Clint Smith's Emma gives mass e-mail a personal touch


Executive Q&A: Clint Smith

In 2003, Will Weaver and Clint Smith co-founded Emma, an e-mail marketing and communications firm.

The company helps clients develop e-mail marketing campaigns, providing the technology to send out and track large campaigns as well as expertise on the design, content and strategies behind those campaigns.

Headquartered and launched in Nashville, the company now has more than 100 employees based here and at four satellite offices in Portland, Ore.; Denver; Austin, Texas; and a newly opened office in New York City.

Emma is ranked on the Inc. 5000 list as one of America's fastest-growing private companies.

Clients are mostly small businesses, but also include bigger entities such as the New York Yankees, New York University, RachelRay.com and the Museum of Modern Art.

Last week, co-founder Clint Smith, 39, discussed the company and the evolution of marketing in the digital age with Tennessean reporter Anita Wadhwani.

What does Emma do?

At its most basic, the core problem Emma solves is how to reach your audience when it reaches a certain size and you're trying to communicate with them by e-mail in a professional way. You want to reach them in a way that incorporates and reflects your brand and design and is also trackable, so that you can learn how people are responding to you. That's when Emma can step in and help manage that process very easily for you.

There's technology involved in mass e-mail marketing campaigns, right? Can you explain how that works?

Behind the scenes, if you're sending an e-mail campaign to a 1,000 people or 5,000 people, there's a fairly complex process that goes on. It has to do with the product itself, in terms of managing the list, tracking the response, and helping you understand what's happened to that campaign relative to other campaigns you've sent.

The delivery side is a complicated matter in and of itself. It's not just a matter of sending an e-mail to 10,000 people. There are all sorts of recipient servers and e-mail administrators. There's a product component, there's a database component and human component.

How has e-mail marketing evolved since you started the company?

Several years ago, e-mail was the only channel. That was how you reached your audience. Today there are clearly other channels that have emerged alongside e-mail — social media and texting, for example. E-mail remains a critical foundational channel, but it's one of many people use.

I think the smart marketer is realizing it's really about tailoring your content for those different channels and using them in tandem in different ways. You've got e-mail that helps you say a little more. You've got things like Twitter that serve as a great, timely way to get things out really quickly.

We don't see e-mail going away anytime soon.

We've also taken some small steps to begin connecting with social media, by adding social sharing options so you can take that e-mail content and link and quickly share it through Facebook, Twitter or other channels and track the results of the sharing.

So what hasn't changed about e-mail marketing?

The part that's never going to change is about coming up with the right message and getting it to the right people on time. Now with additional channels and how closely connected we are, cutting through the noise is the biggest challenge marketers face today. Whether it's your e-mail inbox or Facebook, there's a lot of clutter. Cutting through that with the clear concise message tailored to that person and their interest and their experience is the only way to cut through it. I think marketing has become much more personal.

We're much more closely connected as marketers and consumers we're marketing to. It's no longer enough to put out an impersonal message. We always tell people one of the most important things you can do with their e-mail campaign is treat the folks you're sending it to as an audience of people rather than a list of entries or e-mail address list. The smartest marketers recognize that need for personal connection They tell their audience a story, they make it very personal and they try to make a connection that extends beyond whatever they're marketing.

Is marketing a whole lot cheaper in the digital age?

It absolutely is, and you can think about the cost of the old direct mail campaign versus the cost of e-mail or anything you do online, the cost of Twitter. The cost of distributing that message — it's no longer the post office, it's those e-mail channels. It's more an investment of time. The real cost is the time and effort in shaping those channels.

How does a company like Emma remain quick on its feet to adapt to changes in the tech world?

One part of that is keeping a close eye on the marketplace, and I think a lot of us do that informally. We have also designated a couple of folks to do that as part of their core jobs to figure out what might affect us and what the opportunities may be. Another part is how we function as a product and platform.

This notion of being an agile technology company has a lot to do with how we structure the products. Rather than having a large behemoth tech application that's hard to change, we're taking a modular approach to how that product is organized so pieces and parts can be easily adjusted and adapted.

I think part it is also culture — how can we condition ourselves to be fast? We have what we call Viking challenges from time to time. We take one of those big questions, like "What would a big social media project look like if we built one?" We pick a handful of small teams, give them two weeks to figure it out, then we all come back and hear the results.

What's come out of those Viking challenges?

We started with something fairly fun and simple — design a T-shirt. Sure enough, we now have a set of T-shirts that came out of a Viking challenge.

We also dropped a challenge not too long ago. We have a thing with blue envelopes here. If you're handed a blue envelope it typically means something good is happening. Either you receive a "kick ass" card from one of your colleagues who felt like you went up and beyond on something, with a $50 gift certificate. Or it could be a quarterly profit check. It could be a thank you. The blue envelope means a warm and fuzzy moment, an Emma moment. So we said, "How can we make more of those Emma moments for our clients?" That became a challenge. We got 20 good ideas. One of them was, anytime we go to a conference or an event, let's find a customer of ours in that city, pay for their registration, surprise them and invite them to join us at that conference.

You're moving from your office building on Eighth Avenue South to a new development called the Trolley Barns at the end of the year. Why?

We look at the Trolley Barns as an opportunity for us to be a first mover in an up-and-coming neighborhood that could be, we think, the hub of entrepreneurial activities in the city, and that's where we want to be, next door to 100 entrepreneurs at any given time working on a viable idea at the entrepreneurial center next door to nonprofits, midway between east and west. Also, we ran out of space here.

You are among the earliest of Nashville's tech companies. What does Nashville's tech sector look like now?

It's still a relatively small community, but there's a lot happening, and it's growing very quickly. I think that's why the Nashville Entrepreneurial Center is a great thing, because there are a lot of things happening in pockets of the city that not everyone knows about. An entrepreneur center is a good opportunity to bring it all together and hold it up to the state, region and country and say there's a lot happening here and it's a viable tech community.

For us, it's an exciting year, and we're poised for growth, and part of that growth means for us technology talent and hiring. I think the city has a real opportunity now to attract people here and to work with local universities to help adapt the curricula for a tech work force. We've got more jobs now than we can fill. For us, it typically falls in the category of open-source people and engineers at the application and data base level. We see the success in Portland in those jobs, and we'd love for that to happen in Nashville.



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