A Conversation with Mike Donnelly, CEO of Seventh Sense
In today’s MarTech conversation, we speak with Mike Donnelly, CEO of Seventh Sense, about how he built his HubSpot integrated email marketing service, his thoughts on the future of email marketing strategy, and the importance of content creation.
I started my career as a software engineer, then I moved into the world of sales, specifically for tech startups. As a salesperson, one of the things that I recognized was that reaching people is just getting harder and harder. Many VPs, directors, and even CEOs would claim never to have seen my emails.
And so, I began to develop an intuitive sense of when to reach out to specific people. For some, it was when they first arrived in the office; for others, it was during their commute home, and so on. I began to use these patterns to accelerate my deals and to make sure that I was staying top of mind.
Through this, I came up with the hypothesis that much like people are creatures of habit in their physical lives, they're also creatures of habit in their digital lives. So, we went off and built a prototype that analyzed data relating to when people responded and, sure enough, we were able to illuminate that people had patterned behavior when it came to sales and marketing emails and calls. Then, we were able to build predictive profiles of individuals based on this data.
The next step was to say, “Who has a lot of data, who can we impact?” And it was marketing. Our first integration was with HubSpot. We were one of their first “Connect Partners” back in 2015.
We took all the data we acquired from HubSpot and built a profile on each individual person. And what that profile is looking for is when you have the highest probability of getting this person to engage in an email based on the signals they’ve left behind.
Now, in the world of marketing automation today, you have two ways of sending emails. First, there’s the batch and blast method, which means taking a batch of thousands of my closest friends or subscribers and blasting an email out to all of them at 10 a.m.
We flip that on its head. You can actually take those thousands of subscribers, and then personalize the delivery time to every single one of them using our AI system in conjunction with HubSpot.
Then, you've got nurture campaigns. This is when someone signs up for a free product or trial on a brand website and then they receive a subsequent series of educational emails. But all of those subsequent emails come at the exact time that you actually signed up for their product.
So, what our system does inside of HubSpot is that it adjusts the time that the next email is sent based on historical data. And as somebody traverses one of those nurture or drip campaigns, the system gets smarter about the individual.
We are self-funded, more or less. We are bootstrap today—profitable now. We obviously invested a tremendous amount of capital upfront that was just based off of personal funds from my previous sales career in the tech industry.
We certainly have goals. We would love to cross the million-dollar mark in ARR this year, and continue to drive more profitability and a more in-depth product that can solve more problems. Because today, it's still very, very niche. While we do have a broad market between HubSpot and Marketo, we would like to dive deeper into the value that we can provide in those two ecosystems.
There are five of us that are focused on sales and marketing, but we also have a number of agency partnerships within the HubSpot ecosystem. That ecosystem is very helpful and successful for us. They generate content about us. That’s one piece of our marketing efforts.
The second piece of our marketing efforts is that we develop content internally. We have such limited time and limited bandwidth that we have to think about content very, very strategically.
Over the past two and a half years, we've seen our website traffic more than triple, so our efforts around SEO are really paying off. I also host a biweekly podcast. We’ve also invested in webinars with agencies and other MarTech companies. We create a very highly curated newsletter. And we are constantly trying to build up our social presence on Twitter and LinkedIn. So kind of all the usual suspects. We actually don't run a lot of paid ads.
Our outbound efforts have also started to pick up. We’re doing at least a couple hundred outreach events per week that are highly personalized and highly contextualized.
Outside of our product, we use HubSpot as our CMS, we use HubSpot CRM, we use HubSpot marketing, and we use HubSpot Sales Pro. However, we don't do any email sending through HubSpot marketing to people that haven't specifically opted into our email program. I just don’t think that’s the best way to operate.
I think we're going to see bigger adoption of artificial intelligence technologies. But there is, quite frankly, a lot of snake oil out there. And there's not a lot of data supporting it. But I do think we're going to see more adoption of AI.
I think we will likely see some more consolidation in the MarTech industry. Although, as that happens, I think there will also be a lot of new companies being created because of the innovation in the industry that’s occurring.
If you think back five or six years ago, social was all the rage. But the problem with social is that you're just renting your house. LinkedIn, for instance, is getting extremely expensive. What was (and still is) happening for all companies investing in social advertising is that they’re renting this house and collecting assets, which are email addresses. But then, they’re treating the email channel as a commodity by just blasting out emails.
Email, I think, is going to continue to become an even more important component of every company's marketing and sales playbook. But there are a lot of headwinds that are coming at companies that are not thinking about these things.
Google, Microsoft, corporate email systems are literally waging war on spammers. And I'm not talking about the professional spammers that are trying to steal credit card information. I'm talking about marketers that are sending way too many emails that people aren't paying attention to. So there's that aspect of it.
I think we're going to see the smart companies really invest in better ways of reaching their audience when it comes to email rather than continuing to give a ton of money to the FANG stocks because you can't grow a business profitably that way.
There's always this running joke that 60% of the VC [venture capital] money just gets funneled right into Google and LinkedIn’s hands because people want to grow really fast—and it's not a sustainable growth method. But email can be a sustainable growth method if you acquire somebody's email address and treat them with respect when it comes to their inbox. Quality is the game today and a lot of companies are still treating it as a quantity game.
I wish we did more content ourselves. It's something that we debate quite often because we've seen the power in SEO attributed traffic and organic attributed traffic. And not only that, but it also helps us with our sales efforts. For instance, if a customer asks a question, we can lead them to an article on the subject.
When we started doing content, we didn't have a good plan in place. It was more like, “Hey, let's just write stuff and start throwing it out there.” But then we started really thinking about it as more of a strategic asset. We started trying to write it to rank through SEO but also to provide significant value. And that's when we started to notice a difference.
In fact, if you look at some of our pieces that deliver the most traffic and the most attributed revenue, or at least interest, they're very long, incredibly detailed posts. They can take tens of hours to write from a research perspective, and then from a deployment perspective, and a constant care and feeding perspective.
So those are some of the things that we think about when it comes to content. And our strategy is a work in progress—we need to do it more consistently. And we also need to work on refreshing the content we already have because that can drive just as much, or even better, results in SEO rankings by simply taking that approach.
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