Sam Cece - StrongMail
Sam Cece – StrongMail

One of the companies that often comes into the picture when talking about the connection of email marketing, social media marketing, mobile and more from a solution perspective, is StrongMail.

In the past year and even months, StrongMail acquired some companies, launched new products (especially in the social media space) and was all around the news with campaigns and customers, using its social media platforms (and of course its email marketing solutions).

To me, one of the most striking findings, is that StrongMail, an email solution provider, even offers social media marketing solutions like its StrongMail Influencer and StrongMail Social Direct (in beta) to businesses that don’t use its email marketing platforms. An interesting strategy that called for an interview with CEO Sam Cece.

First I asked Sam about the fact that a couple of months ago StrongMail announced a record revenue over 2009, and this despite the recession. What’s the secret behind this success?

Sam Cece: “There isn’t one silver bullet behind our success, but instead a number of converging factors ranging from sound business decisions to being in the right industry. One of the key factors comes down to how we reacted to the recession. When the signs of the recession first became evident, my first reaction was to quickly reign in our costs, kill planned investments, hunker down and ride it out. However, I quickly came to my senses and realized that it was the perfect time to take measured risks and invest in the downturn to build a dynamic business that would push us ahead of the competition when the economy recovers. In order to do that, we hired some great people, really focused on putting out outstanding products and made some smart acquisitions”.

Email marketing has always been one of the most effective direct marketing channels out there

Sounds familiar: sometimes we tend to invest less in times of a recession but those that do take calculated risks, seem to thrive often. However, that’s not the only reason for the results.

Sam Cece: “The other factor is the business we’re in. Email marketing has always been one of the most effective (cost and results-wise) direct marketing channels out there, and social media is hot right now – and for good reason. Even though budgets were getting cut, businesses realized that investing in a proven, high ROI channel like email was critical – as was embracing social media marketing to gain a leg up on competitors and/or not miss the boat altogether . All of these factors, coupled with an extremely talented team that can execute, enabled StrongMail to grow, and even thrive, in the current economic condition”.

StrongMail indeed was one of the first to integrate social media, viral marketing and email marketing. So I asked Sam to explain how all the new products his company launched work together and what’s his vision on this integration from a business as well as a “customer” perspective?

Sam Cece: “There’s no question that our June 2009 acquisition of PopularMedia, which was the industry’s leading viral marketing solution provider, was key to the quick integration and success we’ve had with our social media marketing solutions. With one acquisition, we got two innovative solutions – a powerful viral marketing platform and a social sharing tool”.

StrongMail Social Notes screenshot
StrongMail Social Notes screenshot

“The social sharing tool – Social Notes(note: see screenshot I made) put us ahead or at the very least on par with other sharing solutions – but the key piece of technology was the viral sharing technology. We took that technology and turned it into StrongMail Influencer, which is a truly unique solution that goes beyond just making something shareable”.

Shareable. The word has fallen.

Sam Cece: “A year or two ago, making your content shareable might have seemed good enough. Today, in order to really extend your reach with social media, you need to be strategic and provide the proper incentives that will motivate the desired activity. Influencer gives the marketer the power to offer and test those incentives, track results and even manage fulfillment to any rewards – all within an interactive environment”.

Once, twice, three times a social

Sam Cece: “Not resting on our laurels, we then got to work on developing Social Direct, which enables marketers to send campaigns into Twitter and Facebook and track the results all the way to the conversion. While still in beta, the early results from our beta customers are getting us very excited about launching it officially in the near future”.

“Having three integrated social media solutions from an established marketing solutions provider is a big benefit for customers. Our email marketing customers can easily use our social media solution to extend the reach of their campaigns, track the results, and then conduct retargeting campaigns to their biggest influencers”.

So, do people need use your email solutions to access your three social media solutions: Influencer, Social Direct, and Social Notes?

Sam Cece: “We’re not just limiting our social media solutions to our email customers. We recently launched Social Studio, which offers the three integrated solutions to any company – regardless of their email provider. Our vision is to continue to enhance these solutions and embrace new channels as they become available, providing marketers with one interface for managing all of their digital marketing communications in a coordinated and integrated fashion. The benefits for businesses are obvious, but it’s also good for the consumer. By centralizing on StrongMail’s platform, marketers can send highly relevant and targeted messages across multiple channels that are expected and valued by the consumer. The centralized control also means that marketers can ensure that consumers aren’t barraged with too many messages at once. In short, everyone wins”.

The future of StrongMail? The customer says Sam Cece

Time to take a look at StrongMail’s strategy. Is the company aiming to become a full-fledged 360° interactive marketing and marketing automation player? The future will tell, the last time I checked a blogger has no access to the board room of the companies he interviews.

But let’s give it a try. What, for instance, are the benefits and reasons of the recently signed agreement with Radian6?

Sam Cece:Effective marketing is all about data. Our Strategic Services organization uses Radian6 to survey real-time brand sentiment as well as the top topics and issues facing consumers and brands, which it then uses in the development of highly effective engagement strategies”.

Next I told Sam that, according to me at least, his company is clearly evolving from a pure ESP to a best-of-breed solution provider for online marketing channels, integrating various emerging (or should we say mainstream) channels with social media of course being at the forefront.

Does StrongMail want to be an ESP with strong social and viral features or does Sam have more integration plans (CRM, lead nurturing, mobile, etc.) and wants to position StrongMail more as a 360 degrees Marketing Automation Platform?

Sam Cece: “Our evolution is driven by our customers—they are very active in our product roadmap development, our partnerships and our services. We want to continue helping marketers forge meaningful connections with their brand(s) and like-minded customers and help them centralize this information and connect with clients across multiple digital channels. We’ll continue to focus on building best-of-breed campaign solutions for email, social media and other channels that businesses can use in a stand-alone manner, or use in conjunction with broader multi-channel marketing campaign solutions like those offered by Teradata, Unica, SAP and others”.

To me, this means: “You ain’t seen nothing yet, we go for integration with others but the future will tell you how far we go”. Will it include partnerships or more acquisitions? No idea.

Talking about acquisitions: last year, StrongMail acquired the Email Advisor. How did that acquisition go and what services is StrongMail offering to its customers now thanks to it?

Sam Cece: “The acquisition has been very successful. It As a result, we strengthened our creative and strategic expertise in several key industry verticals, such as travel and hospitality and consumer goods. Acquiring the Email Advisor wasn’t about adding new services per se, but more about getting added resources and expertise to meet the increasing demand that we’re seeing for our strategic services”.

The role of social media and email marketing

Since this blog is about email marketing and contextual integration around direct and indirect customer touchpoints, I of course wanted to know how Sam sees the role of social media and email marketing in the various stages of the customer lifecycle. Joseph Jaffe says “retention is the new acquisition”. Is it indeed about customer satisfaction and loyalty?

Sam Cece:Social media is all about empowering and giving voice to the consumer, and this means that marketers need to be even more concerned about customer satisfaction and loyalty. It’s the completely satisfied customer that will scream their devotion to your brand from the social media hilltops. However, the completely un-satisfied customer will also scream from the hilltops, and it’s not likely a message you want others to hear”.

In terms of the customer lifecycle, email and social media are complementary partners. Social media is great at getting the word out, generating brand excitement and fostering loyalty. But once you get your consumers excited, email serves as a great tool for generating regular touch points that help move consumers from conversion to conversion”.

OK, time for some tips and some personal things.

I asked Sam what would be the three best tips he would give to a marketer if asked so (like, in this case, I did…).

Here are Sam Cece’s three tips for marketers

  1. Take the time to get to know your customers. You collect customer data for a reason – use it.
  2. Balance intuition with testing. Creativity can be a huge asset, but no matter how clever you think your idea, you need to test it. Results don’t lie.
  3. Don’t stagnate. You may feel like your marketing programs are doing just fine, but you’re leaving money on the table if you’re not continually looking for ways that make them better. Digital marketing is evolving at a rapid pace. Either keep up, or prepare to get paced by your competitors.

Next I asked Sam (and this is something I ‘stole’ from my friend Chris since I think it’s a great way to give a more personal touch to an interview what he thinks his best friends would say about him if I would ask them ‘What kind of a person is Sam Cece?”

“Fair, focused and driven. And at times, funny. :) ”

“Feel free to look at my LinkedIn profile and browse the comments that people have written in their recommendations for me.”

Indeed, focused.

And, finally: who are Sam Cece’s favorite bloggers/authors, marketing-related and otherwise?

Sam regularly read these three blogs:

37Signals “Signal vs. Noise”

Ben’s Blog

Seth’s Blog

Disclaimer: StrongMail was a customer of i-SCOOP