6 Takeaways from the UNSPAM 2020 Conference

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The other week, two of us from the Litmus team were lucky enough to attend UNSPAM, a conference from the team at Really Good Emails. I say lucky enough for two reasons:

  1. We were lucky enough to attend the conference right before events worldwide started getting cancelled and social distancing took a hold.
  2. More importantly, we were lucky enough to get to connect with some of the most authentic, considerate, and positive people in the industry at a time when that’s just what we all needed.

While it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the current crisis, it’s more important to stay connected to your community and continue learning from and helping each other. With that in mind, Whitney and I wanted to take some time to reflect on what we learned from our email friends at UNSPAM.

Whitney’s Takeaways

Cross-Channel Knowledge is More Important Than Ever

Something that we’ve been talking about at Litmus for some time is the importance of bringing your email marketing out of its silo: share your learnings with other teams, tell them what you’re working on and why it’s important, and how it’s affecting the company as a whole. This year at UNSPAM, cross-channel knowledge and coordination emerged as a theme.

In Chad White’s talk on email industry trends and benchmarks from the last year, he called out that 55% of email marketers are multi-threats, wearing multiple hats, and one of the biggest pain points across email marketing is the difficult orchestration around cross-channel coordination. Jason’s talk highlighted the importance of looking outside of the inbox to channels like social media to discover how people are interacting with your brand. Allie Donovan from Brooklinen called out how her team explored other channels (email and SMS, specifically) and tested how they worked together in a single campaign.

Email marketing provides valuable data that can help inform other marketing campaigns across channels, but social media, paid media, and other channels have great insights, too. Your subscribers are everywhere and it can only help your email team to share the learnings you have with others—but it’s important to see how other marketing teams work, too.

Email Design is HARD

While Jason’s got a strong background in email design, my experience lies in copywriting and setting up automation—so when the RGE team announced there would be a design challenge, I was pretty nervous. What skills could I provide to a team of email designers and developers with advanced experience in the exact thing that was completely new to me? Should I even participate?

I was quickly convinced by my soon-to-be group—shout out to Genna Matson from DEG, Leah Miranda from Campaign Monitor, and Shani Nestingen from Target—that no matter what, I’d be able to contribute, and at the very least I could learn something new. And what I learned is that email design is difficult. Thanks to connecting with the email community and our own incredible email team, I knew this already, of course—but it’s a different thing to talk about it with someone and hear about what they do than it is to see it in action. In less than 24 hours, my team and the other teams that participated redesigned an email newsletter of their choice and the results were honestly incredible.

Cross-channel knowledge is super important, yes, but I’d argue learning all of the skills it takes to make an email is pretty important, too. I’ll never be a designer or a developer, but I have a better understanding of how they work and what they need to succeed now—and that has only improved my own work for the better.

Email Marketers Band Together in Times of Need Like No Other Community Out There

When you sign up to go to a conference, you think about the things you might learn and the people you’re going to see—but it’s still work. You’re maybe still on the clock for certain tasks, and you’re taking notes, thinking about how your learnings will affect your current email program. Maybe I’m alone in this, but the last thing I’m thinking about is taking a moment to pause and just enjoy where I am and who I’m with.

So if I said there was something I needed more during UNSPAM than Matthew Smith’s group meditation, I’d be lying.

During that meditation, I was able to take a moment to think about where I was, how lucky I was to be there, and how amazing the email community is—and I was surrounded by people doing the exact same thing. Making emails is stressful, and it’s easy to forget to take time for yourself when deadlines loom. But the amazing thing about the email marketing community is that we all know what everyone else is going through—and we’re ready and willing to help each other out, every time. Whether that’s talking through a possible crisis communication email, advice on starting a new onboarding series, or just finding some hand sanitizer, email marketers have each other’s backs—and especially in a time of social distancing, a sense of community is more important than ever.

Jason’s Takeaways

Show and People Will Follow

UNSPAM kicked off with an excellent and entertaining talk from Cristina Gómez, design director at Tattly, about visual trends in email design. Cristina went through some of the trends we’ve also been watching, like the use of 3D imagery and organic shapes—or blobs—in email. While I loved all of the examples and explanations from Cristina, the thing that stuck with me was how willing people were to explore and embrace those trends once you properly explained them.

Like Whitney mentioned above, part of UNSPAM was a fun and interactive design challenge, sponsored by 6AM City, that encouraged attendees to split into teams and redesign a media-heavy email newsletter of their choice. Once the winners were announced on stage, it was clear that nearly every team leaned heavily on the trends presented in Cristina’s talk. Organic shapes, circle icons, beige, and overlapping rectangles made their way into most entries. What’s more is that none of the emails felt overly “trendy”, instead they all thoughtfully embraced those design elements to create better, more compelling emails.

Likewise, other topics presented at UNSPAM crept into the designs, strategy, and copywriting in the emails, too. Which leads to my major takeaway:

If you show people—and explain the why behind—more thoughtful ideas, from strategy to design and inbetween, they’re eager to incorporate those ideas into their own work.

Now, just imagine if more companies shared the thinking behind their best campaigns. Imagine if the community came together to document more collaborative approaches to email production, or techniques to create more compassionate campaigns for subscribers. If we all start taking the time to document and openly share our thinking, processes, and work, I can imagine that we’ll all be better off for it—marketers and subscribers alike.

Nobody Likes a Narcissist

Right off the bat, Really Good Emails founder Matthew Smith set the tone for the event when he described most emails he saw as “narcissistic”—inflated with their own self-importance and ego. Far too often, emails focus on what’s good for the sender instead of what’s good for the subscriber. This was echoed throughout nearly every session in the conference.

It became clear that everyone—subscribers and marketers alike—is fed up with narcissistic email campaigns and that there’s a real desire and need for value-driven, empathetic emails.

And it was encouraging to see that reinforced by nearly every speaker at the conference. It was equally encouraging to hear all of the teams in the design challenge talk about their challenges through the lens of empathy, too. When the winning campaigns were presented, the strategy behind every single one boiled down to the question: What does the subscriber actually need from this email?

Again, if we can move towards asking that question more often as an industry, I can only imagine how much more successful our campaigns will be, simply because we’re making our subscribers and customers more successful by providing real, tangible value.

People Crave Human Connection

Building on that, my last takeaway was just the strong desire everyone in the room seemed to express for real, human connections. While a few sessions focused on topics like data, the data presented was in service of creating deeper relationships with subscribers. More often, sessions and conversations with attendees quickly moved beyond data and technical topics to more interesting ones, like how we practice mindfulness in email marketing or how we engage our subscribers in prolonged conversations in and outside of email.

For the last several years, marketers have been obsessed with gathering as much data about customers as possible. New tools, platforms, and processes have been built to enable the harvesting of that data. While that data can be useful for making marketing decisions, it seems like marketers (and their subscribers) are now craving more from that data.

It’s less about collecting all the data and more about collecting the right data and learning from it to create more realistic, emotional, and (for lack of a better word) human connections with people. Nearly everyone I talked to at the conference expressed a desire to move beyond mass marketing towards more thoughtful conversations with customers on a personal level. It’s something we’ve advocated for at Litmus, and it was encouraging to see it on everyone’s mind—especially in such uncertain times as we all find ourselves right now.

Learn More About UNSPAM

UNSPAM 2020 was a magical experience for a lot of different reasons: the sessions, sure, but also the people, the candid conversations, and the underlying anxiety around the pandemic that we all shared. It was a fantastic place to reconnect with old friends and bond with new ones, while we collectively tried to figure out a path forward through a tumultuous time in the email industry and beyond.

Curious what other people thought of UNSPAM? Want to see more of the major takeaways from attendees and speakers alike?

Check out the conversation on Twitter →