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permission marketing

AWeber CEO Tom Kulzer, on Permission Email Marketing – Plus, Easy Ways to Improve Email Results

AWeber Founder and CEO Tom Kulzer talks to Paul Leslie of ZeroBounce about permission email marketing, poor practices to avoid, and the small things you can do to get better results.

How do you build trust and connect with people using email? We’re joined by someone who has a lot of perspective and real experience on this very thing. His email platform, AWeber, has helped more than 300,000 users – and counting.

Permission email marketing: the only way to win

Tom Kulzer, founder and CEO of AWeber, talks about the importance of permission and “the golden rule of email marketing.” He offers up a lot of great tips you may not have thought of.

This interview is packed with information, so shall we get started?

We’re recording this at 2:00 on 02/02/2022. February 2, 2022. So I thought this would be a good lead off question: what are two things email marketers can do this year to improve their results?

Lots of twos in there! 

This is going to sound really simple, but subscribe to your own newsletter. Subscribe to the things that you’re sending out to people.

Oftentimes we forget the subscriber experience and how that is related on the receiving end. So, go through the opt-in process on your website, whether it’s becoming a customer, or just signing up on your blog.

Then see what the page after you sign up is and what happens when you confirm your subscription. And then see the subsequent messages that come after that.

Teams forget all the different pieces that are involved. And it’s easy over time to erode your subscribers’ trust and have a non-optimal experience for people. There’s huge low hanging fruit that’s all potential for optimizing. So just go through it like it’s your own process, as a subscriber. 

The second one? There’s so much potential for opportunity.

One of the biggest tips is not necessarily related to email, but to the “thank you” page after someone subscribes. Put something on there for someone to buy. By the time someone has given you their email address, there’s some implied value there.

A lot of people guard their email address more tightly than they guard their credit card. So you’ve already gained enough trust that they see value in subscribing and receiving what you’re sending them. 

You can ask them to buy something from you, whether it’s an information product or an actual product, depending on what market you’re in.

For a lot of our customers, when they implement this, it’s one of the highest converting and responsible for a significant portion of their revenue.

Just put an offer on that page – whether it’s the “thank you” page immediately after someone fills out the form on the site, or the page after someone clicks the confirmation link in their inbox. Those two pages, in general, can be highly converting.

Great tips! Tom, what was going on in your life and in the world back in 1998, when you decided to start AWeber?

I was selling a hardware product for connecting to the internet. 1998 was a time when we were still dialing up to connect to the internet. The freebie, AOL floppy disks were in everybody’s mailbox. So this was a product for connecting wirelessly to the internet, which at the time was a big technology leap for people who didn’t even know it existed. 

It wasn’t fast, but it was pretty fast compared to a 56k, dial up modem. So I was selling this modem on the side. I was in the process of trying to follow up with people that I had met at computer shows and other places that I was advertising. It took a lot of time to manually follow up with them.

So what I ultimately did was write a little program that had a series of email messages that answered common questions people had. I spaced them out over some time. And it was one of the first in what we today call “marketing automation.”

Back then it was just an automated follow up series. It evolved, and I shared it with a number of other people that were selling the same products. And they were using it as well, and getting feedback and so forth. 

I was in college at the time, and ended up deciding to leave this company and stop promoting this product to focus on my education. In the process, I stopped running the program for the email follow up. A lot of the folks that I’d shared it with came back to me and said: “Hey, can I buy that from you?”

After about a dozen or so people said, “Hey, I’d pay you every month for that,” I thought “hmmm, maybe there’s a business idea there.”

So over the course of about a year I developed the first iteration of AWeber. That’s ultimately what AWeber turned into. So “Aweber” is kind of a shortened automated web assistant. And it got mushed into “AWeber,” so we had a unique name to register.

aweber
AWeber uses a sign-up form right above the fold to capture email addresses.

Well, since 1998, what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in the email industry?

There’ve been a lot of changes in the technology.

When I first started, email was all plain text. These days, you can send images and HTML. Now, you can even do something that a lot of people haven’t even heard of, called AMP for email. It’s a technology that started with Google. But it’s supported by a number of different mailbox providers, and basically puts a webpage inside your email client. 

So, say I send you an email. The content that’s in what you view in your email client can be different when you open the message than when I originally sent it.

Think of an email from a stock website, where they can put live stock quotes in their actual email. Whether I look at it today or tomorrow, it’ll be accurate. The prices that are in there for the companies you’re getting the stock quotes from, can be in real-time. They’ll be accurate over the course of several days after you send those messages. 

This is some interesting technology that lets people do shopping carts and other things directly in your email. Rather than going to a separate website to buy something and enter your credit card, you can do it inside the email itself. That’s tech that a lot of people don’t even know exists. 

Beyond that, the core fundamentals of email are the same with regards to permission.

Get permission and get results. Sending an unsolicited email is absolutely not the way to go. A lot of people call “cold email” this new thing. Yeah, that’s called spam. Don’t do that. 

Other things that have changed in the email world?

There’s a lot more privacy regulations than there were before: things like the CAN-SPAM Act and CASL up in Canada and GDPR in Europe. California has its own privacy regulations. There have been other states that’ve had regulations that went away. 

Boiled down it’s: “treat the data that you’re collecting as though it was your own, and how you’d want your own data to be shared.”

For example, I don’t want people emailing me if I haven’t given permission to be added to their mailing list. I wouldn’t want my own email address sold to somebody else. So, don’t do those things to your visitors! Don’t be a jerk is how I summarize a lot of the regulations.

If you’re an ethical business, just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s right. So do the right thing by your customers, prospects and visitors, and they’ll pay dividends to you over time.

The golden rule of email communication: “Do unto others.” 

Absolutely. 

What in your mindset would you say has remained unchanged since the day you started AWeber?

Permission is the biggest thing.

Permission, then expectations. Expectations are important and that hasn’t changed over the years. When somebody is opting into your newsletter, tell them what they’re going to get and how often they’re going to get it. 

I did another interview this morning, and somebody asked: what’s the best frequency to send on? I said, “the one that your subscribers expect.” And they only expect what you tell them. 

Let’s say you sign up to my newsletter. It might be perfectly fine for me to send a newsletter three times a day, if I’m covering the stock markets around the world. But if I’m a hair salon, you probably don’t want to get three emails a day from me.  A monthly email would be more appropriate.

permission marketing

If you don’t set expectations, and I think: “I’m probably going to get one email a month from them.” Then all of a sudden, I start getting a daily email, what am I likely to do? I’m going to unsubscribe, or I’m going to mark your email as spam.

One is better than the other, but neither are desirable. And you can avoid a lot of that by setting those expectations up front.

I can think of so many occasions where that has happened. “Wow, I was opening your emails, I liked them. Now I feel like I’m just being smothered by you.” You know? 

It’s a balance.

Any other mistakes you see email marketers making?

I’d say some of the other key things that are important these days are thinking about what your email looks like on a desktop, and then what it looks like on mobile. See how it looks on a mobile device, or a desktop device with daytime mode and then dark mode, and how your images render. 

See whether or not your email flows nicely, when it’s sized down to a mobile phone. Most people are reading emails on mobile phones first.

They might save it and go back to it when they’re on a desktop, but a large portion of the population is reading emails on mobile first. If it doesn’t look good on both, that can really hurt your results over time. 

Another thing, depending on the kind of content you’re sending out, is being aware of Gmail clipping features. If you send a really long newsletter, users on Gmail won’t see it all by default.

Other issues that are frequent: sending out an HTML email. If you can add bold to an email, that means it’s being sent in HTML format, regardless of whether or not you’re writing HTML code. If you can add formatting to it, it’s HTML.

Oftentimes people link, so they’ll put a visible URL in there – for instance, https.www.aweber.com. I just put that in there as a visible link in the message. A lot of email clients and mailbox providers mark those as phishing. That’s basically a bad email trying to send someone to an alternate destination.

On the back end, when you put in your website address, we add what’s called a “click tracking value” to that word, and it sends it to a different link. And if the visible link looks different than the back-end link, it can get flagged in various mail programs as a malicious email.

There are simple things like that that can catch you off guard. The best way to prevent that from happening is to link words in your messages. So, you know, “Come to our website at AWeber.” I would link “Come to our website at AWeber” as the place to go rather than the URL itself. 

That’s great to know! Any other mistakes you’re noticing?

The no-reply address. Again, it’s “treat your users how you would want to be treated.”

I’m sure you’ve gotten an email from Amazon, for example. You get the email, and you have a question about a particular order. Can you reply to that email? No!

How do you go about getting hold of them? Is there a link in the email or do you go to the customer service? Maybe if you’re lucky. And then you have to find the form so you can get in touch with an actual human to help with whatever your problem is. 

If you send an email to my inbox, don’t give me the middle finger and tell me to go somewhere else. Just let me reply to the messages.

The common retort that I hear from users is: “When I put a real email address in there, I hear from too many of our users.” I’m sorry, is that a problem? You don’t want to talk to your customers, you just want their dollars? Okay, I get it to some extent.

When you put in a no-reply address into your emails, it’s like giving each one of your users the middle finger. And that’s not cool. Don’t do that. Again, treat your users how you yourself would want to be treated.

It is always such a relief and a joy. When you do have a question and you see: “Oh, I can write back? Yeah, I can. Yes.”

It’s become a norm that you can’t. So people are shocked when they actually can. In all your emails you have to spell out the fact that you can reply to this and reach a real human.

Can you give us an example of a company that you think gets email marketing right? And why do you feel that way?

Well, I think we do it pretty well. But that’s probably not exactly you’re looking for. 

I get a lot of email newsletters. My car dealership does a pretty good job with their email marketing. Their emails are timely, like, “Hey, my inspection is going to expire next month, I need to make an appointment.” The email that I get points out specifically that my inspection is going to expire soon. And here’s the link to schedule your appointment.

They make it really easy so I don’t have to remember. It’s very personal to me. It’s not this generic “Hey, it’s winter time. You should do winter stuff.” Does my car specifically need winter tires when it becomes winter? On the east coast here? 

When you can do things more personally, you tend to have much better results in the long term. When you can make each one of those messages more relevant to each individual recipient. This is a Mazda dealership, by the way.

How aware do you think marketers and business owners are of their email data quality?

Probably not very aware, in my experience. They tend to send messages and hope for the best. They don’t really think about how they got to that point or the results that they’re getting from what they send.

They hope for better results, but they’re not necessarily looking at the results they’re already getting in the best way possible.

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Can you give us an example of something a company can do to improve their email results?

Well, using services like ZeroBounce helps to make sure that you’re getting initial subscribers that are valid. It helps make sure that you’re not getting bots and other automation and junk into your subscriber list. So using ZeroBounce, using things like CAPTCHAs and rate limits, and those sorts of things. 

The forms that we have in AWeber build a lot of that intelligence into them as far as looking for bots and using a CAPTCHA when we think that there’s not a human on the other end. Looking at the subscriber quality, and whether addresses are clearly invalid, we do some typo detection, so that we can detect in real time.

For example, the people that type gmail as “g-m-a-l-e.” The auto detection typo corrections in real-time can flag those. It asks “Did you really mean this domain? Or did you mean the other one?” They can fix that in real-time. 

Getting good quality data up front is really helpful. It’s also important from a long term, email reputation point of view, to remove people that are no longer engaging with your messages.

If somebody hasn’t opened or clicked anything from you in 12 to 24 months, they’re probably gone and you should remove them. 

Over time, if a larger chunk of your subscriber base doesn’t engage with what you’re sending, it tells mailbox providers like Google: “Hey, my recipients don’t like what I said, they don’t care about it.”

So the percentage that like and engage with your emails will become smaller and smaller. Eventually Gmail says: these emails might be spam, we’re just going to throw them all in the spam folder. Then you don’t get any of your emails seen or very few of them seen.

permission based email marketing
To help your emails land in the inbox, practice permission email marketing and use only real, valid contacts.

So it’s about making sure that you’re sending to engaged subscribers. Just because somebody hasn’t clicked the unsubscribe button doesn’t mean that they already haven’t checked out or filtered your email off to a folder. They just never happen to look at it anymore. Those kinds of ghost subscribers can be just as harmful to your list. Make sure you remove those over time.

What do you most like to do when you don’t have anything to do? Those moments where the ball is totally in your court?

I’m assuming this is personal and professional?

Yeah. However you choose to answer!

I like my downtime as much as my work time. Work hard, play hard. So I do a lot of snowboarding, some rowing, wake surfing. I spend time with my kids and my family. I have a couple of young kids. They get older each day and my time with them shortens, so it’s important to spend time with them.

From a professional standpoint, some of my best ideas come when I’m not thinking about work at all. They just kind of come to you. It’s really important to have that downtime to step away from the computer and from work responsibilities. You have to be able to let your mind wander and get new experiences that let you see the world in a different light.

What is your number one email marketing rule? 

Permission. 

The best way to grow your email list?

Ask for people to sign up. It’s so common for people to not have a form on their site that you can find. It’s so common! So just ask, you’ll be surprised what happens.

A brand email you always open?

Probably my Amazon emails.

The best email deliverability tip you can give us?

Make sure that you’re removing undeliverables – addresses that aren’t valid anymore. If you’re using a quality provider like AWeber, we do that for you automatically. But I can’t tell you how many people use janky software that doesn’t actually do that in an automated way. You’ll end up with a terrible list over time. So, make sure you’re removing those people.

A word you’re tired of seeing online?

“Synergy.” Don’t tell me about our business synergies!

The one quality someone needs as an entrepreneur?

Persistence.

Your biggest email pet peeve?

I’d go back to number one: showing up without permission.

What do you wish you had more time for?

We can always make time for things we find valuable. And the things that we don’t make time for aren’t probably as valuable or important as we think they are. I have my priorities pretty well aligned. I always wish there was more time to get work stuff done. But the stuff that’s most important, I get to. I don’t need to spend more time working.

How many customers does AWeber serve?

We have about 300,000 users around the world.

What would you say are the industries that AWeber most serves? 

There are a lot of them, but I’d say it’s mostly small businesses. And a lot of bloggers, YouTubers, folks with a big Twitter presence, content creation, that sort of stuff. Those are the two segments that we see the most really desire to work with us.

How many emails would you say have been sent through your platform?

Definitely billions. I’m not sure if we’ve hit trillions yet. I haven’t done the math on our entire history. So it’s up there.

Can you think of any other interesting facts about AWeber that the viewers would be interested in?

Before the pandemic, we were all in person at an office in Chalfont, Pennsylvania. There were about 100 of us. Since the lockdowns, we went all remote. In June of 2020, we decided to stay permanently remote. What are we a year and a half from that now? We’re in 12 states and multiple countries.

It’s interesting how quickly the world changes and how what you thought your business was could be completely different a short period of time later. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the people component of a business.

Anything else that people should know before we go?

I’d say start with permission and ask for the opt-in. If you have a need for an email platform, if you don’t have that opt-in form on your website, you want to put one there. 

You can check us out at aweber.com and sign-up for one of our free accounts and just get started. 

One subscriber is more than the zero that you might have today.

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