PowerInbox is a multi-channel, personalized subscriber engagement platform built exclusively for publishers and the brands that advertise with them. Their unique audience engagement ecosystem enables publishers to own and connect with their audiences through every channel, all from a single platform. In this interview, PowerInbox CEO Jeff Kupietzky explains why is it so important to own your audience, and offers some exciting tips on driving more engagement from your existing subscribers’ lists.
Please describe the background behind the company and its history so far.
PowerInbox’s original founder, Israeli entrepreneur Aryeh Mergi, made a name for himself in the tech space as co-founder of M Systems, the company behind the thumb drive. Arie was the business mastermind behind building that company and taking it public, before selling to SanDisk back in the mid-2000s. He then became a prominent investor, and in 2006, put some money behind a company focusing on email technology, which later became the PowerInbox you know today.
Meanwhile, I had just immigrated to Israel from Los Angeles, working with digital marketing and SaaS companies, both in Silicon Valley and in LA. When I saw some of ActivePath’s technology, I saw tremendous potential and joined as CEO. We’ve changed the model a few times, and the company really began to take off in 2015.
Today, our core business is helping digital publishers monetize email newsletters with contextually relevant and personalized ad recommendations, and we’re branching out into other channels as well, like push notifications. Our vision is for multi-channel audience engagement and monetization all on the same platform.
Through smart planning and business strategy, we’ve managed to grow every year and remain profitable. Part of that has to do with our distributed model. We’re based partially here in Israel, but primarily in the United States and mostly everyone is working remotely. We’ve been working remotely long before the pandemic forced it onto the world.
What are the most fundamental factors to consider when building a personalized marketing strategy?
First, you want as many subscribers as possible to sign up for your newsletter because the real benefit of email is that it allows you to own your audience. With email, you control the relationship instead of being subject to the gatekeepers and the large walled gardens of Facebook and Google.
Almost every brand has this challenge because most of their traffic comes to them through one of the large portals, whether that’s Facebook, Google, or even Apple or Amazon. For publishers, that means they don’t really own that audience. Most of it is referral traffic. And many times, they’re using cookies to retarget those users to come back, but those bigger guys are going to take more and more share. Since publishers don’t really own that audience, they can’t usually remarket to them. Add to this the fact that cookies are going away as a core identifier and you can see how difficult it is for publishers to have a direct relationship with their audiences.
That’s where email is much different -and better- because the brand or the publisher owns that relationship. If they want to market back to that user, the email address provides a unique identifier that’s consistent, persistent, and fully opt-in. It allows publishers and brands to know their audience, know their behaviors and what they like/dislike and send them much more relevant personalized and targeted content based on that known data.
It should be a top priority to grow your email list as aggressively as possible because that list is a great asset–no matter if the user changes their device or computer, you’ll always have that relationship with them.
Here’s a quick preview of the PowerInbox dashboard:
Let’s say I have a list of subscribers, but they are not opening my emails and they’re not being engaged. What would you advise?
Obviously, you have to do everything you can to be relevant to the user. But, often it’s an issue of measuring the right indicators as well. A lot of marketers look at percentages like open rate, click-through rate, and the number of people who unsubscribe. But that’s not telling the whole story.
The retail equivalent to that would be counting the number of people who walk by your store and measuring the number who come in or don’t come in. In that analogy, you’d look at how many people ring the cash register and how many people are actually in the store.
It’s the same with email: you should be maximizing the number of people that read your content as an absolute number, not as a ratio. To do that, you really need to focus on what’s relevant to an end-user. If you’re sending the same content to all the users, that’s likely not going to work. You need to segment, or even better, personalize what you send each user. Personalizing the content and sending things of interest to each recipient will massively improve the chances that they’ll interact with that.
Let me give you a B2B example: Let’s say I’m following your content, and right now I’m particularly interested in finding an ABM tool. I really want to understand the vendors, and based on my click behavior and the content I’m consuming, you already know that about me. if you send me just two or three alerts or newsletters about that specific topic, there’s a high likelihood that I’ll open and engage with that content. But, on the other hand, if you’re sending me things about SEO firms and I’m very happy with our solution, I won’t look at that at all.
Getting people to engage is really about relevancy and personalization, knowing what subscribers want and giving it to them.
How do you balance between the need to collect customer data (and improve UX), maintaining the customers’ right for privacy, and complying with regulations?
That’s a great question. It’s actually why we’re so excited to be using the email address and not a cookie, as the core of our identity graph.
An email address, by definition, is a fully opted, permission-based system, where the end-user has agreed to receive messages that could be personalized, based on information they disclose. They have the control, under both CCPA and GDPR, to actually remove that right at any point in time. This is not the case for cookies.
So the benefit of email is that you can provide people with a personalized experience that they’re very happy to receive because they’ve opted-in and given you permission.
In fact, our end-user research demonstrates that users are comfortable getting personalized content, even advertising content, as long as it’s something they gave permission for, and they’re more likely to interact with it. So as long as it’s relevant, we find that it’s not a problem to balance their need for privacy with the benefit we give them.
One other point I should mention is that, ultimately, a profile for a user should not be channel-specific. For example, I may know something about a subscriber’s interests based on their email, but they might also be interacting with my brand on multiple channels. Maybe they’re also getting push notifications or browsing my website. Or maybe they’re using my mobile app.
Right now, the challenge for most marketers is that those are all separate silos, and they don’t share data between those channels. That makes it hard for them to come up with a true understanding of their traffic and the individual users and come to their site.
Ultimately, our vision is to tie all those channels together into a single identity graph so that publishers can see a complete picture of the end-user’s interactions across every channel, and thus choose the channel that works best to send messages that drive the most engagement.
Let’s talk a little bit about COVID-19 and it has affected your business specifically and the industry as a whole.
Of course, in many ways, it’s a terrible thing that’s happened to the world, and we hope that we can get back to the normal economy again very soon. But the pandemic also proved that all the themes we’ve been talking about for many, many years around email as a trusted medium are finally being realized by the general public. The fact that email is seen by many as a safe harbor, a place where people find confidence in content and brands, has played out during COVID-19.
Across our publishers, we’re seeing higher than 30% growth in open rates, 20% higher engagement rates, and ultimately that’s led to more revenue during this period. That means that while most people are seeing a dip in their business, we’ve provided our partners a way to monetize a valuable channel to offset those losses.
More people are turning toward email while they’re at home, and they’re not nearly as distracted by other forms of media, so they’re engaging with more content. And we have solid evidence, through surveys and talking with our partners, that people trust the content they read from email more than they trust what they read on Facebook or on Google search results.
I’ll give you an example from one of our clients. Nextdoor is a very big local publisher in the United States. They’ve been in the news a little bit, and during COVID, they’ve seen an increase in audience engagement rates because a lot of what they provide is key information in localized tips and alerts, sent to people based on their specific neighborhood. As you can imagine, many people now have important questions that are specific to their location: Will my school close? Does my shop have special opening hours? Do I need to wear a mask when I go outside? All of that is very local. So people are much more inclined to read newsletters with local content, which is driving Next Door’s engagement. And, that’s just one example where we’ve seen a big increase during Corona from some of our partners.
What kind of tools should publishers and marketers be reaching for? What kind of things do they need in order to be successful and make it through COVID?
Building on some of the themes that we’ve talked about, I think every publisher must have a higher portion of their audience in a known relationship where the publisher can remarket to them, instead of using cookies. Statistics show that 90% of publishers’ traffic comes from referral or search requests or other sources where they can’t identify the user. That’s a real problem when it comes to personalizing the content, which is critical for driving engagement.
If you think about it, most of the competition for news content comes from Facebook or Google. Those are logged-in environments. They know everything about your interactions because you’re always logged in on those platforms.
If a publisher doesn’t have their own system that keeps you logged in, they’re missing all the information about your browsing behavior, which means they can’t learn more about you to target better. Ultimately, that puts them at a disadvantage in selling advertising, because Google can easily provide that targeting to the brands who want to buy that audience.
So we think publishers really have to figure that out: How to create a logged-in experience that is cross-device and cross-channel. The email address is, by default, the key that many publishers use for their subscriptions, and even for their paywalls. That’s how they regulate how many articles you read. Over time, that will extend into multiple channels, where the publisher can really understand your interests across every channel you engage with.
A simple example of this is targeting with sports content. If I know you are a basketball fan, I can tailor the content I send to you instead of generic messages about what’s going on in sports in general or “life without basketball during COVID.” But even then, my engagement might not be that high because it’s just too generic.
On the other hand, if I know you live in Boston, and the basketball content is tailored around Boston Celtics info–trade rumors, injuries, or other things very relevant to that team– you can bet that the engagement will be much higher. Even better, if I can hit that user not only with an email, but maybe in a push, SMS, or a chatbot message, too, that user will engage more because it’s the content they are interested in.
The challenge for publishers is actually to learn enough about their audience, so they can hit them with the right content that’s relevant to each user’s interests.
You’re talking about data that is super dynamic. How do you keep up with the changing interests of the users?
Artificial intelligence and machine learning is the only way, and we’ve already built a framework and a foundation for that. We see about 120 million unique email addresses in the US every month, so we already have a large base of users that have allowed us to see their browsing activity on those publishers’ sites.
We’re working to extend that profile to include their larger web browsing behavior. We can connect the dots because as a user clicks on something in an email, they go to a website. Whether that’s mobile or desktop-based, we’re able to tie their browsing activity to an original email address. That same user may also access content through an app, or through a mobile web interface, and our platform can track those interactions as well, creating a much richer profile on an individual.
Many publishers, at some point, ask their users to disclose more information and that becomes part of their profile–what the industry calls “first-party data.” The combination of this with browsing activity and third-party data will allow for a much more robust profile.
Users are generally very comfortable giving you their permission-based personalized information as long as you’re giving them consistently relevant content in return. What they don’t like is that creepy scenario where you browse for something on some site, and then they hit you with an ad for it on another site. We’ve all had that experience, and it’s weird and annoying, especially if you’ve already purchased that item. I want to be clear that this is not what we’re getting at. We’re getting into something that’s more permanent and interest-based, and something that we see in behavior over time.
Which trends and technologies do you expect to see more of in the coming years?
We’re very bullish on this idea that every marketer or every publisher will need to come up with a way to own their audience, to have that one-on-one relationship. In order to survive, you will need to take back control from Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, and ultimately do that in a cross-channel way.
Our product vision and overall strategy is a multi-channel, personalized messaging platform for publishers. I know it’s a mouthful, but it’s basically a multi-channel messaging platform that automatically delivers the right content over the right channel to the right person at the right time to maximize engagement. Our feeling is that every marketer will need this, because ultimately their users will be engaging with their brand across multiple channels, and they’ll want relevant content personalized to their interests across all those channels.
Again, if I’m interested in a particular topic but you give me the same generic content on a newsletter or push alert, or even a chatbot, I’m not likely to engage. But if you give me something that’s highly targeted and relevant to what I’m interested in, I will have a high degree of engagement.
So, over the course of the next few years, we feel strongly that people will be moving away from cookies, away from silos, and toward this multi-channel model.
We believe the email address will be at the core of the identity graph. And, having an ability to target a user with the right content over the right channel, on the right device even, and at the right time of the day will be the ultimate solution. To do that, brands and publishers will have to partner with companies like PowerInbox, who can give them that service as a SaaS product. Building their own way of doing it in-house would simply be too complex and time-consuming.
The one thing that makes us truly unique among all the other companies that might be approaching a similar solution (and there are a ton of them in the Marketing Cloud space), is that we’re the only ones targeting digital publishers with an ad-supported model.
So while lots of companies might soon be offering a multi-channel personalized messaging solution, few will tell you, “we’ll pay you to use our solution versus asking you to pay us.” And that’s the real benefit of an ad-supported model: we give our publishers the ability to grow their revenue by embedding advertising into every message they send.
We’re super excited about that future, where we can help publishers increase the relevancy of their content, attract more engaged end users, and do it in a way that directly grows their revenue.