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Delivering episode 34: Shazad Beharry on going email first in an omnichannel world – Litmus


In this episode of Delivering, host Jason Rodriguez interviews AutoNation’s Shazad Beharry—winner of the Litmus Email First Excellence Award—about how AutoNation prioritizes email in their omnichannel efforts while taking the lessons learned from email to other channels.

Show Notes

Topics

  • Shazad’s journey into email marketing (1:10)
  • His work at AutoNation (2:30)
  • On using email first in AutoNation’s omnichannel efforts (4:12)
  • On how he presents data to different teams (7:40)
  • Major challenges of going email first (10:50)
  • Shazad’s thoughts on the coming cookie apocalypse (12:40)
  • Preferred ways to learn about customers (13:45)
  • How to stay top of mind in retail auto (16:25)
  • How the pandemic changed AutoNation’s marketing (18:10)
  • Shazad’s email marketing resolutions for 2021 (19:35)
  • What excites Shazad about the future of email (20:25)
  • On why Shazad volunteers (21:10)
  • Shazad’s hobbies and a NEW PUPPY!!! (23:35)

Links

Show Transcript

Jason Rodriguez:
Welcome to Delivering, a podcast about the email industry from strategy to design, code of leadership and everything in between. I’m your host, Jason Rodriguez. As always Delivering is brought to you live by Litmus, the premier platform used by marketing professionals around the world to send email with confidence every single time. Head over to litmus.com to start a free seven day trial and see how Litmus can help you build, test, analyze better email campaigns faster. And be sure to subscribe to Delivering on iTunes, Spotify, or whatever your favorite podcast app is. Today I am joined by Shazad Beharry. Shazad is the senior manager of customer marketing at AutoNation, which is a pretty big auto retailer across America. And he’s also the winner of Litmus’ 2020 Email First Excellence Award. So welcome to the podcast, Shazad.

Shazad Beharry:
Hey Jason. Hey everyone. Thank you for having me.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah. Glad to have you here. I always like to start things off by just hearing about how you got started in the email industry and just hear your path from junior level stuff to where you are right now at AutoNation. So walk us through your journey in the email industry.

Shazad Beharry:
So fresh out of college, I went to college for business administration, fresh out of college I worked for a call center company doing call center operations. So I would load the dialer, do analytics, make sure all the agents had what they needed in terms of business operations and as we all know from the past, the laws around telemarketing got pretty strict so I saw the need for a different channel in marketing. So I worked with my leadership team at my previous company to develop a email marketing program. And it was the first email marketing program that the company had had. And I pretty much learned it from ground, up at that point, not being as familiar with email as I was with other channels. So I worked there and I created that first email campaign and that customer strategy, customer journey with them. And from there, I just fell in love with email and the different things you can do and the possibilities and the ways you can reach out and engage with the customer. So I just grew from there. So yeah, it’s been a pretty wild ride, a pretty fun ride, but just the beginning. Excited to see how email transgresses.

Jason Rodriguez:
Nice. Awesome. So tell us a little bit about AutoNation. What is AutoNation for those not familiar with it and what does your team and daily work look like?

Shazad Beharry:
So AutoNation is one of America’s largest automotive retailers. We sell new and used cars from all different OEMs, all different makes, models throughout the US. We’re pretty much from coast to coast. We also service vehicles. So a lot of your local dealerships will have a service base at the dealerships. We run those within our dealerships and we also have a bunch of other business models around buying cars and reselling them. We sell parts, we do collisions. So we’re pretty much start to finish from in the eyes of auto. My team, we manage the customer communication. So we work really closely with the business operations and the fields to create a customer strategy and a customer journey that will guide the customer from conquesting or on online lead communication all the way through point of sale after the purchase and just keeping them engaged, retention, win-back strategies, different things like that. So we run customer marketing program in terms of email, direct mail and SMS. And we also manage the customer database. So a lot of data at our fingertips to use within our campaigns.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah, that’s awesome. So I feel like that’s going to be the focus of the conversation, for the most part. You mentioned you manage a couple of different channels and you recently won Litmus’ Email First Excellence Award, which is recognizing your work in bringing lessons from the email space into other marketing channels. So, that’s where I want to focus. Take us through what it typically looks like at AutoNation where you maybe start with an email campaign first and then bring some of those lessons to those other marketing channels. What does that process look like when you’re thinking through a campaign all the way through to executing and analyzing it?

Shazad Beharry:
Right, right. No, I would say with anything, we tend to start with email first because it’s the cheaper of our channels to execute and get out there and really test the message and the strategy. So we always tend to start with an email campaign. We’ll do an ad hoc push to a small segment of our customers, push that up against a control group. So we’ll back test the data. If it’s a campaign that we’re using our internal data, we’ll make sure to back test the data just so what we’re doing we know makes sense before we dive heads into it. So we’ll create a campaign, we’ll work with our creative team or a third party vendor to come up with creative and messaging, work with our data team to make sure we’re pulling the right segments of data. We’ll launch that campaign.

Shazad Beharry:
We’ll let it run. And we track back attribution. So once we launch a campaign, we have all of our pixels with tracking keys and we’re able to tell okay, how many people opened it, how many people clicked through to our website and from there, what did they do. Did they submit a lead or did they abandon? And then we’re able to track back those leads. So if someone says, “Hey, I’m interested in buying this car,” or, “Hey, I’m interested in getting my car service,” we’re able to track back they took that action from a particular email. And then we go ahead and analyze that. So we have a attribution window where we track the customer’s engagement, see what they do. Normally we give that a couple of weeks to see what that looks like. And once we have enough learnings or we feel like we have enough response, we’ll go ahead and pull an analysis all the way from email engagement down to what these customers did at the store.

Shazad Beharry:
We’ll take a look at gross PVR. And what that is just how much money we’re making on the deal, if there was one, and then return marketing investment. So once we get those learnings and we say okay, this was a green light or is a red light to expand it into other channels or a full-blown email marketing campaign, we’ll go ahead and do that. And then we’ll take a look at cost benefit to see, okay, does it make sense to go maybe for direct mail and expand the campaign there or does it make sense to start a SMS portion of this campaign or should we engage with our digital channel and maybe do some Google ads or something similar, but it always starts with email and from there we take our learnings and we take our nuggets and we apply it across different campaigns.

Shazad Beharry:
Sometimes we’ll even take these users and suppress them. So, if you think about users who are engaging highly with email, we probably don’t want to spend the money to direct mail to them. So sometimes if we notice there’s a segment of customers responding and they’re almost at the funnel to purchasing, let’s save the money on direct mail and let’s suppress them from these direct mail campaigns that are upcoming. So there’s a number of things we take and learn different… I like to call them nuggets of data, we’ll take and apply them across our campaign. We have channel meetings. So all of our channels get together at AutoNation, from the SCMs to the digitals, to the email marketing, to SMS, and we’ll share these learnings. So other channels can take that and apply it to their campaigns as well.

Jason Rodriguez:
That’s awesome. Yeah. We had a webinar last week, I think it was, where testing was one of the subjects and one of the issues that a lot of attendees had was just in the best format for presenting that data back to teams and sharing it with teams and just doing that on a regular basis. So I’m curious how the AutoNation team does that. How do you actually present that data? Where does that data live and how do you share that across those teams, maybe outside of those channel meetings that you have?

Shazad Beharry:
Yeah. So I urge my team to, any new project or any project we have going on, just create a deck from the beginning. So let’s create a PowerPoint. Let’s just outline what our strategy is, what our goals are and just use that as our basis. And as we go along with the campaign, let’s update that. So we’ll have pretty much all the raw data living in Excel. We’ll do all our analytics there and we’ll pull that into our deck. Sometimes we’ll have two versions of this deck. We’ll have one for our marketing team where we get to use a little bit more marketing friendly terms and terminology. And then we work a lot with our field. So we work a lot with our store managers. We work a lot with our service advisors out in the dealerships who are not as familiar with these marketing terms.

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Shazad Beharry:
So we have to make it a bit more friendly to them. So we create a second version of this deck with engagement numbers. And these guys are numbers guys so they want to say, “Okay, how many cars did we sell? How much money do we make off that? And if we do it again, what is it going to look like?” So we have to speak two different languages in our team. To the marketers, so we can say, “Okay, here’s the nitty gritty of the campaign.” And then to the field and leadership who don’t really want to know all the details and we present them back in just high level numbers, but for the marketing team, it gets really interesting. We’re able to go in and pull reports from our email service providers, as far as what the heat map in the actual emails look like. So whoever the customer is engaging with in these emails, what does the bounce rate look like once it gets to the website? So is the message strong? Was it not? Do we need to have a stronger CTA? So we were able to take these learnings that we’re able to generate on really large quantities. If you think about it, we’re launching emails in terms of a million plus sometimes. So we’re able to take really large focus groups, if you will, and get learnings and share it back to other channels and marketing team.

Jason Rodriguez:
That’s awesome. I feel like slide deck seemed to be what a lot of people are landing on for the best format. And I think there’s a lot of reasons for that. I guess it’s a good format for most people and leadership’s used to only speak in that language and it’s easy way to present it. So that’s good to hear.

Shazad Beharry:
Exactly. I think the important part is just to make sure you know your audience. So, like I said, you have to speak two different languages. And I remember the first time I got on one of these conference calls with our field, so the guys out in the dealership, I started using terms like rami and click through rate and unsubscribe rate and they were like you need to simplify this for us after the call. So I was like, “Okay, noted.” After that, did my due diligence to make sure they understood what I was talking about.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah. That makes total sense. That’s awesome. So when you’re going email first, and then you’re bringing those lessons into other marketing channels and determining about what that looks like, whether or not it’s worth doing, what are some of the major challenges that you faced throughout that process?

Shazad Beharry:
So a lot of times we obviously don’t get the response that we were hoping for, it goes against our hypothesis. So a lot of the times we’ll be faced with that, but it’s just about, okay, how can we go in and tweak our message, tweak our data, just tweak different things in the campaign to see if we have a win. And if not, we call it a loss and we move on. Other things are, obviously, just going about some of the technology’s a bit hard to get by. So things like pixels going down, building out APIs. So there’s always some form of labor intensive and level of effort that goes into these campaigns, I would think. So I would say definitely it was one of the biggest struggles is just setting everything up to launch these campaigns. So if you’re thinking about a retargeting campaign, okay, we’ve got to get pixels in our email platform. You’ve got to get the pixels on our web properties. We’ve got to make sure we have those data feeds set up to pass that API back. So it’s really some of the challenges or the hard work that goes into really setting up these campaigns, but with the help of our AutoNation development team, our vendors and our team, it gets done in a pretty seamless manner, surprisingly or not.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah. So speaking of pixels, I guess, and just track in general, there’s been a lot of talk recently and I’m sure we’re going to be getting a lot more blog posts, podcasts, videos, all that stuff about the imminent death of cookies, third party cookies, for tracking. Google is planning on killing that in Chrome in 2022, I believe. I’m curious, as somebody that relies a lot on that tracking to enable everything you do in your marketing program, what do you think the impact is going to be for marketers and I guess email marketers specifically as a result of that change?

Shazad Beharry:
Yes, the elephant in the room. So I’m not looking forward to this, but I think it’ll be really good for marketers and email marketers in the terms of we have to do just get creative. We’ve seen this happen in the past where legislature and laws have gotten tighter around data, around telemarketing if you will, and I think the response was okay, how do we go around this and get more creative and be more transparent with our customers and our providers to make sure that we’re capturing this information in a right way and we’re using it in a right way? So I think, if anything, I’m excited to see what comes out of this and how we go around it. I think there’ll be some data partners that might come out of this that may be really good for different marketers to utilize. So we’ll see. We’ve recently been discussing this in our team as well, okay, how are we going to solve this? Because a large portion of our users are on Google Chrome. So more to come on that.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah. So are you using anything right now, apart from, pixels and cookies to learn about your subscribers and your customers, do you do any surveys or outreach through other channels to figure out what they need from the AutoNation team?

Shazad Beharry:
Yeah. So my team, we pretty much frequently run customer surveys. So, if there’s a particular part of the business that we want to learn about that Hey, how are our customers engaging? How do they feel? Why didn’t they transact or what made them transact? We create a survey monkey and we’ll deploy that and we get some pretty good learnings and we’ll normally share that with our other channels. Another thing that we do is we’ll monitor our inbox. So a lot of the times we’ll see the message on the bottom of these emails that hey, these inbox is not monitored, don’t reply, but we do go in and monitor it. A lot of customers have good feedback in terms of what they want to see from our dealerships, what they want to see in marketing, things like that. But I think one really cool thing that we do to learn about our customers is we’ll take our customer database and we’ll actually append that with additional information.

Shazad Beharry:
So we’ll take our customer database and append with life events, or we’ll append it with demographic data or different credit data just to learn hey, what do our customers look like in terms of demographics? How can we better talk to them to better serve their needs? So if we know a particular family just had a baby, how can we better show them minivans and SUV’s instead of convertibles and wagons? Similar to a new driver, how do we educate them along the car buying process? So we’ll take our customer database and reach out to different data companies and vendors and get additional information, we run analysis, and do back testing and then create campaigns around what customers are already doing or how they look.

Jason Rodriguez:
Nice. I think that’s interesting though, that the life events stuff specifically, because retail auto seems like it’d be a challenging marketing because there’s such a long tail between most people buying cars and selling cars and stuff. And a lot of things happen in between two different cars. I’m curious how you’re speaking to those customers longer term and keeping AutoNation top of mind, building that relationship and that trust over a longer period of time, as opposed to something like a clothing retailer or somebody like that where people talk [inaudible 00:16:22] at a much more regular basis.

Shazad Beharry:
So, that was a great question. And it was challenging me first coming into this space because I came from a vacation company previously where I think vacation is always on the top of mind for people. And if they’re not vacationing, they’re always looking at the next vacation but with auto, the time span in between transactions can be around five years if you think about how often people are buying new cars, if that. So it’s really keeping them engaged, like you said, recognizing what’s triggering these purchases. So how can we get in front of the customer before that? Pretty much, we have a really solid customer journey. And that starts with, obviously, conquesting, goes through to the point of transaction and we have different messages. So we work a lot with our Cancer Research Foundations. So we’ll send out different things that we’re doing in the communities for cancer research.

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Shazad Beharry:
Our stores have events. If you think about new model launches and different specials, our store often hold events for loyal customers. So we’ll send out invites and things like that just to keep our customers engaged. And then we’ll also send out different service tips and tricks. A lot of people think hey, I’m not driving, I don’t need to get my car service, but it’s important that our customers know hey, you have to continuously make sure that you’re checking your oil, checking your tire pressure so that when you are ready to get on the road, that everything is in tip-top shape and you’re ready to go. So we tend to keep our customers engaged. We send multiple emails throughout the month with different messages, different catchy subject lines, just to make sure we’re top of mind and ready for them when they are ready to transact.

Jason Rodriguez:
Nice. Has the pandemic affected how you speak to those customers or just the volume or the tone of your messages?

Shazad Beharry:
I would say definitely the volume. When the pandemic first hit and we were in the height of everything, we had to get creative in our messaging and bringing people into the stores and ensuring them that hey, we’re taking all the necessary precautions at our stores to make sure all of our customers and employees are being safe. We were blasting messages saying, “Hey, our stores are being cleaned multiple times a day.” We had different promotions to try to drive people into our stores or online. And then I think the biggest change or the biggest driver that the pandemic had on our company was we were able to create a digital buying process on our website, which is difficult for car buying if you think about all the things that go into it. So, our web team was able to create that and then we were able to market to our customers. So in terms of volume, we definitely sent a lot more emails. In terms of messaging, we definitely had to change the tone a bit, just read the room, stays a good one, read the room. How can we speak to our customers without making anyone upset or just recognizing what may be going on in people’s lives at the moment?

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah, I think that’s good advice. It’s a new year. Hopefully it’s a better one than last year. Any resolutions for your own email marketing program that you’re making this year?

Shazad Beharry:
Yeah. So one of our big resolutions is let’s focus on everything we didn’t get to do last year. I know my team and I had a bunch of plans that got sideswiped by the pandemic that we really couldn’t focus on. So I think part of this year is just taking a step back and looking at the last 12 months, using that as learning, we did a lot of different things differently and that helped our business or it hurt. So just taking a step back and looking at okay, what did we do last year that helped? And then just taking a look forward into what do the next 12 months look like for our consumers and how can we use those learnings to apply it there?

Jason Rodriguez:
How about future technologies even beyond 2021, what’s really got you excited about email marketing that’s potentially coming up the next couple of years?

Shazad Beharry:
So definitely just data. I am a sucker for data, so data and where we can get it. If it’s using a pixel to retarget or if it’s using a third-party vendor to append more data. So I would say I’m super excited about data and personalization. I know in terms of email marketing, that’s the foundation of everything, but I think there’s so much more that we can do with data and personalization, real-time personalization, or even polling and real-time engagement within our emails. So those are two things I’m really excited about for the future.

Jason Rodriguez:
Nice. I guess before we wrap up, I have to admit that I did some lightweight internet stalking on you in preparation for this. And it looks like you do a lot of volunteer work. So I’d love to hear about what you do from volunteering aspect and maybe why you think others should think about volunteering their time in service to other people?

Shazad Beharry:
I mean, it’s really one of the most selfless things we can do. I tend to try to give back a lot to the community when I can, where I can. One cool thing about working at AutoNation is we’re very connected with the cancer research and cancer charities. So going to work every day, I’m able to pinpoint an exact dollar amount on how much I’m contributing to cancer research and solving for the cure, but outside of actually working… Backstory, every car we sell, every car we service, we donate a portion of that to cancer research at AutoNation.

Shazad Beharry:
So I’m able to tell hey, this campaign sold 200 cars we donated X amount to charity for my team. But just taking a step back outside of AutoNation, I try to do a lot of work with different charities. I work with the Poverello Center, it’s a food kitchen for HIV and people infected with AIDS, they’re able to go and just get any type of food in terms of vegetables, meats, different grocery items like that. I tend to work with Deliver the Dream often, and that’s just hosting different weekends for families with challenging situations, if you think about autism or spina bifida, different things like that. I think it’s really important because like I said, it’s one of the most selfless things we can do. And the feeling that you get after just engaging with a charity or engaging with volunteering your time, it’s uncomparable.

Jason Rodriguez:
Yeah. That’s awesome. I think that’s something I feel like a lot of people have been realizing, especially over the past year or so, the importance of giving back to our communities, building stronger communities and helping each other. So it’s great to hear that something you’re committed to and AutoNation is as well and hopefully more people take that seriously and put in that time and that work to grow with their own communities, give back to their own communities and just generally make the world a better place because that’s…

Shazad Beharry:
Exactly.

Jason Rodriguez:
[inaudible 00:23:22] seems like we all need these days.

Shazad Beharry:
Oh, for sure.

Jason Rodriguez:
Outside of email, outside of volunteering, any interesting hobbies or things that are keeping you excited these days?

Shazad Beharry:
Before the pandemic, I was an avid traveler. So I would normally take two or three big trips a year, but obviously with the pandemic that’s slowed down, much more grounded these days but as of recently I have a new puppy. I got a multi Yorkie about four or five months ago and he’s keeping me all kinds of busy, but he’s been a great companion through the pandemic. And super excited to just watch him grow.

Jason Rodriguez:
That’s awesome. Yeah. We actually adopted our first dog the day after Thanksgiving.

Shazad Beharry:
Oh, congrats.

Jason Rodriguez:
Also a puppy, so I guess we need to maybe get some new puppy t-shirt club.

Shazad Beharry:
For sure. [crosstalk 00:24:20] What kind of dog?

Jason Rodriguez:
So ours is a terrier Chihuahua mix. He’s a little guy. Super fun. I have two daughters that love him and we have a lot of fun with them.

Shazad Beharry:
I’m sure.

Jason Rodriguez:
Great way to help animals and keep your spirits up through troubling times. Awesome. Well, thanks so much for joining us, Shazad. It was great hearing about your work at AutoNation as well as your volunteer efforts and congrats on the new puppy as well.

Shazad Beharry:
Thank you.

Jason Rodriguez:
Hopefully we’ll hear more of your work in the future and I would love to have you back on a little bit down the road to talk about all the cool stuff and maybe discuss the death of third party cookies in Chrome when it happens next year.

Shazad Beharry:
Oh no. Awesome. Looking forward to it. Thank you for having me. Thank you everyone. And appreciate it, Jason.

Jason Rodriguez:
Thanks. So, that does it for this episode of Delivering. As always Delivering is brought to you Litmus, which is the premier platform used by marketing professionals to send their email with confidence every single time. You can always head over to litmus.com to start your free seven-day trial. See how Litmus can help you build, test and analyze your email campaigns better and faster. And please subscribe to Delivering on iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app to listen to every episode past, present and future. Cheers.



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