of our business.

About two months ago, I took over our marketing department as interim CMO.  Our marketing efforts have become increasingly complex in the last year or so as we’ve grown and added multiple new product lines, and as a result, the demands on our relatively small department were becoming unmanageable.  As I wrote about a couple years ago, Marketing is like French Fries — you can always consume just a little bit more of it — and we were really feeling the strain on our marketing team.

As I thought about the challenges that faced our marketing efforts, they reminded me a lot of the challenges that faced our product development efforts before we implemented Agile/Rally for those teams.  Multiple external and internal stakeholders with competing priorities.  Poor communication.  Needing to be nimble and agile in a process that has some inherent long lead-time items.

So we tried an experiment — we tried implementing Agile Marketing.  We have learned a lot in the past couple of months and have adapted the processes a little bit to the needs of marketing, but our marketing planning, execution, and feedback cycles now look an awful lot like our engineering ones.  After one week struggling with an Excel spreadsheet, macros, and conditional formatting, we even decided to try using Rally to run our process, even though some if its terms and functionality are really designed for software development.

We now plan marketing in six-week “releases,” each of which has 1-2 core themes and a planning session up front with our head of sales and business GMs.  Each release has two, three-week “iterations” where we do mid-course corrections and track our marketing team members’ utilization on projects very deliberately in Rally.  Stakeholders can always go into Rally at any time and enter a “feature request” for a new marketing project, which we will schedule in at the next iteration.  The marketing team has a daily stand-up to review progress and identify roadblocks.  And we still have enough slack in the system that we can handle a couple of last-minute opportunistic items (love those French Fries) which invariably come up.

So far, so good.  Our marketing team has a much more solid plan of attack for its work, and we have been able to regain control of our marketing agenda, getting input and feedback from stakeholders to help shape it along the way.  Cross-group communication and transparency are way up, productivity is up, noise and friction are down.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty good system, and we’ll continue to refine it along the way.  But it’s catching on…last time I checked, a third group at Return Path was about to dive in and try it as well — Agile Sales Operations and Business Analytics, here we come!

Filed under: Email, Leadership


Feb 222006

Memory Lane or Dark Alley?

Memory Lane or Dark Alley?

We had an interesting meeting today.  A small group of the old-timers at Return Path, including one of our founders who doesn’t work at the company any longer, convened a summit to brainstorm ways to reinvent our original, original business, Email Change of Address (ECOA).

For those of you who don’t know what it is, ECOA is a very simple idea — that people who change email addresses need help updating their personal and business contacts, and also their most trusted commercial email newsletter relationships.  It’s a free service for consumers, and a paid service for opt-in email marketers and publishers who use our service to reacquire their customers with renewed permission and a shiny new email address.

When we created ECOA in 1999, we were sure it was the proverbial $100 million idea (what idea wasn’t in 1999?).  More than six years later, the product is a success and profitable, but it never took off with that explosive growth we all imagined early on.  Return Path has grown a lot since then, both organically and through M&A, and since about 2002 or early 2003, we basically put the ECOA business on “auto-pilot,” tending to it as needed and making sure it still worked well for consumers and clients and was adequately competitive in the market, but no longer investing meaningfully in its growth.

Now that we’re much larger and have the time and resources to put into it, we decided earlier this year to pay some attention to our neglected first child and see what we could do with it.  Today’s meeting was the first step, and boy was it interesting.

So I can’t decide whether the process of preparing for and going through this meeting was like a pleasant walk down Memory Lane…or a scary run through a Dark Alley late at night.  It was fun having a conversation about a part of the business that was so important to us at one time in our lives (it was all we had!), and the group of us were literally reminiscing in the meeting about all the different thoughts and ideas we had for the business over time, as well as about different former colleagues who worked with us on the business.  At the same time, it was pretty painful to look at some of our original projections for market size and of course business size — not to mention some of the marketing efforts, Powerpoint templates, logos, and names that fell by the wayside.

The good news is, either way, we do have lots of great ideas for how to move the ECOA business forward con gusto…so look for more news on this front as the year unfolds.

Filed under: Email, Entrepreneurship


Feb 212006

Agile Development

Agile Development

Sometime last year, our engineering and product teams embraced the Agile Software Development framework.  Without going into too much detail (here’s the Wikipedia entry for those who want it), the concept of Agile Development is to run software development in small pieces with a focus on more communication between product and development teams resulting in collaborative requirements development.  This leads to a “release early and often” environment where there are continual improvements.  For us, we group development projects now into a “release” that consists of a series of usually six, two-week “iterations.”

The release planning and iteration planning meetings are reasonably long meetings that involve the major stakeholders, product management and engineering.  The process also includes a very short, 10-minute Daily Stand-Up meeting with everyone on the team to review progress and identify roadblocks to completing the two-week iteration.  Requirements are not heavily documented and discussed more or less on the spot during the iteration meetings.  Because there’s a major pull-up every two weeks and a minor one every day, it’s easy to be light on requirements and for product management to constantly be in the loop with engineering to see progress, test functionality, and make mid-course corrections.

This methodology isn’t for everyone, but it’s particularly well suited to the kind of work we do at Return Path — small team, multiple internal and external stakeholders, very dynamic market, and web services as opposed to packaged software.

Our efforts have been bolstered by some limited consulting and more important, a fantastic web-based workflow management tool geared towards Agile Development run by a company called Rally Development in Boulder.  Think of it as Salesforce.com for your engineering and product team.

We’ve had great success with this methodology to date.  Engineering productivity is way up, product management visibility and input into development is way up, the level of friction/noise between product management and engineering is way down, and we have a much tighter grip on our development milestones than we ever have in the past.

Agile and Rally have worked so well for us, in fact, that we’re starting to extend the concept to other parts of our business, which I’ll write about separately.

Filed under: Email, Leadership


Feb 192006

Book Short: Which Runs Faster, You or Your Company?

Book Short:  Which Runs Faster, You or Your Company?

Leading at the Speed of Growth, by Katherine Catlin at the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership is a must read for any entrepreneur or CEO of a growth company.  It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read targeted to that audience – its content is great, its format is a page-turner, and it’s concise and to the point.

The authors take you through three stages of a growth company’s lifestyle (Initial Growth, Rapid Growth, and Continuous Growth) and describe the “how to’s” of the transition into each stage:  how you know it’s coming, how to behave in the new stage, how to leave the old stage behind.

I didn’t realize it when I started reading the book, but Brad had one of the quotes on the back cover that says it all:  “There are business books about starting a company, but they tend to deal with the mechanics of business plans and financing.  Then there are books about ‘how to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.’  This is the first book I’ve seen that details the role of the CEO of a small but growing company.”  Thanks to my colleague George Bilbrey for pointing this one out to me.

UPDATE:  Brad corrects me and says that I should mention Jana Matthews, who co-wrote the book with Katherine Catlin and is actually the Kauffman Center person of the duo.

Feb 152006

Angel Investors, Part II

Angel Investors, Part II

A while back, I posted about angel investors and strategic investors, and the puts and takes of taking money from them as you start your business.  Tom Evslin has a great and much longer post today about finding and dealing with angel investors that’s worth a read if you’re giving any thought to this topic.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship

Feb 062006

Victory for Email: AOL Enhanced Whitelist to Stay

Victory for Email:  AOL Enhanced Whitelist to Stay

It’s official.  AOL will keep its organic Enhanced Whitelist, clarifying that is not planning on replacing it with Goodmail’s email stamp program.  Goodmail will now be ONE way, not the only way, to reach AOL inboxes.  Charles Stiles, the postmaster for AOL, confirmed this earlier today on the phone with me, and I announced the news on CNBC’s Power Lunch (view the clip here).

This is a huge win for all companies who strive to do email the right way, earning the solid reputations that drive deliverability and response rates.  Paying for inbox reach is akin to only having paid search engine marketing – it works for some business models, not others; some consumers like paid ads, some don’t.  By having multiple ways to vet email inbox delivery, consumers keep a level of control over the process and marketers can decide which delivery solutions they do and don’t need.

When the news broke last week that the enhanced whitelist was going away, we took a pretty vocal stance that it was a bad idea for the email industry, our clients and consumers.  It was not so much Goodmail that we were against (though we do not think that email stamps are the right solution to spam for many reasons), but the notion that the only way to gain inbox assurance was by buying it.   We’re happy to see that AOL agrees with that.

So, email marketers and publishers, we encourage you to keep the important thing in mind:  your email reputation remains critical in getting delivered at AOL and every other ISP.  Do what you can to make sure your reputation is solid, and your email program will benefit with high delivery and response rates.

Filed under: Email

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Feb 032006

Why Email Stamps Are a Bad Idea

Why Email Stamps Are a Bad Idea

(also posted on the Return Path blog)

Rich Gingras, CEO of Goodmail is an incredibly smart and stand-up professional.  I’ve always liked him personally and had a tremendous amount of respect for him.  However, the introduction of the email stamp model by Goodmail is a radical departure from the current email ecosystem, and while I’m all for change and believe the spam problem is still real, I don’t think stamps are the answer.  Rich has laid out some of his arguments here in the DMNews blog, so I’ll respond to those arguments as well as add some others in this posting.  I will also comment on the DMNews blog site itself, but this posting will be more comprehensive and will include everything that’s in the other posting.

It seems that Goodmail’s main argument in favor of stamps is that whitelists don’t work.  While he clearly does understand ISPs (he used to work at one), he doesn’t seem to understand the world of publishers and marketers.  His solution is fundamentally hostile to the way they do business.  I’m happy to have a constructive debate with him about the relative merits of different approaches to solving the false positive problem for mailers and then let the market be the ultimate judge, as it should be.

First, whitelists are in fact working.  I know — Return Path runs one called Bonded Sender.  We have documented several places that Bonded Senders have a 21% lift on their inbox delivery rates over non-Bonded Senders.  It’s hard to see how that translates into “bad for senders” as Rich asserts.  When the average inbox deliverability rate is in the 70s, and a whitelist — or, by the way, organic improvements to reputation — can move the needle up to the 90s, isn’t that good?

Second, why, as Goodmail asserts, should marketers pay ISPs for spam-fighting costs?  Consumers pay for the email boxes with dollars (at AOL) or with ads (at Google/Yahoo/Hotmail).  Good marketers have permission to mail their customers.  Why should they have to pay the freight to keep the bad guys away?  And for that matter, why is the cost “necessary?”  What about those who can’t afford it?  We’ve always allowed non-profits and educational institutions to use Bonded Sender at no cost.  But beyond that, one thing that’s really problematic for mailers about the Goodmail stamp model is that different for-profit mailers have radically different costs and values per email they send.

For example, maybe a retailer generates an average of $0.10 per email based on sales and proit.  So the economics of a $0.003 Goodmail stamp would work.  However, they’re only paying $0.001 to deliver that email, and now Goodmail is asserting that they “only” need to pay $0.003 for the stamp.  But what about publishers who only generate a token amount per individual email to someone who receives a daily newsletter based on serving a single ad banner?  What’s their value per email?  Probably closer to $0.005 at most.  Stamps sound like they’re going to cost $0.003.  It’s hard to see how that model will work for content delivery — and content delivery is one of the best and highest uses of permission-based email.

Next, Rich’s assertion that IP-based whitelists are bad for ISPs and consumers because IP-based solutions have inherent technology flaws that allow senders to behave badly doesn’t make sense.  A cryptographically based solution is certainly more sophisticated technology — I’ve never doubted that.

In terms of the practical application, though, I’m not sure there’s a huge difference.  Either type of system (IP or crypto) can be breached, either one is trackable, and either one can shut a mailer out of the system immediately — the only difference is that one form of breach would be trackable at the individual email level and the other would only be trackable in terms of the pipeline or IP.  I’m not sure either one is more likely to be breached than the other — a malicious or errant spammy email can either be digitally signed or not, and an IP address can’t be hijacked or spoofed much like a digital signature can’t be spoofed.

It’s a little bit like saying your house in the suburbs is more secure with a moat and barbed wire fence around it than with locks on the doors and an alarm system.  It’s an accurate statement, but who cares?

I’m not saying that Return Path will never consider cryptographic-based solutions.  We absolutely will consider them, and there are some things around Domain Keys (DKIM) that are particularly appealing as a broad-based standard.  But the notion that ONLY a cryptographic solution works is silly, and the development of a proprietary technology for authentication and crypotgraphy when the rest of the world is trying desparately to standardize around open source solutions like DKIM is an understandable business strategy, but disappointing to everyone else who is trying to cooperate on standards for the good of the industry.  I won’t even get into the costs and time and difficulty that mailers and ISPs alike will have to incur to implement the Goodmail stamp system, which are real.  Now mailers are being told they need to implement Sender ID or SPF as an IP-based authentication protocol — and DKIM as a crypto-based protocol — and also Goodmail as a different, competing crypto-based protocol.  Oy vey!

Email stamps also do feel like they put the world on a slippery slope towards paid spam — towards saying that money matters more than reputation.  I’m very pleased to hear Goodmail clarify in the last couple of days that they are now considering implementing reputation standards around who qualifies for certified mail as well, since that wasn’t their original model.  That bodes well for their program and certainly removes the appearance of being a paid spam model.  However, I have heard some of the proposed standards that Goodmail is planning on using in industry groups, and the standards seem to be much looser than AOL’s current standards, which, if true, is incredibly disappointing to say the least.

Jupiter analyst David Daniels also makes a good point, which is that stamps do cost money, and money on the line will force mailers to be more cautious about “overmailing” their consumers.  But that brings me to my final point about organic deliverability.  The mailers who have the best reputations get delivered through most filtering systems.  Reputations are based largely on consumer complaints and unknown user rates.  So the mailers who do the best job of keeping their lists clean (not overmailing) and only sending out relevant, requested mail (not overmailing) are the ones that will naturally rise to the top in the world of organic deliverability.  The stamp model can claim one more forcing function here, but it’s only an incremental step beyond the forcing function of “fear of being filtered” and not worth the difficulty of adopting it, or the costs, or the risks associated with it.

Rich, I hope to continue to dialog with you, and as noted in my prior posting, I think separating the issues here is healthy.

Feb 032006

AOL and Goodmail: Two steps back for email, Part II

AOL and Goodmail: Two steps back for email, Part II

(also posted on the Return Path blog)

There’s been a lot of noise this week since the news broke about AOL and Goodmail, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to change the direction of the dialog a little bit.

First, there are two main issues here, and I think it’s healthy to separate them and address them separately. One issue is the merits of an email stamp system like the one Goodmail is proposing, relative to other methods of improving and ensuring email deliverability.  The second issue — and the one that got me started earlier this week – is the question of AOL making usage of Goodmail stamps a mandatory event, replacing its enhanced whitelist.  To really separate the issues, this posting will tackle the second question, and the next posting will tackle the first question.

I have reached out to Charles Stiles this morning to try to clarify AOL’s position on Goodmail.  Initially, it was reported in the press that AOL was discontinuing their enhanced whitelist on June 30, and that Goodmail stamps were the only option available to mailers who wanted guaranteed delivery, images, and links in their emails via the enhanced whitelist.  But Charles has subsequently made some unofficial comments that the AOL enhanced whitelist will live on as an organically-driven or reputation-earned entity, and that Goodmail stamps will just be one option of many to gain enhanced whitelist status.  This is a critical distinction, and one that AOL needs to make.

If in fact they are not shutting down their enhanced whitelist on June 30 as reported and forcing thousands of mailers to use Goodmail as opposed to organically earning their way onto the enhanced whitelist, then I will help them publicize the correction since I’ve been such a vocal critic.  That would be great for the industry, and it’s my biggest hope that something good will come out of this controversy.

If AOL is making Goodmail the king — the only way to reliably reach users inboxes — then my complaints stand:  the lack of affordability for many mailers is problematic; the threat of a monopoly is real; and the absence of an organic route for mailers who have clear end-user permission to send email and sterling reputations runs counter to the entire spirit of the Internet.  AOL can accept Bonded Sender or not, although I hope they do some day.  But to tell mailers they have no other option, and in particular no organic option, to use the AOL enhanced whitelist to properly reach customers who are requesting their email is akin to Google telling the world that they will only present paid search results in the future, and that organic search is dead.

Can you imagine how well that would go over?

Filed under: Email

Tags: ,

Feb 032006

What’s in store?

What’s in store?

Whether you’re a tech enthusiast, a math geek, or a student of humanity, Union Square Ventures’ Brad Burnham has a great post this week on the USV blog about data storage and how much we as a human race can consume.

It’s quick, worth a read, and it uses math terms that I’m pretty sure even my wife, dad, and Board members who went to MIT don’t know off the top of their heads (of course, having said that, I’m sure one of them will shortly email me to prove me wrong with their command of 10-to-the-21st power).

Brad’s conclusion is great…once the battle shifts away from storage, where will it go next?

Feb 012006

AOL and Goodmail: Two steps back for email

AOL and Goodmail: Two steps back for email

(posted on the Return Path blog a couple days ago here)

Remember the old email hoax about Hillary Clinton pushing for email taxation? When we first heard AOL’s plans for Goodmail today, we thought maybe the hoax had re-surfaced and a few industry reporters got hooked by it. But alas, this tax plan seems to be true.

AOL has long held the leading standard in email whitelisting. Every email sender who cares about delivery has tried to keep their email reputation high so that they could earn placement on AOL’s coveted Enhanced Whitelist. Now, AOL may be saying that those standards don’t matter as much as a postage stamp when it comes to email delivery.

AOL will begin phasing out its enhanced whitelist in favor of Goodmail’s brand new and untested certification program — which requires a fee for each email sent. This effectively encourages marketers and senders to focus not as much on email best practices but on paying cash for inbox reach. It punishes companies who already do everything right with email by adding another roadblock before they can reach customers.

With senders having to pay a fraction of a cent for each email sent, the fees for companies (and profits for AOL and Goodmail) will mount and good mailers will not always be able to participate — even if they have a pristine email reputation and customer relationship. This is in effect taxation of the good guys with cash – and it does nothing to help the good guys who can’t afford the cost or to deter the bad guys who just plan to spam anyway.

Email getting delivered to the mailbox should be based on the reputation of the sender — not whether they paid for guaranteed delivery. Now AOL is saying that isn’t enough. By charging significant dollars for email delivery, AOL and Goodmail are on the road to creating a “pay to play” model that puts subscriber benefit and sender equality second.

Goodmail reportedly uses some reputation data to determine “good” senders. What data do they use? Is it comprehensive? It is our strong opinion that email delivery should be based on a solid email reputation. That reputation should be based on a comprehensive set of data points including in-depth complaint rates, unknown user rates, spam trap data, permission practices, email infrastructure, volume of email sent and identity integrity, among a long list of other factors.
If Goodmail looks at less data than AOL currently uses … so how can it be better?

AOL stands to make a lot of money at the risk of setting back email as best practices-based marketing. This is bad for senders who care about setting high email standards, bad for consumers’ inboxes and simply, bad policy.

There’s been a ton of coverage of this problem, including this great one today in DMNews.  Look for a lot more reaction from the industry to this once people really understand what’s going on.

Filed under: Email

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