Email on Tap, Episode 12: Will Devlin, VP of Marketing, MessageGears

One day, we challenged Anthony Chiulli, director of product marketing. We said, “Find a marketer in the email service provider (ESP) space for Email on Tap.”

He said, “I know just the one.”

And here we are. Anthony chatted with Will Devlin, VP of marketing at MessageGears, an Atlanta-based ESP, to get his take on the world of email. Where does Will see it going, and what are his thoughts on from where it came?

Total Run Time: 13 minutes
00:22 – Overview of Will’s career in email
2:11 – Recommendations for marketers in assessing ESP vendors; not all are created equal
3:50 – Advice for brands to structure and leverage data across their martech stack
5:04 – Artificial intelligence and areas of digital marketing it can disrupt
7:17 – Importance of a cross-channel digital strategy for marketers
8:57 – How email remained unique and adaptable over the decades
11:00 – What does the future of the email marketing industry look in five to seven years?

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Anthony Chiulli
Hi, everyone, and welcome to another episode of Email on Tap. I’m your host, Anthony Chiulli. Today I’m thrilled to have as a guest Will Devlin. He’s the vice president of marketing at MessageGears. Will, thanks so much for being on the program.

Will Devlin
Anthony, thanks for having me, man.

How are you?

I’m really good. It’s good to be here with you.

So tell me a little bit about how you found yourself with a career in email.

I think, probably like most people in email, I backed into it. I sort of lucked into it. So I worked for a company called Overton’s, which was a catalog retailer for boating accessories and watersports equipment, so having fun on the water. And I worked in their call center for a number of years, on the customer service team. So I understood how orders were being placed. A lot of people—especially in the early 2000s, online shopping was still making some people queasy. It was still coming into its own. So I understood the process of orders being taken and shipped and returned and all of that, and how the emergence of the online shopping world was going to change a lot of that. And I lucked my way—I say “lucked” but I interviewed my way—on to the marketing team there and took over some responsibilities. And one of the first things that I tackled was email marketing. And so I have been in the email space, one way or another, ever since. So it’s been almost 17 years now, which makes me sad to think that it’s been that long. It doesn’t feel that long. But yeah. So it was a lot of hands-on building things. This was before even—this is when most people were doing batch and blast. And that was just sort of accepted. And our goal was really to support the catalog, where it was really interesting that throughout the next maybe seven to eight years that really changed to be the catalog supported online sales. So it was kind of an evolution of that. So I’ve done it all. Now, I’m on the vendor side.

So dovetailing off that, working at MessageGears, there seems to be this perception that all ESPs are the same or all ESPs are similar. What advice would you give a marketer that’s looking to evaluate a marketing automation platform or an ESP that helps maybe clarify that perception?

Well, I mean, I think a lot of people think ESPs are the same because they act the same. And they do do a lot of the same things, right? And as somebody that has helped build a company where we are an ESP but we are different and a lot of the underpinnings are different, I think it can be frustrating to try to shake that, “Oh, well, everybody’s the same” or “it’s just a better front end” or “it’s better service.” So I really think it’s—there’s peer networks that you can go to. There’s certainly consultants. If you’re thinking you don’t have the right tools for you, especially on the ESP side, talk to an independent third-party. They’ll listen to your needs. They’ll figure out what you need to be doing. Are you trying to get more volume? Are you trying to get in the inbox more? Are you trying to do better personalization, cross-channel? There’s so many tools out there that could work with your stack. And I think that they’ll help you kind of navigate. There’s hundreds of vendors out there that specialize in different things. And so there’s not one vendor that can do it all, but there is probably a vendor that works really well for you.

So you talked about evaluating your stack. What do you think is the best way for brands to leverage data across their marketing technology stack. What’s the best way of kind of structuring their martech stack alongside an ESP?

Well, everything has to start with where your data is coming from. I think that’s the biggest part. So whether it’s an in-house internal data warehouse or if it’s something like the Snowflake or a Google BigQuery or Redshift, some sort of data warehouse in the cloud, that’s where most of your data lives and so where you run into problems as a marketer is all of these different channels. I’ve got email over here and I’ve got ads over here and I’ve got mobile here. It starts to get really siloed and so figuring out your martech stack around wherever your data lives and how it can best access that, I think you’re seeing this emergence of CDP’s because it helps people figure out how to maneuver the data and connect it in ways that couldn’t before. So I think it’s again, starting with where your data is, finding tools that plug right into that and help you use the most of it, and the most of it as quickly as possible.

Let’s shift gears and talk about AI. It’s one of the trendy and buzzworthy topics right now on email marketing and is kind of predicted to be the next big disruption in the community. What are your overall thoughts in AI and its possibilities within email marketing?

I’m excited. There’s some really fun companies that are out there today that are using some sort of AI to help marketers do their jobs better. Which to me is really exciting and I think, at MessageGears last year we did a research, some research about operational inefficiencies, right, and one of the things that we found was marketers generally are not happy with very operational-heavy roles, right? Where they’re having to do a lot of button pushing and moving things around and setting things up. They want to be creative. They want to be strategic and they’re finding that a lot of their jobs are not that and it makes them sort of unhappy. They wouldn’t have chosen that career path if they would start over, and so one of the things that I’m excited about with AI is thinking about how it can take on some of those tasks in a better and more efficient way, just because humans can’t do it that fast and that well, and make some of those decisions and then allow marketers to be creative and strategic and actually be marketers and understand, “Oh, let’s test these ideas. Let’s try this thing over here. Let’s talk to these people this way.” I think that’s exciting for me to see how that’ll be leveraged over the next several years.

Yeah. I would agree. I think there’s always this underlying fear of AI’s going to take our jobs. It’s going to replace what we do—

I don’t think that at all.

I think there’s a perfect balance between augmenting some of those more repeatable and kind of operational task. To your point, as you said, to allow marketers to really get back and focus on their core responsibilities and their core competencies.

Yeah. We got into marketing because we wanted to be creative and because we wanted to test and we like that and it’s interesting. Yes, there are some certain operational things you have to do and you have to get your hands dirty but I think it’s the emergence of AI. I think those tools will help us get back into being what we truly love as marketers.

Yep. Very well said. You’ve heard the phrase before, the right message at the right time, the right personalization and then what I always like to say is the right channel. So on that point, how important do you think it is for marketers to be disciplined in a cross-channel strategy? I know we all love email and emails kind of what we strive for but how important is it in your experience working with customers to have a solid cross-channel focus?

I don’t think it’s surprising to say that it’s extremely important, right? It is. We’ve found that teams are somewhat siloed just like a lot of tools are siloed, right. So you have specialists for email. You have specialists for other panels like mobile and push and web, but as consumers, and we’re consumers, we don’t think of it that way, right? When we interact with brands that we love we don’t think about this is the email person sending me this or this is the mobile person sending me that. It needs to feel connected. It needs to feel like the brand knows me. Not the website knows me but the email people don’t. Nobody cares about the behind the scenes stuff. So it is extremely important for anybody that’s in email to be thinking how this works in the connected way, with all channels and all touchpoints, and so that doesn’t mean you can’t be specialized in email but you certainly have to understand your role in the overall mix. I think one of the nice things about email is it is a linchpin, right. It is a very strong loyalty and retention-based touchpoint for people. Then I think that is I don’t see that changing any time soon.

Yeah, and to your point, email is so unique, and I’d love to get your perception on how email as a channel has been able to survive for more than four decades and be so adaptable and versatile with all these other messaging channels and innovations coming to light. Email still is king, right? Email still drives the highest ROI of a lot of digital channels. Why do you think or why do you believe email has been so unique over the years?

Well, it’s not tied to something. So it’s not—social networks are tied to that specific social network. So I think Facebook is Facebook and you have to deal with Facebook and Google is Google and you have to deal with Google. Email is sort of universal. Everybody has an email address. I think you hear all the time about email is sort of our digital social security number almost, right. Your email address is where you get communicated to, especially by companies, and so I think it’s been able to evolve because it’s allowed brands to still get the brand message and look and feel which you can’t get everywhere else in a lot of ways. But the personalization, the “I’m reaching out to you.” I was able to do that in a timely manner and I was able to get the right information in there that would be relevant to you. The ability to do that and to have some sort of a dialogue is I think why it’s stuck around and it’s been so important over the years.

And it’s job security. [laughter]

It is. Like I said earlier, I don’t see it going away. I think everybody depends on email and you hear studies about younger people not—that’s because they’re younger people. They get jobs. They get email addresses. It’s a necessary thing that I just don’t see going away.

I agree. Yeah. I remember the critics and the times where everyone was chanting email is dead and it’s this dying channel and it’s going to be replaced by all these other things and it continues to chug forward and–

It’s thriving. It’s not dying. it’s thriving. It’s not like it’s waning. It’s doing tremendous.

Last question. Kind of a fun one. If you were to hop in the Delorean and go ahead five to seven years, where do you see the email industry in the next few years?

I think there’s I think in the last six months or so you’ve seen this wave of acquisition and mergers again, which we saw maybe 10 or 15 years ago. I think again, email is going to be more than just email. It’s how email can fit into this overall messaging strategy overall wherever people are, the touchpoints. So I see email evolving and being able to be more like the web experience. We have Google AMP coming out here, where I don’t know if we’ll see adoption any time in the next little bit here but I think a couple years down the road when there’s some real use cases, people will start seeing the power of, “Oh, this is really great. I can take my personalization and relevance to the next level.” So I think email again, will continue to grow and there’s so many really neat companies out there doing really interesting things, not just with AI but just tools, in general, to make email better. So I’m excited to look back in five years and see how far we’ve come.

Well said. Well, this has been very informative and a lot of fun. Thank you so much for coming on the program.

Anthony, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

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