From Russia with Love: Email Marketing around the world, an interview with Eleonora Nikiforova

Expert Expressions

interview ExpertSender Russia

Today, Adam Ambrożewicz had the pleasure of talking to Eleonora Nikiforova, our General Manager for ExpertSender, Russia about the peculiarities and similarities of the Russian email marketing market.

AA: How does your typical day look like at ExpertSender?

EN: A typical day?

AA: Yes, is there one?
EN: No, never. Every day’s different for me.

AA: So what are some of the things that you might encounter during the day?

EN: There‘s so many, I’m an administrator, I’m doing all the managerial things, starting with paperwork and finishing with our customer’s special requests, because sometimes they might escalate something and I need to talk to them as well.

AA: What are some of those escalation points where you become a little bit more engaged?

EN: It’s usually with some of our larger customers, we’re working with some very big brands in Russia and sometimes they have some special requests that are above our standard feature set or functionality and I need to be on top these things.

AA: Maybe you could let us know about a specific case where a customer asked you, could you do this for us?

EN: One of our customers that’s been with us for more than two years from the electronics retail industry, had a feature request for something that they needed. We talked about its development and came up with a custom solution, so as you can see sometimes there’s also some hands on work for me. Most often however, I’m working with our internal team, because in Russia, it’s our team that’s the most important thing and our customers are very demanding and it’s one of the things that perhaps makes us different from other markets.

Our customers are very demanding and it’s one of the things that perhaps makes us different from other markets.

They’re extremely demanding and I’ve never heard of customers such as these elsewhere, they want a solution immediately after requesting something from you. We need to meet their standards and that’s why our team always needs to be prepared. We don’t just have experts on deliverability or technical experts, but we do have people who can talk with our customers and it’s very important to be a psychologist because we’re in the business of working with people. Often there’s a situation where a customer doesn’t like something and you need to talk to them, explain the situation to them when they don’t understand something or maybe you need to train them, so you really do need to have the correct communication skills. This is one important point. Another one is that I believe, all of our customers can sense how you feel about them.

AA: Which probably leads naturally to my next question. Could you tell us how the Russian market differs from other markets? What are some of the things that make the Russian market unique?

EN: The main thing is the customers, really. They are demanding, they want a lot of attention.

AA: And how do you give them this attention?

EN: Our experts love people and that’s very important because if you don’t love people you can’t help them. We train our experts because it’s not enough just to help people, or to have the desire to help, you need to behave appropriately, so during our special training, we simulate how a customer might behave and sometimes we role play with certain dialogues. What’s also interesting is that often we don’t have phone conversations or talk face to face and when you communicate via Skype or other messengers such as Telegram you could be misunderstood (as you are lacking emotional context), so we are learning how to communicate correctly with these messengers.

AA: Is that the main way a client contacts ExpertSender in Russia?

EN: Skype’s the most common.

AA: Customers generally like to speak to a person?

EN: That depends, if we have a customer who is already working with us, generally they prefer to have a phone conversation or a Skype call, maybe even a meeting. We’re not located in Moscow, we’re based in Ryazan which is about 200km from Moscow and sometimes our experts travel to our customer’s offices. We love talking to our customers and while we’re talking about customers, our potential customer also differs from a typical European customer as most of them don’t want to talk to you on the phone or Skype because they’re afraid that they’ll be pushed into something. So, if they write you an email, they want your response to be via email also. I know lots of people who don’t want to talk via the phone.

AA: So, often the first point of contact is actually via an email and once you’ve built some sort of relationship with the customer, they then feel comfortable enough to talk or even meet face to face?

EN: Yes. Actually the market is changing, two years ago I participated in an advanced email marketing course with Econsultancy in London and when I returned back to Russia, I understood that we’re heading in the right direction and that Russia is not any less sophisticated than Europe. Maybe we’re even more sophisticated in some areas, because I see that we are managing very complicated campaigns that are very difficult to execute with their programming and dynamic content. I found that very interesting because we’re actually doing a lot of professional things that might not be done in most of Europe just yet.

AA: I guess you already started talking about one of my other questions which is what are some of your content or creative strategies that work particularly well on the Russian market?

EN: We always tell our customers that you need to test everything, because it not only depends on the country you’re going to send to but on your actual database. If you’re sending text heavy messages for example, it might be a bit boring, but we have a very good example with a service called Megaplan who sends emails with a huge number of symbols, it’s a big, big list and it’s very popular in Russia. Most people know of this email and when they read it they repost it everywhere, so it could be text heavy, but it all depends on the content. If it’s relevant, if it’s interesting, then people will read it, irrespective of whether it’s plain text or image heavy HTML. We have some very interesting examples of an click and mortar pet store that’s called “Four Paws” and they have a very interesting strategy. First, they began with advanced segmentation where they divided people into different groups, those who are cat lovers and those who are dog lovers and they had some beautiful images in their email campaigns. If you were a dog owner, you’d only see images of dogs and this personalised email went viral very quickly because of its creative approach.

AA: Continuing on with your last example, are there any trends that you’ve noticed where emails are designed in a particular way?

EN: I think it’s all about your customer database, because for example, we have several customers that run jewellery stores and they have completely different results with their emails. We were thinking to ourselves, why’s that the case? Generally they do the same things and their databases are similar, but people behave differently. You don’t know how they came to you, where they saw you, a lot depends on your traffic source, whether you are growing your database via an affiliate network, it’s a completely different story if you are doing it organically, you’ll have completely different results. It’s a question we don’t like to answer because the customers usually come to us and ask “what’s the average rate for this particular business?” And we can’t answer because it depends on a number of different things, it could not only be your traffic source but also the time you’re going to send your campaign. You need to test your send times, subject lines, your content, because you can write something, then paraphrase the same sentence and have completely different results. It’s all about psychology, you can see for example, that some words are more or less popular than others.

AA: What are some of the more popular words in email marketing in Russia?

EN: (laughing) Free, but this word usually has adverse effects on deliverability and we’ve also seen that the open rates are usually lower.

AA: So what are some words that could perhaps invoke a higher open rate?

EN: Our customer “Four Paws” tested three different subject line versions, they asked their customers “If they bought a present for their pet?”, the first version included the “Free” word, the second version included the price “From 200 roubles”, and the third version without any price, just a question: “Have you bought something for your pet? You already have your own presents for new year’s eve, what about your pet?” What’s interesting is that the version with ”Free” had considerably less opens, while the other two performed significantly better.

AA: Have you had any types of situations that were a little strange or a little bit atypical when working with certain clients?

EN: There was this one case with an online retailer, where they hit a spam trap. We engaged ourselves in a conversation with Mail.ru (one of the major Russian ISPs) with whom we have a very good relationship and we found out that the problem was in a system email that got into their database and also confirmed itself on their list. In theory it’s something that couldn’t have happened, but we actually saw that a click was registered. Maybe someone from Mail.ru clicked, I don’t know how it could have happened, but we often have situations such as these related to deliverability.

AA: So you need to have a pretty close working relationships with all the ISP’s in Russia in order to have the highest possible deliverability?

EN: We’ve had situations where we have a customer who comes along and claims that they have a clean database and tells us that they want to work with us. They then load their list and we can see that they are getting into spam after their first send while trying to persuade us that they are clean and that everything’s good, but really, clearly it’s not. Customers in Russia have now started to understand the importance of having quality subscribers from legally compliant sources. In terms of deliverability problems, it’s another one of our advantages, because we only work with brands that take care of their customers and never buy a lists which is prohibited by Russian law. We have large fines for these types of cases and it’s a pretty high price to pay considering you have to pay for each incident.

AA: You’re specifically talking about cases where someone has notified an appropriate institution that someone has sent a spam message?

EN: Yes, but more specifically about buying databases, because we actually experienced some of these situations occasionally where potential customers came to us with databases running into the millions. We did our due diligence and asked them how did you acquire your customers? “Oh, we have our ways”, they replied. It was more than probable that they had an illegal database and we don’t work with these types of customers. It’s not only about the law, we’re concerned about the people who receive these emails, we do care, we want to work with ethical email marketers, we don’t work with those who spam and try to get money as fast as they can. Our service is for those who automate their business, for those who want to take care of their customers, who want to have sophisticated chains of emails, to help them somehow, to send them recommendations. These are our customers.

We’re concerned about the people who receive these emails, we do care, we want to work with ethical email marketers, we don’t work with those who spam and try to get money as fast as they can.

AA: How do you vet a potential customer?

EN: We send a short brief to our potential customers and ask them to answer some questions and it’s something very simple; “Where did you get your database from?” and “What’s your website?”. If we don’t know the brand for example, we look at their website, at their web forms, we try to subscribe to their service ourselves to see if they have double opt-in, because it’s also important to have double opt-in. We just follow the process and then we can decide whether this is a customer that we’d like to work with.

AA: Perhaps you have some thoughts about how the email marketing industry could evolve in the next few years in Russia? Can you see any changes happening?

EN: As for strategies, we have this shift to psychology. First it was trying to automate, then we started to analyse the behaviour of our customers and now we can see a shift to recommendation services and different tools which try to help us understand why the customer behaves in a particular way. So it’s both an evolution in psychology and in our technologies. With technologies we have big data analysis and these popular instruments have become a trend in email marketing. We have real-time tools that help you create a timer inside your email or generate content right at the moment it’s opened with real-time personalization. So when you open your email, the service already knows your geographical location, it could also get the weather and if it was raining for example and you happened to be running a chain of restaurants, you could recommend the closest restaurant for your customer to visit until it stopped raining. These services actually allow for a lot of different variations where you cannot only see the weather, but also have information about the operating system the user is using and their device, so it actually gives a lot of possibilities.

AA: Eleonora, thanks for your insights, it was a pleasure talking to you.