220: Reimagining Email Marketing, with Deepak Surana | The New Marketing Stack

Email is so 2006. Or is it…?

Misconception runs rampant on the perceived value of email as the masses continue to embrace new marketing technologies and platforms. However, the fact sill remains: email is one the most widely used and engaging marketing platforms in the world.

This week, we are joined by Deepak Surana, VP of Product Management for OutboundEngine. Deepak shares his insights on the value of generating brand awareness, the importance of falling in love with the customer’s challenges, the connection between email and best-in-class marketing, as well as his handcrafted pitch for email solutions.


George: It’s the latest edition of the “Conquer Local Podcast,” and I’ve got a great gas lined up for you this week. First time I met this gentleman, a couple of phone calls. We were trying to see if we might be able to work together. He is the VP of product for a company called OutboundEngine based out of Austin, Texas. Deepak Surana will be our guest, and I got a great story about how we met in Austin, and how I came to understand that this guy knows a lot about marketing. And we’re gonna get some of those learnings, and we’re gonna teach you how to sell email marketing to your customers, and what pitfalls to watch out for to make sure that you deliver it so that you have success. It’s all coming up, Deepak Surana, VP of product for OutboundEngine next on the “Conquer Local Podcast.”

We continue the “Conquer Local Podcast” series on the local marketing stack, and I’m excited. Deepak Surana is joining me on the line, the VP of product from OutboundEngine out of Austin, Texas. Hello, my friend. How are you?

Deepak: Great, George. Good to hear from you. Happy to be on the podcast. Thank you for inviting me.

Deepak & OutboundEngine

George: Oh, I appreciate you taking some time out to join us. You know, you and I had the privilege of meeting. Well, it’s definitely a privilege for me. Jury is out on your side, but we’ll find out here in a few minutes. But it was a privilege for me to meet you back in February when I got to come to your headquarters in Austin, Texas to see the awesomeness that is OutboundEngine. Can you give us a little background on your career and how you arrived at OutboundEngine, and what problems does OutboundEngine solve for marketers?

Deepak: Absolutely. Again, my name is Deepak Surana, VP of product here at OutboundEngine. I’ve been at OutboundEngine for about two years. And prior to joining as head of product, I ran product for two other startups. One was MyEdu, focused on helping students get through college and get a job. We successfully sold that to Blackboard, and the second one was Click Security. Big data problem in the security space, aggregating data, and delivering really cool insights to security officers. And we successfully sold that business to Alert Logic. In both cases, and in the OutboundEngine case as well, I just maniacally focused on solving super hard customer problems. And that really is what brought me to OutboundEngine. I have a passion for small business. Marketing is hard, the technology and landscape is changing, and it’s fun bringing innovative solutions and services to small business owner. It’s really the backbone of our economy.

George: You know. the interesting thing is I noticed when you and I were first liaisoning that you take extreme ownership of the product and the solution that you’re providing to your customers. When did that really start to take root in your career around, you know, falling in love with the problem rather than the product?

Deepak: You know, I’ve really started falling in love with the product, the problem, and the customer, you know. But it’s really when you’re customer first, solutioning is really fun. And it really started when we were helping students across the United States get their first job and really showcase their skills. Something that is just really hard to do and having students tell you, “Hey, there’s no way we could have graduated college without using your product,” is just personally really satisfying. Fast forward to OutboundEngine, and we hear from our customers all the time, “There’s no way we could do all this marketing without your help, and your driving results for our business.” And it’s just personally satisfying. Then you can figure out what mix of technology you wanna apply to the problem or improve processes. But if you lead with customer first, you always get the answer. That’s been my experience.

George: So what is OutboundEngine and what problems are you solving?

Deepak: Yeah. OutboundEngine was formed about five, six years ago based in Austin, Texas. We have over 10,000 customers now. And the problem that we’re solving is marketing is hard, and, you know, getting new customers and keeping your existing customers is really challenging. And marketing landscape is super complicated. It’s very fragmented. And what we try to do is just make it simple. We have an easy-to-use platform now with the mobile application where we do email marketing and social media marketing for you, as well as provide you a landing page. And we allow our customers to just stay in front of their contacts, and that is hard. Just really hard especially with the changing technology landscape. And what we found is email, in particular, is here to stay, but it’s getting harder to work with. Inbox providers like Gmail, Hotmail, Microsoft, they’re constantly changing the rules of the game. And it’s important to keep up and stay ahead, and you need to lead with content. We believe, I believe that our customers need to be positioned as the experts in their respective industry, an expert in their community. And what we do through content marketing is we create beautiful converting content, so their contacts will always have our customer top of mind, and that’s the name of the game.


George: So, you know, email is where the solution started, but you’ve expanded that scope. And that leads to what you were just saying where it’s more and more difficult to get the awareness of your customers. Tell us about some of the expansion of that scope.

Deepak: Yeah. You know, email is just one prong in the arsenal of marketing that we provide our customers. We also provide social media products. Our core product comes with postings on Facebook and LinkedIn, all part of this beautiful converting campaign. But we also offer paid social, and paid social is super interesting. As you probably know, George, Facebook, Instagram, there’s tons of ads, and it’s really hard to determine how much money should you spend, when should you spend it, how do you create a beautiful converting ad, so you get benefit? And it’s just hard to get started. And in 20 minutes, OutboundEngine helps our customers get an ad up on Facebook and Instagram, and track all the metrics just to make it super simple to drive traffic or drive leads for our customers. That’s just an example of a product we launched just a few months ago that’s really resonating with our customers, but again we started with solving a customer problem. Our customers told us, “We wanna do more advertising online. We just don’t know where to start.” And we really identified the social channel like email as a channel that’s here to stay that we must innovate on.

The Sales Connection

George: So the one thing that I noticed when you and I were having our first conversations is that you are no stranger to the sales floor. Tell us about your sales organization and how often as VP of product do you integrate and spend time with the sales team.

Deepak: Oh, I spend time with the sales team all the time. We listen to sales calls, either I’ll sit next to them, or we’ll pull calls. We wanna see not how they’re pitching the product. I wanna hear what the reaction is from our prospects. And the reaction and what resonates with the prospects also helps drive our product roadmap. Specifically, I’m looking for what problems are we trying to solve, and are there new problems popping up in the industry, in the market that we need to address? Our prospects and our customers often will give us the answer. We just need to be willing to listen. And so we spend quite a bit of time with both our customer service team and our sales team getting feedback early and often.

Real Estate, Really?

George: It’s interesting to me. The more and more product people that I speak to that have been doing this for a while and are experts in their space, they’re really interested in hearing that feedback from the customers and potential customers, almost to a point of obsession. When I look at your website, the category that’s at the beginning is real estate. That’s not an easy business to be in. It’s super ultra competitive, and that’s where you folks have really made your mark. Tell me what it’s like selling to a real estate agent.

Deepak: Yeah. You know, it’s tough, but we have many years of experience. And I think, you know, as we think about the origins of OutboundEngine, we started with promotional products. And we still have those customers today, and we expanded into real estate, mortgage, insurance, financial services. We have a really scalable platform to launch into any industry in just a matter of a couple weeks. And real estate, to your point, has been challenging but really rewarding. These are folks that advertising and brand awareness, staying in front of their contacts in order to keep their customers and get new ones. That’s the name of the game. And nurturing their current customer base and prospect base is really important. Imagine you’re a real estate agent, you’ve been a real estate agent for five, six years. You have hundreds of contacts spread out between Excel files, your CRM, email, and you know you need to stay ahead and send emails, and at least touch your customers a few times a month, but you don’t know where to get started. And that’s the problem that we’re solving at OutboundEngine. We help you get started. We take care of it through a beautiful converting content. And, you know, in the real estate industry where brand awareness and staying in front of your contacts is key, we’ve really seen a lot of growth and movement for our business.

George: Well, I’ve said a number of times in training, if you could sell to real estate agent, you can pretty much sell to anybody because, you know, they don’t spend a lot of time thinking about marketing, most of them, so you need to really educate them on the marketing landscape. And then they’re highly demanding, and they’re looking for a return on investment, and it’s very competitive. There’s always somebody trying to eat your lunch in the real estate space, so they’re always trying to stay a step ahead, and you definitely have solved for a number of those issues. And, you know, that is paramount to your success. Tell me… One of the reasons I want to get you online was, you know, we had a bunch of people that had reached out to us through the podcast as we were prepping for this series around the digital marketing stacks saying, you know, “How do I sell email marketing. How do I show the deliverables of that?” And thank you for expanding that it’s not just email marketing. It’s, you know, the content you create could also be used in other channels, but let’s go back to the basics of email marketing. What would you say are some of the key deliverables when you’re talking to a potential customer about email marketing?

Deepak: Yeah. You know, some of the key deliverables to me is a couple fold. The first is the content. Now, we must establish ourselves, and we do, as experts in that industry. And for real estate, it’s nuanced. There’s luxury real estate, there’s commercial real estate, there’s residential real estate. And so, understanding the nuance behind real estate is super important. And then understanding, of course, the seasonality in the real estate industry, and when to send a content, and what the contents should say to resonate with their contacts is also key. So, to me, content is still king in terms of real estate, and we have a really great playbook to get folks excited about sending our content to their contacts. The second piece for real estate, I think, and even across industry that’s really important is understanding, you know, what email can do for you. And it’s a very powerful tool, but you have to understand as well how to follow up with folks and when to follow up with folks. Just because you sent an email out doesn’t mean you should pick up the phone and start calling immediately. Timing is everything, and what we try to do at OutboundEngine is assist and facilitate how and when you should follow up with your contacts. And that helped us to be really results-driven.

Who should use email marketing?

George: Well, and, you know, it brings me back to that old analogy that I’ve used in a number of sales training. It’s like, asking the woman to marry you and you’re on the first date. You need to, you know, go on a number of dates, and you need to nurture that lead before you get down to, you know, engaging. So I’m glad that you brought that up because I see that a number of times that expectation is missed. Now, the other piece is who should use email marketing? Is there a vertical that shouldn’t use it in your opinion?

Deepak: You know, for me, how we think about email marketing is you need to have a good contact list, and that doesn’t mean you should go out and buy a bunch of contacts. You know, you need to have had some level of success where you have both past clients, you have prospects that you’re nurturing, and you have a healthy business. And what we see is if a customer, a prospect, can bring us 200 to 300, you know, fairly decent contacts that the hard job of creating content that resonates is something we can take on, and that customer will be super successful. I think what we’ve seen is folks that are new to an industry, email marketing is sometimes challenging because they don’t have that contact list yet. They don’t have that experience of having, you know, past clients and so using email for referrals or reviews is challenging. So we look for folks that have a healthy contact list and then through our email and social products, we’re able to really deliver converting content that leads to better quality conversations.

Building an Address Book

George: So I’m really glad that you brought that point up because I find it to be a struggle even in what I do on a day-to-day basis. You almost want to be begging for the email address, but you don’t want to be begging for it. That you’ve got to come up with some creative ways to get that email. And I think that when we’re getting somebody to start doing email marketing, the first piece is you better start getting the email addresses of qualified prospects. So any tips on how we might go about building up that corpus of emails?

Deepak: Yeah. You know, it’s a challenge. A lot of times, especially as we sync contacts from various, you know, mediums like your phone, you don’t often have the email address. You’ll have the phone number. You might have someone’s first and last name, but not the email address. So we encourage our customers through marketing best practices to, you know, gather that email address either through a text message especially if they’ve just met somebody to say, “Look, I have a newsletter, and I’d love to put you on my, you know, my newsletter list.” You know, “Could I have your email and send you these newsletters? Feel free to opt out of it any time, but we really think this content could resonate with you.” And we teach our customers how to tactfully ask for an email address without being pushy. Email often implies a more engaged, a more personal relationship. And so, we coach our customers, you know, to be cautious.

The other thing that we do, and we just launched a mobile app, and it’s a feature that is actually being used quite prevalently is our business card scanner. So in our mobile app, we have the ability for our customers to just quickly take a picture of the business card that they might get in the open house or at a community event. And then through optical character recognition technology, we actually sync all of that information into our email marketing platform. So you can apply technology, but also some process to this problem to try to build up your email contact database over time.

Email and Social

George: So earlier, you mentioned…I wanna make sure that we connect these dots. When it comes to email marketing, there are adjacent marketing opportunities. You really believe that social is the first place that people should go.

Deepak: I do. I think social is really important. What we found is that a lot of folks, especially in real estate, have a website. But website traffic is hard to drive organically. It’s expensive, and there’s enough studies out there that shows that, you know, just simply having a website isn’t good enough. We’ve taken a different approach. We said, “Look, a customer has a contact database that we can nurture over time, over a series of months.” We produce an AI-driven activity score off of all the marketing that we’re doing on behalf of our customer to alert the customer how and when they should follow up. Social is a key aspect of it. I mentioned it earlier. A lot of platforms now, it’s becoming more pay to play. And so, being able to spend up advertising quickly and cost-effectively is what we’ve been able to do on behalf of our customers, again, driving leads and traffic. But all of this traffic needs to go someplace. And what we’ve created is a converting lightweight landing page that integrates all of these products. So when a customer’s contact fills out a form, that customer is alerted through notifications on their mobile device, through email, through text message such that they can immediately take action. It’s that ecosystem of social email and a lightweight landing page that can help customers see value from marketing solutions rather than just a website.

The Second Order Play

George: So one of the things that we try to do on every episode, especially around this digital marketing stack training session is to say, you know, “We’re not just about getting the sale once, we’re about getting the renewal and showing the value.” So all of those notifications that you were sending out to that customer, your real estate agent, mortgage broker, you know, whatever the customer might be are a part of keeping that business. Am I correct?

Deepak: Yeah. You’re totally right. And to your earlier point, real estate is a really difficult industry. Often, a customer will come back to us and say, “Well, I’ve done all this email marketing, but I don’t know what business it’s driven for me.” And that’s the high barrier that we have as OutboundEngine is to prove that through all of this email engagement, through social engagement, through, you know, conversion on landing pages and conversations we’ve started, that it indeed has kept you top of mind and, in some cases, you know, led to sales of, you know, homes or transactions that, you know, we can specifically point to ROI. And that burden is high. But it’s also a part of, you know, how do you nurture your contacts? And we’ve seen some success over the years.

Getting Down to the Data

George: Yeah. I had a very wise sales trainer a number of years ago say that you have an enormous amount of responsibility when you’re selling marketing to a business because they’re counting upon that to sell things, and to pay for their stuff, and to feed their kids so there definitely is a burden there. And I’d like what you’ve done with the reporting across a wide array of those notifications because if any one of those data points point to a transaction, it’s then very simple to continue to spend in the eyes and mind of the customer.

Deepak: Yeah. You’re totally right. And I think that’s often the math that we do for our customers, you know. We not only save customers a ton of time because we send the emails, we make them look beautiful. It’s converting content that’s been organically written for them, and we’ve seamlessly posted it on social media. There’s a massive time savings there. But we also point to specific metrics, open rates, click-through rates, and provide perspective on industry best practices, but also, what value is the marketing driving for you. And, in some cases, when we can’t point back to transactions, then, you know, this $200-a-month product has paid for itself, you know, several times over. And it’s much better than doing nothing or hiring somebody full-time to do marketing for you. And that’s the sweet spot here at OutboundEngine. We believe that best-in-class marketing should be for every professional, for every small business. And, you know, through our platform, we’re able to help our customers see some of those results. It’s been exciting.

George: Well, I really appreciate you making some time to join us on the podcast. I’m sure that our listeners will appreciate. You know, you gave a script on how to deliver email marketing to a customer a few minutes ago, so I encourage people to go back and have a listen to that because you hit the nail on the head about five times on how to show value. And you guys have been very successful, and I wish you even more success in the future with your solution. I always admired your passion for your product and solving those customers’ problems. So, Deepak, thanks again for joining us.

Deepak: Thank you so much, George, and I hope you found this useful. It’s always fun to chat with you, and I look forward to your next visit to Austin, Texas, especially in the winter. It’s a great place to be.


George: I love Austin. Great episode on the digital marketing stack with Deepak Surana from OutboundEngine, the Vice President of Product. You know, he really understands how complex it is for a small business person to do marketing today, and they’re out to solve some of those problems. It was really interesting to dig into that adjacent space where we’ve got email marketing, we’re building great content, and that we’re able to utilize that on social media and other channels to help solve the problems of the customer. And that’s what this series is all about. We’re talking to experts in the various spaces around the digital marketing stack to help you as the trusted local expert come up with how you’re going to present the solution, how you’re gonna solve the problems, how you’re gonna look for the needs, and then how you’re going to position the return on investment that the customer is making in their marketing. It’s all part of this digital marketing stack series as we continue down the road. We’ve got great episode still to come from Dennis Yu around social, and many other guests lined up to take you through the digital marketing stack, all on our quest to make you the trusted local expert. It is the “Conquer Local Podcast.” You could check us out online at www.conquerlocal.com. My name is George Leith. I’ll see you when I see you.