Tom Kulzer on Practices That Improve Engagement In Email Marketing
Our guest runs one of the most well-known email delivery businesses in the world. He’s the Founder and CEO of AWeber. As many of you may remember, back in the earliest days of the internet, using technology to sell products was still quite new, particularly those who wanted to use email. While working at a computer hardware company, he realized that sale prospects were falling through the cracks due to lack of follow up. He did what any good engineer would do, he solved the problem. His little startup in 2002 has grown to over 100,000 customers and is probably the most prominent email delivery company in the world. Welcome, Tom Kulzer, to the show.
Thanks for having me, Mitch. It’s a pleasure.
It’s my pleasure, Tom. It’s an honor to have you on the show because so many people use your company’s products. I do too. I’m a customer. It’s great to be chatting with you.
I appreciate the business. It’s always fun to find new clients that are out there and be able to talk to them about their experiences.
Tom, tell us about the days when you were working at that computer hardware company. What was the inflection point that got you to start thinking about building a company like this?
I was in school at the time studying Mechanical Engineering and I ended up switching to Finance. I was on the side, I was working for a company that was selling wireless modems for connecting to the internet and this was back before we all had iPhone and Android phones in our pockets for blazing fast internet. We’re all still on dial-up at the time. I was an independent contractor for a particular company. I was a field sales agent and I was going to computer shows and those things, finding leads for selling this hardware and my own process. I was trying to focus on school while I was doing this thing that was interesting to me on the side.You usually don't make a sale the very first time you talk to somebody. Click To Tweet
You don’t make a sale the very first time you talk to somebody. Usually, people want to think about it some more or learn a bit more about the product and you ask some questions. That interaction takes some time and to do it manually was very time intensive. What I ended up doing is I created a little program that sent a series of follow up messages to people that I had talked to at the computer shows or online or elsewhere. It was something where it would teach them about different use cases. It would answer common questions. It would follow up and ask if they had questions about the material I’d sent them a few days before. It felt very natural and it was written from me and it was written in a very one-to-one manner and it ended up working well.
I ended up sharing that with some other folks in other parts of the country that were selling the same product and it worked well for them as well. One thing led to another, I ended up stopping working with this company to try to focus on school. I was not the greatest of students in an academic setting, mainly because I had too many extracurricular interests in computers and the modems and other stuff that I was doing at the time. I was trying to focus on school and when I left a lot of those folks that were using that program, I stopped maintaining that. It was something that I was maintaining for that. They started coming to me and say, “That thing was valuable. I’d be willing to pay you money for that. Can you do that for me? I know you’re not doing this anymore but can you do it for me and I’ll pay some money?” I was like, “No.” After a dozen or so, people came to me and said, “I’ll pay you for that.” I thought, “Maybe there’s something there that I’m not thinking about.” One thing led to another and AWeber was born.
As entrepreneurs, we are constantly searching for great ideas for opportunities and there’s that one that persistently keeps knocking on the back door saying, “Let me in.” That’s what you described, which is terrific and you finally said yes. My question is about the name of the company. How did you name this company?
Originally, we’d be in calling the tool our Automated Web Assistant. I was a college kid at the time and I don’t know a lot about naming companies. I’m like, “That’s too long of a name for a company.” We had shortened it, we’re trying to come up with a shorter name and we’re like, “How do you shorten Automated Web Assistant?” The most natural shortening of that was Web Ass or A Web Ass or something like that and it’s like, “You can’t name your company that,” so it became AWeber. It was one of those lots of places, spend a lot of money and naming your company and it’s a very unique name. If you see AWeber, it’s usually us. We capitalize the A and the W partly because it was two different words, automated and web, but also because I liked the way that the A and the W fit together. It looks nicer when they’re both capitalized and it’s stuck for the past twenty years. It’s a funny history.
I love the story about searching for it. I have a story briefly. When I was in the alarm business years ago as an electrical engineer, we had a client and the name of the company was Solfan. I’m an engineer at the time, I’m working on the company stuff. I said to the founder, “How did you come up with that name? It’s a cool name.” He says, “You want to see how we came up with the name?” I said, “Yeah.” He walked over to the whiteboard and he wrote the words, “Sick of looking for a name,” and then he underlined the first letter of each word.
You never know where those things come from. It’s short, it’s catchy. In our case, A begins at the beginning of the alphabet, it tends to be ranked high on the list like that. It all works out.
It’s a great story and congratulations on your success. The other thing about your success that I love to point out to people is that you’re like an overnight sensation, if overnight is twenty years. It’s like things can definitely be successful, but it got to take time and you’re going to make huge mistakes and almost crashed the company. I’m sure that’s never happened to you.
No, definitely not, having a dose of sarcasm there.
In my own background with my software company, I was at a point where we couldn’t make payroll and we had to go to our credit cards to make payroll that week and sure enough, we were able to get a big order and covered the payroll later. These are the moments in time that helped define who you are as a leader too. Do you have any of those moments that to mind, Tom?
Fortunately, we’ve always been able to make payroll, I’ve been lucky in that regard. We’ve never had issues with that, but I know many entrepreneurs that have. For us, one of the most trying times we had, a denial of service attack where outside, third parties were attempting to extort us for money. In the process of that extortion, they were trying to flood our site with so much traffic that it took it down, which made it unavailable for our customers. The intent is to make it unavailable for your customers, it’s expensive for you, so you ended up paying the ransom to get them to go away. The problem is you can pay the ransom, but there’s nothing that means they’re going to turn around and tomorrow they’re not going to do the same thing and ask for more money. It’s the same hostage dilemma there, but that was huge all-hands-on-deck moment where we had a huge portion of our engineering team trying to figure out ways to deal with the onslaught of traffic and put systems in place to be able to deal with that more effectively than the systems that we thought we had already had.
I use this example a lot it’s like, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Until you realize, “We don’t know that. We don’t have an expert for that one particular thing there.” That’s very much the story of many people’s lives. That was an interesting time and our engineers here talk about this one particular technical issue that we had were a couple of our team members had called various vendors and various resources on the web that it’s the underpinnings and the architecture of how the internet works and how traffic and how your internet provider connects through to us.
There’s a whole bunch of intermediary gateways and there are several big conglomerates that route most of the traffic on the internet. We were seeing issues with one of those particular vendors that do that, but we weren’t a direct customer of theirs. When we were attempting to call them, we were getting blocked by their customer service and not being able to escalate it to a point where somebody could look at the issue that we’re having. Two or three people here called and I was finally like, “You guys aren’t getting this done, I’m going to show you how it’s done.” I got on the phone and I started calling different folks and each person that I talked to, I was able to get a little more information that I was then able to loop back to the original people that I was talking to, to be able to give them enough information that they would get me past whatever gatekeeper it was. It would get me one level of support level up higher.
I managed to get transferred to the person that was on duty that was routing traffic for 60% of the internet. I talked to him and he’s like, “I hear what you’re saying. I see that traffic that’s coming through, it’s a huge amount of traffic, but we’re not doing anything to block that particular traffic.” He gave us a pointer to somewhere else that was the issue that we were solving and as soon as I got off the phone with that, I realized I had the fifteen or so engineers that were here at that time, all staring at me mouth agape of like, “How did you manage to get yourself transferred to that? We’ve been trying for three hours and you did it in 30 minutes?” It was one of those things, it’s like, “I don’t have any other choice other than to get to this one particular person. I’m going to figure out a way to make it happen.”Necessity is the mother of invention. Click To Tweet
There’s nobody left to ask. It’s either you or nobody and you knew that.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
That’s what all of us as CEOs and presidents and business owners have to do. We don’t have anybody else to escalate an issue to. We got to solve the problem. We got to do it now. It’s for behalf of a client. That’s the good news. Why don’t we pivot at this point in time and talk a little bit about your favorite topic and that’s sending emails? We have a very big audience of people who send emails. Everybody listening ranges from complete amateur to high-level professional and yet we all encounter the same issues no matter what we wish we can get more people to open our emails. Do you have any insight as to maybe how we could figure out a way to get people to open more of our emails?
At the end of the day, as an email marketing provider, we’re delivering permission-based emails to our customers around the world. It alludes to what we were talking about before. Open rates and getting your mail delivered to all of the people that subscribed to receive your messages, it’s all about engagement. The more compelling your content, the more engaged somebody is going to be with it. It also comes down to when you look at providers like Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo, that typically make up the majority of subscribers at most business to consumer and even some business to business lists. It’s heavily weighted in those directions.
It’s all about that engagement for that specific user and those users on those particular platforms. When you’re delivering those messages, think about it as the more people that open, the more people your messages are going to be delivered to the inbox for and the more people that you click and so forth, which sends signals to Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and others that your messages are wanted and they should continue to deliver those emails to the inbox and not the spam folder. The analogy that we use before here was to think of a street performer and when you walk by a street performer on the street, are you more likely to stop and watch and see what’s going on when there’s a big crowd around or when there’s no one standing there?
It’s the same thing that ISPs look at, the Gmails and Yahoos of the world look at and making the decision of whether or not they’re going to put your email in the inbox for everybody or they’re going to drive more of it to the spam folder. Those can become individual decisions too. If you read all the emails from a particular news site all the time, then your emails from them are going to go to the inbox. Whereas if I signed up for them and I might have opened them for the first couple of months, and then after a while I stopped engaging with them, I stopped opening them, I stopped clicking on them, I stopped spending time in those, overtime Gmail might decide like, “Mitch is interested in those they’re going to keep going in the inbox, but Tom’s not so interested in those so we’re going to maybe send some of those to the spam folder. If Tom doesn’t notice over time and grab those back out over the spam folder, then we’re going to send all those on there.”
Those are the algorithms that are out there and looking at the overall engagement that drives a lot of how your messages are engaged with. We talk about pruning your mailing list, pruning off the people that are no longer engaged with your list. They may not have unsubscribed themselves, but if they’re no longer engaging, they’ve effectively unsubscribed by not engaging with your campaigns. If you leave those on there and they get to be too high of a percentage of your mailing lists, Gmails and Yahoos of the world are going to say, “Are people interested? Is everyone else interested in seeing what Mitch has to send or has everybody checked out?” That’s how they feed those over time. It’s even more nuanced than that, but that’s a big high-level picture that a lot of people aren’t aware of.
That’s so interesting because what’s happening is that the companies are making decisions on our behalf. If I don’t open up an email for a couple of months, I might never notice that it went to the spam folder. It’s almost a little bit like Big Brother. I understand why they do it to some degree but why can’t it be my decision as to what I allocate to spam instead of the ISP or in this case, the Googles and Yahoos of the world making that decision?
Those algorithms are what are keeping the actual spam out of your inbox as well. It’s a utility and while most legitimate senders that are sending to people that requested to get that material and are engaging with that material are going to continue to get it in their inbox over time. The biggest thing that that ends up affecting legitimate senders is that I would call it list rock in the sense of your subscribers over time may not find your content is relevant. Where I am in business now is very different than where I was in business ten or twenty years ago. The types of material that I received into my own inbox is very different than what I’ve got ten or twenty years ago.
If I’m still on the same mailing list from ten years ago, Gmail might decide like, “I’m going to send some of those spam because Tom stopped reading those.” Even though he didn’t unsubscribe, he stopped reading those and we want to make sure that my inbox experience is most relevant to me and that’s what they’re doing is saving them. If it’s not something that you then think about, “I missed that newsletter from Mitch that I always get that I like.” If you drag it out of the spam folder, that’s also sending a signal to that email that says, “This is wanted,” versus not having done it. If you don’t miss it enough to go and look for it, then you don’t miss it that much.
I hear what you’re saying. I hadn’t thought that there was so much going on behind the scenes and I would assume readers hadn’t realized that to some degree as well. Tom, getting back to understanding email and understanding how to do a better job at email, describe to me what you see some of your best customers doing as common practice.If you don't miss it enough to go and look for it, then you probably don't miss it that much. Click To Tweet
The best things to do are honestly the simplest but a lot of people miss them because they don’t know or haven’t heard it before. On your opt-in page, when you ask people to sign up for what it is that you’re sending them, be honest about what it is that you’re going to send them. Set proper expectations. Tell them what to expect, good, bad or otherwise. If you’re going to mix in a periodic, third party promotion, tell people, so when they get it they’re not annoyed and they don’t think that they were tricked into signing up. I guarantee if you don’t tell people ahead of time, they’re going to mark it a spam and what it ends up doing is it teaches algorithms over time to stop delivering all of your mail to them.
Set proper expectations about what it is that you’re going to send them both in the content that you intend to send them as well as the frequency because if I sign up and I think, “You’re probably going to send me a monthly newsletter,” but it’s daily. I’m going to have a much different reaction to that in my inbox, that first week when you start sending me an email every single day when I thought I was committing to one email a month. Be honest about the expectations. Set those proper expectations first for subscribers there. On the flip side of that, when you go and engage and send your email to your subscribers, there are two important things to do. Meet the expectations that you set and talk to the person. I hear the terms like, “I’m going to blast my list. I’m going to send a blast out.” It is like, “Who wants to blast people? That’s not normal.”
I want to engage with people, I want to engage with Mitch that’s sitting on the other side of this screen or Tom or Mary that’s sitting on the other side of the screen. When you send an email, you’re not sending to a thousand subscribers, you’re sending to one person and the voice in which you write to one person is very different than the voice that you write to a thousand people. You get a better engagement and you get a more honest and raw view. Being more personable about how we communicate with our subscribers, with our customers, with our prospects in life, the more open and transparent and vulnerable we are in those communications, the more compelling and connected we all are as humans. That’s one of the biggest takeaways. Even our team internally, I’m constantly fighting that of like, “This felt like a brochure.” No one wants to get that in an email like, “I want you, tell me about you and then tell me about how you are going to help me.”
The email delivery thing, the ability to communicate with another person, all of this has become so important lately. I wanted to talk a little bit about tools. We have some amazing tools available to us. A couple of years ago, we had this tool called ClickFunnels show up and what I noticed about AWeber, as a client and I’m a user of the software, I noticed that your own platform has been getting more and more advanced almost in a sense moving towards the equivalent of funnel building. Do you want to talk a little bit about the future of what you’re doing and maybe where that’s going and how that fits into the world?
When you talk about funnels, everybody’s drawn in the big marketing funnel. You have this potential audience and you want to filter that down to who your core customers are, your ideal customer, your ideal prospect candidate that you want to engage with. It’s your audience there. What I like to think about with a funnel is not so much that you’re like weeding through a whole bunch of people but more that you’re segmenting them and you’re able to learn from prior communication with them and prior engagements that they’ve made to make your future emails more relevant to them.
I like to use the example of a kennel facility or a rescue, and a rescue might have dogs and cats and rabbits and who knows what else. I might sign up to get emails from the rescue shelter. Over time, I only click on the dogs. Over time, what can happen when you’re using a marketing automation tools and some of the tools that we have available in AWeber is I’m able to tag my subscription as, “Tom clicks on all the links about dogs.” For example, you click on the things that are always cats. Over time, rather than sending one message, I can send two different messages. I can send an email to all the people that like dogs, which is highly relevant to what they’re most interested in and going to get higher opens and higher clicks and higher engagement, which means I’m going to get more continued and to stay in more people’s inboxes.
Similarly, I can send more cats to all of the people that are interested in cats. If one particular week when I might normally send it out, I don’t have any cats up for adoption, I’m not going to send to that list because I don’t have anything relevant to talk to them about. That was another thing around the meeting expectations is like, “Why does someone care to receive your email? Are you sending the email for you or are you sending it because it’s in some way valuable to the person that’s receiving?” If I want to get dogs, “Great, send me the new dogs that you have,” but if you don’t have any new cats for me, it’s like, “Don’t send me an email full of dogs. That’s not relevant. I’m not going to open it, I’m not going to click on it.” That’s a simple example, but it gets powerful so you can do things.
Somebody came and they signed up on a particular page on your site, so I’m going to tag them as interested in women’s wear, but when they start getting emails around women’s wear, they’re only clicking on things that are bathing suits perhaps. I can then segment them out so that when I have things to talk about bathing suits, they might only get things around bathing suits. These are all eCommerce consumption-oriented things, but there are lots of other things around. Coming on your show, you could send a sequence of emails depending on the topic or theme. You can have those be more specific and one tag can drive several different sequences of messages to somebody that might be coming on your show based on what the theme is that you might want to cover there. There are lots of different ways and it’s only limited by your imagination. That marketing automation and that ability to tag and segment and create more relevant messages become powerful, which engages people in a more compelling way.
You have done a great job of starting to implement many of these features. I know you’re familiar with Frank Kern and the work he does. Frank had a series where he showed people how to allow the actions of a person receiving emails drive the direction of the next level of emails that come through.
That’s exactly what I’m talking about here. It’s also what we can do with the platform.The best things to do are honestly the simplest. Click To Tweet
I love the fact that the platform is that flexible. It has that capability that lets you get into what the client that you’re dealing with wants to hear about. What I’d like to do, because this has been fascinating for me in so many ways, is I’d like to ask a question that would help me understand a little bit more about you. This is the question that we generally ask at this time in the show that helps people see a little bit more about what you’re like and who you are. Who, in all of space and time, would you like to have one hour to enjoy a walk in the park, a quick lunch or an intense conversation with?
You send me this ahead of time and that’s so hard to whittle down for one specific person. I could give you a list of a hundred different people that would be fascinating. The person that I wrote down would be Warren Buffett.
No one has ever chosen Warren Buffett before. I’ve done over 150 of these interviews and I don’t think anyone has said Warren Buffet, but I agree with you.
It seems like a natural go to there. My close friends know that I’m a very private individual and even doing things like this is very outside of my normal character. I’m very much about teaching and education and those sorts of things, which is why I love doing this thing. It’s my natural persona to be very private about the things that I do personally and my family. I’m attracted to Warren Buffett in the sense of how he’s built a great wealth over his lifetime but is so humble about how he lives his life in many ways. There’s a certain extravagance that anybody can point to, but he’s very humble about how he goes about living his life and, in many ways, pretty private about how he does that.
There’s a big separation between what he does professionally and what he does personally. That’s fascinating to me and how somebody can build that and has such a reputation professionally. There’s still so much that we don’t know about him as a person that is fascinating to me and there have been many books written about him and whatnot. Getting at some of his core drivers of what drives him, the personal aspect of that is interesting. The things that he sees around all of the businesses that he has invested in over the years and the qualities that he looks for in leaders of those businesses that he invests in, it would be fascinating to have a conversation about as well.
He is an incredibly fascinating guy. Have you spent any time reading the shareholder letters that he releases?
I have. They can be dense at times, but they’re interesting macro level looks and sometimes they even drill specifically into certain things. It’s interesting how he perceives the world around him and where that world is going in the future and in the investments and where he sees the market now and in the future.
I read just about every letter he writes in. I’ve researched and read some of his old letters. One of the things that I love about the way he writes is he’s so analytical at the beginning of every letter. He shows you the growth or lack of growth on a per year basis for his fund. He’s so full disclosure, it’s amazing. He is the type of person who is very quick to recognize his own faults, admits them, and then make fun of himself for having them. He’s such a humble guy. I love that about him, but the wisdom is so powerful and that to me is what fascinates me about reading his letters. You have made a great decision and I would say I’ll try to arrange that walk in the park for you, but don’t count on it.
I haven’t managed to meet anybody yet there but hopefully, it will happen.
Here’s the grand finale, the change the world question. What is it that you were doing or would like to do that truly has the potential to literally change the world?
There are two ways that I would answer this question. AWeber’s mission statement is connecting people in remarkable ways. In many ways, technology has taken people away from actual human bonds, put the phone down and interact with people at dinner, get off of social media. I very rarely go on Facebook anymore. I only go on Twitter for very limited business purposes. I make a concerted effort to try to get out in the world and connect with people, email them one-on-one. If I’ve got something new to share my life, I’m sending that to someone directly. I have a conversation with them as a result of that versus the three-word comment on a Facebook post. I’m driving that connection with what I do professionally with the email.
In general, how I live life is trying to connect people in a more real way. I’d say even a bigger picture than that and something that I’m not currently doing but have interest in but haven’t figured out how to make my mark there because it’s so far outside of any skillset that I currently have is I see a renewable energy as a huge transformational thing for humans on the earth. It’s a huge, big thing. I have literally no experience in it other than as a consumer of it and as how we consume energy here in AWeber and our renewable stance on how we power our operations and so forth off of renewable energy, and how I do and run things in my personal life. That’s something that is a very strong interest of mine and potential future business pursuits. I’m figuring anything out there yet.
It’s good to know what you care about and that’s clearly something you do. Do you drive an electric car?
That’s the movement right now and you’re right. Tom, you were kind enough to mention that you have quite a bit of resources available for our listeners. Could you describe what those resources are?
We have a whole bunch of free email templates that people can use in whatever platform it is that they’re sending their emails. We also have a whole bunch of educational courses specific to different industries and so forth to teach them more about how to do email marketing properly in their particular industry and some general ones as well because a lot of the advice fits in pretty much every industry. There are a lot of tips and tricks that we’ve picked up over the years of what works in different industries versus doesn’t work in others. There are a lot of great educational content and some free things as well that they can use. All of it is free on there, but there is free education as well as free templates and videos and such that they can use.
You call it the Marketer Bundle, which is awesome. One other question I have for you. For people who are not clients of AWeber, do you have a number of people that you allow to join a list without having to pay for your services as they’re getting started?
We do definitely have a free trial. Anybody can come in and use a free trial for the service.
Readers, this is a great opportunity. Go to AWeber.com, take a look at what they offer. For as low as $19 a month you could have professional email management and you will be able to learn from probably one of the best companies in the business. Tom, it’s been a pleasure spending time with you. I enjoyed our conversation and I’m looking forward to the next time we speak.
Likewise, Mitch. It has been fun.
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