Roxana Shershin, President and Cofounder of Digital Additive, an email marketing services agency, highlights the ability of email marketing communications to marry data, technology, and creative for truly personal marketing communications. Although email is one of the oldest forms of digital marketing, it is constantly evolving. Today, the content of an email may be altered, depending on when it is opened. (The sale that was advertised the day the email was sent may be over two days later when the customer opens the email . . . but the customer will now see the sale which is in effect on the day the email is opened due to a technology called Movable Ink.) Today’s email can also be interactive, including the opportunity for customers to review products from within the body of the email. Roxana also discusses the opportunities which GDPR, General Data Protection Regulation, will afford marketers.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by Roxana Shershin, President and Cofounder of Digital Additive, based in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome, Roxana.
ROXANA: Hi, Rob.
ROB: Thanks for joining. Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Digital Additive and about what the company is great at?
ROXANA: Sure. Digital Additive, at its most basic description—a lot of folks know us as an email marketing services agency. That is truly the simplest way to describe us.
We’re really in the business of delivering on the promise that a lot of brands and companies struggle with: it’s the idea of delivering on a promise of one-to-one and building a connection between their brand and their customers. We believe that email is the best channel to do that. There’s nothing more personal, more intimate than that email delivery.
Companies have so much rich data that, when it comes to email, comes to a screeching halt because it is very manual, very often, to craft a one-to-one experience when you’re talking to hundreds of thousands—if not millions of customers.
We really work with our clients and brands to take that data and bring to life an email experience that is as relevant and as personalized to the customer as possible. What I like to say is we marry data, technology, and creative to craft a more personalized email experience and make good on that promise that everyone talks about and actually do it.
ROB: I think you really hit something there with saying you make good on the promise. A lot of people can cast the vision of what you’re saying, but anyone who goes to your website will see that you have quite a collection of client logos there. How do you think it is that they grow to trust you and know that you’re going to deliver on that promise?
ROXANA: I will fully disclose, we’re not always successful making good on that promise, but we are trying to get there every day. A lot of what we work with with our clients is really born out of that shared desire of wanting the end customer to have as great an experience as possible.
What we try to do is work hand-in-hand with our clients and understand how their data is structured in a way that allows us to, in an automated and what I call “demanualized”—that’s not even a word, but we’re going to use it [laughs]—in a “demanualized” manner, bring that to bear.
Often it might be we start out with some good versioning. Maybe it’s not one-to-one, it’s one-to-many, but it is good versioning, whether it’s for retail or men’s clothes versus women’s clothes versus accessories. Then we start to drill it down. We say, okay, we’ve gotten it to versioning; now, how can we craft that product that we’re featuring to be more relevant to the person? Can it be based on what they’ve carted? Can it be based on what they’ve browsed? Can it be based on top-selling items in that category in the last 30 days?
We try to take these traditional—everyone talks about that crawl, walk, run approach to reach there. We might have some campaigns—our founding client, actually, is Carter’s and OshKosh B’gosh—pun intended, some campaigns are still in the crawl stage. Some campaigns are in walk, and we have a handful of campaigns that are fully dynamic and fully one-to-one. We run the gamut.
It’s really, how can we surgically apply those tools that we have to craft that experience? And then always try to optimize against that. The pieces that we’re still in crawl phase on, how can we map? It’s going to take time, but how do we, over time, strategically plan to move across that spectrum?
ROB: You mentioned Carter’s as your founding client, if you will. Tell us a little bit about the origin story of how you came to start Digital Additive and how it progressed from there.
ROXANA: That’s a great question. One of the key things—and I even described this in my last answer—is we really see ourselves as a partner. We often use phrases like “we” or “our customers.” We have folks who are at our clients’ offices two, three times a week. So we see ourselves as extensions of our client teams.
I say all that because building that tightness of a partnership and a relationship is at the very core of how we started and it’s part of our DNA today. With Carter’s and OshKosh, we were fortunate enough that our client over there, Shera Shrago, is somebody who we had worked with in the past. As she was looking for an email marketing services agency, she turned to us to help her with that pursuit.
It was just a great opportunity. Something I have always wanted to do is to really focus in on email marketing because I think it’s such a powerful and underutilized channel. We really focused on that and worked closely with her and her team to craft both a business model as well as a supporting email model to go in and support Carter’s with them 6 years ago. We actually just celebrated our 6th birthday, if you will, last week.
ROB: Happy birthday.
ROXANA: Thank you. But it really is born out of that relationship and trust and knowing that we were going to be not just checking off the box of “Yes, we achieved this, we got that email out the door,” but be fully vested. We do pride ourselves on being fully vested, in being lockstep with our clients. We’re not just in it for the project or in it for the campaign that needs to go out today. We’re in it for the long view.
Most of our clients have actually been with us multiple years for that reason, because it is truly part of our DNA to be—we want to have them think of us as a partner and just as much a part of their team as their managers and specialists are themselves.
ROB: Interesting. Was there a way that the email marketing tools and technology had been evolving that made 6 years ago, or maybe even now, an opportune time to think about evolving email instead of just doing the same thing? Have better tools become more available to more people? What’s been changing there that’s worth digging into?
ROXANA: Oh, a lot, actually. We were also fortunate enough 6 years ago in that both myself and my partner, Kevin Moran, came out of Exact Target, which is a platform that has since been purchased by Salesforce. It was still Exact Target when we formed our agency.
We originally thought we’d be agnostic. We were going to be so drilled down on email, we thought, “Okay, if we’re going to be so specific there, let’s be platform-agnostic.”
Because our vision was always around one-to-one, it became very obvious to us early on that to do that really well across all the platforms was going to be nearly impossible. Each platform has its own scripting language, its own way of doing things, and to be cutting-edge in developing that highly targeted, highly customized experience, we had to hone in on one platform. Since we were born out of Exact Target, that’s the platform we selected.
Lucky for us, Salesforce bought it. They have done a fantastic job, not just acquiring Exact Target, but building on that tool. As you know, and most everyone who’s listening understands, Salesforce is a huge CRM component. How they’ve integrated what’s now known as Salesforce Marketing Cloud has really opened up a lot of opportunities for us as an agency as well.
ROB: You’re still really deep on Exact Target and not so much on other platforms, and perhaps even deeper with linkage into Salesforce, then?
ROXANA: We are exclusive to Salesforce Marketing Cloud, but then we become agnostic in terms of how we plumb other platforms in because we are so data-heavy. We know a lot of our clients come to us because they have data in disparate systems. They have their order management system and an ecommerce platform, we have some folks who have brick-and-mortar, so they have a POS system, they have a different platform for their email capture or what have you.
We are really adept at how to plumb that into Salesforce Marketing Cloud. The one thing that we love about Salesforce Marketing Cloud is that it is so hyper-flexible and open, and we know the language and how to query off of it and how to even build out middleware that sits on top of the marketing cloud. That allow us to pretty much take any data source and bring it into the cloud and allow our clients to leverage it for email campaigns.
ROB: That’s a great point. Salesforce really is this infinitely adaptable platform. That’s probably where you’re able to bring in a lot of expertise as well.
I think a lot of times people almost don’t know what they have in Salesforce. At Converge we do marketing reporting automation, and people ask us if we support Salesforce. I have to tell them, “Technically we support Salesforce; I just can’t promise that your data’s structured in the same way as anyone else we’ve ever worked with.”
ROXANA: Absolutely, yes. Which for some is a plus and for some is a minus, because it is infinitely configurable.
We love that because for a lot of our clients, a good number of them are enterprise or have enterprise type data. Even if they’re not enterprise themselves, they have data that looks and feels like an enterprise. Being able to customize how we’re able to bring in that data and not just fit in that cookie cutter mode, being able to highly customize it to meet their needs is one of the advantages that I think that platform affords us.
ROB: Was there ever a point where you were second-guessing the specialization decision? Either a client that you weren’t able to bring on board, or maybe just a brief dip or shift in the ecosystem where you pondered whether you should have a different specialization?
ROXANA: To be honest with you—I don’t know if there’s wood in this room. [laughs] I think we are very fortunate. I get asked that question quite often, and I can honestly say I have yet to come across that. Not to say it won’t ever happen, but in terms of having that specialization and focus, I think it has driven a large part of our success.
As many times as we have said “no” to things, whether it’s on a different platform or just not in our wheelhouse, I think we gain the respect, honestly, when we’re honest with ourselves in what we can deliver and deliver with confidence to our clients. I think that comes through. When we’re talking about what’s in our wheelhouse, I’d like to think there is a lot of credibility and confidence that we are telegraphing to anybody we speak with, and they can feel confident walking away that we really will deliver on what we’re promising to do.
ROB: That makes sense. Email is very interesting in that in some ways, it’s one of the oldest digital marketing channels.
ROXANA: [laughs] Yes.
ROB: But in some ways it’s almost one of the freshest, because a display ad kind of looks like a display ad, but the magnitude of personalization that’s possible seems to continue to expand in email. When you’re recruiting your team, and let’s say you’re talking to someone right out of school, how do you go about making email exciting for them? How do you present that to them?
ROXANA: That is a great question. You’re right, you actually touched on a very key point there. As much as folks think of email as one of the oldest forms of the internet, it’s constantly evolving. There are some great, huge opportunities within email itself.
There’s a lot of technologies that we’re using today that bolt onto Salesforce Marketing Cloud—for example, Movable Ink and Rebelmail. With Movable Ink we have the ability to alter the content on open of the email. If you open an email that you get today, based on whether it’s your behavior or the timing or what sale is going on, it’s going to look different today than it might look 2 days from now. And that’s the same email.
Again, part of what we’re trying to deliver on is that personalized content. If there’s a sale that’s going on and it ends today at 5 p.m., what good is that for me if I don’t get to see that email for another 2 days? Now what we can do is make sure—okay fine, whatever I sent today may have featured this sale, but 2 days from now I’ll have a different sale. So if a customer opens it 2 days from now, let’s make sure we’re showing them the freshest content and not showing them a 2-day-old sale.
There’s also great technologies on making email interactive. We do some product review emails from Home Depot where you actually can review the product inside the email interface itself, which is super cool.
And then the other piece that is interesting is email addresses are now being used as a lynchpin into other forms of digital media. How you do the most effective Facebook advertising is by leveraging email addresses and being able to either retarget or build lookalikes.
So email addresses, even beyond the email channel itself, how brands are able to leverage the information you have about your customer to continue to deliver that personalized, relevant experience across other digital channels, really hooks in and links off of the email address itself.
ROB: I think that’s critical to think about, because email and the data you own around email—notwithstanding whatever we need to talk about on GDPR—but the data you own around email is actually your own data. Even while there’s a lot of talk around Facebook and crackdown on what kind of ad targeting you can do, Facebook could remove all of their targeting and you can still do great marketing using the data that you and your team and your clients have from email. Is that accurate?
ROXANA: One hundred percent. I think you bring up a great point about GDPR. From the get-go, I’m really happy to say, I think all of our clients are already compliant. We don’t do any list rental. We don’t believe in it, never have, never will. A lot of folks turn to the outside without even realizing there’s already so much information that the customers are already telling you about themselves that is being left on the table.
How can you take the information customers want you to know about what they’re doing and leverage that, and protect it? Always working that fine line of making sure we’re delivering on that promise, but not in a way that is creepy or intrusive or obnoxious. It’s how we ensure that customers are confident that we’re using their data correctly, and it is around the data that they are engaging with that brand and that brand specifically.
ROB: I love the point that you made about the email that changes when the sale is over. You’re actually using some degree of technology and—not personalization in that case so much, but maybe in what you show them instead of the sale—you’re using the technology to serve them better.
I think of that in contrast to a road trip I took with my family this weekend. I won’t name the brand, but I scanned their loyalty app at two locations and all of a sudden I’m getting emails from people in the middle of Alabama telling me about events at their store.
I know they’re well-intentioned, and they’re actually really awesome people—but how do you guide clients away from things that sound like good ideas to make sure that you’re not going to end up burning some brand equity with something that was meant to help but maybe turned out not to be?
ROXANA: That’s that balancing act that I was just referring to. How do you make it helpful and not intrusive or creepy or just obnoxious? I think what you just described crossed that line.
There are just so many ways, with localization—there are just so many things right now. Sometimes it’s making a subjective call and talking it through, but the other piece is, in all honesty, we do believe in a lot of testing. If one of our clients is very eager to try a new technology or a new approach, we will always go to them and say, this is an opportunity for us to test it out and see how customers react.
We make sure we’re watching and monitoring it so that if we have crossed that line, if we have made the customers feel intruded open, we’re pulling back. We’re listening to them so that we can deliver; we also need to be listening to them so we can pull back when we have created something that might make them feel intruded upon.
ROB: Is the primary feedback loop for that unsubscribes? Is it also replies? Or is it even just opens and responses? What’s the primary signal?
ROXANA: All of the above, absolutely. Customers really want to have a relationship with the brand. As much as people roll their eyes around it, you do something wrong and you know that they had a relationship with your brand. [laughs] No one tells you more quickly that they had a relationship with you than when you’ve crossed that line and you’ve ticked them off. So you know you’ve built a relationship when people complain.
We have a big feedback loop with the customer service agents with a lot of our clients. Unfortunately they don’t tell you when you’re doing it great, because if it’s great then it’s revenue or engagement or something else. If it’s wrong, there’s going to be a customer who will call. Fortunately we don’t have that happen very often, but sometimes you get it wrong. But making sure you’re always listening.
With our customer service agents, we’ve actually built out tools for customer service agents to be able to go in and easily search within Salesforce Marketing Cloud. Because it can be a little clunky, we’ve built out frontend tools so that they can do a search on what types of campaigns the subscriber is subscribed for, how they as customer service reps can more easily unsubscribe them, how they can re-trigger or re-send an order confirmation or shipment confirmation email.
We try to also arm those customer service agents so that they’re making good on what their feedback is to their customers, because there’s nothing more frustrating than the agent saying “now I have to send an email to so-and-so that does this and this and this.” Giving them the power to engage and respond to the customer is as much a part of that one-to-one promise as anything else.
ROB: Very worthwhile. What are a couple things you’ve learned, Roxana, from your experience building Digital Additive that you might do differently if you were starting from scratch?
ROXANA: Honestly, a lot of the things that we did at Year 3 or 4, I would’ve done them sooner. That first year of owning a business, especially coming out of the gate with a fantastic client like Carter’s—and we actually had a great second client, Fleetcor, come in with us 3 or 4 months later—so we had two great clients very early on in our lifecycle.
That first year, honestly, it was about surviving, making sure our clients were happy, and staffing. We didn’t devote as much time to core values, goal-setting, things like that. The primary goal was “Let’s get through this next week and not screw anything up.” [laughs] “Do a good job and exceed expectations.” Maybe that’s, in retrospect, our goal.
But we didn’t do as much of that planning early on. We grew and we were successful, but it was almost just pure luck and being in the right place at the right time.
If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve gotten involved in something like—I’m now a member of EO, which is Entrepreneurs Organization. They have a great program called Accelerator. I probably would’ve joined Accelerator back in those early days, if only just to be exposed to some of those fundamental, foundational pieces of building an agency and start to at least address them and see how I can incorporate them earlier on.
ROB: That peer group, there’s really no replacement for that sometimes when you don’t have people—you had a partner in your business, for sure, but a lot of your team, you can’t tell them everything. And you shouldn’t in some cases. Some people would say with radical transparency, perhaps you should, but there’s a lot of things I think you can’t tell everybody.
ROXANA: There’s also so much great value in getting out of your bubble, getting out of your comfort set and seeing different perspectives. I’ve always been in agency life, so I understand that perspective, I’d like to think, pretty well.
But even seeing how others are dealing with similar issues, whether it’s cash flow or projections or how to create a leadership program within your own firm—those are universal challenges that every organization has. Having the different perspectives of somebody who might be running an IT consulting firm versus a boutique shop has been really helpful. Having different perspectives and getting out of that bubble has been really helpful.
ROB: I agree entirely. It’s one of those things where sometimes there are things you need to learn from people who are in a very similar business, and sometimes speaking with the diversity of other businesses, you learn some unexpected things that you realize you also needed to know.
What is coming up, either for Digital Additive or for perhaps marketing/technology/personalization in general that you’re excited about?
ROXANA: We actually touched on one of the things. I am really excited about the added rigor, believe it or not—I’m perhaps one of the few people who’s super excited about GDPR, which is the Global Data Protection—I think the ‘R’ stands for regulation, but I’m not entirely sure—which is going on in the EU. A lot of those components are coming here to the U.S.
I think the added rigor around data and customer privacy and making sure that ultimately, this all comes down to making good on the promise we’re making to our customers and using that data for good and not for evil—I’m actually very excited about that added rigor. I think it starts crafting a conversation that a handful of folks have at every company. I think it’s going to make it more acceptable to have that conversation more broadly.
It’s not about just pulling on this lever that is so easy to pull, where it’s like “just send them more of this” or “just use this piece to do this.” I think we’re going to be all much more intentional about how we use the data to market to our customers and making sure that ultimately, it’s about what the customer expects and ensuring that when we exceed that expectation, it’s all in a positive nature, not in a negative one.
ROB: I think there’s a great lesson there. We were talking to another guest who was essentially saying that with GDPR, they originally thought about just helping their clients cope with it until they realized the opportunity that it represented for them to even grow their business.
I think you’re doing that as well: seeing the opportunity and not just the obligation of these changes. Whether you like them or not, it’s the reality. You can’t shout at the EU and make them change, but you can walk clients through that.
Roxana, when someone wants to get in touch with you and Digital Additive, how can they find you?
ROXANA: They can always email me, although my email address perhaps is one of the hardest ones because I do not have an easy name. [laughs]
But they can always email email@example.com. You can also go to digitaladditive.com. If you put a note in there, it actually comes to me as well. Those are two great areas. Of course, you can always find me on LinkedIn.
I’m always open to opportunities to meet with folks. I can talk real geeky about email and data, as hopefully folks probably can tell. [laughs] So if anybody ever wants to understand either what we’re doing as an agency, or just talk about email and data in general, I’m always open to do so. It is a channel that I think, as much as we have really focused in on it, there’s still so much potential and opportunity to leverage the channel even more. It’s still such a rich medium, and it’s not going anywhere.
It’s funny; I’m amazed by how many times we get complaints sometimes from some customers. They’ll be, believe it or not, coming back to us saying “This person has said they have not received an email in 3 weeks. What happened to them?” Then we’ll have to look them up, and they somehow got bounced, and if they bounce so many times, it moves you to a status that keeps you from continuing to receive emails.
But believe it or not, customers have an expectation and if they’re joining your email program or connecting with your brand at a certain level, they’re doing so with an expectation. Fulfilling that, to me, is ultimately what we’re striving to do. If we can do it in a way that makes it as meaningful as possible, that’s the win.
ROB: Awesome. It sounds like a great opportunity ahead of you. Congrats on everything you have accomplished so far.
A special thanks to Kraig Guffey of Syrup Marketing for this introduction, as well as another former guest, Kevin Planovsky of Vert, who also made the recommendation. We couldn’t do this without great recommendations. Thank you so much for sharing your story and your knowledge today, Roxana.
ROXANA: Thank you for the opportunity. It was fun.
ROB: It’s a pleasure. Thank you. Take care.
ROXANA: Thank you.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.