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InsiderInbox with Notablist Founder – Michael Johnston

February 21, 2017  •  By: Renee Chemel

Michael Johnston

Happy day after President’s Day from the Insider Inbox! Wow, where did January go? It seems like just yesterday that we were still cleaning up New Year’s Eve confetti. Now Q1 is halfway over already! Hope it’s going well for you so far.

Today, we have a very special guest in our Insider Inbox. Michael Johnston is the founder of Notablist.com, and for many in the email marketing business, Notablist needs no introduction. But, for those who are unfamiliar, Notablist is the first and only real-time email campaign search and monitoring tool, giving marketers a window into the email marketing landscape like never before.

Some call Notablist the Google for email newsletters. Looking for content ideas? Browse Notablist. Need competitive intelligence? Notablist has it. ESPs looking for prospects? Check out Notablist. Not only does Notablist tell you what your competitors and other brands are doing with their newsletters, it can also tell you which technologies they’re using to make it happen. It’s a veritable treasure trove of email marketing insight.

It’s safe to say Michael knows a thing or two about what’s going on in the email marketing world—like, the whole world. Here’s what he has to say about where we are, and where we’re headed.

1. Why did you choose marketing, or maybe it chose you?
It chose me.

A close friend had a music memorabilia business, but he had no online presence. Unfortunately, he was also short on cash and completely bewildered by technology. So, as a favor to him, I set up and managed his site. We realized early on that email marketing was driving the majority of his sales, so I tried to do what I could to ensure he maximized his revenue through that channel.

One of the things I wanted to do was see what other shops like his were doing in their newsletters. When I tried Google searches for relevant examples, I realized a regular search engine wasn’t the tool for the job. Looking around, I didn’t find any tools that were up to the task, and I didn’t want to have to manually signup for dozens or hundreds of newsletters.

So I decided to build my own.

2. What is your personal mission statement?
To be continually improving on both personal and business levels. At Notablist, that means constantly speaking with customers, getting their feedback, then using it to make our service better and better.

3. Tell me something about your job that inspires you to keep working there.
Simple: I love what I do – I always have. I’m very fortunate in that respect, and I don’t take it for granted. I know so many people who are unhappy with their careers.

Duke Ellington once said, “music is my mistress.” I suppose Notablist is mine.

4. Offices or open work space?
Offices, preferably. I’ve worked in both types of environments, and I just don’t buy the arguments in favor of open workspaces. Those who advocate for it say it fosters greater collaboration among team members. Whether that’s true or not is open to debate, but I don’t think there’s any question that a downside of open workspaces is having a noisier work environment with more interruptions and distractions. I think those things counteract the supposed benefits. There are plenty of other ways of encouraging collaboration.

For many companies, though, offices are an unaffordable luxury, so that’s what ultimately drives their decision.

5. What is a skill that every digital marketer should have and why?
Every marketer should try seeing through the eyes of their prospective customer. It’s easier said than done, but it’s something to work on because it can immeasurably improve the results you achieve.

For instance, I’m amazed at how many e-commerce shops put their opt-in signup blocks in the absolute last place a user will look: at the very bottom of a long webpage or on another page entirely. Someone who wants to opt-in is apt to get frustrated and leave if they have to search for something that should really be right in front of them. If your objective is to increase the number of opt-in subscribers to your list, why wouldn’t you want to make it as easy as possible to do so? Thinking like a customer can help you avoid that type of mistake.

6. What is the best part about your job?
I’m a problem-solver by nature and building a startup involves solving one problem after another and wearing many different hats. It can sometimes be wearying, but I’ll take it any day over working in a corporate environment.

It’s also tremendously rewarding working with my co-founder, Minor Gordon. He has a steel trap memory, and he’s one of those people who paid close attention to the techniques he learned while getting his Ph.D. If not for him, we would have ended up reinventing the wheel several times, which is something that happens pretty often in startups.

7. If you could only use five (digital) marketing tools, what would they be? And why?
• Email, of course. You’ll read in many places that it has the absolute best ROI of any form of marketing, and in my experience, that has been absolutely true.
• A good ESP. The days of being able to roll-your-own email delivery infrastructure are over, at least for the average business. Without an ESP, you’re going to have deliverability issue galore, and you’re also not likely to have any metrics on the effectiveness of your campaigns. You don’t want the former and you absolutely need the latter if you want to continually improve your marketing efforts. Since we track the technologies used by senders, we know who’s flying solo and who isn’t. Frankly, the number of companies that still send campaigns with their ancient installation of, say, OSCommerce still shocks me.
• An analytics platform like Google Analytics. You can’t improve what you’re not measuring.
• A competitive intelligence platform like Notablist. It’s the rare company that has no competition, and you can’t compete smartly if you don’t know what the other guys are doing – what they’re sending, how often they’re sending, their technology stack, etc. You also need to be on the lookout for competitors you didn’t even know you had. A good competitive intelligence platform will let you do those things and more.

8. Facebook or Twitter?
At the risk of being tagged as a Luddite, I have to say neither, at least not personally. Social media has tremendous value, but it’s also easy to get sucked in and find yourself spending hours a day on it when you should be doing other things. I’m just as susceptible to the latest memes and dog videos as anyone else, but running a startup means being in perpetual time deficit, so I have to be disciplined and just not go there.

9. What is the biggest digital marketing trend that will drive success for 2017? What is the biggest challenge?
For many people, mobile is the primary—and often the only—means by which they access the net. That’s a trend that’s sure to continue this year and beyond, especially since mobile devices continue to get better at doing some of the things people have traditionally relied on desktops for.

Unfortunately, many email marketers are still sending email campaigns designed solely for desktop mail clients, not mobile devices where screen real estate and network bandwidth are constrained. The end result is often a campaign that doesn’t look right or takes too long to load.

Since we track campaign sizes, we know that the current average for HTML+images is around 375k, which is a very manageable download for a mobile device. Unfortunately, that’s just the average; there are also many senders pumping out emails filled with unoptimized images that take forever to load on a mobile device. The worst I’ve ever seen was a campaign that had a whopping 93 megabytes of images.

It’s not just small senders doing this, either. We do see plenty of examples from large companies that should know better. There are some very good tools out there, like Litmus, that will flag this sort of problem immediately. They don’t cost an arm and a leg, either, so there’s really no reason not to take advantage of them.

10. What is your go-to Karaoke song? And why?
I prefer to sing at times when no one else can hear me – like in my car. So, karaoke isn’t my thing. Of course, there was that time about 10 years ago when I had a few too many drinks at a company gathering, where I’m told I had an impromptu singalong with Sinatra and U2. Those present told me I did a passable job on the former and that I should never, ever again attempt the latter. Fortunately, my memory of that is extremely hazy.

11. What’s the one or two things you can’t live without to get the job done?
• Email, first and foremost. It’s the original social media, but it’s also the core of what we do and one of our most important communication channels.
• Cloud hosting. You can’t fully appreciate it until you’ve had the experience of racking and wiring hundreds of servers.
• My MacBook Pro.
• Join.me. Our customers are all over the world, so the opportunities for face-to-face demos are rare.
• Calendly. It saves me from the email ping-pong that occurs every time you need to setup a meeting.

Thank you so much, Michael, for sharing your insight and expertise on the Insider Inbox.

As we look ahead into the coming months, we’ve got some great Insiders lined up for our interviews. Watch this space for more words of wisdom from some of the biggest names in the email marketing business that you can use in your own outstanding work. Stay tuned! And if you want to get started today with dynamic and personalized email content, get in touch. We are here to help!

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Your direct-sold ads in email that easily translates into money. How? Check out AdServer for Email.

Drive revenue in every email you send. Learn how with RevenueStripe.