It’s almost Shakespearean. A cautionary tale of a young, impressionable man who finds himself in a new environment where his work is recognized. All appears to be looking up, when his world is turned upside down, and his downfall is rapid. This is the story of my first job in email marketing, and how I both fell in love with an industry, and learned how harsh it can truly be. What you are about to read is one hundred percent true.
In the fall of 2009, I found my new post graduate career to be stuck in the mud. Earlier in the year, I had made the move back to my hometown of Austin, Texas with my fiancé. We became two of the millions of millennials who were forced to move in with their parents due to less-than-ideal career prospects in the wake of the economic collapse of late 2008. I finally found work as a customer service rep for a global insurance provider. Since graduating in the spring of 2008 with a degree in business administration and a major in marketing, I still didn’t quite know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Marketing was presented as a broad realm in school, and the only specialty my classmates seemed to get into was sales, which wasn’t for me.
I began looking for a new employer that wouldn’t evaluate me by simply showing up to work. Believe it or not, this millennial wanted to do good work that contributed to a company’s cause. That November I applied for an email marketing role with a lead generation company. The interview process was refreshingly casual, and I began working for them the week before Thanksgiving.
I’ve always known the best way for me to learn how to do something is to actually try doing it, and this new job let me do just that. My role required me to send about a dozen email campaigns a day, Tuesday through Thursday. We used a tool named Campaigner to house our lists and build all emails. At the time I had zero HTML coding experience, so Campaigner’s WYSIWYG builder proved invaluable. The process was this: build each email, which had predestined copy, and schedule it to send at a certain time to the schedule’s assigned list. We did this for dozens of clients. Separate email “bucketers” would filter responses to inside sales reps, who would then qualify the leads further before sending to our clients.
After the departure of my supervisor over the Christmas holiday, I was quickly promoted to their role. I was put in charge of working with our account manager to schedule weekly campaigns to certain list segments, which is when I began to learn what we were doing wrong.
The company touted that it was CAN-SPAM compliant, and we were…to a point. Our subject lines were mostly straightforward, and when people requested to be taken off our lists, we obliged, but as I grew more involved in who exactly we were sending emails to, I began to question how we were obtaining our lists.
As you may have suspected by now, our lists were being purchased. A business partner of our owner with an executive title was in charge of purchasing the lists we uploaded into Campaigner and segmenting them by whatever criteria he saw fit—I was not involved in the segmentation process. Since I was a newbie to the email marketing realm, I had only just begun to learn what industry best practices were. I knew that not having proof of opt-in from our contacts was not a good thing, but did not realize the severity of having purchased lists could do.
Fast-forward to late March of 2010, and all of a sudden Campaigner wouldn’t let us send emails through their system. I had zero idea as to what was happening, and was told by my superiors that the issue was taken care of. We restarted sending campaigns the next day, but were locked out again within 48 hours. This time, I learned we caused the IP address we were sending from with Campaigner to be blacklisted by Spamhaus, an “…international nonprofit organization that tracks spam and related cyber threats…”. We had tripped a SPAM trap.
SPAM traps are setup by various people and organizations that do just what you think…catch spammers. Spamhaus had created an email address that was on one or more of our purchased lists, and by sending to it, we proved we hadn’t gained opt-in privileges. Spamhaus thusly marked the sender IP as a spammer. As you suspect, email marketing service providers like Campaigner have dedicated teams of employees that actively track these blacklists, and quickly discovered it was our account that caused this. In less than 24 hours they barred us from sending email with their program unless we could prove all contacts sent to had opted into our list. We obviously couldn’t do that, so our email marketing operations were dead in the water.
I was instructed to look for other services we could send through, but was turned away when the company couldn’t provide opt-in proof. Our company leadership expressed interest in setting up their own email servers, and had I not been such an email novice, I would’ve seen the writing on the wall.
The day after Easter Sunday, the company laid me off, along with a few others, all from the email team. With our operations at a standstill and capital needed to construct their own servers for emailing, there was no way they would continue to pay us for just sitting around. It was the first time I would be laid off, and I went through the usual emotions anyone whose gone through the same goes through.
My career in email marketing did not end there however. I had caught the “bug” and began to research more about industry best practices during my unemployment, and continue to learn more every day. The action of losing a job I enjoyed due to ill practices is something I never want to experience again, and it’s caused me to become what I refer to as an email marketing idealist. I am categorically against sending to purchased lists, and any other practice that could reflect poorly on myself or my employer.
So please, take this tale as a cautionary one. Know the real risks you run when you buy a list of contacts to email to. Traps are out there, and it really is only a matter of time before you trip one up. Instead, grow you list organically. Create relevant, meaningful content your audience actually wants to consume, and ask them to join your mailing list. This way, you know you will only be sending to people who know you. Your campaign metrics, and even conversions will be more favorable too.