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InsiderInbox: Interview with Tim Watson

May 11, 2017  •  By: Renee Chemel

Tim Watson - Zettasphere Founder

Greetings Inboxers!

It’s hard to believe that summer is just around the corner already! For retail marketers, that means it’s almost time to start turning those holiday marketing ideas into concrete plans. 

Without a doubt, eye-catching, dynamic email should be a must-have at the top of your list.

No one knows that better than globally-recognized email marketing consultant Tim Watson. Tim’s exclusive focus in email marketing, and broad depth of experience in successful campaign strategy, creation and execution has made him one of the most sought-after email marketing consultants in the world. As founder of Zettasphere, Tim has helped some of the world’s most recognizable brands grow their lists, email ROI and business revenue through email marketing strategy, campaign and email deliverability review/audits and complete campaign and project management.

As we continue our series of interviews with email experts, Tim’s point of view is a critical piece in the puzzle when it comes to uncovering the secrets to successful email marketing campaigns. Here’s what Tim says savvy marketers need to know:

1. Why did you choose marketing, or maybe it chose you?

I’d say it was more like an evolution. I started in technology many years ago, in professional terms, and moved from computers to product management, which laid the foundation for marketing. At the start of my career, I was very commercially aware and interested in marketing—I wasn’t just a back-room technologist. I wanted to find out how the technology worked for the customer, and I had a natural interest in getting involved with product management and marketing. Then, this wonderful thing called the internet happened. I got my first email address in 1994, so you might say I was early adopter-ish. I soon after launched a small software shareware product based on email as a moonlighting gig. In a total coincidence, a friend of mine had founded an email service provider that was just starting to get commercial traction. He invited me to be on the board to help grow the company. It was somewhat out of the blue, so I guess that means email marketing sort of “chose me,” but it was also the result of quite a few bets that I had put down based on the direction I wanted to go. Thanks to some of the people I had nurtured relationships with, it got me here in a serendipitous way. So, I guess you could say it was a little bit of both…it wasn’t a directed career choice…but I put down the markers. The stars aligned, I had the management experience the startup needed, and it took me deeper into email marketing.

Even back then, it was obvious it was pretty powerful. There was lots of talk of spam, etc. and many were questioning whether it could be a professional channel. I decided it could be. You didn’t have to be a spammer, if you took it in the right direction. Since then, I’ve seen “the death of email” come and go several times, and I’m sure we’ll see it again.

2. What is your personal mission statement?

Nothing formal, but I do have strong sense of what motivates me: It comes down to seeking evidence rather than accepting opinion.

One of the things that doesn’t suit my brain is fluffy marketing. It seems very tenuous…people claim that we did this one thing and it generated lots of revenue, therefore this thing caused it. But, can you prove the link? That’s what excited me about digital/email marketing – ability to get good metrics. I’m a natural disbeliever, but with this, we can prove it. There’s no need to have an opinion. We can take a more scientific approach and prove it. There’s still a huge need for creativity, but now you can test out the value and effectiveness of that creativity.

Secondarily, I think it’s important to be challenged and do interesting things, and to investigate. I like a good mystery – being that my name is Watson, some people call me Dr. Watson, which is fitting. I love a good detective story, look at clues, etc. to solve a mystery. There’s a great Sherlock Holmes quote that says, “By the time you’ve eliminated all of the impossible, then what’s left, however improbable, must be the truth.” The message being that, just because it might seem strange or hard to believe, don’t make assumptions, don’t rule it out. It might be strange, but it could just be true.

3. Tell me something about your job that inspires you to keep working there.

The joy of helping. I really like doing something, and when someone at the end of the day, says, “Thanks, that was brilliant. Thank you for helping.” It’s a joy when people are grateful for what you do, and it brings value to what you do. I enjoy it, the get value—it’s a win-win.

4. Offices or open work space?

This sounds like an easy question, but it’s really an important decision about how a company operates, because it dictates how you get your people to interact. I’ve worked in both, and I quite prefer the open space with pods, or groups of people in open spaces together. There have been studies around this, finding that the amount of communication is inversely proportional to the distance between the desks. If you sit 2 meters away, you get good flow of communication, ideas, accidental collaboration and mindshare. Put a door there and it kills it. The best brainstorming happens serendipitously, versus planned brainstorming…telling your team to show up with great ideas at 10 a.m. tomorrow – that doesn’t happen. The best teamwork and ideation happens spontaneously.

5. What is a skill that every digital marketer should have and why?

I’ll go back to my “mission statement”: don’t believe everything you’re told; challenge numbers, ideas, concepts; and ask really good questions. Anyone who just blindly treats marketing as a painting by numbers exercise with best practices and a pre-ordained plan, it’s not going to do great. Sure, best practices are typically sensible guidelines, but they are very rarely what you should do to the letter. You need to work out your own path, your own plan, based on your specific brand.

Of course, being in the right environment/culture helps with this. There are some companies where the attitude is, “Don’t ask, just do what I’m telling you.” So, of course, you’re not going to stick your neck up and ask questions, out of fear you’ll just get hit ‘round the head. If you feel that way, by the way, you need to find another company!

If you are in a great environment, this is definitely a skill that can be learned. If you’re lucky to be mentored by someone who likes to probe and challenge, rather than giving you answers, they will make you learn to think critically and get you into the swing of asking questions and seeing different angles. You can also do this by taking the impetus to look into the thinkings of other people around you. Read, keep up with what’s happening in the industry. Study psychology and absorb thought-provoking material. Everything from books like “Freakonomics” to “Predictably Irrational.” Take the initiative to widen your perspective. You won’t be sorry.

6. What is the best part about your job?

I love working with great, brilliant information. I enjoy the copy in email, and looking at how that’s been approached. Copywriting is a fun thing! I write and work with other people to write, which is very fun for me.
I also enjoy a good bit of data. A few million rows of data to make some sense of…that’s good fun.

7. If you could only use five (digital) marketing tools, what would they be? And why?

A great email platform – Nothing else matters without a great platform to run on.

• Google Analytics—It’s a great go-to, in part because the reports in email platforms tend to be campaign-oriented, but you can get slightly different insights from Google.
• Excel — Especially pivot tables. You can’t get anywhere when it comes to data without Excel.
• CRM – Sometimes, but it’s not always necessary. When you need it, you need it. But, not every brand needs it to do what they want, and for many it’s just an expense they can do without.
• Zapier – It’s a great little tool that lets you glue different platforms together, a bit like If This, Then That. For example, you can put a new user in CRM into a Google spreadsheet, then send an email automatically. You can do some of your own integrations without having to rely on the IT department. There’s still a good portion of me that’s a bit technology geeky, so it’s fun for me, but also very useful. I’ve used it to solve a few challenges for customers.
• Inbox previews – Something like Litmus, or Email on Acid.

8. Facebook or Twitter?

As a marketing channel? Clearly neither. I much prefer email. The only time I work with either one is when it integrates with an email campaign. I do use Facebook a little to keep in contact with friends and family and use Twitter mostly for business.

9. What is the biggest digital marketing trend that will drive success for 2017? What is the biggest digital marketing challenge for 2017?

Ah, yes. Almost every year we get to see these predictive articles, and I sometimes even get to write them. As if the channel has totally changed! In fact, the real challenge I don’t think has ever changed in the last 10 years or maybe even 50 years or more in marketing—it’s still: how to engage people better? How to bring them on with your brand message and convert them? The challenges of email are no different from 10 years ago…people are still driven by the same psychology. People are not changing, so the challenge doesn’t change.

What does change are the tools available to try and do it. Ten years ago, people were creating preference centers, trying to segment lists a bit, and get some profile data. We were focused on making emails easier to read 5 years ago, adding pictures, etc. Now we have all of this data and dozens of tools to use. But the fundamental principal of what we’re trying to do hasn’t changed at all.

In email, the push is to provide a better customer experience and better experiences are driven by being interesting and relevant. If your emails are neither, it’s not going to work, no matter what fancy tools you’re using. The direction we’re going in very clearly is using technology to make that easier… to analyze behavioral data to understand what people will find interesting, how did they engage, and how do we interpret that to create interesting and relevant content. Connecting those dots is really hard. Most vendors will tell you, “Come on board with us! You’ll be doing it next week! It’s so simple!” But the reality is, understanding the human psychology is much harder than using any new tool.

10. You’re a new addition to the crayon box. What color would you be and why? OR what is your go-to Karaoke song? And why?

On the basis of my terrible singing voice…my favorite karaoke song would be a mime. So, let’s go with the crayon question! My color would be blue. Because it’s going to get used a lot, in a lot of pictures. I want to be taken out of the box as often as possible.

11. What’s the one or two things you can’t live without to get the job done?

Because I consult internationally, I often have calls scheduled with contacts on 3 different continents in a day. Everyone seems to be somewhere else. For that reason, connectivity and communication tools like Join.Me, Skype and mobile data are critical, along with web conferencing and Screencast-o-Matic. It’s a screen recording tool that lets you markup stuff on your screen, record a voice over and then send a video link. It makes things extremely easy to illustrate and explain.

I also advise everyone, if you’re on the phone a lot, get a headset. I’m a big fan. I converted to a headset about 10 years ago, and it felt a bit weird at first, but now, I would never go back to holding a phone. I don’t ever even pick up a phone. I have a wireless headset that connects to my landline, Bluetooths to the mobile and my computer… I can use it for any connection and without a wire. It’s the best thing since sliced bread!

Wow Tim! Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and perspective! We appreciate your philosophical insight and your practical advice.

Until next time, Inboxers, enjoy the splendor of spring! And, remember: getting started with dynamic email takes just minutes. Contact us today to beat the rush in setting up your summer holiday promo season!


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Your direct-sold ads in email that easily translates into money. How? Check out AdServer for Email.

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Get the inside track on the latest AdTech & MarTech news, trends and strategies.

Blog Form

Your direct-sold ads in email that easily translates into money. How? Check out AdServer for Email.

Drive revenue in every email you send. Learn how with RevenueStripe.