From start-up to grown-up
Discover how dotmailer (now known as dotdigital Engagement Cloud) did an audit on itself to reboot its deliverability strategy from the ground up! A rare insight into what it really takes push through growing pains and go from a London based start-up email service provider to grown-up global customer engagement platform.
About: Steve Shaw
Techie and proud email geek, Steve heads up all things technology, security & deliverability at dotdigital. With 20 years’ experience in building software and leading tech teams he continues to drive his teams to innovate while overseeing the successively delivery of billions of emails, messages and interactions.
Make a start. So just intro me, my name is Steve Shaw. I’m the CTO at dotdigital. Thanks for having me today. And I’ve been looking forward to this when listening to Andrew, for the first time about setting up this event, I’m just going to talk to you for about 20 minutes. It’s a bit of a emailexpert case study, I would say in terms of how we worked with emailexpert, about five years ago, now, but, you know, we found some really interesting stuff and hopefully find it useful, too. So a bit about me, self confessed, email geek might actually joined the saw around six years ago. Now. I knew the founders for quite a long time, I look after all of the deliverability infosec kind of engineers, innovators, ultimately, and the product support teams. And we’ve been doing a lot of stuff over the last six years to really kind of change our platform. And it’s going to talk a little bit about that today. I’ve called it startup to grown up as ultimate. It’s about a journey, a journey of how we transformed from what was dotmailer. Some of you may have known us previously as dotmailer. to digital, so just give you a bit of background, around about six years ago, when I arrived five years ago, there’s just over 100 people. And we’ve been going for a good 1010 or so years, maybe a little bit longer as dotmailer brands. Most of our business was in EMEA, we did email marketing, that that was our core focus, a few 1000 SMS but nothing much. And that’s about 95% of our revenues within the UK. And ultimately, we set out on a journey to change and really grow. And that was why really I was bought in at stake as international take us to the US take us way back. We’re probably doing about 350 million emails at the time. And like so we thought we knew email. But I think it was quite clear. Maybe we didn’t know as much as we thought back then. And that’s why I wanted to talk about today in today’s session. So where are we now with with dot digital, we transformed our name, we’ve been dot digital as a group for quite a few years. Anyway, but actually, we needed to change our name, we kind of felt that we weren’t really in the right shoe size. So that’s the easiest way I tend to put it in the dotmailer brand wasn’t really a big enough shoe for us to kind of grow into. And with a digital brand, it really feels like we can expand and really communicate our offering. So we’re now about 350 people doing about 2 billion emails a month, growing 15 to 30% year on year in terms of revenue, and we have a lot more revenue outside of me now and UK, and APAC and us a really the journey for us was about, you know, take it taking us to an omni channel engagement solution for our clients. And I think this, you know, journey for us has been coming for over many years, we’ve been offering more channels, more data capabilities, segment capabilities, more AI more recently, econ specific functionality. And you know, it’s the new brand, what is digital engagement cloud, really does give us that, that next kind of stepping stone at that stage to grow. But it wasn’t always like that. And you know, the reason why I called this startup to grown up was I think it’s a good story. I think we about five years ago, I said we thought we knew we were incredibly well. But we really needed to take the next step we needed to grow. And as companies go, you know, once you get to about 100 people, you kind of get these growing pains and it’s quite hard. To give you an example I think, you know where someone in the office would know everyone everyone by name but once you start to grow past 100 people, it becomes a bit more difficult. And you don’t know everyone in the office, you know you have to have multiple offices and going through That kind of maturity stage, let’s say is quite hard. And what I really want to talk about stays, you know that that journey, which we went through as a company, is very similar to a marketer kind of going through the stages of their, their email marketing activity, they have to, they have to change they have to adapt, sometimes have to become, have to look at themselves in a little bit of a different light. And so even though my kind of story here around startups growing up is quite a lot around dotmailer, and how we grew to adopt digital, and a lot around our email marketing and what we did around delivery deliverability I think it really does apply to a marketer too. So this, this review, happened in about 2014 2015. So like most email marketing, automation platforms, yeah, this was the question from our customers is going to spam, you know, please, can you sort out your deliverability issues, and this, this was the, the piece which was sending our teams crazy. And we’ve had limited resources, some resources from support, a person who some may know, around these, these circles guy called tom corbett, who had, you know, kind of grown out of our support function and become a deliverability. Expert. But you know, this this, this is the question which was continuing to, to come from our customers. And actually, we’ve done quite a lot to help them move that. But we needed to go a lot further. And this was this was the question which I was getting when I arrived for Mark and have exact teams around you. So you are listed by some more IP addresses that solve it. Right. So I think these these are quite clear synergies, that the similar questions, right, as a marketer, when you kind of go into email marketing, you know, why don’t we just have more IP addresses that solve it? Right? It’s, you know, in reality, it was a similar question I was being asked, even at the exact level. And so ultimately, I think, you know, it’s caused me to facepalm quite a lot. But, you know, what was, you know, how we were going to solve this problem. And I think what I wanted to talk about is a way in which we, we approached it, I think it’s a really useful way. It’s a model, which, you know, you can use in any business to kind of, to, to look at yourself, and really kind of question, you know, how to solve problems, which I call unknown unknowns. My experience previously wasn’t in, it was more in tech lesson in the delivery and deliverability side, but, you know, when we have these unknown unknowns, there’s a good process you can follow. So ultimately, what we did is look at all of the kind of questions, what were these kinds of questions coming in? So that example I gave there as Should we buy more IP addresses? You know, we quite quickly put all of these questions down into an RFP. And we reworded some to make sure that we we covered off all of the bases. Now, how can we assist our customers? To solve this problem? How can we get better at around delivering deliverability? Let’s say five years ago, and affection kind of follow this pattern of looking at situation analysis, what we’re doing now. And you have to do that really, before you actually look at the strategy, what do we then want to try and achieve? And then kind of go to the next part of looking recommendations? How much is that going to cost? You know, is this long term? Is it short term, before you kind of move on to an execution of the plan and implementation. And always, when you’re looking at these things, you’re looking at technology process people, is pretty key. Now, we decided, you know, when there’s unknown unknowns that you know, the best approach for us was to have have an expert come in effects, you take us through stages two to four. So we kindly asked Andrew, to kind of come over fly over from Australia at the time. And he was finishing up one of his roles down in AWS and come and do an audit on ourselves. And I think this this, this was the, you know, a really exciting time for me. And a huge amount of work went into to this review. And I think one of the biggest questions I get asked is, you know, when we kind of look back and say, Hey, you let’s let’s look at the documentation, what did the review produce? And it wasn’t about that. For me, it was about the the actual stages along the way. I think Andrew and I worked incredibly closely. We worked incredibly closely with the teams. And I listened. I think it’s important when you get experts in, you do these outside in reviews, you have to listen, and you’ve got to collaborate and you’ve got to ultimately support the person doing the review, to make sure we touch all of the bases we need to across the people, process and technology. So the important thing I learned and I continue to reiterate this to a lot of my teams is sometimes the journey’s more important than the and output. And if you can actually work very closely with the person doing that review, you can ultimately get a much better result. So what were the key findings, I won’t go too long, because I’ve only got 20 minutes in total. But the key thing for me was, we actually needed to split this into three challenges. The first really was around delivery. And, you know, this is the core responsibility of your email marketing platform. And this is the bit which is in most of their control. And actually, when we looked at our review, we’re pretty doing pretty well there, we actually managed a lot of the infrastructure for our, for our customers, we had a pretty good kind of DNS record set up DKM, I think we wanted to first in the UK of setting up the mark for all of our customers. So we were pretty good there. But there was there was a lot of improvements, we could make, let’s say, talking five, six years ago now. And the second was around a compliance and the processes around that. So this is how our clients actually conformed to our kind of terms and conditions what what they’re doing, are they are they causing challenges for themselves, but also for us as an email marketing platform. And the third one actually was deliverability, which was the reason why we can have our standards come have a look but and we quite quickly realised that actually a large amount of deliverability is is in the control of our customers. But we have to approach it differently, to make sure that we can help educate them, we can help them on the lines of best practice. And we need experts to do that. So we had a wall board, a wall board, as I was saying, and I think I had to dig this picture out from from five years ago. But effectively this this was me listening and working closely with Andrew and and writing down effectively everything he was seeing. And this was forming our plan, ultimately, what are we going to change? What are we going to look to build upon how we’re going to improve? And the key bits around delivery? I think what was interesting for me was, you know, actually, the biggest thing, we can actually see what we are really doing in terms of our performance, you know, where are we doing well, or what weren’t me. And so we actually looked at implementing new technology. And there are a lot of marketing automation providers use some of these tools, whether it be an elk stack, which is what we use something called Splunk, to actually be able to analyse lots of logs, and you can get a really good view on the delivery. So we’re pretty good on SPF D Mark D, Kim, and the setups, we had to change some of our IP the way we kind of deal with reverse DNS lookups and IPS, just to kind of tweak the delivery more feedback loops. and improve our soft bounce handling. Regular Expression handling is what we put in for for overriding that we built dashboards for the exec and the management teams to also be be able to convey how how we’re doing and how we want to look to improve. One of the biggest things and I’m glad to say that Tam is actually presenting after me I think, but she we needed someone to be dedicated to kind of tune our infrastructure. We needed a scientist as I as I called him. And ultimately this this person can continue to tune and optimise our performance on delivery. And all of this once that was coming out the review with the email expert, and Andrew. So there’s loads more other bits we did there was TLS at gmail making sure that we were always sending over that, let’s say to too many to talk about here, really. And so once we kind of got through those, some of the bits we found as we already were innovating, we have our watchdog in many of you may have seen these called Winston. And actually we’ve had watchdog for many, many years. And I think, you know the thing we found is actually it was quite revolutionary when it initially arrived in the industry. It scans all of the imports, you know, the primary purpose of scanning imports for our customers being able to assess the quality of data. And actually quarantine in some cases if it was likely to cause bad, bad reputation or or challenges to that customer sending. But we needed to continue to innovate. And I think one of the things which came out of our kind of grow. Growing up phase is never innovation which we we call automated reputation manager or the arm in short, but one of the pieces we needed to look at was how we manage our pools how those customers are managed or move across them. pools, depending on the quality of their, they’re sending a lot of that be based on the open rates, click rates, complaints, hard bounces, mail blocks, all of that data goes into our, our watchdog, and actually places them on a IP PL which is, which is closely matches their, their sending patterns and their reputation. Unless a lot of this kind of came out of the review a lot of the innovation, that also the compliance side is pretty clear, we needed to make some fundamental changes around our T’s and C’s, to make it really clear for our customers what they can and can’t do and what types of data they can and can’t bring in. You know, this was a cornerstone, you know, a big change. For a lot of our customers and our kind of even our revenue generating teams, we have to have company wide, exact support for doing something like this, it was a big change. But actually, for us to be able to deliver on what we wanted to do with the review, we had to make those changes. We needed to implement better processes around compliance, better monitoring of customers, better metrics to know when they’re actually triggering compliance cases within within dotdigital. And a lot of the time, we needed to call it the a team here, the a team to be able to do this and continue to develop out these processes. We needed to vet customers better as they go, which is quite a technical term of garbage in garbage out. But you know, if we’re onboarding a customer, which we know, is going to be incredibly challenging, they’re going to churn, why are we? Why are we signing them in the first place. So we had to change all of these processes to make sure that we were getting good quality clients on board and customers ones which had similar ethos to us about making the internet a better place. And we needed this kind of trusted risk management process across the business so that people understood it, and actually, the sales teams can understand it. And effectively, we could, you know, build build reputation within the industry. The deliverability with us I was this is the reason why we kicked off the whole review. But you know, without the foundations of delivering compliance, you know, deliverability was always going to be more challenging. But I think ultimately, what we found here is what do we need to do is we needed better relationships with the receivers, and the USPS people like Gmail, Hotmail, and ultimately needed to be a trusted relationship with those teams, they needed to trust us, we needed to trust them, it needed to be a conversation. And so therefore, we needed to educate our staff, we said we needed to have those T’s and C’s, those compliance processes in place. And again, we needed experts. And a lot of it is about educating our customers. And I’ve talked about the six C’s here. And there’s a blog, which we’ve recently published, which really does try to can put this in a concise way to how we want how we want to educate our customers, and the best way to do it, and what really affects deliverability. So we needed these experts. And we wanted to be part of a bigger cause of morgue, which I know some some of you here may actually be part of, but I think ultimately, if I could say any he gets it, it’s an extremely incredible community, a supportive community that, you know, really is trying to better the Internet, and, you know, a lot of my teams, you know, work alongside the colleagues more to solve a lot of those problems. And that’s for us where we really wanted to be. So, we’re gonna have a look at the six C’s. So we’ve got a blog here of a bit more detail. But ultimately, we found you know, deliverability you know, the best way for us to edgerank educate our clients around, it’s being their responsibility, and so much as their responsibility is being able to simplify it and we’ve done it this way. So, ultimately, you need consented data, hugely important, you need to make sure the content whether it be subject line images, the content you’re using within the emails is is good quality is relevance. The cadence of it is right. And it needs to be on a cadence which works for your end consumer. You know the consistency of the message which you’ve been initially signed up on what they signed up for needs to to fit that cadence and the quality of that content data Where did you get it ultimately is you know, did you do valid validation on point of sign up is incredibly important for the reputation And deliverability. And if you decide to do a change, ultimately a change at any point in your email programme that can harm or change your reputation. And you may or may need to think about that. So, ultimately, we we’ve built a team, call it team awesome, you know, I really am incredibly proud of this team, which we’ve we’ve built over the last five years to to really assist our customers. In every single facet, I talked about their of delivery, deliverability and compliance. We have our kind of consultants who can help advise, we have our delivery operations team who is constantly tuning our delivery infrastructure, and the compliance responsibilities very much shared around the team. And I think, ultimately, the, you know, the good, the good thing. Working with Andrew is, you know, an email expert for me was, was this clarity we got in this situation around deliverability, being the good guys who can help and compliance being that the folks who are the ones telling you off, it’s very hard for someone to have that same conversation with the client. And but I think the team doing incredibly well. And we make sure you know, we we respond to the community. If we get complaints, we respond very quickly. And we we quickly work with the clients to solve some of their challenges. And especially mentioned to a couple of people here, James Coons, who who worked for us for for quite a few years had a huge part to play in, in taking our strategy forward. And Tom corporate, as well. It’s been, it’s been a great five years to build up this team. But it couldn’t have happened without those guys also. So we’ve now got 40, maybe even over 40 years of experience now within that team. So the question is, did it work, I’m looking back five years now. And it has been great to be able to produce this presentation for you. For all of you today. I think ultimately, it works and it works incredibly well. And I’ll try to be really open here in terms of some of our kind of real, real progress real stats, I’ve called it but you know that we were doing 350 million emails, and I think, rightly and Andrews report back then he said, you’re at the point where you’re going to get noticed, and we weren’t quite big enough at that time. But to get to 2 billion emails, you really are noticed on the internet, and a lot of the receivers, you know, will know us, they will know that means we are sending from the IPS we are sending from we have to make sure that our reputation is key. And we did have quite long delivery times for some of these marketing emails. Unless they once we were able to get that monitoring in for the first time we could see, it was taking a while and you know, we are down to less than 10 minutes now on delivery time for our marketing for our marketing emails. And I think the stat which I’m really proud of is this, the amount which is delivered, and relayed 99.2. And it’s a huge increase. And if you actually look at the amount of email, which has failed back in 2015, and now it’s similar per month. And that’s just because we are continuing to, to be able to send so much more. But the thing is with that it’s it’s it’s a shared thing is not just from the tuning, from a delivery point of view, it’s not just from the compliance or the deliverability consultants being able to advise our customers, it’s all three of them, you’ve got to have all three in line to be able to kind of get the performance we do now. I’m going to I’m going to sum this up how does this relate to marketers if you’re a marketer here, or if you’re if you’re looking at this gonna say it’s good to understand how it works under the hood, but how does this affect me as marketer? I think you know, sometimes, you know, you may have built up your marketing strategy and continue to to refine it over for many years, but you may have found that performance is degradation over time. And it’s hard to look at yourself and kind of say, are we doing something wrong? Or do we need to do something differently. And growing up is hard if you have grown as a business and continue to use the same tactics. There may not always work for you moving forward. So you do need to analyse yourself, it can take time, but you can do it. And I think taking this outside in approach can really help you know have have some experts come in, really listen. Really kind of work collaboratively with them. support them in kind of doing these reviews and you can you can change it inbox placement I live a couple of things for me, you know so much we have to educate customers or new marketers that it’s so much under their control those six C’s. I talked to him and talked about before, you know that there’s lots of challenges for marketers. One of the biggest right now for us is, you know, what is what is possibly legal isn’t always, always best practice and I think a lot of my industry colleagues, I’m sure will understand completely what I’m talking about there. But, you know, to continue on, and to deliver, you know, great marketing, you know, listen to best practice and and, you know, don’t be afraid to