Read Time: 32 min

Delivering Episode 28: Seeing Into the Future With Oracle’s Chad S. White

In this episode of Delivering, host Jason Rodriguez interviews Oracle’s Chad S. White about the evolving challenges of 2020 and how events in the U.S. and around the world impact the strategies—and lives—of email marketers.

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Episode Transcript

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah, Chad White, how has 2020 you’ve been treating you these days?

Chad S. White:
Hey, Jason. First, thanks for having me on. And 2020 has been super challenging. I think probably everybody is way tired of 2020 at this point. Too many challenges, I think, is the way that I would talk about it. But at the same time, I do think there have been some really interesting lessons. I think that earlier in the year, back in March when we went into all the various lockdowns and consumer behavior really started to change, I do think that there was a really glorious moment there where everyone really rededicated themselves to better understanding their customers and getting in their heads and walking in their shoes.

And I’ll tell you, by the 1st of April, you could really tell how the tenor and the focus of marketers’ messages had really changed in all the kinds of wonderful ways. And so I’m hoping that we don’t… And now things have moved back to a more status quo messaging. Not completely, but we’ve definitely moved back that way. But I hope that people don’t lose that connection that I feel like we really had in April and May and June when we were really plugged in and really messaging, I thought, really on point. And we should always be striving for that year round and really riding those waves of our changing customer base and changing customer attitudes.

And so I think if there’s maybe anything that’s been good this year, it’s that I feel like we were going through the motions a little bit prior to that. And then we had this reawakening that, hey, we need to pay attention to the analytics and we need to pay attention to what our customers are saying and what they’re searching for on our websites, and really program to that and serve them. So that part, I think, has been great.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah, that totally makes sense. We did a webinar recently about what we can learn from retail email in particular. And then the emails that we cherry picked where the ones that were speaking to 2020 and the challenges that everybody were facing. And I think those are the ones that really hit home for people. As subscribers and as customers, they can really relate to the brand more deeply. It’s good when companies read the room, take stock of what’s going on, figure out what’s valuable to their customers beyond just their products and blindly selling to them. So I wholeheartedly agree that that was one of the very, very few good things that came out in 2020. And hopefully it was that reawakening in lot of people to reimagine their email marketing a little bit more.

Chad S. White:
It’s very easy to get into a routine. And there is some value to being shaken out of that. You’d like to not be shaken out of it quite as hard as we were. But I think that it is one of the few silver linings that we’ve had.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah. And I think a lot of it comes from we… Obviously when you were at Litmus, you did a lot of research, at Oracle now you’re doing a lot of research. But I feel like one of the things we constantly saw was that email marketings overall seem to be under-resourced, over committed. It’s just that constant looming deadline of the next email that’s going out. Teams are generally small, under-resourced and stuff, so you get in just that daily grind of cranking out emails without putting too much thought into it. So hopefully, yeah, it did shake people up a little bit. But maybe 2020 will bring some nicer shakeups for people as opposed 2021 will.

Chad S. White:
Yeah, and I don’t think that the resourcing has changed all that much. And I know that among some of our clients, we’ve definitely seen email teams get smaller. And everybody’s trying to save time and energy. And we’re seeing a renewed focus on, for instance, modular email design, which is great. If anyone listening hasn’t looked into that, highly recommend it. We’ve instituted that with a number of our clients, and some of them see time savings of 25% where they’re able to really crush down that time that they spend creating an email. So there is a pretty big focus, I think, on operational efficiency right now. And certainly going into the holiday season, that’s something you definitely want because those pressures are not going to go away. The holiday season is coming regardless of all of these challenges that we have ahead of us. So yeah, folks are getting lean and really focusing on how they can very efficiently produce emails while still doing all the personalization, the analytics, and things like that that they need to do to make sure that that messaging is relevant and on point.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah, that makes sense. So yeah, with those smaller teams, it can be really tricky because the holidays are coming up. That’s traditionally Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and then going into Christmas. Busiest time of the year for email marketers. But we’ve learned that one thing this year, that nothing is the same year over year. Everything’s blown up. People are worried about their supply chains, being able to ship on time, getting people into brick and mortar stores when they’re just not liable to do that, understandably so. So what are some of the major fears around the holiday season this year you’ve heard from the people you’re talking to? And how is that different from previous years?

Chad S. White:
Yeah. So you certainly named a few of them. Store capacity is not going to be what it has been in past years. It’s just not. Supply chain issues are definitely real, and there it’s twofold. It’s getting replenishment into stores and into warehouses, which may be affected, especially if you have lots of international suppliers. But there’s also the last leg, delivery. Especially if your major carrier is the United States Postal Service, you should be making some backup plans. But I think that already just baked into it, we’re going to have issues because you know USPS is going to struggle, and that means that some of those parcels are going to shift over to the other players, which means they’re going to get more overloaded. And I think it’s also at the same time a given that not only are retailers and e-commerce operations going to potentially have to deal with staff shortages because of people needing to quarantine or people getting sick, but that’s also going to affect all the delivery folks too. And so they may have staffing issues. So those are definitely challenges.

And there, I think the big lesson of the thing that we’re advising our clients to do is to shift messaging sooner. Early sales are safe sales. Getting holiday sales locked down in November is better than December. And making it really attractive for your customers to say yes and pull the trigger. I think the one nice thing there is that every year, we’re trying to get folks to buy earlier because of that same issue that, that earlier sales are safer sales. But I do think that this year, consumers are going to be more receptive than ever to that messaging because we have all been psychologically scarred from March, April, May, June when we had serious problems getting things that we wanted. Not just toilet paper and flour and beef and things, but other stuff too was really hard to get and delivery times got really long.

I’m not the first person to say this, but Amazon two day delivery became two week delivery, or longer in some cases. So think about what that does to your Christmas shopping if you are buying on Green Monday, on the 14th of December. If it takes two weeks, it’s going to be too late. So yeah, shifting everything earlier is what we’re advising. And just making it really attractive, and especially because of stores on that back half of December are not going to be terribly useful, especially if you don’t have a really nicely running curbside pickup operation. And I know that a lot of brands had hastily built that, cobbled it together from earlier in the year. Hopefully a lot of them have been spending this summer strengthening that and making it more robust so it can handle more people more efficiently. Because otherwise, they’re going to have a lot of inventory potentially trapped in stores that they can’t really use.
So I think that a major risk. It was all around this coming second wave of coronavirus, which seems by all estimates that it’s going to get pretty bad in December. There was a new report out today that was estimating that by the end of the year, we’d have a doubling of deaths from COVID, and by December we might be having 3,000 deaths a day, which is pretty grim stuff for sure. And so just think about what that’s going to do to the restrictions that will need to be put in place to tamp that down, and those restrictions that are going to be working against store fulfillment and things like that. So it’s definitely a key worry.

I think also, unfortunately, it seems like a lot of the risks are in December, but unfortunately, there are also risks in November, which is really unfortunate because it makes it harder to shift things early. We think that if things go calmly in November, that Veteran’s Day, Singles Day, is going to be really big. However, that holiday comes about a week after the presidential election, which seems like it’s set up to not be a smooth one. And one in which might be undecided by the time Veteran’s Day rolls around.

It seems like there’s, unfortunately, the potential for a constitutional crisis and certainly wide protests. And that is something that some of our clients have voiced concerns about. Some of our clients who had to close stores because of the black lives matters protests, that they’re afraid that something very similar could happen in November. And if we have the one, two punch of contested elections that result in widespread protests in November followed by surging coronavirus in December, that could make the holiday season just incredibly difficult. And what we’ve been telling folks is that contingency plans for contingency plans are your friends. But it’s definitely a pretty deep library of contingency plans at this point. There are a lot of things that can go wrong. And obviously, I personally hope that none of these horrible things happen. But it seems naive to think that we’re going to skate through without having any of these things go wrong.

So yeah, contingency plans are definitely key. And there’s some very real things you can do. Coming up with alternative campaign dates where you can make some live audibles about how you want to shift a campaign from one day to another depending on what’s happening. Again, I mentioned getting lean so you’re more nimble. So things like modular email templates, definitely smart. Doing cross training so that your web developers learn the basics of email development so that they can pitch in if needed, if there’s staffing issues or people have to quarantine or get called out sick. So getting flexible is really, really key. And so that’s planning, that’s extra training, and writing down plans so that you’re not freewheeling too much.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah, that makes sense. Have you been, I guess, advising… One of the things we’ve been talking about internally at Litmus is that we’ll be publishing about in the next couple of months is the debate between HTML email versus the plain text email, or plain text light, either fits HTML. I do think that’s a valid way to remain nimble and just have that copy written for these different scenarios, these different types of outcomes, and then you can quickly push that stuff. Or is it still leaning heavily on what you’ve done in the past and still having those full email templates, all that created, having that machine turning, but just being able to do that a little bit quicker.

Chad S. White:
Yeah. If we’re talking about crisis messaging, emergency messaging, then definitely having those stripped down templates that are not really plain text, but that-

Jason Rodriguez:
Look like it.

Chad S. White:
Yeah, quasi plain text. I think that’s very wise. But I don’t think that that kind of a template works for promotions. I don’t think that that is a way to save time. I think that it flies in the face of expectations in terms of your subscribers, and also flies in the face of what works. If you are selling physical products, people want to see those physical products, and that doesn’t change just because you get busy. So we need to make sure that we’re still serving our customers well. So I don’t think that that’s something that makes sense. But I do think that if you are having that kind of conversation at this point, it means you need to work harder now to try to sketch out all of those campaigns and to try to get as much product imagery and stuff that you need ahead of time to really create these skeleton campaigns that you can then finish off closer to the send date.

You should absolutely today be working on what your holiday gift footer is going to look like, your holiday recovery modules. If you’re adding seasonal imagery to your header, that should be created soon. If you’re going to have a holiday or a gifts navigation bar or a secondary navigation bar, create that now. There’s a lot of stuff that you can create ahead of time or that you can par bake and really get things rolling so that when it comes time to actually build those campaigns closer to when they’re getting launched, that you’ve got a lot of the assets already built. There’s a lot of that work you can do now, and that will make it easier to stick with the look and feel that your subscribers are used to, rather than having to resort to some kind of plain text email.

Jason Rodriguez:
That makes sense. So I’m curious what you think about just Black Friday and Cyber Monday in particular. With everything going on, obviously Black Friday will happen, but it doesn’t seem like it will be the same as every other… It can’t be the same as every other year. So I’m curious if you think that’s going to affect… It should affect people’s email marketing strategies, but what are you expecting that cadence to look like, those offers that people are expecting on Black Friday? Should we just abandon Black Friday at this point and lean into Cyber Monday since so much stuff is going online anyways? What’s your take on that?

Chad S. White:
Yeah. So I think that the Thanksgiving, the Cyber Monday window may be the safest window in those two months. Again, there’s election risks in early November with potential protests. And then the further we get into December, coronavirus concerns start to get really dicey, delivery delays. So this sweet spot, as usual, I think is that Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday window. And you’re right, the feel is going to be different this year. Again, stores just don’t have the capacity. A lot of people don’t want to go, and in many cases, there are laws and restrictions on how many people you can let into a store. It’s just that is not the successful recipe that it’s been in past years to drive people to stores for Black Friday.

You are seeing already announcements from Target and other major retailers that they are going to be closed on Thanksgiving. They are saying that that’s to reward their employees, which is awesome, but I think it’s also an acknowledgement that it just doesn’t make sense to do that. And so I think that we’re going to see a lot of activity on Thanksgiving and a lot of activity on Black Friday. All of that activity is going to look an awful lot like the activity that we see on Cyber Monday. So Cyber Monday is the blueprint for how Black Friday and Thanksgiving Day should run. So that is the big difference.

But the value, the importance of these days, is unchanged. These days are absolutely critical. The revenue per email of during that window is just through the roof. And year after year after year, as volumes continue to climb during those days, the revenue per email is still just through the roof, the highest you’re going to see during the holiday season. So these are really must send days. And you and I both know that during those days, a lot of retailers send multiple times on Thanksgiving, multiple times on Black Friday, multiple times on Cyber Monday and Cyber Sunday, which I like to call it. These are really critical days. People are in the market. They are in the market to buy, they are paying attention. Capitalize on that attention. They are waiting for deals, they’re looking for deals, and that is absolutely not going to change this year. So those are just critical, critical, critical days, and probably more critical than usual because of all the risks that are on either side of those days.

Jason Rodriguez:
That makes sense, yeah. So with that being said, yeah, year over year, it seems like volume increases from an email marketing perspective. That means that this year especially, people, their inbox are going to be swamped. So do you have any advice for email marketers to rise above the noise? It’s going to be noisier than ever this year. So what can they do to stand out in the inbox and take advantage of that window?

Chad S. White:
First of all, I might push back a little bit on the increased noise level. We’ve seen email volumes moderate a little bit. There are some industries that are still very much struggling and unable to book business like they used to, and so the email volumes that they used to send just don’t make as much sense anymore.

Jason Rodriguez:
That’s true.

Chad S. White:
Travel and hospitality is a big one. Cruise lines, obviously. So there are parts of the economy that are sending considerably less email to be in line with what consumers are wanting. So I do think that it’s not quite the same level. Definitely year over year, the noise level does increase. I think this year is a little bit special and that that’s not quite happening the way it normally does. But still, there is the need to stand out. And I do think that sometimes we put too much emphasis on this idea of standing out. I feel like the battle is more than half won by the value that you’ve generated in the run up to these days. If your program is generating value in October, then they’re going to tune in in November. So I feel like it’s still very much a brand game for the most part. That’s the reason why people open emails, is because previous emails have generated value for them.

So that said, you do need to make sure that your emails look good, work appropriately. Of course, we always recommend using something like Litmus to make sure that your emails are performing the way that you want or rendering the way that you want across all of the email clients that are important to your audience. So that is a given. Beyond that, it does get tricky because normally, the things that we would do would be things like personalization and segmentation to get the right messaging in front of people. But during the holidays, people’s buying habits really change and they’re buying for different people than they normally do. Normally they’re buying for themselves, they’re buying for their family, and that is not the case during this time of the year. So that personalization and segmentation just does not work the way that it normally does. So that does make it challenging. It means that you need to lean in more on broad promotions to make sure that you’re capturing interest.

There are a few tricks that you can use. And they’re not really tricks, they’re smart strategies. One is progressive profiling, which I really love. And progressive profiling is essentially a poll, a survey, a quiz. It’s a hand raising exercise where you ask people, “Hey, what are you interested in?” And there’s a really great campaign that Sony ran two, three years ago that has really stuck in my mind, where in the run up to Black Friday, they said, “Hey, which of these six product categories are you most interested in a deal for on Black Friday?” And if you said, “Oh, I’m very interested in TVs,” then you would select that and on Black Friday, they delivered a really good deal on TVs. So it was a great hey, tell us what we need to know to be relevant to you on Black Friday. And it’s a win, win. The subscriber gets to tell Sony what they want, and then Sony gets to deliver a more relevant email, which is better for the subscriber. So I love those hand raising exercises. I think those are really smart to do.

The other secret weapon is automation. And there, I think there’s also some prep that marketers can do. Making your automations seasonally relevant is something you can start working on today, if you haven’t already started working on that. And that’s adding seasonal secondary messaging to your abandonment emails, it’s changing your welcome emails to really welcome in those seasonal buyers in a meaningful way. It’s also perhaps changing some of the triggers that you have. If you are sending out a cart abandonment email on Cyber Monday and there’s a four hour delay, which may work for other times of the year, that’s probably too long for Cyber Monday because there’s so much urgency to act. That time of consideration is so much shorter on a Black Friday, a Thanksgiving. And so you need to shorten that up.

Also, another really nice thing to think about is also if the shipping deadlines start to get shorter, having some rules in place that for, especially these multitouch abandonment series where you might get an email today, and then another one two days from now and another one three days after that. That might not make sense if you have your shipping deadline creeping up on you because of constraints or because of the end of the holiday season. So you may need to make adjustments to that and have a rule in place that says, hey, that third email in that abandonment chain, we’re going to move that up, or maybe take it out, because it’s going to be sending after a date by which you’re not going to be able to order and have your gift arrive on time. So there’s a bunch of adjustments you can make to those and I think those are really, really powerful.

I hope everyone is paying attention to their automated emails and really not only making these adjustments, but when you’re making those adjustments, also pay attention to the functionality, the rendering of those emails. Those emails tend to be… They’ve been allotted over the years to set it and forget it, which I absolutely hate. These are living, breathing emails. They are living, breathing emails. So you need to pay attention them. They require care and nurturing, and you need to check on them to make sure they are okay. These are pets that can not be left unattended. You have to check in on these guys and make sure that everything is okay, that all the links are still working, the images haven’t broken. Because these things can break because of changes elsewhere within your organization. So this is a great opportunity to make sure when you’re updating these emails to make them seasonally relevant, to make them seasonally optimized. That you’re also checking and making sure that, hey, everything is functioning and rendering the way it’s supposed to.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah, I think that’s great advice. So let’s use our imaginations here and say that the election comes and goes without too much fanfare. We get over this next wave in December that will obviously continue for at least a few months. But let’s be hopeful and say in 2021, we can start focusing on non-COVID related things, non-political things as much as possible, and get back to focusing on email marketing strategy beyond that stuff. If that happens, what are some of the major opportunities that you think email marketers should be focusing on beyond just how we react to these external events that are forced upon us?

Chad S. White:
First of all, that sounds like a lovely place. I very much want to get there. I’m sure everyone does too. So on the other side of all of this grimness, what are people going to be focusing on? I hope that they’re focusing on making more headway on things like AI and machine learning, really trying to get closer to one to one marketing. I think there’s a lot of excitement that’s building there. Even things that make your automation smarter.

Not to plug ourselves, but we just launched an intelligent switch that has some cool capabilities built into it. It’s just there’s always this paradigm of one to one that’s out there shining on the horizon, and I feel like that has definitely not been the focus of 2020. And I do think that that’s an important thing to get back to focusing on, because I do think there’s just a tremendous amount of upside to being able to deliver better on that vision of just the right content being sent to just the right person at just the right time in the right channel. I do think that that’s the paradigm that we need to keep chasing. And there’s lots of things that we can do in terms of better personalization, better segmentation, better automation. I think that getting those three things more infused with AI and machine learning is the thing we’ll be talking about for years and years and years to come.

I think those are really big leavers to pull and are going to take a long time to pull all the way down. But I think that’s the stuff that gets me really excited. Because again, that one to one marketing paradigm is something that we’ve been talking about for a long time. And the definition of one to one really in a practical, technical sense has really changed. And I feel like we are actually starting to move towards a real one to one vision of what our messages could be like, where one subscriber could have a message that’s at least a little bit different from that other subscriber next to them, and that other one and that other one. So I think that’s really exciting. I’d love to get to that place on the other side of all of this.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah. I guess we’ll see. I think it’s going to take us a while, but hopefully get there one of these days.

Chad S. White:
I thought we were being positive. I thought we were being positive, Jason.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah, yeah, I know. Then you brought me down. Too grim. The world is too grim right now. I guess we touched on a little bit shrinking. It seems like shrinking budgets, shrinking resources, shrinking teams. With that in mind, where should email marketers be spending their money? Is it on trying to expand headcount? Is it on specific tools or workflows? Where do you think people should be focusing?

Chad S. White:
Yeah, well, obviously I do think that the headcount restrictions are temporary. I think next year, we’re going to see that reverse at some point. At some point next year, that’s going to reverse. So the headcount issues are a temporary reaction. I do not think they are permanent. But at the same time, there definitely is a lot of focus on becoming efficient and really stripping down some processes. I think that’s one of the reasons why, for instance, there’s been a lot of talk about AMP for email, like last year into early this year. And I feel like that chatter has died down considerably.

That kind of thing, which is amazing and I think longterm, holds a lot of promise. Just doesn’t make sense right now to create a brand new email that I don’t really have to create. And we got to a really tough lift when it doesn’t work everywhere and requires me to learn a new language, that’s a tough, tough ask. And I think a little bit with interactivity the same way. I know that we’re definitely still doing a fair amount of interactivity with our clients, and everyone is definitely looking for ways that they can stand out and be special. I don’t think that that has changed. But I do think that it is a bit of an ask right now when teams are especially lean and going into the holiday season when things are going to get even more pressed.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah. That makes sense. So I guess wrapping up here, obviously you do a lot of writing, a lot of research, a lot of webinars, stuff like that. Any cool new stuff that you’re working on that you’re excited about? Any new stats or reports that you can share with everybody?

Chad S. White:
So we are getting ready very soon here, maybe not long after, I think, this podcast will go live, we’ll be releasing our fourth quarter Holiday Marketing Quarterly. This is a quarterly checklist that we put out. We feel that preparing for the holiday season is really a year round effort. That there are things you should be doing in the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, and fourth quarter that all help build to have a successful holiday season. So we’re putting out our fourth quarter checklist, so do keep an eye out for that. And I absolutely have tons of other really, really exciting things planned that I absolutely am not going to tell you about those yet.

Jason Rodriguez:
No worries. Awesome. Well, thanks so much, Chad. Before we wrap up, where can people find you online if they want to follow along with our theme here?

Chad S. White:
So certainly, you can find me on social networks @chadswhite. And you can find me on the interwebs at emailmarketingrules.com, and obviously you can find Oracle at oracle.com.

Jason Rodriguez:
Awesome. Well, thanks so much again. I’ll definitely have to have you back maybe a little bit later on this year, as we see how all this stuff starts shaking out or getting worse, hopefully getting better. But we’ll have to wait and see. Yeah. Thanks so much.

Chad S. White:
Fingers crossed. Thanks for having me on.