An interview with Exclaimer CPO Jonathan Bartlett
Over the past several years, I have become a fan of Exclaimer, a company that specializes in email signature management solutions. I have endorsed their solution as both a paid consultant and unpaid community advocate, recommending it to partners and end customers alike. Recently, I was able to catch up with Jonathan Bartlett, Exclaimer’s relatively new Chief Product Officer (CPO), following a webinar we did together (“Driving Growth in 2023: How IT professionals can do more with less“) to discuss his role at the company, the common customer feedback he is hearing, and where he thinks Exclaimer fits into the constantly-evolving collaboration ecosystem.
Jonathan joins Exclaimer with over two decades of experience in B2B SaaS product management, working in various vertical. Prior to joining Exclaimer, he was the CPO of Troops, a company that integrated CRMs with Slack and Teams. At Exclaimer, Bartlett is excited to be part of a team that is rethinking the importance of direct email signatures and how they can be strategic for marketing.
[Christian Buckley] Jonathan, thanks again for taking the time to talk about Exclaimer and the email signature category. Maybe we can start with more about your background? How did you land this Chief Product Office (CPO) role?
[Jonathan Bartlett] A Chicago native, I moved to NYC for my very first product role in the late 90s, and I’ve now been in B2B SaaS product management for over two decades. Early in my career, a mentor told me to be good at what I do and be capable of doing it in any vertical. As such, I started in early Ad-Tech and ran the gamut through Mar-Tech, eCommerce, Data, AI, CRM, and now of course Email. In my previous role I was CPO of Troops, a company that integrated CRMs with Slack and Teams. Salesforce bought us last summer and I found myself looking for my next adventure.
[CB] I didn’t realize you had an Ad-Tech background. Same here….well, just a couple years. But I would think that really positions you well for this role. What drew you toward Exclaimer?
[JB] What Exclaimer is doing in rethinking how direct email signatures can be strategic for marketing really stood out, as did the amazing team, and I just couldn’t say no.
[CB] Well, you’ve been around this space long enough to have seen the technology cycles swirling. For the past 20 years as various social and collaboration technologies have pronounced that “email is dead,” the reality has been that the volume of email, and our reliance upon it within the enterprise, has only grown. What do you think is the reason for email’s sustained performance?
[JB] New technologies have come along, and some have even stuck; email has persisted because our lives don’t consist of a singular channel for all communications. Rather, we have different types of dialogues, and different channels are better suited to powering these dialogues.
Pre-internet conversations took place through phone calls, mail, and in-person conversations. One of those channels didn’t replace the others, because they all had their own unique purpose. Similarly, none of the newer technologies has replaced the underlying needs around email.
[CB] Like when smartphones, then tablets, were going to replace laptops. Instead, you see people carrying all 3 devices in their bags.
[JB] Email has long been the backbone of our communications, better addressing needs that used to happen primarily through written correspondence. This includes formal dialogue, detailed explanations, and documentation. Email is also a channel for showcasing products or services, in a similar way to direct mailings.
Collaboration tools and messaging have addressed conversational needs that previously happened via in-person meetings and phone calls. Would I have participated in a 20-thread internal email on some benign topic pre-Slack? No… I would have called them or perhaps walked over to their desk. Up until maybe 2015 most people had a desk phone and their own work number, but that’s changed, in part because of mobile phones, but also because of Slack and Teams. You can see this when people slack others sitting only feet away from them.
[CB] Right. Or text them. I’ve told my kids that I refuse to respond to a text when they’re sitting in the same room as me.
[JB] Video calls similarly replaced in-person conversations and phone calls, which is why Teams and now Slack incorporate video and voice features but have little integration with email or and don’t focus on critical formal communications.
[CB] How much have platforms like Teams and Slack impacted the volume or the need for email?
[JB] The conversations coming through email have always tended to be more official… more permanent. Teams and Slack are more conversational and don’t have the same important permanence in our communication flows. We want to have off-the-cuff ongoing conversations with those we’re close to, but nobody is looking for that same experience to be prolific. Do I want endless ongoing conversations with all my vendors? Well, they may like that, but it sounds like something of a nightmare to me. In the last few years, we’ve seen external channels between vendors and customers starting to grow alongside email, but most of this is between the customer and their Success representative, and not marketing. There is certainly a line there.
Because of that importance and permanence, email communications also tend to have better composition. In many cases, emails are finished products representative of the sender, which have the potential to be forwarded on to endless other parties. Messaging doesn’t carry that same sheen or risk. This is why you naturally have a feel for what you should message and what you should email: an email is “official” and representative of your company in ways messaging isn’t. Emails also lend themselves better to communications with unknown entities; you wouldn’t want strangers just starting a conversation with you at random on the street, and the same goes for messaging. Like mail, email is a better lead-in for introductions.
Without a clear replacement for the underlying needs, email has continued to grow with the speed of business. That is why we’re seeing historic numbers today.
[CB] So much of the modern collaboration value proposition is that end users have (or should have) more control over their personal experience, but personalization of tools can also lead to management headaches. How important is centralized management of email?
[JB] With email, it’s a balance. Email’s prominence as the representation of the brand in an official correspondence sets it apart. When employees want control, it’s typically over their experience. Collaboration tools are typically internally oriented, and offering employees more control carries few business risks. Email affects the customer experience and value/brand perception, and elements of this category typically have governance. Marketing needs to ensure proper logos and links, as well as updated showcasing of products. When you add in additional risks like legislation and litigation, you can see why marketers and IT professionals flock to Exclaimer for help with central management.
There is room for personalization though, and adding such provides employees with some control while mitigating risks. Exclaimer empowers employees to personalize some aspects of their information, as made available by their organization. With their personalized details, their signature becomes more relevant while staying on-point. This type of personalization ensures emails are optimized for demand generation and marketing message rather than a free for all.
[CB] I think that’s one of the main reasons why I initially became a fan of Exclaimer — the ability to treat email signatures as another sales and marketing tool, rather that just leave it up to employees to share out the proper messaging or call to action.
Maybe we could talk for a minute about where most organizations are today. What is the typical email signature process? An employee joins a company, is given a laptop and necessary software tools. What does the setup process look like?
[JB] It depends on the company and their stage of maturity, but generally takes one of three flavors:
First, there is no process. Employees may create their own, copy co-workers, or just not have one. You typically see this in SMBs and smaller mid-market companies.
Second, the marketing team has an official signature. They tell employees to copy the signature from one of their emails, and simply replace the information with their own. You’ll see this in most mid-market and some enterprise companies.
Or third, there is an official policy, exact specifications for signatures, and often even manual oversight typically by HR. Many companies even offer classes to new employees on how to craft their signature and/or help them do it. Often the employee will need sign-off on their signature within a given timeframe. The costs of a program like this can be substantial.
[CB] While it may seem like a simple layout of name, contact information, and company logo, there is/can be more complexity behind an email signature. What are the components of a signature, which, arguably, illustrate the need for centralized management?
[JB] For many organizations using Exclaimer, signatures are dynamic. Imagine one signature for HR and another for Accounts. Imagine multiple signatures for Sales depending on which territory or segment they’re serving. Imagine that all signatures incorporate various marketing campaigns that change email-to-email based on the day or time, audience, sender, or recipient. The permutations are endless.
[CB] I’ve been in organizations where we’ve attempted to manage all of that manually, with the marketing team sending out replacement banner ads and tracking URLs, hoping individuals would take a couple of minutes to open up Outlook, go into their email settings, and change their signatures. It was rarely successful.
[JB] Much like many mar-tech platforms, we provide customers with the tools to create the templates which drive this process. The design of the signature may incorporate different data points coming out of Active Directory, variable information, and even rotating display ads. The targeting of the signature is more akin to a workflow, where you’re identifying the circumstances over which that template would be chosen. On send, the server is selecting and applying one of the templates to each email based on these rules.
By templating this process out, you can be certain that data changes, such as in Active Directory, are immediately incorporated by all templates without any manual intervention. This is critical as new employees onboard.
[CB] Clearly, most organizations are failing to leverage their employee emails as a business tool. What are the opportunities that most organizations are missing by leaving email signatures unmanaged?
[JB] Organizations devote huge sums of time, resources, and money to place their messages in front of prospects and customers alike, but they over-look direct emails as the optimal opportunity. These communications to targeted recipients are more likely to be opened and consumed, and yet they’re completely overlooked. This is not only the right moment to focus your audience on your brand and message, but also the right moment for engagement.
Unlike marketing blasts, direct emails typically have recipient consent and permission, whereby the recipient often recognizes the sender, subject, and company, and in most cases may already be expecting the email. The recipient is primed to receive and consume your message. Many marketers don’t view direct email as an engagement opportunity, but with the right content it’s the ideal entryway.
Once organizations begin viewing direct email as one of, and too often the only, opportunity to get the focused attention of your customers and prospects, they look at it very differently. From messaging to display ads, links to product announcements, event dates to critical updates, nearly all content that can exist on your site or in an email marketing blast can exist in direct email where delivery is permissioned, and recipients are paying attention. We’re continually adding new ways to tie email signatures into the marketing teams’ stack to make this process as seamless as possible.
[CB] Tell me a bit more about your focus since joining Exclaimer. How has your role as Chief Product Officer helped shape the evolution of email signature management?
[JB] This segment is growing quickly, with more competitors popping up daily. To compete and stay on top as the market leader, I’ve really pushed to lean into a value-learning motion. Everything we do should be adding direct value for our customers, and we constantly review plans to ensure we’re devoting valuable time and resources to activities that are going to drive our customers forward.
To accomplish this, we’re incorporating faster product iteration and adaption, more customer research, and more risk. The team must accept that it’s going to be wrong occasionally and learn from those mistakes in a blame-free environment.
This also includes shedding dead weight. We’ve stopped several projects and even cut out functionality that just wasn’t adding to our story.
[CB] For a product person, that can be an incredibly difficult thing to do. It’s always easier to add than to self-edit.
[JB] Staying nimble is imperative. This has helped us quickly shore up our products and features and keep all the teams tightly focused on the initiatives that will truly matter.
[CB] If you don’t mind sharing, what challenges have you faced while overseeing product development at Exclaimer? And how are industry drivers impacting your strategy?
[JB] Because IT teams typically own the email platforms, email signature management is sometime the domain of IT, and sometimes Marketing. These teams look at different facets of the solution and have different value drivers. We need to ensure we’re meeting the needs and wants of all audiences.
We frequently discuss various departments, and how changes to our roadmap might change the value for, and our relationship with each. This is essential to ensuring we’re both meeting the needs and delivering new value and innovation to both groups.
[CB] One struggle that I have with far too many product companies is that there is no clear path through which a customer feels like they can have an impact on product. If my calls to a support team seem to never get out of support, and if I, as a customer, don’t have visibility into the change management process, I will likely move to a vendor with better transparency. How do you ensure that customer feedback is taken into account when developing new features for Exclaimer’s email signature products?
[JB] Exclaimer is no different from any B2B SaaS business; you need to understand who your audience is and talk with them as much as possible. We do this through a variety of means internally such as meeting with Sales and Success to understand customer asks, as well as watching recorded prospect and customers calls. Increasingly the product team is reaching out to customers directly and traveling to events and trade shows to increase our interface with end users.
It’s always tricky in Product trying to balance new areas of development against customer feedback, and keeping a constant dialogue with customers guides the team on which of those requests are critical to driving higher value to our customers.
[CB] Where is Exclaimer going from here? What new features do you think Exclaimer will add to its email signature products in the near future? There’s so much happening in the collaboration and communication space – especially in the Microsoft ecosystem around both artificial intelligence (AI) and the employee experience, both of which would seem to have a role in the future of email signature management. What can you share about your future product roadmap?
[JB] Exclaimer is focused on ensuring email signature management remains core to meeting marketing goals, mainly by driving more engagement and brand excitement. There are several ways we’re approaching this:
Everything we do incorporates our customers’ needs around security and compliance. This can be evidenced through our recent announcement that Exclaimer is now the only SOC 2 Type II compliant signature manager solution, clearing the highest and most stringent bar that marketing and IT customers require for trust.
Engagement is a permanent focus for us, as we continually add new ways to make direct email exciting channels of relevant, on-brand messaging. We just added Headline Content, enabling pre-content marketing in direct email, and dedicated integrations with both Microsoft Bookings and Calendly. We have several additional engagement initiatives in dev to continue delivering for marketers.
Working with amazing partners like Microsoft, Google, and Salesforce. These companies, highly trusted by the marketplace, are a key input to our endeavors.
Partnering with great vendors and marketplaces, like Bookings and Calendly, to ensure we’re fully integrated for both our IT and Marketing audiences.
Testing out great new beta features to share with people soon.
[CB] Security, customer engagement, and partnering sounds like the right recipe. For my final question, a more outward-looking question: In what ways do you envision email signature management playing a role in business communication in the future?
[JB] Despite predictions to the contrary, email has withstood countless challenges and isn’t going anywhere soon. As other channels of communication become increasingly crowded, the ability for direct email to cut through the clutter will become more essential. With browser cookies going to the wayside, email will increasingly be one of the more trackable mediums as well.
Direct email marketing via email signature management will rise in prominence as a core marketing channel, and solutions will continue maturing to be better integrated with existing marketing solutions to provide key real-time messaging and content from those platforms and delivering result data back to them.
[CB] That’s a great place to conclude. Thanks so much for your time, Jonathan.
[JB] Thanks for having me!