Email on Tap Episode 18, with Marcel Becker, Director of Product Management, Verizon Media

Verizon Media is one of the largest inbox providers in the world, and Anthony Chiulli, our director of product marketing, was lucky enough to be able to talk directly with Marcel Becker, Verizon Media’s director of product management, at a recent email industry event for our Email on Tap video series.

Marcel has deep insight into how the email industry works, and how email marketers should be structuring their marketing campaigns for not only more success, but a better ecosystem for senders and recipients alike. He and Anthony touch on emerging email technology, ways to better work with mailbox providers (MBPs), and what the future of email might look like.

(Keep scrolling for key timestamps and even a full transcript. Plus, find links to our podcast version!)

Total Run Time: 18 minutes
0:20 – Who Verizon Media is and a little bit of Marcel’s background in email
1:44 – Core values driving the recent innovation in email from Verizon Media
3:55 – Driving factors behind the newly redesigned Yahoo mail app
5:34 – Insights and ideas pioneered by AOL’s legacy Alto Mail that still exist today
8:30 – Overview of Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI) and its incentive for marketers
11:12 – Marcel’s belief on why we are witnessing a revolution of email, not an evolution.
13:22 – Collaboration between mailbox providers in building a better email environment for the industry as a whole
15:18 – Advice for marketers in improving deliverability, email performance, and user experience


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Transcript

Anthony Chiulli
Welcome to Email on Tap. I am your host, Anthony Chiulli, and I’m thrilled today to have as my guest, Marcel Becker. He’s the director of product at Verizon Media. Marcel, thank you so much for sitting down and talking with me today.

Marcel Becker
Thank you for having me.

AC
So tell me, just to get kicked off, a little bit about your background in email. And also, for our audience, can you help explain who Verizon Media is?

MB
Yeah, sure. I’ll probably start with the second part of the question because I get that a lot. So, hopefully, everybody knows who Verizon is, one of the largest mobile carriers in the US; they also do other things. And they recently acquired AOL as well as Yahoo, and I’m responsible for the AOL and Yahoo consumer email product, specifically for anti-spam, anti-abuse, and delivery. I’m also working on some of the next-generation email consumer features, which we hopefully get a chance to talk about. That was the second part. The first part of the question, I was always fascinated with how people actually interact online, specifically how people communicate. So one of the first things I did was actually set up an email service way back over 20 years ago for my personal use, then also for the university, I studied at. And then I started doing email or consumer email in earnest probably around, I would say, 11 years ago.

AC
So it’s been quite a busy and productive few years for Verizon Media. You guys have introduced a new postmaster page, one-click unsubscribe. You recently rebranded from Oath to Verizon Media. You also introduced support for new features like AMP for Email and BIMI, which we’ll talk about here momentarily. If you could encapsulate kind of the core values of what’s driving a lot of this innovation, what would that be?

MB
Yeah, sure. So in a very small nutshell, I would say it is us trying to really connect brands and consumers. If you look at the email volume we’re seeing on the consumer side, it is 95% of those emails sent to consumers is actually brands talking to consumers. Email’s not really being used anymore for person-to-person communication, and then realizing that is driving a lot of our initiatives. We actually deployed lots of initiatives we were working on on the consumer email side. You’ve seen that with the recent release of the new update of Yahoo Mail on iOS and Android, as well as changes on the desktop version of Yahoo Mail. But then we also have to understand that the ecosystem doesn’t just contain—or consist of—the ISPs, the mailbox providers, and the consumers actually reading email. In that context of brands actually reaching out to consumers, it certainly also consists of all these brands. It certainly consists of all the companies supporting these brands to getting the emails into our mutual customers’ inboxes. And I personally believe that it is very, very important to work with that side of the business to help them help us provide a great user experience, right? So all of the things you mentioned, postmaster page, right, AMP, BIMI, those are all puzzle pieces in the grand scheme of things to create a better experience and really help us to work closer together on some of these initiatives. And that’s really why we do that.

AC
You mentioned the recent release of the new Yahoo Mail app. That, to me, reading up on those updates, is kind of changing the way that the user experiences their inbox, manages email. What was the driving factors behind that redesign and kind of changing the historical way that people think of managing their inbox?

MB
So it was really primarily driven by the fact that we realized, what I said before, that 95% of the emails we’re seeing is actually brands talking to their customers, right? It’s not talking people-to-people anymore. And it’s realizing that the content of these emails are important to the consumers. They contain important information, specifically a treasure trove of data and actionable things within an email. And we also realized that traditional email clients are doing a very, very bad job in helping users to actually use and consume and find these emails when they need it, where they need it. So we spent a lot of time and energy really on redesigning the experience to help users find what’s in their email, to help users organize it in a way which actually makes sense based on the content, where you can see coupons, travel-related emails, deals, and all this kind of stuff. So this is really the anchor we designed the new Yahoo Mail update around and, like I said before, some of the things we are introducing there also have a ripple effect on all the other things we’re actually working on with the sender community.

AC
You recently worked on—or I shouldn’t say recently, but Alto Mail was kind of a passion project that you were heavily involved in, and I think that launched in 2012. Much like Google’s Inbox by Gmail, it kind of was a dynamic shift away from what a traditional mailbox experience or email client was at the time. Looking back at the work that you did on Alto Mail, it seems like it was, in a way, kind of ahead of its time in the way that it thought about the user experience, as you mentioned. What, if anything, did you learn working on Alto Mail, that is now infused in the new Yahoo Mail app or that you carry on today in thinking about the way that email should work?

MB
Yeah. One of the important things we really learned when we did Alto Mail back then in 2012 was, A, what I said before, majority of the email content is non-conversational, so it’s brand talking to consumers. The other thing we’ve really learned is that it’s very hard for consumers or email users to find emails they care about. When you really think about it, some of the emails are sent when they’re not really relevant, like your hotel reservation is not sent when you actually need it; it’s sent when you book the hotel, right? Likewise, your flight reservation is not sent when you might need it. Coupons, they might be sent at a certain time but expire at some other date in the future, and then once it’s actually saved in the mailbox and you get all the other emails on top of that, it’s out of sight, out of mind. So the biggest thing we’ve really learned with Alto is helping users to find what they need, when they need it and basically help them to organize all the stuff which matters the most to them.

AC
And so it’s a more intuitive way of surfacing, like you mentioned, coupons, flight itineraries, when it’s needed, instead of having that be a manual, tedious task of searching through a loaded inbox.

MB
And you see a lot of these features, a lot of these ideas we, I would say, pioneered with Alto Mail; you see a lot of that again now in Yahoo Mail. And we learned a lot more since we did Alto, obviously. And the combined teams, AOL and Yahoo, we really put our heads together and leveraged the best of both teams, really, to come up with the, I would say, perfect consumer email application out there. And I think the proof is in the pudding, at the end of the day, right? But we see consumers love it. Some of the features we launched, we have 95% satisfaction rate with some of these new features within the mail app. When you go to the Android and iOS app store, I believe we have a 4.7 star rating. So I’m really confident that we’re on the right track, and we can only improve from there and actually enhance the experience even more.

AC
That’s great news. Congrats.

MB
Yeah, thank you.

AC
Let’s talk about a new standardization that’s happening in the email ecosystem called BIMI, which I know Verizon Media is a part of that working group. What is BIMI? And also, you once described BIMI as an incentive or a carrot for marketers. Can you explain what you mean by that?

MB
Yeah. So going back to the things we did for Yahoo Mail, and when you really look at the experience, which we actually provide to consumers, an important part of that is brand recognition, right? You know that 47% of users, when you ask them, “What is the number one reason for you deciding whether they want to open an email or not,” is brand recognition, right? They look at the message list in their email application, and if it’s recognized brand or if it’s a brand they trust, they’re most likely to actually open the mail. So we always displayed logos in Yahoo Mail. And BIMI stands for Brand Indicators for Message Identification, always have to remember that, is really a way for the brand to actually control that logo in our email application, not just ours but Google’s and the others out there as well, and to put the responsibility, I would say, and also the ball in their park, at the end of the day, so they can publish the right logo. They can ensure we display the right logo, the latest logo, and it also ensures that their brand is actually recognized. And to me, I said it is a carrot and a stick approach here because for us to be able to display a brand logo, we have to trust that the email is actually coming from you, right, and not some phisher or some bad guy out there. So there’s technology in place, and one important part of that technology is DMARC, right? We need to know who you are, and DMARC establishes that. DMARC makes sure that you are authenticated. And so if you want to publish a BIMI logo, then you have to do two things. One is to publish the BIMI DNS record, and the other part is to actually have a DMARC policy in place for your sending domain, with at least quarantine or reject. And if that’s the case, then we show the logo, and it should be a win-win situation for both sides.

AC
Right. Yeah, I would imagine it’s mutually beneficial not only for receivers and mailbox providers but also for senders. And it’s a marketing play, right? It’s increased brain recognition impressions, but there’s also an authentication layer required in order to leverage BIMI, so it makes the email channel a more trusted channel. In an interview last summer, you talked about some of the things that were limiting email’s growth, and then you had a quote that says, “We are witnessing a revolution, not an evolution, of email.” What do you mean by that?

MB
Well, it goes a little bit back to what I said earlier, right? So, again, 95% of the email traffic out there is brands to consumers, and we’re still restricted in part by the technology we have available for emails. But the reason why I believe we’re witnessing a revolution rather than an evolution is that all the players in the industry are now realizing that the email channel or the email marketing platform at the end of the day is really important, and it is liked or preferred by majority of consumers. There are many reasons and one of which is simply, consumers can interact with email content on their own terms, right? It’s not in their face. It’s not immediate. It’s not just a flash in the pan, so to speak. It’s there when they need it. So I think everybody’s realizing that now, and everybody’s investing money into the channel. There are acquisitions happening. We see that with Adobe acquiring Marketo. We’ve seen that in recent weeks with Twilio acquiring SendGrid, SparkPost buying eDataSource, Return Path being acquired by Validity. So these are all signs that the industry is, I would say, waking up, that yes, the email channel or the email marketing channel is really important. At the same time, though, I believe everybody’s also realizing technology is holding us back a little bit, and we’re all working on new ways of actually creating a better, more targeted, richer experience for our mutual customers. And some of these puzzle pieces like BIMI and others will have really helped achieving that. And, in a way, I also believe that we might tear down some of the traditional walls between the sending and the receiving community, or we might even get rid of some of the technologies out there. So that’s why I think it’s a revolution, not an evolution.

AC
That’s a really interesting point. So, in your opinion, when the email industry comes together and works on mutually beneficial standardizations or ideas such as, you mentioned BIMI or DMARC or others, it seems like it benefits– or has the opportunity to benefit the entire ecosystem. Do you feel like the nonconformity and kind of competitiveness amongst mailbox providers limits some of the ideas and evolution that we could take email?

MB
On the contrary, actually. I don’t think it limits our ability. What I really enjoy in this industry is actually getting together with our peers also on the receiving side, the mailbox provider side, and discuss some of the foundational pieces of email, right, and see how can we raise the bar together? How can we provide a better environment for the senders? Because they are all customers as well, right? The same sender is sending email to us and to Google and to Microsoft. So if we work together to ensure that they actually have a friction-free experience sending email, if we work together on the anti-abuse level and some of the email standards, everybody wins at the end of the day. And I’m not a believer in trying to compete on these basic layers, right? Just like in the car industry, no car manufacturer would compete on airbags or breaks.

AC
That’s a good analogy.

MB
Right? And the consumers, likewise, they expect that all the cars work the same way, all the cars are secure. And the industry there works together, and we should work together there as well. And we certainly do and should compete above that, right, on top of these pillars, on top of that foundation, we should compete on the consumer experience side. And again, because we do that, at the end of the day, the consumer actually gets a better product, the consumer can decide, and it helps the industry as a whole again.

AC
Yeah. That’s a great point. You’ve been in email nearly two decades and worked on, you mentioned Alto Mail and Yahoo and now Verizon Media. You’ve seen and analyzed a lot of data. You’ve talked with a lot of customers and senders. For the marketers tuning in to this series, what are some of the fundamental, best practices to driving the performance and increase deliverability?

MB
Sorry, answer is in two parts as well. A lot of marketers and senders only look at the technical metrics, right? Then they think this is everything they need to do, technical and maybe legal requirements, to get an email across the fence. But they think they can just lop it over the fence, the wall, into the mailboxes we provide. So that’s the number one mistake, especially because it’s just assuming email is simple and only have to follow a short checklist; just get the technical stuff right and then just send it over and everybody’s happy, right? I say don’t do that. And again, as the technical foundation, you should do at least that, but then fully understand who are you talking to. Understand your customers. Understand when you should use email and when you should not use email. That’s already a big plus. Also understand how you should talk to your customers, right? What’s the right content? Be relevant to customers in your communication; make them actually want to engage with that piece of email. Measure results; look at whether your customers are actually engaging with that piece of email or not. All of these should be things you should think about and care about, just like when you’re running a brick-and-mortar store, right, and you have a business. You care about all of that as well, right? How many people are coming in? What are they doing when they’re actually in your store? How do you engage them? How do you address them?

AC
It’s almost like humanizing that experience.

MB
Absolutely. Absolutely, right? And we as consumers expect it, right, I think. We want to have a pleasant experience. We want to have a personalized, highly relevant experience with the brand we actually love, and if they don’t deliver on that promise, if they don’t deliver on that expectation, we probably just love them less, right? So the email experience is just part of the overall brand experience, and as a marketer, don’t forget that piece.

AC
It’s a good point to end. I wanted to thank you for sitting down. This has been a huge honor for me to sit down and interview you. And I wanted to thank everyone else for tuning in to our latest episode of Email on Tap. We’ll see you soon.

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