How to SFMC with Greg “Gortonington” Gifford

Video Recording: How to SFMC with Greg "Gortonington" Gifford'

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Transcript: How to SFMC with Greg "Gortonington" Gifford

Anthony: Hi Gregory, welcome to the series.

Greg: Hello, I’m glad to be here.

Anthony: Well, I’m sure that some listeners have heard of you before but could you just give us a short intro on what do you do?

Greg: Sure, a lot of people know me from Stack Exchange as Gortonington. I’ve been into Marketing Cloud for over 12 or 13 years at this point I’ve been working on it. I’m Salesforce MVP. I’m Salesforce Marketing Cloud Champion. I’m active in many many communities. I’ve spent 10 years on the client-side total of three or four years on an agency side. I like to say I’ve seen it all. I’ve worked from the actual executions of emails and different aspects like that all the way up to the strategy side. I’ve touched on everywhere and I’ve decided that more of the development stuff is where I usually sit in and work.

Anthony: That’s a great intro. Thank you so much for an amazing experience. You have mentioned your nickname Gortonington – because people may know you from Salesforce StackExchange – where for those who don’t know, people can post questions and answer them. I was just curious how you got started with that?

Greg: Well, the name literally started when I was a young man probably I was like 10, 12, and I thought that sounded really cool. It was my first personal email. So and then it’s just kind of stuck around and I have been using it in different areas and I prefer an alias. Because I started StackExchange I first found out about it probably like 7 years ago or so and it took me about a year before I had the, you know, comfort to be able to actually create my own account. So I decided to go with my alias rather than with my actual name and I chose Gortonington and since then StackExchange is probably my favorite place of mine to go and interact because it gives you different viewpoints on different complex issues. So like you can attack things from not just “this is what I think” you are able to see other people and other accounts and get ways to get out of those blinders so that you can find different solutions for your own problems. Not just other people’s problems.

Anthony: Absolutely, it’s a very useful platform. I’ve visited it myself a lot and I came across your answers obviously. But these days you also run HowToSFMC. So what should our viewers or listeners know about this?

Greg: I am involved in running it. There is actually a group of directors that we have. I’m just the managing director of it so I kind of oversee the broader picture but we each have different specializations like we have an Apps Director, we have a social Director, Technology Director, and so on. So there’s a lot of people involved in this and the idea is that to keep it that it’s not like “this is Greg’s idea of how things should be” but it’s a community idea through almost a focus group of people and the goal of HowToSFMC that I’m just going to call from now just HowTo to make it a bit easier. But the general goal is to expand where the documentation ends and create a resource for every aspect of the Marketing Cloud that we can. Because we realized that the reality behind “it just works” is a lot of work and a lot of duct tape and bubblegum. Because there are times that best practice that you know, you see on StackExchange or you see in the document somewhere that doesn’t work for you. You need to have a different solution that doesn’t fit. What is the preferred way? So to that extent what we do is we produce as well as provide different content to help the Marketing Cloud users and this includes looking to other blogs, looking to other videos it doesn’t have to necessarily be something that we have on our site. We are more than happy to provide different connections, relationships and things like that to make sure that everything is available on a single spot for people to utilize it.

Anthony: Alright! And it is an absolutely great resource and we’ll make sure to put the link in the description of this video. So viewers please check it out. Now you’ve mentioned at the start that you’ve been working with Salesforce. But when and how did you get involved with Marketing Cloud?

Greg: Awesome, yeah. I do want to go back to the other just for one quick second. There are also challenges tasks and surveys that we do as well to kind of keep an interactive element that seems like a lot of people don’t realize they are out there, so I just wanted to make a quick note. 

As to how I got into Marketing Cloud. Well, I started out the back in about like 2007 where I worked in a 3-person agency, which I will just say, imagine three very angry middle-aged men inside of a closet that was the agency which you can put in the air quotes, but I was the only one in there that had any HTML or CSS knowledge. So they shoved every single email marketing thing on to me. So there’s a lot of times that Marketing Cloud that was the ExactTarget at the time was the ESP that I worked in. Now, keep in mind too that they’re shoving all this on me and I am brand new. I’m like fresh out of college. No actual work experience doing something that wasn’t necessarily what I went to school for. It was a bit of an adventure. 

So from there, I wound up going to a local mortgage company, which was a very interesting experience because they want from when I joined the marketing team of three to when I left about 50 people in the marketing department. So it was huge growth and I mean even put it a little bit better perspective this started out where it was a company that was very unknown that was in a sweet inside of a single-story office building, not the whole building just a very small section of it to where they are now one of the top mortgage lenders in the United States and have multiple national headquarters throughout so I guess it was a huge amount of growth. It was very very quick and as I’m sure you guessed during that time I was the only one who knew marketing cloud and email marketing. So there was a lot to learn very very quickly there which helped me to be able to grow as an individual most to trial by fire as well as to get experience starting to grow a team and get people off to speed there, which was awesome. 

From there I moved to DEG which I’m sure many people recognize they’re prolific inside the Marketing Cloud community. I mean, they got Adam Spriggs who’s a great pillar of the Marketing Cloud and also co-writer of the AMPScript guide, he literally wrote the book.  It’s a great agency and a great place to work in another aspect. I kind of always say DEG is my cheat sheet for how I was able to get to where I am because they’ve not only are they that prolific but they also recently joined with Dentsu Aegis Network, which I’m going to short to DAN which allows a global reach and allow to become the largest global Salesforce agency partner and threw that great big connection. I was able to learn and grow from many talented individuals they have as well as I was able to get unprecedented materials and relationships that I just wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

Anthony: It is a pretty interesting story that you grew from this very tiny company or almost like a group of angry men, I think you called it, like being in this massive agency. I’ve spoken to Adam before, of course, he’s an immense influence in this community. That one thing I was curious about is you mentioned you started working with ExactTarget when you came right out of college. So were you first exposed to Salesforce or to ExactTarget?

Greg: It was ExactTarget first because it was based on email so that was, for a while, the platform to use for email marketing and it wasn’t until Salesforce purchased them that I really had much exposure to Salesforce itself.

Anthony: Alright, so you came in that way. Okay, and so ExactTarget has changed a lot from what I can tell since its acquisition. So what are the major things that you feel have changed over the years?

Greg: I think the major changes have been it’s focused outside of email marketing like that is probably the biggest thing they’ve made it a multimedia platform where it’ll handle all aspects of marketing, not just email marketing. I think that was probably one of the largest changes that they’ve done there have been some changes as far as the other. I’m sure there have been grumblings of people bought like that the support and service around that have altered. I don’t think it’s necessarily as bad as people make it but yeah, there have been changes to the way that they handle that aspect of the business.

Anthony: For sure, and I think here it’s also interesting to know that it might be very different between regions. I’m based in Europe where ExactTarget was less prolific at the start of the acquisition. So we always have this context but when you know, this is the head office in Chicago for a partner conference, you do hear the stories of course.

Greg: Oh yeah, another aspect is too, you made a great point. Marketing Cloud was global whereas ExactTarget was a bit smaller. So I mean it’s easier to have personal support when there are fewer people so it was probably a major influence as well to the difference there.

Anthony: And it seems to be more of a quote unquote on professional services from the side of ExactTarget, whereas now they’ve made sure that the platform is more enabled towards consultants to do the implementation.

Greg: Yeah, absolutely.

Anthony: What aspect of Marketing Cloud do you enjoy the most?

Greg: My favorite thing inside Marketing Cloud is that pretty much with duct tape and bubble gum you can make the system do pretty much anything you want. I mean within reasons like you can’t clone someone with Marketing Cloud, but almost any aspect of technical marketing you can accomplish in the platform. That being said just because you can doesn’t mean you should always but having the ability to do it is a great thing like it kind of almost retains that like the wild west field and still to some extent is email marketing in their early 2000’s. So being able to have a platform that all inside of the platform you can automate is ingestion of data it goes then to where it all automatically segmented out and then create email send definition so you can have it where all you do is you drop a file to FTP. And it’ll do all the rest. Having a system that is able to do that on a platform without any middleware or outside integrations is huge. I think that power is unmatched to the other platforms there are right now.

Anthony: I do believe it’s true that the technical capabilities of the platform are pretty amends. But of course now, I know you sparked my curiosity. What were the most challenging or the crazy things you’ve built?

Greg: The most challenging one…. Alright, so that’s the one that I actually caused to myself. I decided to make this and what it was almost an automation dashboard to replace Automation Studio. The reason behind this was that especially in agencies life you’re monitoring tons of clients your support team your campaign manager team is looking at tons of clients. So having to login to the automation dashboard scroll through there to find the relevant material and then logout and login to the next one It’s a huge step. So what I was looking to do is create something that would be able to iterate through the different business units of different clients to be able to view it all on a single place in a quicker way because I would have all of their relevant necessary information inside of the one screen instead of having to potentially click around. Now that comes with a lot of issues along the lines. First off security so being able to make sure that no one that’s not supposed to be on there is not on there is a monumental task in itself. So there was a lot of building around that that I unfortunately can’t share a lot of what I did because I don’t want to give away the secret sauce for that platform which is running so I don’t want to tell you how to break into it.

Anthony: We’ve been through a security review ourselves, as DESelect so I can sort of imagine the different steps you have to take and how to set up your authentication. It is, you know, it’s super important. But a bit of work.

Greg: Absolutely. Then from there I had to try and figure out how to get the actual information out of Marketing Cloud onto this platform and it was an adventure to go through because the SOAP objects that we used are lack luster for automation like there is information there but the relevant stuff like let’s say last run date, the next run, schedule all that isn’t easily accessible. And in order to get it you have to go through two or three calls for each automation. Which when you have hundreds if not thousands of automation it is quite a task. So I started exploring REST and there’s no documented points on REST for automation Studio, but there are some undocumented ones and through a bit of exploration there I found the ones that I needed to be able to get it up and running, of course it was running but then when there is any volume it kind of fell over. It would take you like 8 seconds 9 seconds at which point it’s like it’s good, but it’s  running so slow it might not be worth the effort. 

So I had to try and figure out how to work around that I wound up going to where I would create a process in the background that will constantly be running updating a JSON object inside of either like a content block or code snippet that it would then draw for the platform withdrawal off of that. So it’s not necessarily real time but it’s as close to real time as you can get at it runs in a 1 or 2 seconds instead of eight nine ten or time out.

Anthony: So I mean that’s super interesting! I’m a bit hesitant to ask too deep because it might impose the risk to some of our audience but at the risk of giving away our own secret sauce we’ve also worked with the automation Studio API but for our purposes. We made the design decision to step away from it because exactly some of its aspects are like a black box. It’s less so for activities we noticed. So that we’ve decided to build this whole automation ourselves.

Greg: Yeah, yeah that that’s one thing. I always share it with our founders when you dive into the undocumented end-points, say, use at your own risk and there is no guarantee of notice when they change anything on it.

Anthony: No, it’s not supported.

Greg: Yeah, it’s like building something to be used future facing or used as a side of major operations is a potential for disaster. Because it could be like you could break your entire setup and you don’t know how you don’t know when. It’s just going to be a huge task to try and fix it if it’s even possible to fix it. So I guess that’s one thing I always say like this was internal so I felt comfortable using them. But yeah, I was building this for a client or you know for something like that. It would probably would not be possible with the undocumented.

Anthony: Now a bit of the other topic because there’s no way around it. 2020 has been a challenging year for pretty much the whole planet. So I was curious what are the biggest challenges you face today doing SFMC projects or supporting clients?

Greg: Probably one of the greatest challenges is dealing with the fact that everything is changing like there is no set path there. There is no precedent for it. So all of the sudden I’m at home. My wife is at home. My son is at home. And we need to figure out how to allow all of us to be able to do what we do whether it’s remote learning whether it’s working remotely whatever we need to do and dealing with that and then also having the aspect of because of all these shifts. There’s a lot of different processes that were involved that are no longer capable of being done. They now have to be completely changed like even something as simple as going to the supermarket. There was a time for a bit that we couldn’t go out and do food shopping. We had to do order from home where you know, then inside of the work aspects of there was tons of times that there would be collaboration in office like whether it was through meetings or working sessions and all that, and now we had to try and do it virtually that I personally have always been a remote employee with DEG but it can greatly affect a lot of the day outside processes that people were doing in the office. So that then affects me as well. So I guess it’s been a challenge because like long story short, everything has changed.

Anthony: But you seem to mostly list personal aspects in terms of impact.

Greg: The major reason for that is because I was already a remote person. So a lot of the changes were more of that people were coming into my environment having to adjust to being outside. That’s probably why I would list that more than anything. I mean at DEG we were kind of lucky like we didn’t have to worry about any staff cuts or anything and I got to say a huge shout out to the higher-ups in the company who were willing to take a cut to be able to ensure that happens. So, I mean there were a lot of changes, but it wasn’t as bad as it’s been with other people. I do want to give that shout out to the company.

Anthony: Fantastic, I’m sure they’ll hear it and thank you for that. Given that you’re pretty much an expert home worker if I can call it that way. Many of our viewers probably do it for the first time to this extent. So are there tips or tricks, you could share with them to stay motivated as they work-from-home?

Greg: Sure, I would say probably the best tip is that you should get your own little office space in your house or wherever you’re working and have that be your workspace. I would recommend doing the same with your wife, roommate, friends, whoever you live with have them have their own space separate. If you’re working together at the same time, you’re going to get on each other’s nerves and then once you’re off work you better have to deal with those same issues outside of work, so it gets going to be straining on you and all of your relationships there. So that will probably be my biggest tip. Second is, I’d recommend doing work-life balance goals. For instance, my newest one is to take about 5 minutes every hour and just do some sort of calisthenics activity or to do push-ups, sit-ups, squats things like that. Just to keep the blood flowing to take a break away from you know that, because most of this type of work is all mental. So I guess I’m not really doing something so being able to take your mind five minute break every hour is a great thing.

Anthony: If I may jump in here I think that that’s probably true anyway, even if you work at the office, but hopefully now people realize this morning before and this is this could be a positive change in the long run.

Greg: Yeah, I definitely hope so I mean. It also allows sitting for 8 hours 9 hours 10 hours a day, really adversely affects your body and just that little bit of movement can remove a lot of those different aches and pains and allow you to have a better concentration. I would say outside of those the other thing I highly recommend is caffeine lots and lots of caffeine.

Anthony: I’ll note that down. Going back to the technical aspect of Marketing Cloud. You know, you have a very extensive experience here. But what recent features in SFMC are you excited about?

Greg: I would say the most recent feature is probably transactional journeys because I’ve always been a huge fan of the transactional API, but there’s a lot of people in a lot of clients and businesses that were very hesitant to do that because when it was built it was built to be almost hosted outside of the platform. All the calls, all the analytics, everything was done in a third-party service. It was just making calls into Marketing Cloud. So, to a lot of people that was like completely rebuilding and restructuring their existing triggered send definition set up in Marketing Cloud. So, there’s a lot of resistance there with the transactional journey. It allows you a user interface to help handle a lot of that stuff and relieve the giant process to change it all. So it’s been Godsend in different ways because honestly, the transactional aspects of the messages are much more efficient than the trigger send. So it’s definitely the way of the future. I know there’s a ton of other awesome things that have popped up especially around Journey Builder lately, but I just choose that one because it has the biggest impact on me and my work.

Anthony: Yeah, I can imagine there’s one interesting thing here that I would say that the triggered sends and so on all the custom depth was typically something that at least I would see happen more often in the big Enterprise as opposed to a smaller company. So this may democratize this feature a little.

Greg: Yeah, absolutely, 100% agree.

Anthony: Sure, still in this topic, do you think that all marketers should be technical marketers to some extent. You know taking the full advantage of Marketing Cloud even API aside it does imply that you need to know SQL or perhaps AMP Script?

Greg: I love this question and hate it at the same time. Yes, but it’s a very unrealistic and unfair point. It’s almost because I do this everyday I want it to be important to everyone which isn’t the case like they’re there should be to an extent some shared knowledge of the platform and cross training in different areas. But like the whole goal of the marketing team is specialization, like the strategist has no reason to know AMP Script. Like there’s not going to be value there for them to know it. It’s sort of like how there’s the database people shouldn’t know they should know their specific section and that’s it. Cursory knowledge is necessary to be able to understand the limitations of the platform. At the end technical knowledge is not always a requirement for effective usage.

Anthony: I like how you use the phrase cursory knowledge on this. There was an idea for a T-shaped people. Where marketers need to have cursory knowledge of different domains but specialize in one. To what extent do you think it holds truth and still do marketers, strategic marketers in your example. Would they have the cursory knowledge of Marketing Cloud at all?

Greg: I think they should have the ability to know what the platform can do in order to be able to create a strategy around utilizing it now a bit the what is considered a cursory knowledge I think is dependent on a person’s role because again, like the cursory knowledge of the platform maybe more specific to someone that handles the data like they don’t need to know how the emails are set. They don’t need to know about different aspects of you know, mobile push or anything like that. They’re more concerned about the analytics the reporting data structures that kind of stuff is where their cursory knowledge should be.

Anthony: Okay, that makes sense. Now we’ve touched different aspects of SFMC are there things that you think people from Salesforce can still improve? Like is there something that really bothers you while working with the platform? And you can’t wait for it to be fixed?

Greg: I’m pretty sure they’re not gonna like my answer on this but documentation and transparency are my two biggest pet peeves right now. I mean there is a ton of information out there. It’s just it’s not easy to access and it’s sometimes hard to understand. It’s unfortunate that most of the best resources to help Marketing Cloud are not on the official documents.

Anthony: That’s just what I wanted to say, this ties back to what we discussed earlier with your HowToSFMC, curated platform.

Greg: Yep, that’s exactly how we came around with that. There is not the level of support to specially in the technical aspects of it that that there should be almost and there’s a lot to that through different support and services that they are unable to share at the business level which completely make sense. But at the same time there’s no transparency there on why they can’t share or what they can’t share which gets frustrating because you’re talking to them and they can’t tell you anything and you’re thinking well these people don’t know it when literally it’s people aren’t able to tell that. It is a bit frustrating different in different aspects around that as well.

Anthony: Absolutely. I think in my own experience, it’s very similar and mind you again we’re based in Europe where they didn’t have his Professional Services structure and in the early days, I mean, I’m talking early days after acquisition not early days ExactTarget. There were still a lot of components that required Professional Service to be set up but not everyone always realized that on any side.

Greg: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that’s a great point as well that the setup is something that they’ll sell you that it can do this, it can do this, but they won’t tell you that in order to do that you have to do about a hundred hours of a development work to set it up to be able to do that.

Anthony: That’s where you come in!

Greg: Exactly!

Anthony: One thing about how great Salesforce is how open the ecosystem is. The AppExchange is the largest B2B web store in the world. And of course solution providers like us at DESelect are able to build the solutions on top of that. So I am curious have you worked with any apps from AppExchange?

Greg: Yes, I’ve worked with a lot of the larger ones. I’ve worked with Litmus, Return Path, those kinds of things as well as with a few custom ones that I’ve built or it was existing with that brand. It’s amazing. Like I agree, that’s one of the best features that goes back to where I was talking about before with the duct tape and bubblegum. Like this is a bit more professional version of that. It gives you a nice clean solution to pick up where a Salesforce Services or the platform out of the box features kind of fall short. So I guess it’s amazing that they allow you to build on top of their platform. Like I absolutely agree it’s one of the best features there it’s the experience of integration there is amazing like it is really as you plug it in and then you can use it.

Anthony: Are there any apps that you custom coded that we should know about?

Greg: Well, as far as that I’ve built more specific apps outside the automation that you mentioned like I think one of the great examples is on Zuzanna’s blog that she has a great walkthrough on how to build a simple one. I believe her example is a date extension finder that you just create through a code snippet or a Cloud Page and it is then able to be integrated into the system and most of that kind of stuff is what I kind of built. I haven’t delved too deep down the rabbit hole there like for instance I had something who helped create test data or help create repetitive segments things like that. That is more what I would be building there than anything large.

Anthony: Well, I’m very glad you mentioned repetitive segments, because that perfectly slides into my next question. As you probably know we at DESelect provide a drag-and-drop app to segment in SFMC. So what is super interesting to know is that what are the challenges in regards to segmentation that you’ve specifically encountered?

Greg: So one of the largest challenges I would say is the 30-minute time out that SQL queries have. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize. Honestly, the marketing Cloud platform wasn’t built to handle a lot of those higher and segmentation data manipulation. So I get a bit of the misunderstanding of what the platform should do compared to what it can do. And I mean your DESelect is a great way to help target them and send them to a specific way to use the platform correctly so that they are able to do it where it’s not “hey, I can build this crazy complex query and be able to do this awesome thing” and then it times out. And then you have to figure why did it time out? It’s because I’m doing all this and this way, it’s set out like yes, you can do these awesome custom segmentations this way. And this way you can control it so that it doesn’t get way out there to the level of you know, they’re trying to segment 50 million records through five or six different joins on relational data and creating it through all this in a single query.

Anthony: Exactly, and it was where you mentioned earlier SFMC is a crazy powerful platform from the technical point of view. But with great power comes great responsibility, right? This is exactly why I think this is one of the rules for solution providers like us who can take the hands of users and make sure they do it in the right way. Maybe just a few closing notes, you know, given all that experience all the work you’ve done. What would you recommend to people just starting out with SFMC? What should be the attention points in a project?

Greg: I would definitely recommend reaching out to communities. It’s like an email geek slack channel. There’s a few SFMC specific ones there and everyone there is very responsive and very considerate. It goes from all levels. Like there’s times that I post questions there. There are times that I post answers and not every question I post is the most well thought-out high-end question. There’s a lot of times that I’ll post something “Duhh..” and that’s completely fine. Like that’s something that everyone does and everyone is understanding of so don’t ever feel bad to put a question up there that you know, people are going to attack you. 

The same way as… there’s StackExchange. There’s a tons of places like for instance  on my blog or HowToSFMC or other places where there’s a resource page and I find that to be the best way to find new points of information whether it’s like it’s an Adam Sprigg’s blog, Zuzanna’s blog, Ivan Razine’s blog, Elliot’ videos like there are tons of hidden gems that it if you explore those resources pages, you’ll find and that is probably the best way to get involved and get into different groups and communities. Like there’s the Salesforce success groups I think they’re called but I’m not positive about their name but there’s those. There’s like the look up answers and technical marketers meetup, teach me SFMC that Salesforce is offering through Guilda Hilaire and on top of that there’s all those blogs that you can look at and get different tips and information.

Anthony: That’s a great list of resources. So in spite of maybe a lack of documentation as a concern I think the community has definitely stepped in. Are there any last thoughts that you would like to share with our audience?

Greg: I would just say keep on truckin like it’s a tough thing to get into because there is no Dev environment. So really it’s you get knowledge through Trailhead you can learn and read about it, but it’s difficult because the only way usually to get a job in Marketing Cloud is to get experience in it. So it’s rough there but if you keep going if you look at things where there’s volunteer capabilities on different things which will get you exposure to it and that will help you get in. So just keep looking and keep at it and always explore every option just because it’s volunteer. Don’t throw it away it can vastly help your career and provide value to you as well as to the actual place that you’re volunteering to.

Anthony: Absolutely, thank you for sharing your story today Greg and thanks you for all the great advice and thanks!

Greg: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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