For Love of Email: The Strange Story of MailChimp

5 minute read
Noreen Seebacher avatar

Mention MailChimp -- and you'll probably think of a global email marketing provider.But if you think of a strip club, inside jokes, coloring books, monkey hats for cats and a willingness to put the customer experience ahead of technology, well, that would be accurate, too.

Twelve-year-old MailChimp is a quirky company with a unique perspective on business, customers and creativity, according to John Foreman, chief data scientist at the Atlanta-based company.

More than four million people in 222 countries use MailChimp to create, send and track email newsletters. The highest percentage of that email originates in the United States. But the company has the most users per capita in ... Vatican City.

Actually, that statistic is only surprising if you expect the expected from MailChimp -- a company convinced that a chimp named Freddie can still play a role in corporate branding even as that brand "grows up."

Founded in 2001, MailChimp is, by its own admission, "self-funded, profitable and slowly taking over the world. Our founder-run team of 200 introverts, extroverts, right brains and left brains works hard to make products people love to use."

Despite its claims of a diverse workforce, Foreman seems like an anomaly. He is as far from quirky as a company like IBM is from selecting an ape for a mascot. He holds a graduate degree in operations research from MIT and has worked as an analytics consultant for the Department of Defense, Coca-Cola, Royal Caribbean International and Intercontinental Hotels Group.

What's Data Got to Do With It?

But if you look beyond a very serious persona -- fitting for a man whose expertise is in optimization modeling, revenue management and predictive modeling -- and strike up a conversation, you'll discover first impressions are misleading.

John Foreman

Foreman blogs for fun about analytics through narrative fiction at Analytics Made Skeezy. He'll trade serious for a smile on request and delights in the fact that he was the first data scientist at a company full of graphic designers. It's probably why he's become a regular speaker at those big data focused O'Reilly Strata Conferences and a bunch of other conferences, too.

He shared the message "your analytics talent pool is not made up of misanthropes" at the Strata conference in Santa Clara, CA this past February and explored how MailChimp "uses the company’s combined data to create products valuable to each user without giving away one user’s performance data to another" at the most recent Strata in New York City.

A Lot of Email

Each month, he explained, MailChimp sends between six and seven billion emails and tracks opens, clicks, purchases and other engagement from the recipients of those newsletters. "This dataset is unique in its size and richness, capturing everything from an individual’s interest in the local softball league to daily deals on zipties at Woot," he said.

Like most ESPs, MailChimp silos each user’s account data; the tracking and performance information related to their marketing material is theirs alone to analyze and leverage to improve their marketing performance. Foreman said his goal is to develop big data products that capitalize on both siloed and pooled user data in a quest to improve usability and efficiency.

Learning Opportunities

MailChimp wasn't always a big data company, he explained. In fact, when he walked into the company's offices "behind a strip club" two years ago, he was struck by how little data had to do with the business. Everyone, he said, from CEO Ben Chestnut down, seemed primarily interested in graphic design. "I quickly realized most companies, including MailChimp, are not in the business of analytics," he said.

Beyond Good Looks

COO Neil Bainton confirmed that in a Gigaom interview earlier this year. MailChimp’s culture was built around many things, "but data wasn’t one of them. It had 'various fits and starts' through the years trying to work data into its business model and each step just added more complexity.

Times have changed. Foreman is using data to help MailChimp improve its core business. Most users don't see the difference: they still build and send their emails. But behind all the cute marketing, beyond Freddie the chimp and the gimmicks like vinyl figurines and chimp hats for cats, there's more substance, Foreman said.

He's not trying to change the company culture. He's just trying to make sure it's all based on a solid foundation. 

MailChimp has created a warm, fuzzy image. It's advertising is sometimes so obscure that it seems like an inside joke, Foreman said. "But people love it."

At Strata last week, he explained how the company is deploying artificial intelligence models to automatically detect spammy email lists from MailChimp’s users. Because MailChimp is the email engine for millions of users, it risks its reputation when it sends too many messages that get flagged as spam.

Now it knows what to look for, including too many email addresses on a given list that are sourced from publicly available lists or purchased from dubious vendors.

Users may not understand the backend strategies, but that's OK, Foreman said. "We just want to give users the best possible experience. We worry about the risks and complexities. They can just focus on what matters ... sending their email."

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