Q&A with Ryan Phelan, Marketing Chief / Fractional CMO at Origin Email

Media 7 | April 14, 2020

Ryan Phelan, Marketing Chief / Fractional CMO at Origin Email has nearly two decades of global online marketing experience focusing on driving GTM strategies for high growth SaaS software and Fortune 250 companies. Ryan is a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker with a history of experience from Adestra, Acxiom, BlueHornet, Sears Holdings, Hewlett-Packard (Global), Skype, First National Bank of Omaha, and U.S. Bank and others. In 2013 he was named one of the top 30 strategists in online marketing and is the Chairman Emeritus of the EEC Advisory Board.  

MEDIA 7: With two decades of global online and email marketing experience, how do you see the online marketing landscape evolving as we tread through uncertain times?

What powers marketing best is that it's predictable and influenced by data. That has changed.
Here’s what’s coming in the next 12 months: At every level, from B2B to B2C, you have to throw your marketing plans out the window. These uncertain times not only detail the unpredictability of commerce but also highlight consumer unpredictability. Companies must start weekly strategy sessions that rely on following the news, statistics and customer sentiment. Start war rooms – virtual or not – that look at how to speak to different parts of the country.

These war rooms look at each channel to ensure that the message is consistent and ties into the socioeconomic channels in cities and states across the country. We also need to look at new ways of communicating with customers. Communications have to focus on the emotive and empathetic part of marketing instead of "Buy this." This is a challenge because it requires non-traditional, non-predictable thinking. It requires a strategic approach, which most marketers aren't used to taking. I've written often about the need to set down a strategy first and then figure out the tactics later. This need is more present and more fluid today than ever before. What's your strategy for this week? For next week?

That fluidity in the strategy-making process is going to be a challenge for most marketers. You can see this today in the absence of advertising from Fortune 100 companies. Rightly so, many have pulled back on ads to rethink their strategy. Finally, systems like CRMs  are not designed to rapidly react to events or predict what will happen. All that investment we put into our systems to help us plan our marketing will now have to pivot. We will be reworking technology to fit in with a narrative that is not planned far in advance but created weekly. These uncertain times have created chaos and is testing the resolve and creativity of marketers across the spectrum.

"B2B companies should adopt ABM technology to level up their communications and react quickly."

M7: What according to you are some of the most innovative go-to-market strategies that today’s high-growth tech companies should be using?

The most common strategies in B2B revolve around marketing automation, account-based marketing and search engine optimization. Most companies that invested heavily in marketing automation have a lot of programs running but ignore most of them. They send massive amounts of communications, but they aren't in touch. I review their technology to help them recognize intent signals like number of web visitors, time spent on site or on specific pages and what pages they visit. I also audit programs and match them up with qualitative data sets that indicate whether they're sending the right messages at the right times in the right channels.

Then there are companies with a few automation programs. They're focused on just the basics of communications and automation. They need to re-optimize existing programs and invest quickly in new programs that recognize intent. Account-based marketing is a game changer and is true marketing at its best. ABM has two definitions. One is on the sales side, where ABM takes a group of accounts and tries to influence them with personalized, ungated content. On the marketing side, ABM is used to drive traffic, to recognize intent and to reverse-influence users. The marketing side recognizes that people are coming to the property and reverse-engineers content that drives higher intent. Both use ungated content. ABM uses buyer intent that indicates "I'm going to check you out before I want to talk to you." These customers want to learn more before they'll take a phone all or walk through yet another demo.

B2B companies should adopt ABM technology to level up their communications and react quickly. SEO is something B2B marketers should get up to speed on. CEOs hate to spend money on natural search, and that's a mistake. Companies that focus on boosting natural or organic search are finding their investments are paying off, and it complements their paid-search strategy. I advise companies using both paid and natural search to hire an expert to do the work. SEO is not something you can teach yourself and master in six months.

M7: What are some of the common mistakes that modern marketers make in running their digital marketing campaigns? What are the strategies you would recommend to minimize or eliminate those errors?

The biggest mistake is that email marketers favor tactics over strategy. They don't look at why someone reads their emails instead of how they read them or how to send to them. From promotional to triggered emails, from welcome messages to cart abandonment, any kind of email message you can think needs to have a strategy, a "why" behind it. Entrepreneurs who say they don't have time to map out email strategy are missing the boat, and I question their leadership abilities. You don't have to plan out a strategy a year in advance, or even a month. Maybe you plan on Friday for the week ahead. You don't have to map out each point in your strategy either. But you do have to have at least the broad outline.

I'm a big believer in planning a strategy retreat, where you and your team take yourselves out of the day-to-day rat race and plan strategy for the coming year. Even a half-day can work if you can keep the focus strictly on strategic planning – the "why" of what you want to do. Most importantly, you need to get everybody on board with it, first in the conversations and then in the planning and execution. Things are different this year – the strategy you might have planned out so carefully has just blown up – but you can always get the gang back together to come up with new strategies.

"The true sign of an insider is giving back to your industry community without pitching your company or self-aggrandizing. That might mean you join an organization and help others learn and do their jobs better."

M7: From your experience, what are technology companies not doing enough for customer activation?

Recognition of intent. I don't think a lot of SaaS companies are looking for those signals the way they should. What are companies doing to look at pages on-site that indicate high intent? How do you recognize those signals so you can act on them, whether through your marketing automation, sales, email or phone calls?

We aren't thinking about intent on a scale to match the need. A lot of companies go through an exercise where they point-score their prospects. You have to start thinking about what combination of behaviors recognize intent. Consumers, whether in B2B or B2C, give off signals that they're interested. Companies can recognize and react appropriately. Not every action means you should pick up the phone and call them. Recognizing intent signals means you know what you need to do next to move that person down the spectrum so they become a lead or request information or indicate you can call or email them or contact them in some way.

M7: How important is channel integration for the success of a marketing campaign? What are the most essential components of a perfectly orchestrated campaign?

I have never seen a perfectly orchestrated campaign.
What we have instead is coordinated channel distribution. This means I have an idea, and I spread it out evenly across my channels. We see this in big-box communications at Christmas. The retailer will have a theme, and you see that theme in every email, tweet and social media post. That's just a coordinated campaign. A truly orchestrated channel integration means I come up with a strategy and a sub-strategy for each channel that respects the purpose and capability of that channel.

I would ask: How can email support my theme? Then, integrate these actions and insights to other channels. For channel propensity, I've done studies where we looked at consumer cohorts and what the primary method for communications should be. Sometimes it's email. Sometimes it's social. Other times it's direct mail. A truly orchestrated campaign looks at integration of data not just across channels but also customer propensity. That's why I say I haven't seen truly orchestrated campaigns. It takes a lot of work to get to that Nirvana, but you can get there through small steps if you use incremental innovation, which builds on one small improvement at a time. It won't happen overnight, but you can orchestrate over time and gather learnings along the way.

"It takes a lot of work to get to Nirvana, but you can get there through small steps if you use incremental innovation, which builds on one small improvement at a time."

M7: You have a regular article on Marketing Land. Could you tell us about your library of thought leadership blogs, white papers and presentations?

I focus on two audiences with my Marketing Land content. I try to speak in some articles to people from C-level executives on down to the specialists working on the front lines. What I try to do is write on things that matter, things that move the needle for the marketing program. My strategy is to write about things they can put into practice today – a playbook for their marketing programs.
I try to point out what's happening in the world. We're all looking for answers, especially with COVID-19. Nobody knows the right way to move forward. I call on 20 years of experience to suggest things to try, to show where reality and theory get in the way. I try to help save people from the mistakes of the past. I've seen where theory gets in the way of reality. I want to dispel all thoughts of rainbows and unicorns.

M7: What advice would you give to young digital marketers from the point of sharpening their skills as a marketer?

Whenever I start a session with a new client, I show a slide listing authors that marketers should read consistently. A lot of people write about digital or email marketing, but I think there are about 40 who have a valid voice in our industry, and those 40 are on my list. So, the first thing I suggest is to read and soak up all the knowledge that's out there. The second is to ask questions. It's infuriating to run into marketers who think they know everything. There's no room for cockiness in this career. I have been in email marketing for 20 years, and I learn all the time. I ask the stupid questions. We are always learning.

Next, find a mentor. This is the person you go to with stupid questions and to get career advice. I'm not talking about getting free consulting but talking with someone who can point you toward the best way to go with your career.

Finally, give back. The true sign of an insider is giving back to your industry community without pitching your company or self-aggrandizing. That might mean you join an organization and help others learn and do their jobs better. Write articles. Lead webinar. Answer questions on community forums. Speak at conferences.

The true insiders bend over backwards to help others without directly benefiting themselves.

M7: You love cooking during your free time. What are the cuisines you have tried and would want to try using your culinary skills?

I have a collection of about 400 recipes. I enjoy all kinds of cooking. I love Italian food. My mother-in-law is Italian and taught me well. I'm known for steaks and have gotten into sous-vide – a method of cooking in which you put food in a vacuum-sealed bag and cook it in a temperature-controlled water bath. I thoroughly enjoy it. It lets me be creative and experimental, and I've got enough equipment to have a product showcase on QVC.

If you want to see my creations, find me on Instagram.
Give me a recipe, and I can riff. But I'd love to learn how to make food on the fly. I'd love to be as good as the guys on Chopped, where you walk into a kitchen and you're told, "Here, you get this and this and this. Now make something."


Origin Email Agency is a group of diverse and experienced digital marketers who know that marketing can be tough in the execution but when you step back, truly step back, you can create greatness. 

Most professionals are focused on the tactics when that's generally what we all are good at.  What companies worldwide need is effective strategies to define the "why" first and the "how" second. 

That's where we come in.  Creating mind-blowing, technology agnostic strategies for some of the largest and smallest companies across the globe.