Who to follow: Sharon Jennings

Who to follow: Sharon Jennings (@emailchicgeek)

Sharon Jennings is a freelance email developer based in West London. In early 2016 she cut ties with an (unnamed) award-winning London marketing agency where she had been working as manager and technical lead of the email team.

Since going solo, Sharon has worked with big time brands like Trainline, Leapfrog Toys, Deliveroo, Vauxhall and Disney.

A finalist for the Digital Star award in the 2016 FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards, Sharon is an 8-year veteran of the email marketing field who publishes a couple of the best newsletters in the business: Geeky Chic (focused on the outstanding contributions of women in tech) and Email Geekery (focused on pretty much anything email related). She also runs an awesome website called Email Chic Geek and can be found on LinkedIn.

And yet somehow, in between all of this, Sharon regularly tweets out solid gold, 140-character nuggets of joy into the universe, which has made her one of our phavourite phollows for days beyond counting.

Sharon combines a high degree of technical knowledge and low tolerance level for incompetence with a strong gif game and regular updates about her beloved beagle puppy “Kimber” into a must-follow Twitter presence for any email marketer.

But what non-Kimber things does Sharon have to talk about?

Let’s find out…

An interview with Sharon Jennings

phrasee: 7 companies making email cool again

How did you get your start in email marketing?

Sharon Jennings: X ways email marketing can go horribly wrong

Like most email devs, by accident. Unlike most email devs, not via Web development. I have never done web, even avoiding landing pages. I have a fear that if I find out how to do all the uber cool stuff that you can do on web that I’ll start to dislike email.

After being made redundant during the financial crisis in 2008, I landed a job as an administrator in a marketing department. I kept asking for more work to fill my day, I was given more and more marketing related tasks, until I was made Marketing Assistant. As I continued to ask for work, I was given emails to upload to the ESP for testing and deployment. That then progressed to carrying out amends to the HTML.

I’d always had a head for code; I taught myself Basic on my brother’s old BBC computer as a kid, which then led to programming the graphical calculators we used to use in GCSE Maths, and I then learned Visual Basic during A-Level Computing – but it was a career path I just hadn’t pursued, opting for a degree in TV & Film Production instead. So, teaching myself HTML as I went, I then started looking deeper into things – I started a spreadsheet on the results of our emails, categorising them into their different types. I figured out the best type of subject line by looking at open rates. And bearing in mind that this was at a time when there weren’t countless blog posts out there on the subject – this was gut instinct and common sense. I started playing around with dynamic content based on the customer’s data.

I eventually pitched to my boss that email could be a role all of its own, and we could send out more emails to segmented sections of the database. This was denied, and so I moved on…

phrasee: 7 companies making email cool again

How do you think the experience of someone working in this industry on a freelance basis differs from that of someone employed by a company full-time? Do you think this changes your approach to your campaigns?

Sharon Jennings: X ways email marketing can go horribly wrong

Since going freelance, I’ve grown, a lot.

My last full-time position left me miserable by the end, and all creativity and passion for email had been extinguished within me. I’m not even sure how I had the drive to go solo – I think it was more a drive just to get out. But then I started getting contracts, and experiencing the different ways that companies go about handling the same problems, and I started to learn again.

I learned better ways of coding and better ways to approach issues; I started getting my mojo back. And from these learnings, I was better able to solve problems for clients, and help other developers I encountered to find better ways.

My actual approach to campaigns probably hasn’t changed all that much, but the knowledge and experience I bring to the table is now a lot richer. But I don’t think this should or does only apply to freelancers, but it definitely goes with the territory, there are things that employers and devs themselves can do to help keep the fire alive.

I think when you’re perm it can be easy to become stale. You get into the same routines with the same people every day, and the learning process can easily be stunted. A lot of companies, especially agencies funnily enough – the companies who SHOULD be being creative and at the forefront of new technologies – don’t value R&D enough. Letting, nay encouraging, a developer to have some time booked out each week to just play and research and experiment can help to stay fresh and innovative, which in turn improves your campaigns.

Attending conferences and seminars like the Litmus Conference can help keep batteries recharged as well. And to the devs themselves, if you’re company doesn’t, or can’t afford to let you go to these events, there are plenty of free events you can attend in your own time (Action Rocket, Noble Email, Email on Acid etc) – not only do you learn from the talks themselves, but you build a network of like-minded people, who are in themselves an invaluable resource!

phrasee: 7 companies making email cool again

What were some of the big takeaways from your experiments with subject lines and dynamic content?

Sharon Jennings: X ways email marketing can go horribly wrong

I don’t really remember many details, except that there was a particular weekly column that if we led with in the subject line of the newsletter, the opens were a lot higher. And dynamic saved me time in the long run. It meant that the way we were doing emails, people got more info than they previously were. Oh and by messing up the weekly newsletter logic one week, and it going to no-one except the seed, I got the guys to look at web visits compared to the previous week’s, and found the email was massive in pushing people to the site. Hardly surprising, but proved all of the effort was worth it. And turned things around a bit for me having made a massive F up…

phrasee: 7 companies making email cool again

What changes/advancements do you anticipate seeing in email marketing over the next 1-3 years?

Sharon Jennings: X ways email marketing can go horribly wrong

I think there’s a lot of change likely to happen soon. We’re in an exciting time, with Gmail finally allowing responsive code through and Outlook working with Litmus to improve their products. Email devs will be able to have more time to focus on other aspects of the build, rather than just sorting out all the hacks. Hopefully this will mean a bigger push towards email clients letting more exciting code through, and dare I say it – maybe even some kind of coding standards!

phrasee: 7 companies making email cool again

How does your activity on social networking sites inform what you do and help you in your career??

Sharon Jennings: X ways email marketing can go horribly wrong

Things I couldn’t do my job without:

1) A PC with internet connection

2) Coffee

3) Litmus

4) Tweetdeck & Slack

And not necessarily in that order.

Honestly, the community is an invaluable resource to any good email developer. I have had so much help from members of the community over the years, and I hope I’ve given some back. It’s crazy though, thanks to social media there are celebrities of the email world. I remember years ago, when I was first starting out, hunting down Elliot Ross at an Exact Target conference – desperate to meet him and say thank you for all the code solutions he’d posted on Twitter. And I spent about 5 minutes talking to him, feeling more than a little star-struck. The weirdest thing now is, at things like the Litmus Conference, I get people coming up to me saying “You’re EmailChicGeek! I follow you on Twitter!” Without really meaning to I’d built myself a brand via Twitter, and my (sporadic) blogging. And it was this I built upon and was ultimately relying on when I decided to go freelance. Even if a potential client hadn’t heard of me, they could look me up online and see that I knew my shit. And it seems to have worked. And, not least this is how I first met Parry! I was having a tweet conversation with him at an Action Rocket talk/meetup and discovered he was who I was sitting next to. And from there we’ve done a conference talk together, and now I’m doing this. Basically Social Media is entirely responsible for my email career!

phrasee: 7 companies making email cool again

What advantages do you think email as a marketing channel has over other marketing channels?

Sharon Jennings: X ways email marketing can go horribly wrong

Almost everyone has an email address. You need an email address for almost everything now, you can’t use a mobile phone or a laptop now without one and you can’t even get a social media account without one. You can target different recipients with different messages, and it’s just about the only channel of marketing that people actually ask to receive. Email is just awesome.

phrasee: 7 companies making email cool again

What makes a Twitter account worth following?

Sharon Jennings: X ways email marketing can go horribly wrong

I know what makes a Twitter account NOT worth following. Ones that use clickbait headlines, or advertising the same blog post 5 times a day, or that are just self-indulgent and begging for attention. A pet hate of mine is the use of those bloody bots, that auto-add you to lists when you tweet a certain hashtag. I block those accounts.

Worth following? Ones that are obviously human, and have some personality – and it’s always fun when there’s something completely random thrown in from time to time. An interesting Bio is useful – I can’t stand empty bios. And good use of animated gifs is always a winner with me :D

phrasee: 7 companies making email cool again

Final question, for branding’s sake, who is your favourite superhero?

Sharon Jennings: X ways email marketing can go horribly wrong

Not really into Superheroes as a rule, but She-Ra was my favourite as a kid

80s cartoons she-ra princess of power

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