Sep 192012

Email Intelligence and the new Return Path

Welcome to the new Return Path.

For a tech company to grow and thrive in the 21st century it must be in a state of constant adaptation. We have been the global market leaders in email deliverability since my co-founder George Bilbrey coined that term back in 2002. In fact, back in 2008 we announced a major corporate reorganization, divesting ourselves of some legacy businesses in order to focus on deliverability as our core business.  

 Since then Return Path has grown tremendously thanks to that focus, but we have grown to the point where it’s time for us to redefine ourselves once again.  Now we’re launching a new chapter in the company’s history to meet evolving needs in our marketplace. We’re establishing ourselves as the global market leaders in email intelligence. Read on and I’ll explain what that means and why it’s important.

What Return Path Released Today

We launched three new products today to improve inbox placement rate (the new Inbox Monitor,  now including subscriber-level data), identify phishing attacks (Email Brand Monitor), and make it easier to understand subscriber engagement and benchmark your program against your competition (Inbox Insight, a groundbreaking new solution). We’ve also released an important research study conducted by David Daniels at The Relevancy Group.

The report’s findings parallel what we’ve been hearing more and more recently. Email marketers are struggling with two core problems that complicate their decision making: They have access to so much data, they can’t possibly analyze it fast enough or thoroughly enough to benefit from it; and too often they don’t have access to the data they really need.

Meanwhile they face new challenges in addition to the ones email marketers have been battling for years. It’s still hard to get to the inbox, and even to monitor how much mail isn’t getting there. It’s still hard to protect brands and their customers from phishing and spoofing, and even to see when mail streams are under attack. And it’s still hard to see engagement measurements, even as they become more important to marketing performance.

Email Intelligence is the Answer

Our solution to these problems is Email Intelligence. Email intelligence is the combination of data from across the email ecosystem, analytics that make it accessible and manageable, and insight that makes it actionable. Marketers need all of these to understand their email performance beyond deliverability. They need it to benchmark themselves against competitors, to gain a complete understanding of their subscribers’ experience, and to accurately track and report the full impact of their email programs.  In fact, we have redefined our company’s mission statement to align with our shift from being the global leader in Email Deliverability to being the global leader in Email Intelligence:

We analyze email data and build solutions that generate insights for senders, mailbox providers, and users to ensure that inboxes contain only messages that users want

The products we are launching today, in combination with the rest of our Email Intelligence Solution for Marketers that’s been serving clients for a decade, will help meet these market needs, but we continue to look ahead to find solutions to bigger problems. I see our evolution into an Email Intelligence company as an opportunity to change the entire ecosystem, to make email better, more welcome, more effective, and more secure.

David’s researchoffers a unique view of marketers’ place in the ecosystem, where they want to get to, how much progress they’ve made, and how big a lead the top competitors have opened up against the rest. (It can also give you a sense of where your efforts stack up vs. the rest of the industry.) There are definitely some surprises, but for me the biggest takeaway was no surprise at all: The factors that separate the leaders are essentially the core components of what we define as Email Intelligence.

Nov 172011

Remembering J.D.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in 12 years as Return Path’s CEO. I hope it never has an equal.

One of our long-time employees, J.D. Falk, passed away last night after a year-long struggle with cancer. J.D., which most people don’t know was short for Jesse David, was only 37 years old. Although I cannot claim to be a close friend of J.D.’s, I have known him fairly well in the industry going back about eight years, and he has been a trusted member of our team here for the last four+ years.

J.D. did great work for us at Return Path, but my admiration for him goes beyond that. I admire him first for his willingness to work for the common good as much as, or even more than, his own good. J.D.’s tireless pro-bono work with anti-abuse non-profits MAAWG, CAUCE, and the IETF complemented the work he did here for a salary. And although he had a very positive and enduring impact on us at Return Path in terms of how we run our business and think about the delicate balance between email senders and receivers, he had an even bigger, broader impact through his standards work, papers, and tireless work on event programming and committee chairmanship. He did all that work not for money, not for thanks, but because it was, he felt, the right thing to do.

I also admire J.D. tremendously for his extremely principled, but thoughtfully considered, approach to life. His principles around internet users are well known and very “Cluetrain.” And yet, in a world increasingly filled with people whose opinions are intransigent, he was always open-minded and willing to engage in productive dialog with people who had different points of view than his own, sometimes changing his own thoughts and actions as a result of those conversations. That quality is all-too-rare in today’s society.

J.D.’s wife Hope told me a great story that sums up the fiber of J.D.’s being earlier this week. Just last weekend, from his hospital bed, J.D. realized that he and Hope had concert tickets they would be unable to use because of his illness, so he wanted to give them to friends. However, the tickets were only in electronic form on J.D.’s work laptop. Hope said, “J.D., just give me your password, and I’ll go home and print them out so we can give them away.” His response? “I can’t give you my password – that’s against company policy, but bring the laptop here to the hospital, and I can log in myself and forward you the tickets.”

Today is a sad day for me and for all 300 of us at Return Path as we lose a friend and colleague for the first time in our company’s history. And of course today is a sad day for the anti-abuse community that J.D. has been such an integral part of for his entire career. But more than that, today is a sad day for the internet and for the billions of humans that use it – sadder in some ways because they don’t even know that one of the people integrally involved in keeping it safe for them has left us.

I will post again as soon as I can with details of the memorial service for J.D. as well as details of where to make some kind of donation or contribution in his honor. I will post again as soon as I can with details of the memorial service for J.D. as well as details of where to make some kind of donation or contribution in his honor. In the meantime, I encourage J.D.’s many friends and colleagues around the world to post their memories to this memorial site.

J.D. Falk

Filed under: Email, Return Path

May 022011

Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition

Once I stripped out the spam and the person:person emails from my inbox this morning, here were the five subject lines I was left with:

  • Wall Street Journal:  Osama Bin Laden is Dead
  • [eCommerce company]:  Final Hours to Shop Our Private Sale!
  • Wall Street Journal:  Bin Laden Was Killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan Official Says
  • [Travel site]:  Last minute deals from NYC and more!
  • Wall Street Journal:  Osama Bin Laden Buried at Sea
  • Return Path (yes, my own company):  Why Whitelisting is Important to Your Email Marketing Mix

The cynic in me says “wow, nice timing on the email marketing.”  I am guessing the attention and click-through on anything other than today’s big news will be greatly diminished.

But the realist in me says there’s no way anyone in a marketing department can figure out how to optimize around headlines delivered during a 24-hour global news cycle.

Does anyone have a theory about how to think about this?  Is it even a problem?

Jan 122011

5 Ways to Spot Trends That Will Make You (and Your Business) More Successful

5 Ways to Spot Trends That Will Make You (and Your Business) More Successful

I’ve recently started writing a column for The Magill Report, the new venture by Ken Magill, previously of Direct magazine and even more previously DMNews. Ken has been covering email for a long time and is one of the smartest journalists I know in this space. My column, which I share with my colleagues Jack Sinclair and George Bilbrey, covers how to approach the business of email marketing, thoughts on the future of email and other digital technologies, and more general articles on company-building in the online industry – all from the perspective of an entrepreneur. Below is a re-post of this week’s version, which I think my OnlyOnce readers will enjoy.

Last week I published my annual “Unpredictions” for 2011. This tradition grew out of the fact that I hate doing predictions and my marketing team loves them. So we compromise by predicting what won’t happen.

But the truth is that the annual prediction ritual – while trite – is really just trend-spotting. And trend-spotting is an important skill for entrepreneurs. Fortunately it’s a skill that can be acquired, at least it can with enough deliberate practice (another skill I talk about here).

Here are five habits you should consider cultivating if being a better trend spotter is in your career roadmap.

Read voraciously. I read about 50 books every year.  About half of them are business books, and I also mix in a bit of fiction, humor, American history, architecture and urban planning, and evolutionary biology.  I keep up with more than 50 blogs and I read all the trade publications that cover email.  I also read the Wall Street Journal and The Economist regularly.  What you read is a little less important than just reading a lot, and diversely.

Use social media (wisely). Julia Child once said that the key to success in life was having great parents. My advice to you is quite a bit simpler:  make friends with smart people. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and others have given us a window into the world unlike any other. Status updates, tweets, and – maybe most important of all – links shared by your network of friends and colleagues gives you a sense of what people are talking about, thinking about and working on. And you can’t just lurk.  You actually have to be “in” to get something “out.”

Follow the money. Pay attention to where money gets invested and spent. This includes keeping an eye on venture capital, private equity, and the public markets, as well as where clients (mostly IT and marketing departments) are spending their dollars and what kinds of people they are hiring. Money flows toward ideas that people think will succeed. A pattern of investments in particular areas will give you clues to what might be the big ideas over the next five to 10 years.

Get out of the office: I think it’s hugely important for anyone in business, and especially entrepreneurs, to spend time in the world to get fresh perspectives. I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but our head of product management, Mike Mills, frequently refers to the NIHITO principle – Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office.  Now that’s not entirely true – running a company means needing to spend a huge amount of time with people and on people issues, but last year I traveled nearly 160,000 miles around the world meeting with prospect, clients, partners and industry luminaries. You don’t have to be a road warrior to get this one right – you can attend events in your local area, develop a local network of people you can meet with regularly – but you do have to get out there.

Take a break. While you need information to understand trends, you can quickly get overloaded with too much data.  Trend spotting is, in many ways, about pattern recognition. And that is often easier to do when your mind is relaxed.  Ever notice that you have moments of true epiphany in the shower or while running? Give yourself time every week to unplug and let your mind recharge. As Steven Covey says, “sharpen that saw”!

Aug 172010

Investment in the Email Ecosystem

Investment in the Email Ecosystem

Last week, my colleague George Bilbrey posted about how (turns out – shocking!) email still isn’t dead yet.

Not only is he right, but the whole premise of defending email from the attackers who call it “legacy” or “uninteresting” is backwards.  The inbox is getting more and more interesting these days, not less.  At Return Path, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of startup activitiy and investment (these two things can go together but don’t have to) in in front end of email in the past couple years.  I’d point to three sub-trends of this theme of “the inbox getting more interesting.”

First, major ISPs and mailbox operators are starting to experiment with more interesting applications inside their inboxes.  As the postmaster of one of the major ISPs said to me recently, “we’ve spent years stripping functionality out of email in the name of security – now that we have security more under control, we would like to start adding functionality back in.”  Google’s recent announcement about allowing third-party developers to access your email with your permission is one example, as is their well-documented experiment with NetFlix’s branded favicon showing up in the inbox starting a few months back.  And Hotmail’s most recent release, which has been well covered online (including this article which George wrote in Mediapost a couple months ago) also includes some trials of web-like functionality in the inbox, as well as other easy ways for users to view and experience their inboxes other than the age-old “last message in on top” method.  Yahoo has done a couple things along these lines as well of late, and one can assume they have other things in the works as well.

I wouldn’t be surprised if many ISPs roll out a variety of enhanced functionality over the next couple of years, although these systems can take a lot of time to change.  Although some of these changes present challenges for marketers and publishers, these are generally major plusses for end users as well as the companies who send them email – email is probably the only Internet application people spend tons of time in that’s missing most state of the art web functionality.

Second, although Google Wave got a lot of publicity about reinventing the inbox experience before Google shut it down a couple weeks ago, there are probably a dozen startups that are working on richer inboxes as well, either through plug-ins or what I’d call a “web email client overlay” – you can still use your Yahoo!, Hotmail, Gmail, or other address (your own domain, or a POP or IMAP account), but read the mail through one of these new clients.  Regardless of the technology, these companies are all trying, with different angles here or there, to make the inbox experience more interesting, relevant, productive, and in many cases, tied into your “social graph” and/or third-party web content.

The two big ones here in terms of active user base are Xobni, an Outlook plugin that matches social graph to inbox and produces a lot of interesting stats for its users; and Xoopit, which recently got acquired by Yahoo and wraps content indexing and discovery into its mail client.

Gist matches social graph data and third-party content like feeds and blogs into something that’s a hybrid of plugin and stand-alone web application.  That sounds a little like Threadsy, although that’s still in closed beta, so it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going to surface out of it.  There’s also Zenbe and Kwaga, and Xiant, which focus on creating a more productive inbox experience for power users.

Furthermore, services like OtherInbox and Boxbe aim to help users cut through the clutter of their inboxes and simultaneously create a more effective means for marketers to reach customers (say what you will about that concept, but at least it has a clear revenue model, which some of the other services listed above don’t have).

Finally, a number of services are popping up which give marketers and publishers easy-to-use advanced tools to improve their conversion or add other enhanced functionality to email.  For example, RPost, a company we announced a partnership with a couple months back, provides legal proof of delivery for email with some cool underlying technology.  LiveClicker (also a Return Path partner) provides hosted analytics-enabled email video in lightweight and easy-to-use ways that work in the majority of inboxes.

Sympact (another Return Path partner) dynamically renders content in an email based on factors like time of day and geolocation – so the same email, in the same inbox, will render, for example, Friday’s showtimes for New York when I open it in my office on Friday afternoon but Saturday’s showtimes for San Francisco after I fly out west for the weekend.  And a Belgian company called 8Seconds (you guessed it, another Return Path partner) does on-the-fly multivariate testing of email content in a way that blows away traditional A/B methods.  While these tools require some basic things to be in place to work optimally, like having images on by default or links working, they don’t by and large require special deals with ISPs to make the services function.

While these tools are aimed at marketers, they will also make end users’ email experiences much better by improving relevance or by adding value in other ways.

Some of this makes me wonder whether there’s a trend that will lead to disaggregation of the value chain in consumer email – splitting the front end (what consumers see) from the back end (who runs the mail server).  But that’s probably another topic for another day.  In the meantime, I’ll say three cheers for innovation in the email space.  It’s long overdue and will greatly enrich the environment in the coming years as these services gain adoption.

Jun 292010

Automated Love

Automated Love

Return Path is launching a new mini feature sometime this week to our clients.  Normally I wouldn’t blog about this — I think this is mini enough that we’re probably not even saying much about it publicly at the company.  But it’s an interesting concept that I thought I’d riff on a little bit.

I forget what we’re calling the program officially — probably something like “Client Status Emails” or “Performance Summary Alerts” — but a bunch of us have been calling it by the more colorful term “Automated Love” for a while now.

The art of account management or client services for an on-demand software company is complex and has evolved significantly from the old days of relationship management.  Great account management now means a whole slew of new things, like Being The Subject Matter Expert, and Training the Client.  It’s less about the “hey, how are things going?” phone call and more about driving usage and value for clients.

As web services have taken off, particularly for small businesses or “prosumers,” most have built in this concept of Automated Love.  The weekly email from the service to its user with charts, stats, benchmarks, and links to the web site, occasionally with some content or blog posts.  It’s relatively easy (most of the content is database driven), it reminds customers that you’re there, working on their behalf in the background, it tells them what happened on their account or how they’re doing, it alerts them to current or looming problems, and it drives usage of your service.  As a bonus for you internally, usually the same database queries that produce a good bit of Automated Love can also alert your account management team when a client’s usage pattern of your service changes or stops entirely.

While some businesses with low values of any single customer value can probably get away with having a client service function based ENTIRELY on Automated Love, I think any business with a web service MUST have Automated Love as a component of its client service effort.

Jun 232010

I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend (Today), part II

I think Facebook is starting to get out of control from a usability perspective.  This doesn’t mean it’s not a great platform and that it doesn’t have utility.  But if the platform continues on its current path, the core system runs the risk of going sideways like its various predecessors:  GeoCities, MySpace, etc.  Maybe I’ll go in there to look for something or someone, but it won’t be a place I scroll through as part of a daily or semi-daily routine.

I wrote about this a year ago now, and while the site has some better tools to assign friends to groups, it doesn’t do any better job than it did a year ago about segregating information flow, either by group or by some kind of intelligence.

I don’t know why my home page, news feed, RSS feed, and iPhone app can’t easily show me posts from people I care about, but if it can’t do that soon enough, I will almost entirely stop using it.  Can’t Facebook measure the strength of my connections?  Can’t it at least put my wife’s posts at the top?  My usage is already way down, and the trend is clear.

And I won’t really comment on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s inane remark last week that “email is dead because young people don’t use it” other than to paraphrase two things I read on a discussion list I’m on:  “Just checked, and you still need an email address to sign-up for a Facebook account,” and “Most teens don’t buy stocks so Wall Street has no future.”  More entertaining analogies from Loren McDonald of Silverpop are listed here.

Filed under: Email, Technology

Tags: ,

Jun 092010

Why I Love Our New Product

Why I Love Our New Product

 

Return Path officially announced a new product today called Domain Assurance, which I blogged a little bit about here.  It’s a very exciting product that will help reduce and ultimately eliminate phishing emails – spam’s even more evil cousin that leads to identity theft, malware, further propagation of spam through botnets, and all sorts of other goodies.  The product is in beta now with a bunch of top ISPs and brands.

Those are a lot of reasons to love our new product.  But for me, there’s more.

For starters, this is the first new product (entirely new product, not just a feature or extension) that we’ve launched in years.  While we’ve made some acquisitions and done a ton of product development, they’ve always been right in our strike zone of deliverability.  This is a nice, deeply interrelated adjacency.  It’s fun to branch out a little bit and do something new.

Second, this product is a great example of operating leverage.  Many of the necessary ingredients for it were already in house – most notably customers and partners, but also a lot of data.  That’s what adjacencies should be about.  Building it, while a significant effort (and one that’s not completely done yet) was significantly easier than building, say, the original deliverability tool set or reputation database.  Let’s hear it for scale!

Finally, the product showcases Return Path’s commitment to open standards, which is fundamental to the Internet’s success.  We hope our new Domain Assurance product encourages more and more mailers to authenticate all of their outbound mail, and we hope the product also encourages the use of ADSP and ultimately some productive enhancements to both ADSP and DKIM.  Authentication does not equal reputation, but we’ve said for years it’s the fundamental underpinning of it.

Apr 272010

Not Dead Yet

Not Dead Yet

 

Ah Spring.  Flowers bloom.  Love is in the air.  And it’s time for the annual round of “email is dead” articles and blog posts.  With apologies to Monty Python, and on the heels of last week’s fracas about social networking having more users than email, once again I say, email is Not Dead Yet!

 

Three articles of late are pretty interesting and point out that the trends in online channel usage are far murkier than meets the eye.

 

First, Sherry Chiger’s story in Direct that One in Five Merchants Shuns Marketing Email has a poor headline for an interesting, data-rich article.  The article should be about how “Four in Five” adopt.  The article has links to a bunch of interesting in-depth reports you can download, but some of the eye-catching stats include the fact that more B2C companies use email than their own web site for marketing (96% vs. 90%); that the #1 use of “if I had more money in my marketing budget, it would go to” is “creating more sophisticated email”; and that email is the “most valuable online strategy,” beating out SEO and materially ahead of Social Media, SEM, sending offline traffic online, affiliate, display, and abandoned shopping cart marketing.

 

Sherry’s follow up article entitled E-mail and Social Media: The New Chocolate and Peanut Butter

 and Liana Evans’ article in ClickZ, Email Can Be Social Media’s Best Friend, both explain the interplay of email and social media nicely.  You can’t, or at least shouldn’t, have one without the other.  This matches our experience at Return Path, where a number of our largest clients are the biggest social networks.  We always say that “social networking runs on email.”  Look at your inbox sometime and see how many messages are from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc., which prompt you to create page views for them, um, I mean, visit their sites.

 

And of course the recent Morgan Stanley data is somewhat problematic (chart published here among other places).  First, I’m not sure where their base data came from, but I’ve never seen an estimate of worldwide email users that’s only 850MM.  The Morgan Stanley report says there are 1.8B people online worldwide, and there are been stats consistently published over the years that between 80-95% of people online use email.  This report from Radicati has the number of email users worldwide growing from 1.4B last year to 1.9B over the next few years. That sounds more like it.  

There’s no question that people spend more time in social networks and will continue to. They’re more multi-faceted. But that “error” in reporting on number of email addresses pretty dramatically changes the two charts. Plus, don’t you have to have an email account to sign up for most social networks?  And as my colleague Ezra Fischer noted, how the counting works in these two charts is important. For example, I have 2-3 email accounts, but I have 10-12 social network accounts. Am I counted once in each category, or 2-3 in the first and 10-12 in the second? Or worse, once in the first and 10-12 times in the second?

 

Anyway, every time I write one of these “in defense of email” posts, I get criticized for having too vested an interest in the subject matter to be objective.  If that’s the case, so be it – but who else is going to highlight the positive counterpoints when the buzz is all pointed to the demise of email?

Filed under: Business, Email

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Jan 202010

The Beginning of the DMA’s Next Chapter

The Beginning of the DMA’s Next Chapter

 

As I wrote a few months back, I recently joined the DMA’s Board of Directors and its Executive Committee to try to help the association – one of the largest and highest profile groups representing marketers – advance its agenda in a few specific ways.  At the time, I noted that my interests would be on consumer advocacy and engagement, execution around interactive marketing issues and the internet community, and transparency around the organization itself.

 

Yesterday, John Greco, the association’s CEO, announced he is stepping down to make way for the next generation of leadership.  John has done some great work the past five years running the DMA and has advanced it materially from where the association was when he took over in terms of interactive marketing, but he recognized (the hallmark of a good leader) that it was time for a change.

 

There are all sorts of questions people have about this announcement, and I’ve already gotten a number of calls and emails from people trying to read between the lines and get some inside scoop.  Some of the questions have answers – others don’t at this stage or can’t given confidentiality agreements. 

 

That said, as a new Board member helping the DMA build some bridges to the interactive marketing community, I thought I would share a few perspectives on this situation:

 

-          There is not a final search committee yet, nor are there final search criteria.  That said, there is a strong commitment to find a leader for the DMA who is not only capable of running a broad-based $30mm+ trade association and running a world class advocacy operating in Washington, but who also has deep roots in the Internet

-          There are many, many initiatives in the works – some of which have been underway for quite some time now – for the DMA to evolve as an association to more effectively execute its mission in the interactive marketing arena.  These will start to unfold relatively quickly

-          The DMA’s Board and Executive Committee are fantastic groups with very progressive, committed volunteers who understand the things that need to happen.  “Reform,” which probably isn’t quite the right word anyway, isn’t being pushed on the association – it is coming from within

-          The DMA is committed in its search process, and in its new “operating system” going forward, to embrace not just its membership but the broader interactive and direct marketing community as it evolves its strategy, broadens its mission, and looks for a new leader

 

So the bottom line is – this announcement of one change is the first of many.  Stay tuned, and look for much more open and transparent communication from the DMA, including a lot more community-oriented dialog as opposed to just one-way statements, than you’ve ever seen before in the coming weeks and months.

Filed under: Business, Email, Marketing

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