Email Agency

The Unforeseen Benefits of a Brand Refresh

New Indiemark Logo

We craft, test and deploy a lot of emails, for our customers and for ourselves. That’s why I’m embarrassed to admit that our brand has sat virtually unchanged for almost four years.

We were not at DEFCON 1 exactly but if not for the growth of BlackBox, a cool abuse-prevention product we sell to ESPs, who knows when we would have gotten around to sprucing up our image. Once we made the decision to create a standalone website for BlackBox We then decided it would be best refresh our website and retool our logo. Heck, we even re-skinned this blog.

It was fairly painful experience but it ultimately became a great opportunity to reflect on our company, what we’ve learned, and how we’ve evolved, which surprisingly provided us with crystal clarity into who we were, where we are going and even how we were going to get there.

Probably the biggest and most intangible benefit of if this exercise is also the hardest to describe; essentially we reconnected with our own brand, we become intimate with it again, maybe even fell in love with it again. Whatever it was it was incredibly valuable. I strongly encourage all entrepreneurs and thinkers to do a deep dive into brand-self-discovery, you will not regret it.

How We Became A Leading Full Service Email Marketing Agency (Despite My Best Efforts)

I never intended for Indiemark to be a “full service email marketing agency”. Nevertheless managed email marketing services, outsourced email marketing, full-serve or whatever you’d like to call it is now a large part of what we do every day, despite my plans.

THE BACKSTORY

I’ve been neck-deep in email marketing since the beginning. Fresh out of college, nearing the end of the dot-com boom, I was hired as a full-time email designer. When the bubble burst I started my first business. I called it an Interactive Agency although for the most part we simply produced promotional emails and corporate websites. The work (and burden of first-time business ownership) was exhausting but it was rewarding in almost every way, except income. A few years later I co-founded a list company which was largely focused on email list management and brokerage; where my income far outweighed most other perks of ownership.

I had spent 10 years immersed in all things email. I had seen it from both sides. Having grown and sold both companies I felt very fortunate and at the same time unfulfilled. You see, I used to be one of those “I’ll do whatever it takes to succeed” types. This personality trait certainly has value in the world of business but it has its dark side too. Suffice it to say that I put revenue and exit strategies ahead of almost everything, including my own health and happiness. I would do it differently next time.

It was the beginning of The Great Recession. Time for me to start a new company; only this time revenue would not be my only driver. Instead this new venture would grow, or die, based on its own merit. I would also put reasonable limits on my expectations to ensure healthy balance in all things and by default the company’s longevity. I just needed to figure out what my new shop was going to offer exactly.

THE PLAN

I knew early that what would become Indiemark would be email-centric but given my directives and timing I felt compelled to own a niche and that niche I decided was going to be Professional Email Marketing Services. To that end, I pledged that I would never sell technology, data or any service that fell outside of my definition of email services. Instead tIndiemark would only provide a tight clustering of offerings like consulting, creative and integrations. You know…projects. I was confident that these mechanisms would ensure that we would the best (if not the only) company in our class.

As it turns out my niche was still very small in 2008. Few companies were seeking dedicated email experts at that time, especially ones that weren’t bolted onto an Email Service Provider. But as the industry and email marketing grew so did Indiemark. Slow but steady. Needed advice on your email contact strategy? Seeking a kick-ass email template? Wanted an integration between your CRM and ESP? Had deliverability issues? We were your guys and we were good.

Sales were good too. Largely, I believe, because we were ESP-agnostic and we never resold anyone’s email deployment solutions which allowed us to make a lot of non-competitive friends, like ESPs, consultants and agencies, most of whom became great partners for us.

We were content with one-off projects and often working behind the scenes. Our reputation was growing, it was simple and pure, and my corporate dream was becoming a reality. Then things started to get complicated.

THE PIVOT

Normally pivots are intentional. Not here. Thanks to our partners we had plenty of repeat business albeit sporadic. So if not for two outside factors I doubt I would have considered skipping down the down the full service path.

  1. The investments we had put into list building and organic SEO began to payoff. The leads rolled and it seemed to happen overnight.
  2. The email marketing industry, which was already killing it, completely blew up. Email was officially crowned as the undisputed leader in marketing ROI. From tools to tactics to teams, almost everybody stepped up their email game and budgets.

This put us in front of a variety of new and motivated prospective clients. And they were all direct clients too, no intermediaries here. But working with direct clients is a mixed bag. On one hand the expectations of direct clients tend to vary dramatically; they may also require more education and handholding. On the other hand their projects are typically larger and often more challenging and way more more fun.

However with increasing frequency our direct clients indicated that they wanted more form us. A lot more. I didn’t see that coming.

Should we take a deeper dive into client engagements? I resisted. “It’s sticky”, I said. I suppose that’s because I wanted to keep things simple but that simplicity was only an illusion.

I ultimately realized that we were already giving our clients a lot love and attention, maybe too much in some cases. I mean even if it was a project and even it was sold through an agency; it’s hard for us to limit our output just because the budget isn’t there. Far too often we were giving our time away, and as a services company, time is all we have. If we were to be successful as a full service email agency things were going to have to change.

THE CHALLENGE

Keep in mind that “full service” means different things to different people. For us, it’s simply an À la carte custom selection of our service offerings which are rolled up into a package of sorts and tied together with the promise of ownership.

For example, to one small brick-and-mortar retailer client we’re the equivalent of a part-time contractor whereby we do absolutely everything related to email marketing but their program is still small therefore the engagement is limited; but she’s come to depend on the revenue we help drive. While for one growing B2B technology company we’re comparable to an in-house team who runs an increasingly sophisticated program; they’re intense and smart. And for one large online retailer we simply augment their in-house team with creative and technical services coupled with a dash of high-level strategy here and there.

Fundamentally the difference between project-based work and a full-service engagement is intimacy. Nearly all of our full service engagements require that we get very close to our client’s marketing programs if not their business as whole.

From our client’s perspective, this mix-and-match, full-service approach almost always yields better results and costs less. However it created new challenges for me and my team. Unlike one-off projects, which are often produced in a vacuum or directed by the client, we now have to take near complete ownership of the success of our client’s long term email program. It’s a huge responsibility and takes a lot of time. We quickly learned that the way approached these full-serve engagements had to change.

THE ANSWER

After a few failed attempts at merely repackaging our offerings we ultimately took a page from the playbooks of our ESP friends, who provide software-as-a-service. In the end we found a way to morph our standalone services into a service-as-a-service model which allows us to be far more efficient and provide the client with predicable billing without a term commitment. Initially our hourly rate took a big hit but due to the improvements in our production, coupled with the previously-unknown joys of recurring revenue, our top and bottom lines were soon happy and healthy but maybe more importantly everyone is currently fulfilled.

It took me a while to come to realization that I didn’t need blinders to stay to the course. I simply listened to our customers and then found a way to give them what they wanted.

This experience has also opened my opens to the concept of Thoughtful Monetization. For example we now sell a data product that helps Email Services Providers to preemptively identify potentially harmful mailers, we call it BlackBox.

And let’s face it; the email marketing space, like many other modern industries, is insanely dynamic. Between the consolidation of many of our reseller partners, the great tech tools that are now available to everyday marketers, and the ever-growing sophistication of the same, I’m not sure we’d still be around if I’d stayed solely focused on projects.

Don’t get me wrong projects and partners are still a very important part of our mix. That’s the nature of the beast and how we prove we’ve got the chops but I’ve learned that just because it’s our main thing it doesn’t have to be our only thing.

About: Scott Hardigree is the Founder of Indiemark and Editor of Email Critic. You can connect him everywhere, here.

A Look at Email Marketing’s Future, as seen by an Email Agency

Future Email MarketingOne of the perks of living and breathing a niche business, like an email agency, is that it affords one the opportunity to ponder what the future may hold.

The following is a future-vision of what email marketing will look like in year 2017 for practitioners, marketers and consumers alike.

The Name of the Game Has Changed

Fast forward six years and the term “email marketing” has disappeared from our vernacular entirely. Although lower than 2011, email marketing still produces a considerable ROI; however it is but one digital marketing vehicle.

In this future, the integration between social, mobile, location-based and home-based marketing is seamless. Individual messaging channels are irrelevant.

There are slight nuances to delivering effective messages through each of those marketing channels but those differences are largely driven by well-documented consumer preferences not the delivery mechanism itself. The primary function of using these blended delivery channels is the same as it was back in 2011: the distribution of relevant and timely messages. In other words, the goal was, and has always been, to put the right offer, in front of the right person, at the right time.

Because the terms “email marketing”, “social marketing” and “mobile marketing” were too restrictive and increasingly offensive to a marketing-weary consumer, they had to go. Welcome to the age of Digital Messaging.

However, the biggest changes in modern Digital Messaging was not how it was referred; it was the commoditization and consolidation of technology, the need for talented implementers, and the perception and empowerment of the consumer.

The Shift Was Rapid and Sweeping

Now, in the year 2017, Digital Messaging Providers (DMPs for short) can easy distribute personalized marketing messages across devices, time and space. They now encompass real-time, adaptive communications which flow effortlessly across new channels, like interactive TV, and old ones, like point-of-sale. But the DMP’s offerings are not limited to the dissemination and tracking of digital marketing messages. They have made surprising advancements in data analysis and marketing automation.

The reporting and campaign production too is infinitely smarter and more efficient, it has gone far beyond opens and clicks and WYSIWYG editors. Think live, multivariate testing and manipulation, multi-sourced dynamic content assemblage, responsive delivery and rendering, as well as closed-loop, cross-channel ROI calculations to the 10th power.

DMPs also offer robust methods of data collection. This rich data pours in from every interaction; from simple subscriptions on a mobile device to behavioral data collected from multiple offline customer touchpoints.

But how did the DMP’s offerings evolve so quickly? Back in 2012, the Email Service Providers ( than called ESPs) scrambled, Google-style, to keep marketers within their interface-and only their interface. A technology and intelligence arms race ensued.

The Perks of Lower Costs and New Power

What this Digital Messaging warfare meant to the everyday marketer was that the cost of digital messaging services began to decline substantially and the tools began to improve rapidly. This was obviously welcome news for the marketer but also for the Digital Messaging Providers, because sweeping consolidations and acquisitions took place that forever change the industry.

On a mission to incorporate every feature that marketers demanded, the DPMs began to acquire media monitoring and data scoring companies. They hired analytic masterminds and UI experts. They opened their applications up to the world and cranked out new versions every quarter. They were on fire.

The small and mid-sized Digital Messaging Providers could not keep up with the frantic pace and reduced revenue. They were either crushed or swallowed. Niche providers were relegated to add-ons. For a marketplace that was once flooded with competitors, now only a handful of global behemoths remain.

Modern DMPs generate far less revenue-per-customer as they once did. However, their scale is so vast that, if it weren’t for their lobbyists and strict self-regulatory guidelines, anti-trust and privacy advocates would start to take an unhealthy interest in their activities.

They discovered new revenue too, top of which is generated from licensing the customer data they warehouse. This intelligence is offered to, and exchanged with, research firms and competitive marketing channels like paid search, direct mail, and digital display.

The Rise of Craftsmen and Technicians

The comprehensive tools, offered by Digital Messaging Providers in 2017, are now within reach to nearly every marketer. However digital messaging programs are far more sophisticated. Skilled personal is the key differentiator between programs that generate poor, mediocre and exceptional ROI from Digital Messaging, but as history tells us not all specialists would make the cut.

Because the reporting is so robust and actionable, marketers no longer need in-house or outsourced marketing mathematicians to analyze data and make recommendations. However this data must now be applied and the programs must be optimized. The rockstars of the Digital Messaging industry now fall into two camps, craftsmen and technicians.

The craftsmen are those that create the plans and carry them out; be they thinkers, managers, or creatives. The technicians are those who diagnose problems, which range from deliverability speedbumps to integration hiccups, and rectify them.

Consumer Behavior and Perception

The consumer is now keenly aware of the numerous, yet relevant, marketing messages that swirl around them. This has forced marketers to convert, what once were, one-sided offers into customer-focused dialogues. These conversations take place on a one-to-one level and amongst virtual crowds. They evolve over time as the consumer’s demographics and behaviors change and shift with cultural norms.

The data that is provided by the consumer, and extracted from their behavior, is now boundless. The marketer has seemingly unlimited insight into the mind of the individual as well as predictive models of their demographic classes. The marketer uses this information to deliver what the consumer is most likely to purchase now, and in the future, as well as predict their lifetime value and then allocate the appropriate resources.

Because the consumer is so conscious of behavioral marketing and concerned that the practice will ultimately become too invasive; a privately-owned global permission repository has recently been established, simply called “Choice”.

Choice is a cooperative, centralized data management and preference center that is both highly secure and omnipotent. It will afford the consumer the opportunity to control, exactly, what type of data is collected and utilized by the marketer and which messages they will accept, and from whom; as well as how and when those messages will be delivered.

This is a free service to the consumer but the Digital Messaging Providers must license this information, which will ensure that they meet consumer expectations and comply with the Digital Privacy Protection Act of 2015.

The Reversal of Roles

In the year 2017, the Digital Messaging industry has all but inverted itself. In the early days of email marketing, the lion’s share of the cost, time and attention went toward the tools themselves. But now that the DMPs services have been commoditized, the true value of Digital Messaging is solely dependent on the talent that wields their tools.

This role reversal is also reflected in the relationship between the marketer and consumer. Marketers are now far more sensitive to the needs and wants of their customers and prospects. If they are to continue the conversation in the years to come, they have to be. And in exchange for their deeply personal information, the consumer receives tailor-made, high-value offers and experiences control over their privacy like never before.

About the Author: Scott Hardigree is the Founder of email agency, Indiemark. He can be reached at scott@indiemark.com or indiemark.com