Michael Barber, Marketing Strategist and Keynote Speaker [Podcast]

Email marketing is not going anywhere! There, now that we have that out of the way, I am very excited about this chat. Michael Barber is not only an amazing human, but he is one of the smartest marketers around.

He’s one of those people who you need to listen to every chance you get. I’ve seen him speak multiple times and he always kills it. In fact, he killed it on stage right before my slot which was rough… for me. 😉

In this episode, Michael Barber tackles these topics…

  1. Marketing conferences post-pandemic: better, worse, or just different?
  2. Getting started with an email newsletter
  3. Common email marketing mistakes
  4. Innovation in email marketing
  5. The future of email marketing and marketing in general

Trust me, there is a TON of great stuff in here…

Digital Transcription (Edited for Readability)


Jon-Mikel Bailey: Hi, everyone. How are you? Are you doing well? I’m glad. I’m very glad. My name is Jon-Mikel Bailey and welcome to the Wellspring Digital Chat Series where we sit down, we have a little fireside chat with some of marketing’s best brains. And we dive into those brains which swim around a little bit.

You know, get the knowledge, gather some knowledge, put it in a little basket, we go back up on the shore, and we have a nice picnic. I have no idea what I’m talking about. So anyway, when I first met my goal, it was when Jim Boykin from Internet Marketing Ninjas paid way too much money for a bunch of marketing speakers to go and eat some amazing food in Philly. And Michael’s fish recommendation was absolutely on point.

If you ever have a chance to have a meal with him, listen to what he says and get what he tells you to get. Oh, yeah, and he’s also a brilliant marketer and speaker. So, Michael, welcome. Please take a moment to introduce yourself to these fine, folks.

Michael Barber: Well, thanks for having me, Jon. It’s a pleasure to be here. I help agencies and marketing teams do better work through ensuring they have the right teams and those teams are tackling the right challenges. And for the past two or so years I have been doing that work with brands like MeUndies, Ithaca College Charter School, Capital, Aptean, The Good Patch, and Hass Avocado Board, amongst others.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: If you’ve listened to seemingly any podcast these days, you’ve probably heard of MeUndies, because they advertise on what seems like all of them. So everywhere. Yeah, everywhere? Well, I made the mistake of following Michael at a conference once, kind of like following a stand-up who just completely murdered the audience. And it was rough. So in other words, if you get a chance to see Michael speak, I highly recommend it. But the good news today is that all I have to do is just ask them some questions. So I got it easy.

So you’re ready? You’re ready to do this?

Michael Barber: Let’s do it. Let’s go jump in!

Marketing Conferences Post-Pandemic: Better, Worse, or Different?

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So as mentioned, you are a road warrior, who has spoken at numerous marketing conferences. So quick question. In this. Assuming we’re in a post-pandemic reality, I’d love to hear your take on the state of marketing conferences post-pandemic, are they better? Are they worse? Are they different? What are your experiences?

Michael Barber: I think through the past year or so I’ve gone through probably each one of those adjectives in describing conferences. Some of them are better, and some of them are worse. Some of them are very different. It feels like we are still figuring out what the conference format looks like, in any number of ways. Not just as an attendee, but as the conference managers themselves, are figuring out what sort of balance is between hybrid virtual and in-person.

What’s the right balance of experience to bring into each one of those domains in order to give attendees the value that they’re paying for? And it feels like we’re still figuring it out. And then for the attendee side, I think it is uniquely different. I think you have different brands in the room and different types of individuals in the room. Certainly, big enterprise-sized organizations are not traveling to conferences yet.

Marketing conferences, I should say, I think in other domains and other parts of their organization, they are traveling, but it feels like marketers at large organizations are not either attending conferences at the moment or choosing to attend them virtually. So the distribution of the type of marketer that’s in the room feels a bit different. So yeah, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I do think that these past six or so months have been uniquely different.

I say that in that I was fortunate enough to travel, I would say early in the post quarantine people getting vaccinated sort of felt better to be in person period. And those were definitely challenging moments for conferences in terms of how comfortable people felt being around each other. And that definitely changes the dynamic of a conference.

But in the last six or so months, I will say the two biggest conferences I’ve been to have felt good and warm and a place of solitude and learning and energy that wasn’t there before so it feels like we’re headed in the right direction. And I’m hopeful that next year everywhere that I get the chance to either speak or attend don’t feel that way.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, I totally agree. I think it seems to me, I’m always looking for the silver lining. And so the pandemic to me seems as if it’s sort of forced these marketing conference people to look inward and see what they’re doing, look at what they’re doing, assess the value, reformat re-jigger, the setup, and whatnot. So in my opinion, I think the folks who will benefit from this are the attendees, I hope.

Michael Barber: Yeah, I do, too. I think the other thing that will be interesting to watch is, the attendee experience has to be second to none. There are no excuses for incredible experiences moving forward. And I think that’ll be challenging for some conferences, and where it’ll allow those conferences that I’ve got the individuals in the room are thinking through those experiences and crafting those experiences.

In nuanced ways, I think they’ll bubble up and probably end up, we’ll probably end up seeing a shakeout of what conferences survive, and those that don’t, and it’ll all center around attendee experience, and largely their ability to carry their audience hopefully through the last two or three years, and then get them back in the room.

And it’s going to be very different, I think we’re gonna see probably for the next few years, more sponsors on stages than probably have been in years past because conferences have got to monetize themselves and have gotten to drive profit, and while revenue top end, and then drive profit on the bottom, and more than they ever have done before. And that will hopefully not degrade the attendee experience.

But there’s going to have to be a healthy balance, because having been at conferences, too many times, probably to share here, that’s healthy. I will say that, usually, and this is not always the case. But usually, the speakers that are coming from sponsors tend to provide content that I think is, let’s say, arguably less slanted, or more slanted in their favor than someone that’s coming to teach and help people learn and give an objective opinion about whatever tactic they’re speaking about.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I agree, and I think we’ll just leave it at that.

Getting Started with an Email Newsletter

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So what I really wanted to talk to you most about here is email. So, when a company is putting together a new email newsletter, you’ve worked with companies, across the board on email marketing, so I’d love to hear your advice for a company that’s putting together an email newsletter. They’ve never done it before. And, what would you recommend be their first step? What would your recommended process be?

Michael Barber: Yeah, I think, arguably, the first step is to go find out what’s missing in the industry or the vertical or amongst the audience, you’re trying to have a conversation with. What is the interesting POV that you’re going to bring to that conversation? Perhaps, maybe that is not necessarily a point of view. But maybe it’s a format choice. Like there are no text-based or short-form content newsletters that are in your space, and that’s where you’re going to fit in.

You’re going to present the information that may be arguably exactly the same as a competitor, or someone else in a unique and different way. And then I think your next step, and these are like 1 and 1B, they go tandem, is figure out that tone of voice and the voice of the brand if you have not, because if it is not unique, it is not differentiated.

If it doesn’t make your brand and or your individual brand or your organization’s brand distinct in the marketplace, it’s just gonna get lost in the inbox. So the first thing is to figure out what’s the unique difference between yours and someone else’s. And then what’s that voice that you bring into the inbox? I’ll give you a couple of key examples that I think of individuals that have done this really well or brands that have done this really well.

On the thought leader side, you look at people like Daniel Oshinsky, who is an email strategist that’s worked largely with big publishers. He presents his newsletter in a Google Doc format. So it’s a short form introduction to what’s happening this month as it relates to email in the news business in the publication business. And then the resources in his commentary are on a Google doc that’s different than anybody else had done before.

You know, the classic example is probably one of our shared friends or acquaintances and that’s Ann Handley. Total Annarchy, is probably the best, I think, voice in the inbox when you consider any number of thought leaders that are in marketing or whatever name XYZ industry, right? She is just the individual, the person you’re hearing inside of the inbox is. And on the brand side, you look at places like Sticker Mule, stickermule.com. If you’re not familiar, sort of a small Swag Shop, say that five times fast, based out of Colorado, I think.

And they decided that their email campaigns were going to be all text-based, one to two sentences at most. Their friendly form is going to come from a founder or someone inside the organization that you’re likely going to bump into if you’re a customer of theirs. And so it makes it very easy to interact, right? You can open those emails and know you’re going to spend one to one and a half seconds digesting the content.

And then you can make a buying decision or move on. So there’s just I think that again, you have to go back to what’s missing amongst the audience that is going to be your, hopefully, is tuning into your newsletter, and then to how do you do it either voice or content or utility or format, in a way that resonates? And that’s a real challenge because there’s just a lot of noise in the inbox right now.

Common Email Marketing Mistakes

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So, aside from putting together a newsletter that looks and feels and sounds like everybody else, what are some other common mistakes that you’re seeing in other companies’ email marketing, maybe some emails that you’ve gotten, you know, what are they doing wrong? And what do you think the alternative or solution is?

Michael Barber: I think you have to think about their technical setup. And I know this is probably going to go over the heads of marketers who may not have a technical background, but you’ve got to ensure that your authentication records are in place, you’re leveraging an ESP (email service provider) that is doing everything it can to make sure your emails are getting into the inbox.

Because if they aren’t, why are you even putting the effort into creating this community inside the inbox for your customers or your advocates, it’s all for naught if it’s not getting delivered? There are very specific things that you could do as a brand to make sure you’re getting delivered. So it’s like the basics. From a technical perspective, I think we also need to be very careful with volume.

And I say that as someone who has worked with brands that are sending email campaigns every single day, and they have a right to be there because a significant amount of their subscribers are willing to open that brand’s email campaign every single day. But there are a lot of brands that are out there that are playing the volume game because somehow we got into this conversation of more email equals better XYZ data point at some point, right?

And I’m not gonna get into who started that conversation first. But it led to this plethora of a volume. And yeah, the volume does work. But when you look at the deliverability side of the house, what we know is that engagement is being measured by very specific actions that your subscribers take. On the positive side. It’s things like clicks, it’s somewhat open rate these days, although that’s a very muddy place to be. It’s replies.

And it’s filtering or archiving a campaign. Those are the most positive things you can do from an engagement perspective, that tell the ISP, the internet service providers that you as a subscriber care about that brand. In the middle, this fuzzy middle place. Surprisingly, over the last two or three years, we’ve learned that an unsubscribe is sort of a fuzzy middle place, it’s not so much negative.

It’s not so much a negative impact doesn’t have such a big negative impact on engagement rates. And then on the very negative impact side, so think of like that red light, if you will, unengaged subscribers and ‘mark as spam’ are probably just as detrimental to the engagement rates on your campaigns. And so what that tells me is that as a strategist, you have to be diligent in ensuring that the volume that you’re sending through equates to the attention that you’re getting.

Because if your unengaged subscribers are continuing to grow, and you’re only hitting averages, you’re actually not only just doing those unengaged subscribers a disservice, but you’re doing a disservice to the long-term deliverability of your campaigns in the future. And so I think those are the two big things. It’s making sure you’ve got the technical setup in place, and then being really, really diligent about ensuring that when the content does drop, you have engaged subscribers and that you’re working really, really hard to trim off those unengaged subscribers as quickly as possible because it’s going to help your campaigns in the long term.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I’m glad you got technical, because I feel like you know, at least for smaller businesses, they don’t really take into account email deliverability and they don’t think about those things on the technical side, that really makes a huge difference. I mean, you could set up your email and campaign in MailChimp and shoot it out and be like, I’m not getting anything out of this.

And it could be because no one’s getting your email.

Innovation in Email Marketing

Jon-Mikel Bailey: You mentioned that newsletter where he’s linking to a Google Doc, which I think is really a great idea. I wonder, what are some other brands that are innovating in email marketing today? Like what other, you know, risks are they taking? What other new things are they trying that people should know about?

Michael Barber: So, probably two things. And I wouldn’t say these are like, new or risky, but they certainly require more resources, both individual resources, and I think technical resources and time and energy to think about how you execute these things. Dynamic content, so this idea that you format a template for your entire audience. And then there are certain components that are split out and injected with content.

Whether it’s a headline, image, or body copy, based on a data point that you’ve got, that’s very different from subscriber to subscriber. So, essentially things like an easy one would be geolocation – a shipping address of a customer, you’re going to target them with a very specific maybe seasonal offer. Or you’re going to show them where they could go interact with your brand offline, like the nearest store where they could buy or something like that.

So it’s certainly harder, it’s harder to scale, you have to have any number of things in place. You have to ask for the data, you got to make sure that you’ve got essentially clean data inside your subscriber database or your CDP, your customer database platform. And it becomes uniquely harder to scale those efforts if you have two of those challenges happening at the same time – which is you’re not collecting robust, clean data, and certainly, you’re not cleaning out that data as you have customers that tell you other things about their buying profiles and their demographics.

So certainly one thing. I think the other thing that you’re seeing a lot of brands certainly try is things like interactive components on campaigns, right? You look at the AMP platform from the team over at Gmail, as well as what you’re seeing from other teams around interactive components. And it certainly takes more technical knowledge. And you have to be willing to certainly customize those campaigns and code them in a way that degrades across different devices because that’s not going to work on every single platform.

But it can have really interesting impacts, like the ability to select products inside of the inbox, and then it’s a one-click buy from that campaign. Or do drop downs, or potentially serve in real-time content. So I think those are probably like the two riskiest and most interesting things that are happening. I think probably the better thing that we should be focused on, as brands, is are we just doing the basics really, really well, because that tends to work well in the inbox.

And you see that happen with brands like Sticker Mule, and some of the others that I’ve named. When you just continue to deliver value and continue to show up as the brand that you are. There’s a great little brand out of Europe called Hard Graft. It’s a small manufacturer of leather goods, like bags and purses and passport covers and things like that. I think they’re sort of building into an entire fashion empire eventually.

But they just do their voice inside of the inbox. It’s just so nuanced and unique. And that’s their point of differentiation, right? Their email campaign could look just exactly the same as some other, you know, leather goods manufacturer, but you open it and the words that are used and the way that they describe products, and their headlines are a wee bit different. And they take it all the way to a cart abandonment email, which normally is just like, hey, get 20% off.

And they ask you, “Hey, is there anything that’s stopping you from making this purchase? Do you have any questions here? Our founders, you can email them directly if you’ve got questions about the product,” which is something no one else is doing. So sometimes, I think that the basics are just where we need to get back to ensure that we can build a strong foundation as we grow our organizations and our brands.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I mean, that’s great advice because the vast majority of people will seem to get distracted by the shiny object. And instead of a function, you know, focusing on what is actually important and what your audience is looking for. As you’re describing that brand, I’m thinking of that sketch from Saturday Night Live where they had the leather store. I think it was Jimmy Fallon…

Michael Barber: Oh, yeah.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: That’s the problem with my mind.

The Future of Email Marketing and Marketing in General

Jon-Mikel Bailey: So, you know, I want to dive into, you know, the ubiquitous crystal ball question. But in a slightly different way. You’ve worked with some very well-known brands recently that you mentioned, and I would love to know, what’s keeping them up at night? What future trends or challenges are they most concerned with and how might this translate to smaller organizations? Let’s scare the crap out of some people.

Michael Barber: I think the easiest/hardest answer here is uncertainty. The world feels very uncertain right now, for any number of reasons, right? We’re just coming out of a global pandemic. We are, seemingly that some countries are trying to start, you know, World War Three in the middle of Europe.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Little things.

Michael Barber: Rampant inflation, globalization, and the reaction to its politics, obviously, which we don’t need to spend any time on.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I like to call these the good times.

Michael Barber: Yes. It’s, it’s a lot of uncertainty. And the thing is businesses at the end of the day hate uncertainty, particularly large organizations, but then all that trickles down, right? It’s uncertainty, the economy does not look like it’s headed in a great direction. You know, if you’re in Europe, right now, you’re looking at what is arguably going to be probably the most expensive winter for electricity.

And that’s going to hit every sector in terms of where people are going to spend their money. Great Britain is going to publish. I mean, I don’t know when this is gonna go up. But this is, we’re in early q4, or middle of q4, I should say right now to three. You know, Great Britain is arguably going to sink into a deep recession over the next two years. That isn’t for certain where the United States goes, I think it’s kind of an odd place, and it could do fine. It could just hobble around for two years as other economies struggled.

But the easy answer and hard answer here is truly: uncertainty. And for marketing teams, and for marketers, I think, when things are uncertain, I think there are a couple of key things we have to do. And I actually just had this conversation at a planning session with a team a couple of days ago. One, we have to make sure we’re doing the fundamentals really well. Let’s go back and make sure we’ve historically optimized posts that are performing well.

That we are looking at our search campaigns and ensuring that the right keywords are being bid for branded and non-branded. And our different ad groups and that we’re optimizing them as much as we can. We’ve got to ensure that the experience when we acquire that customer is as fluid and frictionless as possible, and that we deliver on that brand promise throughout the entire experience.

And that means working with sales and working with fulfillment to make sure that experience is thorough. We’ve got to be, I think, keenly concerned with pricing. And I think this is a place where marketing does not get enough seats at the table, when discussing pricing and discussing the value and how we optimize pricing for our organizations and for our products and services.

And I think we as marketers need to get really okay with uncomfortable questions that we don’t understand, like, I have zero finance background. I have, I took like two economics classes in college, and I have a fairly rudimentary understanding of fiscally, how things work. But you have to be really uncomfortable in those moments of saying like, “hey, what…” going into your CFOs office or going into a group a prospective accounting or sales and whatnot, and asking questions that you may not have the answer to just to understand the impact that it’s going to have on the team, and then prepare for this inevitable.

Look back at what happened in our last recession. And what performed well, and what didn’t? What did we learn? How do we utilize those things to be prepared for what’s coming down the road? So for me, it’s the answer here is uncertainty. And I think that leads to a lot of questions that we have to ask as marketers and hopefully be prepared for what may or may not be happening over the next several years.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Yeah, there seems to be this, this kind of amnesia that happens, where they forget all about, you know, what they did right and what they did wrong in the last recession. Everybody’s hair is fire, and you figure it out now.

Michael Barber: So yeah, and that’s why it’s important when you’re working on any campaign, or your annual plan, or quarterly, or wherever you structure your marketing activities as a team, is make sure you give time for those retrospectives. Like after a campaign is done, or you’re doing quarterly biannual, or annual planning, that’s there’s a retrospective time. This is a process or technique that I was first got introduced to by the team over at the brand team over at Dropbox.

Every time they do a campaign and that campaign is done, everyone gets in a room and they have a retrospective time where they answer a couple of key questions about what worked, what didn’t, and what could we do better. And that content, those learnings get added to the brief for the next campaigns, and that those learnings continue?

And then hopefully, as you make this part of your process, on a regular basis, you’re doing these retrospectives at these moments where the economy is going in different places, you could pull up those campaigns and retrospectives and sort of look at like, “Hey, this is what worked back then.”

And I think, I mean, obviously, I’m sure everyone’s gonna go “but the context is different. And historically, we’re in a different place.” I totally get it. You’ve got to put the lens of where we are right now on the conversation.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: But this data still has value.

Michael Barber: It does. It really does. So you know, make retrospectives, postmortems, whatever you want to call them, a part of your planning process or a part of that campaign process, or give your teams the moments to still look back and say, “Hey, this is what worked, this is what didn’t work” so that you can bake that into future campaigns and future opportunities as a marketing team.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: I love the term retrospective, as postmortem was just a terrible way to describe a review of something that may have gone well.

Michael Barber: Yes, yeah.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Well, Michael, thank you so much for coming on the podcast and I gotta be honest, there’s a lot more here than I was expecting. But at the same time, I was expecting a lot from you. So I’m surprised, pleasantly and this was, this was really good stuff. So I really appreciate it. A lot of great stuff here.

Michael Barber: My pleasure. I appreciate the invitation.

Jon-Mikel Bailey: Absolutely. Bye, everybody.

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