Who to follow: Karen Talavera
23 May 2018
Karen Talavera is a true email marketing pioneer.
She’s been email marketing since before Myspace was unleashed upon the world, before “No Scrubs” made a generation of women rethink their relationships, and since the world was still gripped by worry about the impending consequences of the dreaded “Millennium Bug”.
Yes, Karen Talavera has watched the amazing field of email marketing grow from its very infancy.
After completing a degree in communication from the University of Michigan in 1989, Karen entered the workforce intent on establishing a career in journalism. However, after glimpsing the slim job opportunities and paycheques the journalism world had to offer, a quick pivot into the marketing game seemed the prudent choice.
After cutting her teeth as a marketing associate specialising in data-driven marketing in the pre-internet corporate world for the better part of a decade, Karen took her first job in email in 1999 with a young startup known as YesMail (one of the world’s first ESPs). Another startup gig or two later, Karen made the decision to strike out on her own, founding her company, Synchronicity Marketing, in 2003.
Although job offers from bigger companies rolled in over the ensuing years, none offered the flexibility or time for raising Karen’s daughter that self-employment did, so the choice to follow her own path rather than returning to the corporate world was clear.
Now in her 15th year running Synchronicity and based in Miami, Florida, Karen Talavera offers her social media followers the seasoned perspective of an email marketer who’s pretty much seen it all.
This perspective, combined with a keen eye for quality email marketing content (which she makes a point of sharing with the world in Synchronicity’s awesome newsletter) and a cool, informative blog of her own, has made Karen one of our phavourite Twitter follows for quite some time (she’s also on Linkedin!).
— Karen Talavera (@SyncMarketing) November 11, 2015
Now that we know her social media accounts are well worth a follow, let’s see what else this seasoned email marketing veteran has to say…
Karen Talavera tale of the tape:
Favourite food: Neapolitan-style pizza
Pets: None at present. My adorable toy poodle Scruffy passed away after 14 years in 2015 L (RIP)
Dream Job as a child: Become a famous writer/book author
Last big purchase: A new car (2017 Infiniti QX50). Wasn’t planning on it but I very luckily survived a high-speed hit-and-run accident that totalled my car a few months ago.
Guilty pleasure: Drinking red wine while watching Scandal (also RIP – what will we gladiators do now?)
Pet Peeve: When public figures and the media mispronounce common words. FWIW there’s no “i” in “Realtor” and it’s “Nuclear”, not “Nucular”
An interview with Karen Talavera
For those who might not know, what is Synchronicity Marketing, and how does it make life easier for brands/marketers?
Synchronicity Marketing is a data-driven digital marketing consultancy working with both brands and agencies to maximize results from email and related inbound marketing channels for increased online visibility, better-qualified prospects, new customers and revenue growth.
We make email marketing easier! We do this in a variety of ways. For clients that don’t have an intentional channel strategy, we have a proprietary approach for developing one with them. For others, we concept new programs, assess their current use of email and make recommendations for how they can optimize response and revenue. For still others, we provide professional education, best practices and training. Some clients need all the above plus light agency services, and we’re happy to help on a project or ongoing monthly basis.
What has it been like to have a front-row seat to email marketing’s evolution from such an early stage?
It’s been a unique position to be in, and never boring! Even in the very early days of the Internet (before I was in email), I worked in online and digital product development, so I’ve always had an interest in tech. To see how far we’ve come in barely a generation keeps me excited about the possibilities for the future, especially as AI and machine learning play a greater role in marketing. It’s also been fascinating to see the evolution of consumer data use, protection, and privacy. I believe with great power comes great responsibility, and as marketers and their service providers become the stewards of increasing amounts of data about us all, they will be held to increasingly higher standards. While consumer data protection has always been a minefield, it’s never been more important to be a responsible user than now, especially with GDPR just around the corner.
What do email marketers need to keep in mind if they want to be responsible with and protect their subscribers’ PII (personally identifiable data)?
Well, there’s no short answer to that question but I’ll try. I think responsible protection of PII comes down to three things: 1) People 2) Processes & Procedures and 3) Data Practices. People are imperfect so no matter how secure our tech-based hardware and software used to store and process data, we need to invest in training. People make mistakes, or bad judgement calls, or in the worst case, can intentionally sabotage or retaliate by stealing or leaking data, so we need processes and procedures in place to safeguard against honest mistakes and dishonesty as well. We also need to ensure people have training not only in how to ethically and compliantly handle data, but also in the repercussions for not doing so.
In addition, we need processes and procedures, obviously, for managing and handling data on both internal systems and with external parties (vendors or partners). And finally, we need ethical, lawful practices in place to ensure our data collection, use and handling systems, processes and procedures are current and legally-compliant. For example, marketers should be able to track data elements and PII back to a specific source, date, time, and acquisition method.
Again, this is a complex consideration and in today’s world, the boundaries of what is considered “responsible” are constantly being redrawn and pushed, so we also need to monitor the front lines and ideally, get out ahead of situations that can become pitfalls or grey areas for our companies and industry.
Which development(s) over your time in email marketing have had the most significant impact on how brands and marketers use email?
Mass customization at scale combined with marketing automation has elevated email far beyond its “batch-and-blast” origins, and even beyond categorical segmentation and targeting (which as pre-email-era direct marketers know, has been around forever). Add to that the fact that predictive analytics and AI can be employed to improve our “sense and respond” ability for 1:1 messaging and we now have a channel in which we can automate personalized, customized messages at scale.
Speaking of predictive analytics and machine learning, they have come a long way in a short time and as Phrasee knows well, are powerful for optimizing response. Language and send-time optimization tools have had a significant impact. Add all the above developments together and there’s no reason we can’t and shouldn’t send the right email message to the right person with the right offer, content and language at precisely the right time without having to do it all manually.
I can’t overlook the impact of legislation as well, and the trend toward permission right from the start. Thank goodness Seth Godin wrote “Permission Marketing” 20 years ago or email might’ve been dead before it left the ground. Now we’re seeing early predictions that true (voluntary opt-in consent) permission would be legally required to send email come true in certain parts of the world, with CASL and GDPR especially. Although CAN SPAM in the US hasn’t gone that far, we should be prepared for that possibility in the US.
How has the way consumers interact with email marketing changed over the years?
Back in the early days of email, there were almost no other digital communication channels competing for people’s time and attention. Maybe you had instant messaging or message boards on the Internet and that was about it. Then as mobile phones advanced, came text social media, mobile apps (with push notifications and in-app messaging, etc.) and all the rest we have today. Yet studies have shown consumers still prefer email for marketing messages, so even though they are more distracted and overall communication channels are more diverse and fragmented than ever, consumers will give time and attention to companies and brands they WANT in their inbox. Even more reason to honor permission and opt-in. On the bright side, consumers are also much savvier inbox managers than in the early days, creating sorting and triaging systems to keep up with the increasing volume of email, so they’re more likely to be sure they don’t miss the email they want and need, and are motivated to act on it.
Probably the biggest things to impact how consumers interact with email day-to-day has been the smartphone and to a potentially greater extent, the Internet of things. I remember teaching email seminars 15 years ago and predicting that “very soon” email would be accessible anywhere, from any device, at any time. Considering you can now check email on your watch, TV or through your car, we’re pretty much there. The days of interacting with email being only a static desktop computer activity are relegated to history. Despite visual and creative limitations of certain devices, email goes where we go, and I think consumers want messaging to reflect that ubiquity.
What’s your least favourite thing about working with email?
Nothing – I love it all!
Just kidding! That would hands-down be data integration and data silos. Getting data flows to work between a client’s ESP, CRM, and eCommerce systems can be a nightmare. Thankfully, things are a lot better than in the early days and there are myriad middlewear solutions and APIs now to get systems “talking” to one another. Still, messy and incomplete customer and transaction data for insightful, actionable email marketing is an issue we continue to contend with.
How will email’s role in digital communication/marketing change in the future?
Ha! I have no earthly idea, although there are about a thousand blog posts that will tell you. But since you’re asking me point blank, I’ll venture a guess that email will become somehow more native in other apps, devices, and interfaces we already use. I think it will remain individualized, private and highly controllable, but we’ll evolve to some sort of system whereby we can send and receive messages in various formats (email, text, IMs, social, etc.) all within one interface.
I also think email will become more commerce-enabled right from within messages – so people can buy within an email without having to leave the inbox. How that will go down technically I’m not sure, but I know the ability exists. Protected data transfer protocols and payment systems might need to catch up a bit first.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the email field?
First, download my free Ultimate Email Marketing Resources Guide from the Synchronicity Marketing site. It’s a sweeping collection of groups, events, research, blogs, books – a link to every resource that will lead to everything you’ve ever wanted to know about email marketing and more. Second, get active in person in email-related groups and organizations. Many have online forums and regional free meetups, like Women of Email and the Email Experience Council, and are global so it doesn’t matter where you’re located. Third, pick 10 great blogs or influencers to follow and 3-5 trusted sources for email marketing insight and learn as much as possible as fast as you can, then stay current. Things evolve quickly in the world of email.
If email disappeared from the world tomorrow, what would you do?
Go lay on a beach. Oh wait – I did that last weekend (I live in south Florida). Hmmmm – well I’d have a lot more time on my hands I hope from not checking my inbox. But, I’d still do what I do, just with other digital channels. I’m a strategist and teacher at heart, and I love to share knowledge, connect people, ask big questions and solve problems. That’s not going to change, no matter what happens to email.
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