Getting Back To Fundamentals on an Often Overlooked Growth Channel...Email! (w/ Ilona Abramova, VP of Operations at AppSumo)
Matt Bilotti: Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Growth podcast. I'm your host, Matt Bilotti, and I am really excited today to dig in to a channel that everybody uses, everybody interacts with all the time, and it's not a channel or tactic that we've really covered much in the podcast before. So we're going to talk about email and the keys to making email work as a channel. And I am joined today by Ilona Abramova, VP of Operations at AppSumo. Did I get your name right?
Ilona Abramova: You did. I'm so proud of you.
Matt Bilotti: Let's go. There we go. Well, welcome to the podcast. I'm really excited. I know you've got a lot of experience in email and building that out as a channel. We're going to talk through some tactics. So maybe if you give the audience a quick background on yourself and we can go ahead and dive on in.
Ilona Abramova: Yeah, I'm so excited to be here. I joined the AppSumo team about four years ago as their email marketing manager, and revamped our email program. And now it's one of our largest channels for revenue and for engagement. I've worked on crafting emails for SaaS companies, for community building, newsletters, for e- commerce businesses, and I've learned so much along the way. So really excited to dive in.
Matt Bilotti: Awesome. And one thing that we were talking about before we hopped on to recording here, when we were talking through the topic was you mentioned that email is still the number one marketing channel for most businesses and people just don't always remember that or recognize it. So why don't we start up there with the basics, the philosophy on it, and then we'll go ahead and dig into how you approach it. And then a lot of tactics that some of the listeners can walk away with.
Ilona Abramova: 100%. So I think that email is one of those tried and true marketing channels that you've been aware of since the nineties. And it's not as hot as all the new channels that are popping up, right? So you have Facebook advertising and Tik Tok and Clubhouse and all these new channels coming up every single day. But the difference with email is that it's entirely owned channel, right? So with the Facebook audiences, Facebook owns that data. But with email, you have complete access to those contacts. And so you have a lot more responsibility, but also a lot more autonomy in the way that you market and the way that you can communicate with your audience. I'm a bit of an email truther, I think, that there's so much power in the platform and the channel, and it's not like your grandma's marketing channel, if you will.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. It's funny because I feel like email has had this new resurgence, like there's all these people that are starting newsletters and building their brand, like individual brands around a newsletter or starting with a newsletter and then all of a sudden they have 10 employees to run this content company. Do you think that that's why people are just recognizing again and coming back to it?
Ilona Abramova: Yeah. It's funny because I think that we went into this pattern of going smaller, right? Everything becoming more and more bite- sized and people's attention spans being reduced. And now we're kind of seeing this resurgence of people wanting to connect and wanting to hear authentic, honest content. And that's why these newsletters are popping off, right? People, they want to have time to really connect and hear a brand voice that they trust. And so I think that that's why there's so much opportunity for a company to leverage that personal relationship. And email, as you said, it's becoming a more popular channel again and it can serve so many purposes. Your email can be your sales channel. It could be your communication channel. It can be your product marketing channel. You can do all of those right all with one audience and one communication channel.
Matt Bilotti: So I feel like the starting point, when people decide that they want to build an email newsletter or invest in email as a channel, the first thing that comes to mind is I just need to get as many people on my email list as I possibly can. How do you think about that aspect and that approach to it?
Ilona Abramova: It's hard because it's a little counterintuitive. I don't think that growth means that you have this overinflated list. People get really hung up on having a big number that they can show. But a smaller, more engaged list means that you can have a lot more consistency with what you can expect from a campaign. And you're more likely to make it into an inbox. I think that people often forget that each center has a reputation with services like Google. And the more that you get opens and clicks on your emails and the less you get marked as spam or unsubscribes, the more you're indicating that you are a trustworthy sender and then you make it into an inbox more likely.
Matt Bilotti: So your fundamental approach is that you think the quality of the list is generally, if not always more important than the quantity of the list.
Ilona Abramova: Absolutely. I think that if you have subscribers that got there, but don't actually want to hear from you and you're not getting them to your website, the point of an email is to drive traffic to your site, right? It's to drive the traffic. And then the point of your website is to make the conversion. But if you're not getting the open and you're not getting that click, then you're really not getting anything from this subscriber. This subscriber might as well not be there. And so I would say that having a list where the subscribers actually want to connect with you and want to get to the next stage of wherever you're taking them is way more important than the number that you see when you log in.
Matt Bilotti: Love that. Yeah. I think as you said, it's kind of counterintuitive, like you don't necessarily think of that. I think there is some mindset, which is you hear a lot like your first 100 true fans. I think that that encompasses a lot of what you're saying, it's just like focus on making good content first, getting good people that actually. The amount of random newsletters that I get thrown on, it's just like, what am I going to do with this content? I didn't ask for it and it's not relevant to me.
Ilona Abramova: Absolutely. And I think that there's merits. I'm on some email lists where I'm just here whenever they have a sale and that's okay. Right? But I think that large in part, how do you get the people that want to hear from you every time you're sending something? And I think the best way to do that is by building trust, right? Getting them on your email list through a way that will then indicate to them what the rest of that journey is going to look like, which is why you will see that content upgrades are such a popular list building measure. Because if I get to your blog and I see, hey, there's this checklist for growth, and I'm interested in that, I'm also most likely going to be interested in all of the other things you have to say. And so if you get my email by offering something that is going to match what you send to me in my inbox and I sign up for that knowing that's what it is, that's how we can ensure that we have a trustworthy relationship moving forward.
Matt Bilotti: Love that. And one of the things that you had mentioned when we were chatting before, and that we wanted to make sure that we covered was the process, so how you approach email very tactically. And I think you said there were three core buckets. One is the building the list part. Another is engaging with that list. And then the third part is monetization. So maybe we start at the building a list, you talk us through what that looks like. Let's say I'm a marketing team member and I'm in charge of our email and I'm trying to build the list more or maybe I'm an individual and I'm just trying to build a list from ground up. How do I think about that? How do I get started?
Ilona Abramova: Yeah. I think the number one question people have is" How do I build my email list?" And the truth of the matter is it works best if you can offer something for free that someone would otherwise have to pay for. Right? But if you think about that, it applies to e- commerce right? A discount, that 15% off that you would otherwise have to pay for, you're getting an exchange for your email. Free content, like I mentioned, a checklist, a free chapter of your book, anything that I don't expect to receive for free and all I have to do is give you my email in exchange for that, that lets somebody feel like the pros outweigh the cons and they don't feel like they're going to get taken advantage of. That's why giveaways tend to perform really well. Right? People are like," Okay, I'm fine with giving my email if it means that I could have this massive upside at the end of it with winning something." Or at the very least, the thing that I would be winning matches what I'm interested in and then the rest of the content that follows is engaging to me. We ran our biggest email capture campaign for AppSumo, we ran last year during our Black Friday promotion, which is our largest sale of the year. And we started about a month before with the splash page collecting emails in exchange for an exclusive discount before the promotion starts. Right? And at the same time, we were running a giveaway of our CEO's Tesla. And so we had all of this hype being generated and all of this, like the net benefit to the customer was so much larger than them giving us their email. And what we were doing in the process was just warming up an audience for our biggest sale.
Matt Bilotti: Okay. So let's say I am listening and I'm thinking yep, that sounds great. But I don't really have something I can give away for free. I don't really have something I could discount. How should I approach it in that case?
Ilona Abramova: I think you can always give something away for free. I think you can give away your time, right? You could say," Hey, 15 minute consultation in exchange for an email," or create some kind of bonus content or gate an episode of your podcast and say," Hey, you can get access to this exclusive episode through an email." So I think just doesn't have to be free as in monetary, doesn't have to be a physical product or a discount, but rather how can you offer value that would otherwise be paid for to a subscriber to basically give them an act of good faith. Let them know that you are just as interested in maintaining the relationship with them as you want from them.
Matt Bilotti: Love that. There's always some way that you can consider giving something away for free. It makes a lot of sense. Okay. So then maybe this pulls us to the next topic pretty well around engagement. I guess my question is, so you gave away some stuff for free. I'm thinking about a lot of the emails that I signed up for, you were talking about discounts, waiting for a sale of something. I'm thinking about when I was searching for mattresses or bedding or new pants. I give my email and then all of a sudden I just start getting all these constant discount emails. It's very interesting because I feel like sometimes, and I don't really think about it consciously, but sometimes, even though the sale isn't relevant for me and I'm not buying the thing right now, I just keep it. I don't unsubscribe. There's a handful of those that I don't unsubscribe from. But a decent amount of them. I'm just like immediately out. I get my discount, I get my free thing and I don't want any more emails from you. How do you think about landing in that bucket and what can you tactically do to land in that bucket of the person getting your emails wants to stick around, even if it's not necessarily relevant in that exact moment?
Ilona Abramova: Yeah, it definitely has to do with what product you're selling. Right? For example, mattress companies have it kind of tough because you buy one mattress, you're not then in the market for another mattress. And so you'll notice that mattress companies will do upsells with sheep bundles or they'll give you education about," Hey, this is the best way to take care of your mattress." And so that way you're still getting a tailored experience that after you've made the purchase, you're more likely to return and still engage with them. I think for AppSumo, what we do is after you make a purchase, you start getting more relevant tools offered to you, right? So we sell a software and after you buy one of software, it makes sense for you to buy a different piece of software that would compliment nicely with your first. You're basically creating these tailored experiences. And it's something that people are starting to expect, right? Personalization is omnipresent across marketing channels now, and email is no exception. And I think that even if you don't have all of these automations set up and you don't have all of your customer data, there are ways to manually create personalized experiences that'll make a user feel like they are being led on a journey.
Matt Bilotti: Okay. So on that note, I will preface this with I have never owned the email channel, but I've done some email. When Drift was early on, I was just the person managing the email list until we got a real marketer on the team, or I worked at the marketer to put some of that stuff together. And I feel like most email setups, as soon as you start to try to move into that world of, how do we get really tailored, how do we get personalized, you start segmenting the crap out of the list. And all of a sudden, your internal email segmentation is like this Jenga tower of these crazy segments that if you left the company, nobody else is going to be able to understand. They have to start over again. How do you think about personalizing, but maybe not overdoing it, but doing in a way that you could scale it?
Ilona Abramova: I think you hit the nail on the head. That's so true. I would say that with all of your marketing channels, you need to take a step back every so often and see if you're actually optimizing for the right thing. And not every campaign needs to be hypersegmented. I think a good example of segmentation that worked for us. We have a loyalty program called AppSumo Plus. You essentially pay an annual membership fee and you get 10% off all of your purchases, right? This mostly makes sense for AppSumo super fans. Right? It doesn't make sense for everybody. And so when we were thinking about how do we get more people in this list, we take a cohort of people who have spent a certain amount, and we segment them and send them an email, basically being like," Hey, here's how much you would have saved if you had been a Plus member." If we had done this for the entire list, there'd be people that would have saved no money, probably. Right? So it wouldn't have been a successful campaign. But we don't need to then keep these people separate for all of eternity. It just makes sense for this one message and then we can put them back in the broader bucket for a standard sales email.
Matt Bilotti: Makes sense. So how do you think about, on this note of engagement, how do you think about what makes a good email? Maybe aside from it being personalized and related to the interest of the person, what do you think makes a good email?
Ilona Abramova: I think that email is one of the best ways to show your brand in action, right? So copywriting and your use of imagery and your use of CTAs, all of that has to do with who you are as a brand. So I don't think there's one single rule of thumb for every single company. That being said, I think for me, I like emails that are very targeted that tell me exactly what they want me to do, right? Hey, there's a 20% off sale. It ends tomorrow. Here's exactly what's happening and click the CTA. And it's not your attention isn't getting split between competing calls to action. You're not thinking," Oh, I could buy this, but they're also telling me that I could read about this." And I think that when you create experiences for people that are simple, that are efficient and that ultimately have them winning in the end, they'll feel a lot better engaging with you.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. To double down on that, I think when I get an email and there's one case where the content is irrelevant to me. So that's a bad email. But it feels like there's this other bucket of emails that it's a bad email because it just is so cookie cutter, like they clearly follow the checklist of things that make a good email, like header, big CTA, straightforward sentence, and some copy at the bottom. Right? I feel like, how do you coach someone beyond that? Because I'm on some other email lists where the person writes a whole blog post and they stick it in the email. And it's incredible for me, and then I never leave the email and it's exactly what I wanted. How do you think about breaking the mold of check boxes and what's good for our brand? Do you hear what I'm saying?
Ilona Abramova: Yeah, 100%. I think we all get those outreach emails, right? Like," Hi Ilona, I really liked your article on X." Right? It's not something that you want to engage with because you're getting them all day and they don't feel personal. Right? You're much more likely to respond to an email that was written to you specifically than you are, that was kind of mass blasted. And obviously companies can not write personal emails to everyone on their list, but what they can do is focus on that audience member and solve whatever problem that they're experiencing. So rather than getting an email that's just a pure, like you mentioned, one single sentence in a CTA, it's like what pain point are you solving for your customer? What is happening in their lives that your product or service or content is going to fix for them? I think not having your recipient in mind is probably the single biggest mistake you can make as a sender.
Matt Bilotti: I love that. It makes so much sense. I come from a product background and it's like you don't want to be building features, you want to be solving a pain. And I've never quite heard anybody talk about email that way. But at its root, it makes so much sense. It's like if you're going to send something, make sure that you're actually adding value and you're being helpful to that person in some way. And so to me, it feels like a mindset difference between" I have this email list of 20, 000 people and there's these four groups within it" versus" I have this email list of 20, 000 people and I know that there are these four types of people and here are the distinct things that they care about. And I know when they want to hear from me, what they want to hear from me." It's just very different than I have this list and I can get an outcome versus I have this list of people and these people care about very specific things.
Ilona Abramova: It's often hard to remember that that number, that 20, 000, are all individual people that have opted into receive something from you because they want you to solve a problem for them, just like you said. And so being able to be really deliberate about what that problem is and how your product or service is positioning itself to be that solution, I think is critical in thinking about how to communicate with your audience.
Matt Bilotti: Love that. It's just funny because I feel like email is so simple, but it gets complicated because of how simple it actually is and everyone over- complicates it. But when you put it in these sorts of terms, it just makes so much more sense.
Ilona Abramova: Yeah. It's so true. Honestly, it's all marketing. But I think email, it almost feels more personal because it's entering your inbox, right? So you have more responsibility to be more person driven because it's not like they're just scrolling past an ad on their feed. They're opening something that was sent directly to them.
Matt Bilotti: I love that. With email, you are entering their domain.
Ilona Abramova: Exactly.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. That's cool. Great. So we've talked about building an email list and we've talked about engaging that email list, figuring out how to approach it and think about it and think about writing your emails and structuring your emails. And then there's this third bucket, which is monetization. So tell us, how do you make money off of an email list?
Ilona Abramova: Yeah. I think this all goes back to that same notion of building trust. Marketing shouldn't be done in a vacuum and it's a constant feedback loop, right? Monetization is very much so industry specific. So for a newsletter, it means you're finding the right sponsorship opportunities and your audience trusts that the sponsors that you bring on are adding value to their lives. For an e- commerce company, it means that you're positioning products in a way, like we discussed, that they're solving problems for people. For SaaS companies, it means that they trust you enough to continue to have monthly recurring expenses and don't churn. But whatever that case may be, the way that the email plays the part is you should be looking at what your audience is doing on the email. Are they clicking where you want them to click? If not, let's AB test and make sure that we're moving up most relevant content so that the pathway to getting them onsite is clearer. One example comes to mind with AppSumo, we found that 50% of our were happening on the video. But the video that we had in our email wasn't even going to the page where sales can happen. And so don't create additional friction or blocks for your audience to be able to make a sale, because if they have to click a second time, now you're basically standing in their way instead of helping facilitate that sale.
Matt Bilotti: How do you think about tying a revenue goal to an email list, or an email channel? People joke about this all the time, like Apple sends an email and they make X million dollars of revenue from every email that they send. How do you think about that and how do you think e- commerce companies think about it versus SaaS companies? I would imagine that it's kind of different.
Ilona Abramova: Definitely. I don't think it's just industry specific. It's not just different for industries. It's different for each email you send. There were some emails, then the entire goal of an email is to drive community, showcase somebody on your list that's doing something cool. Show the people on your list that you care about them and that you want to elevate them and highlight them. And then other times if you're doing a product drop or you're having a sales specific email, I think it makes a lot more sense to tie revenue to those campaigns. It depends on the quality of the list for sure and what your historicals are. Obviously, you can't put all of your eggs in one channel. And I think that it's important to essentially attack the sales from all of your marketing channels. But I think that with email specifically, it is a large revenue generating channel and it's not revenue that you have to pay for. You don't have to pay for the cost of the click or the acquisition either. And so I think priming your audience to start buying is a healthier move for your bottom line.
Matt Bilotti: Love that. Anything else on monetization that you want to touch on before we jump on to maybe the last topic here?
Ilona Abramova: I think it's really important for product to work with email. Like I said, the goal of the email is to get you to the website and then the goal of the website is to make the sale. And so you'll notice this right? When you get an email from an e- commerce company, you'll get a big advertisement of the discount. But you'll rarely see what the actual price of the product is. Right? And so that's where I think your email team and your product team has to work together to craft these flows of, okay, my job is to get them on site. And then how do we then make sure that that experience is consistent with what they got in their inbox? That can kind of push them through the finish line of checking out.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. I feel like often, that stuff feels disjointed. The product experience feels disjointed from the email experience, which feels disjointed from the other touch points I'm having with the company. So I love that, that you think about that in a partnership perspective. Okay. Any maybe resources that people could check out if they want to get better with email?
Ilona Abramova: 100%. The single best resource is reallygoodemails. com. You can essentially get the exact email sent by companies for any type of engagement. So whether it's like a welcome email or an anniversary email. Anything you're thinking about sending, Really Good Emails has great templates for it. And they actually just released a Really Good Texts for SMS marketing, which I think of as like an extension of email. Pinterest has a lot of great emails uploaded. And so I would definitely recommend creating a Pinterest board and Marketing Examples also does really good tear downs and breakdowns of why emails work. I think the best thing to do is to sign up for a dummy email account and just join as many email lists as you can. I have one of these and I look at subject lines every single morning and I pinpoint the ones I like. I DM our email marketing manager all the time. So sorry. Basically being like," Hey, this was really compelling to me and this is what I liked about this layout. And can we try this?" And so I think the last thing, the last note that I want to end on is making sure that you are reserving at least 20% of your email team's time and energy into trying new things, right? Looking at industry trends, being able to identify something that could work and giving them the space to implement it. There are so many resources that'll help you execute, but I think if you don't create that space and you're constantly doing the same thing, you're not going to be able to grow the channel nearly as effectively.
Matt Bilotti: I love that. Some great parting words and resources. Ilona, thank you again for joining.
Ilona Abramova: Thank you so much, Matt. I had a great time.
Matt Bilotti: Absolutely. I did as well. So for those of you listening, if you liked this episode, there are plenty more with other amazing people. Hit that subscribe button and go check out the library. I also just want to say, as I always do, I know you have so many other things that you could spend your time on, spend your time doing, spend your time listening to, whatever it might be, so I really appreciate you tuning in here. It means a lot. If you got any feedback, send it my way. My email is matt @drift. com. If you liked this episode or others, I'm always looking for more reviews. I would appreciate it very much and feel free to reach out for anything at all. Thanks again, and I'll catch you on the next episode.
Email. Decades after showing up as a core channel for brands and companies to communicate with leads and customers, it been making a bit of a resurgence lately as a growth channel. While (basically) every company does email in some way, and it's always been important, we're seeing companies and individuals build huge followings via newsletters (and even becoming acquisition targets as a result). In this episode Ilona Abramova, VP of Operations at AppSumo, breaks down the fundamentals around email: how to approach it, what works, and what doesn't.