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Episode 12 | Transcript

Genna Matson: Technical Architecture in SFMC, Email Marketing and SFMC Learning Resources

Anthony Lamot: Genna, welcome to the show!

Genna Matson: Hello, thank you.

Anthony Lamot: It’s such a pleasure to have you here. How have you been since the last time we spoke at Connections?

Genna Matson: Good. Busy, but very good. I like to keep things busy.

Anthony Lamot: That’s awesome. Well, I really appreciate the time you’ve taken off your busy schedule to be here with us today. And talking about being busy, you had a very active career up to this point. I see you’re currently engaged in multiple projects, which is pretty cool. Can you tell us a little bit about your trek and what drove you to establish HowToSFMC?

Genna Matson: I’ve been doing this my whole life. I grew up with my dad owning a trade bindery. They work in the printing industry, and I started selling his folders when I was 11, collecting direct mail pieces that were being shipped all over the country. So I feel like I’ve come to this naturally and organically.

Next in my career, I did a short stint in college and dropped out. I claim that now, though I was embarrassed about it for a long time when I was younger.

Anthony Lamot: There you go! I love the confidence.

Genna Matson: Eventually, I ended up back in direct mail and wound up doing data architecture for direct mail, using systems to pull targeted audiences for direct mail, architecting databases that are being used in direct mail, doing mail marches and all that good stuff.

Anthony Lamot: What technology was it back then?

Genna Matson: Microsoft Access and XMPie were what we were using for print at the time. XMPie power is great. It was a Xerox product that allowed for dynamic images to be created and put on direct mail pieces. We were using a technology called Easy Pearl, which would allow personalized URLs. It was honestly not that different from what we use today.

In 2007, we had a client that came to us and said, “We want to try this new thing called email and see if it’s productive for us.” My boss assigned that client to me and I got to work.

Spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make that work. We were using XMPie and Easy Pro to actually send emails.

However, in 2011 XMPie was just not fitting our needs anymore. We needed timeliness in reaching the inbox, and it would take 24 hours for a million records to go out. So if you were trying to do it at the last minute, that’s a problem. So I started kind of poking around the backend of XMPie to fix that, and I saw the term “ExactTarget” everywhere. I did some research on it and that’s how I discovered Salesforce Marketing Cloud. And I was like, “Wait a second, XMPie is just sitting on top of ExactTarget!”

Anthony Lamot: But this was before Marketing Cloud AppExchange was even a thing!

Genna Matson: Yeah, we’re talking before Salesforce.

Anthony Lamot: I didn’t know there were apps that were even layered on top of that. Was it some kind of white labeling?

Genna Matson: Yeah, it was. I don’t know exactly how to describe it because I’m not a web developer and I’m not an app developer, but they had built an application that only used the relays. XMPie had built their own platform, and they were using ExactTarget’s relay. So I don’t know if that’s white labeling exactly … it’s more like an app sitting on top of another app.

This reminds me of a project that I worked on not too long ago. I remember developing one of these back in like 2005. It was horrible. It was a web-to-print solution that allowed marketers to just go in and select, like, a postcard background, layout, etc, and choose the geographical area. But if this was an app for print products, it took me back to my old days. But anyway, email is much more complex than web design.

Anthony Lamot: Interesting, so you kind of stumbled into ExactTarget by exploring the backend of XMPie. What made you say, “Oh, I’m going to make a career out of this thing?”

Genna Matson: I just rolled with it. I say that I’ve done most of everything by accident. That’s why I’m here, you know. We talk about being leaders, and I like to say I’m a reluctant leader. I’m kind of nomadic by nature, and I like to go where I’m curious. It’s because I’m curious that I have this career that was established by accident. I guess you could say I’m not very goal-oriented.

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Anthony Lamot: Yes, curiosity is definitely a characteristic that I look for when I bring people into my team.

Genna Matson: I say I’m kind of a reluctant leader because I might decide to jump over a cliff, and I don’t want people to necessarily follow me because they might not see the parachute I’m holding.

Anthony Lamot: Would you say you have a high-risk appetite?

Genna Matson: I think it depends. That’s contextual. I say this after having just left Vegas and only lost $17. I set a budget to gamble only $20 and I was there for 4 days. I’d say I’m risk-averse when it’s not statistically possible for me to win. So, for instance, gambling, it’s too much of a risk – the house is always going to win. They are there to take your money. But as far as careers go, in terms of pushing the boundaries of the platform that we work on, I would say that I’m a risk-taker. I’ll jump over that cliff!

Anthony Lamot: Is that what brought you to HowToSFMC? 

Genna Matson: Kind of. HowToSFMC was not my idea, but we are all co-founders.

There are six of us who started it all. It was born out of an email conversation where we were complaining about the lack of support and documentation for Marketing Cloud. We had so many complaints from folks who were promised a lot, but then realized it was not as easy to use the platform as it was described to them in the sales process.

We decided that we wanted to change this. We didn’t want to just make another document repository or blog site, so we started creating these challenges. Cam Robert came up with most of the challenge ideas, including the “Baby Shark” challenge. At the time, he was in our team’s leadership before he joined Salesforce. I also need to give a shout-out to Leslie Higgins. She actually wrote the lyrics for “Baby Shark” in the shape of a shark using AMPscript. It’s on our website, go see it!

Anthony Lamot: Wait, what is this “Baby Shark”? Can you elaborate a little bit on that? 

Genna Matson: Baby Shark was the most popular coding challenge we did. The idea for challenges came from us realizing that what Trailhead teaches you is kind of limited. You get to a point where you want to do more, but you can’t learn it from Trailhead. So we thought, “Let’s do code challenges, because Trailhead doesn’t teach you AMPscript.” For the Baby Shark Challenge, we asked people to output the lyrics of Baby Shark using AMPscript.

There were three categories. First, we were looking for the least number of characters, so the shortest code, to output the entire lyrics of the song. The winner used only 156 characters, so kudos to them. That was incredible. The second category evaluated creativity. The judges were me, Adam Spriggs (co-author of The AMPscript Guide), and Greg Gifford (co-author of Automating Salesforce Marketing Cloud). I can’t remember what the third challenge was…

We had tried to give out prizes to encourage the audience, but what we found was that we were leaving out a lot of entry-level folks who wanted to participate in our challenges, but couldn’t because they didn’t have the knowledge. We realized that wasn’t fair and we wanted to make sure that we were including everybody in the Marketing Cloud community. So we decided to kind of shift focus and build the website up, adding content from anyone who would send us stuff.

Anthony Lamot: So are you all pretty active on Slack?

Genna Matson: Yes! Come, talk to us, and ask us questions. The interesting thing is that it’s not just our leadership team that answers questions. We’ve created a self-supporting community, so anybody can participate. So you get feedback from different people with different perspectives from around the world, which is hugely important for even folks like myself who have been on the platform for a decade or longer.

Anthony Lamot: I can testify to just how helpful this community is. We here at DESelect have been exploring additional ways to suppress communications from Marketing Cloud, so I asked about that in your chat and I remember being really surprised by how extensively people answered.

Genna Matson: Thank you. We’re very proud of our community and everybody who participates in it. Even us “dinosaurs” who have been in the industry for a long time learn something new every day.

Anthony Lamot: So what did you discover today?

Genna Matson: I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve just recently learned that when you do a “guided send” from Email Studio, it now creates a User-Initiated Email and stores the send definition there. I didn’t know that, because I usually use either Automation Studio, Journey Builder, or CloudPages.

Anthony Lamot: Wait, you can make a send from CloudPages?

Genna Matson: Oh, yes! Absolutely. It’s probably my favorite part of the platform, along with Automation Studio. In CloudPages, you can do anything you imagine.

Anthony Lamot: But why would you use CloudPages instead of another platform?

Genna Matson: There are lots of reasons. There is a web form that you can collect information from. Additionally, if you want to send an email telling users that they submitted this information or something like that, you could trigger it from that Cloud Page. It’s the same thing as a transactional send, you’re just doing it from a Cloud Page.

Anthony Lamot: I see. Going on a tangent here, when did you learn that “guided send” was remodeled into “transactional send”? Was that a big discovery?

Genna Matson: Yes. That and discovering that it writes a send definition, meaning that it now creates a record of every detail of the send that I can go back and look at. I can check which creative was used, what data set, what classification, etc. Before that, once an email was sent, it was gone. So having that information right on the platform is extremely helpful.

Anthony Lamot: Yeah. And, of course, we all love Salesforce, but we also know that they are notorious for changing their names. You know. It’s funny; I used to be a huge gamer. And some of these games, especially online games, have these sort of “patches” where they can constantly change the rules and the mechanics just to keep the players engaged. I wonder if that same strategy is used by software companies to keep their users interacting with the community.

Genna Matson: I’ve never thought about it that way! I honestly think it’s because they have turnover internally and a lack of documentation – hey, we’re all at a fast pace! Some of us don’t have time and we all fail when it comes to documentation. And that goes true for the people who build the platform, too.

Anthony Lamot: Or they never read the documentation!

Genna Matson: That happens too! They don’t read the documentation, or they don’t ask questions because they think they know the software, but then they go in and break something.

Remember that outage a couple of years ago when the Internet went down on the East Coast, and it ended up being someone at Google who had pushed the wrong code base? Poor guy! I don’t know if he didn’t read the documentation or what the problem was, but he probably got fired.

Anthony Lamot: And in this industry, I feel like people are very smart and more likely to want to do things their own way. The thing is, a lot of times they will waste time trying to solve a problem that already has a solution, but they don’t know that because they haven’t read the documentation.

One recent example that I remember was in CRM mapping, relating to lead sources and original lead sources. After a second group of employees came on board, they started developing a function that was already there.

Genna Matson: There is a lot of redundancy generated from people turning over and transitioning roles. We’re human, we make mistakes.

Anthony Lamot: Absolutely! And as long as we’re willing to learn from them, we will become better.

Moving on, you have a very interesting career path. Starting out in direct mail until, through sheer curiosity and ambition, you find yourself working with Marketing Cloud. Eventually, you start ‘HowToSFMC’.

I’m curious, to what extent have you still been able to tap into your direct mail roots? I know there are some direct mail options out there, such as Optilyz on the Salesforce AppExchange. Have you heard of anything like that?

Genna Matson: Yeah! In fact, there was an AppExchange offering that was a direct mail provider. It can be plugged into the Journey Builder application to send emails and direct mail pieces.

Anthony Lamot: That sounds quite cool. What is it called?

Genna Matson: They’re not public yet so I can’t disclose the name. But when it’s released, I will shout it from the rooftops because it’s pretty cool! It still has to go through security review and all that good stuff. You know how that goes.

Anthony Lamot: Yes, I do. Although, to the credit of our engineering team, we have done a total of four applications, and we’ve always passed the security review on our first try, which our partner manager on the sales side tells us is unheard of. Shout out to our product team!

Genna Matson: That’s impressive, congratulations! But yes, the offering I was telling you about is still working out some of the kinks in their application, it’s in Beta right now.

Anthony Lamot: Just to clarify, the Security Review we’re referring to is a screening that every app needs to go through before being added to the AppExchange. It is notoriously complex to navigate.

Genna Matson: And it should be a difficult process. There is a lot of data there, so there should be a lot of security. There are a lot of ramifications if something goes wrong. I mean, they have every right to scrutinize the apps the way they do, and I think that they do it for the end users and for us engineers.

Anthony Lamot: So Jenna, in your prior roles, what was your most interesting project in SFMC?

Genna Matson: First of all, shout out to Aaron Graves for working with me on that hell project that turned into something beautiful. I say it was a “hell project” because we kept postponing the end date and it ended up becoming a two-year project. They wanted to create a portal for mortgage lenders to go in and enter lead information for loan providers. They wanted it to trigger emails to the loan provider with a list of leads, and then possibly trigger an email or a direct mail piece to those leads from that loan provider.

It was supposed to be a simple automation project, but we ended up building a whole admin section, with reports and everything else. When we were done, it had turned into a direct mail environment.

Anthony Lamot: It sounds like you built your own Salesforce portal.

Genna Matson: Exactly, it was a portal. They didn’t want to go in Marketing Cloud and only wanted one administrator. Back in the day there weren’t a lot of content management systems for websites and things like that. So you would get requests to build out portals, which was hard.

We have the capabilities to do that, but should we? The portal we had built was not the most secure. This was before a lot of security standards that we have today were implemented. I would do it differently today, but it was a good learning experience, and I’m proud of what we produced.

Anthony Lamot: Yeah, it’s fascinating how far you can go with custom development in Marketing Cloud. I keep being amazed at use cases that come up.

Genna Matson: Yeah, and still have documentation for it somewhere.

Anthony Lamot: Oh, look at that! You actually wrote the documentation.

Genna Matson: I did! I used to write really good documentation, and I believe in telling people to write really good documentation, and I do write it for clients who pay for it.

Anthony Lamot: Fantastic. So if there’s one key takeaway from this interview – write and read your documentation.

Genna Matson: And use AI! It will help you write your documentation. I’m using it!

Anthony Lamot: That’s interesting, I hadn’t considered that. Well, since you brought up the subject, let’s switch gears to AI, starting with ChatGPT. How do you use it to write documentation, for example?

Genna Matson: I actually like writing technical documentation (post-bill documentation). I enjoy recording every step of the process of creating a portal or any other project. So I am actually using AI to help me with grammar, or scenarios and edge cases that I might not have seen. It can point out if I missed anything, which is extremely helpful. I also sometimes use it for blueprinting prior to the build because I hate doing documentation in advance.

Anthony Lamot: Can it also be a source for creativity during the early planning stages?

Genna Matson: Absolutely, if that’s your process. Personally, I like to go in guns blazing. You know, some people have different processes. I worked with a developer in the past that liked to do what they called “slamming” into other codes. If they were working with another developer, they would take the codes built independently and “slam” them together. That was their process.

My process is to go in and just start building. I like to have a clear idea of what the goal is, what the pain points are, and who the end stakeholder is. I usually get clients to sign off on blueprints, timelines, pre-build documentations of that sort.

With ChatGPT, I can test scenarios. I can say, “I need to build a journey that has five touchpoints and that has X criteria” and see what it outputs. Then you can engineer and tweak your prompts to better suit your needs.

Anthony Lamot: A really interesting prompt I’ve seen going around the internet is “tell me how to write better prompts.”

Genna Matson: That is a good one. And we have to remember that AI is only as good as what we tell it and as we code it. It does statistical analysis at incomprehensible speeds, something humans just can’t do. However, sometimes it outputs things that are just silly. So you’re gonna have to edit it, you’re gonna have to work it into what you need it to be. It’s not perfect because we’re not perfect, and we created it.

Anthony Lamot: I really like the phrase you used there, “statistical analysis at scale.” It’s closely aligned to our company’s mission statement, which is to “elevate engagement through human intelligence at scale”. I know everything was very different five years ago, when we started.

Genna Matson: It wasn’t that different, though. The first Logic Engine was created in the 1950s. That’s when the term artificial intelligence was coined. It’s more than 70 years old! The term neural networks was coined in 2012, so that terminology is a bit newer, but that branching neural network algorithm has been used for a long time. Even Siri uses it, all your personal devices. Marketers have been using AI for over 20 years. I’ve created algorithms myself before Salesforce’s AI, Einstein.

What is new is the open source base of the code. There are multiple series of conditional statements that the neural network is creating for itself. That’s badass.

Anthony Lamot: So despite having been around for a while and despite all the innovations, there has always been a person in the center of it.

Genna Matson: Right, there is always the human element. Someone needs to prompt the AI. It can get out of control if people use it for nefarious means. I mean, putting aside all the philosophical conversations, AI is just code. It is not alive, and it won’t grow legs and take over the planet.

Anthony Lamot: Opinions vary on that. Some very smart people I know speak up very strongly against AI, but then you have others who fully embrace it.

But as we approach the end of our conversation, I wanted to ask you: What is your favorite part of being a member of the Marketing Cloud community?

Genna Matson: I love the people. I want to thank everybody who sends me messages and shares a little bit of their day-to-day with me. Keep sharing your victories with not just me, but the community in general. It’s you that makes us great!

Anthony Lamot: What was your favorite moment at Connections this year?

Genna Matson: Probably seeing Dan Levy. He is very special to a lot of us, and he might not know a lot about marketing, but his message about acceptance hit really close to home. The special keynote speakers are always the best part of Connections. I’ve seen some really cool ones, like John Lewis. What I also appreciate about Connections is the chance to meet people in the industry. That’s where I first met you!

Anthony Lamot: I will never forget how much Dan Levy appreciates simple newsletters.

Genna Matson: You know, I agree with him!. Thank you for saying that, Dan Levy. I’m on the pro-newsletter side. I love my newsletters. Keep sending them, please!

Anthony Lamot: Genna, you’ve given so much valuable advice throughout this conversation – be curious, remember to document, and newsletters are great. Do you have any other parting advice to Marketing Cloud newbies, or maybe even veterans?

Genna Matson: Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. If you don’t want to do it in public, do it in private. And every single one of us that have been around for a long time, and I am speaking for everybody, we all love when people reach out and ask us questions, even if they’re silly.

You can ask us something like “Hey, is there a way to turn the sky green on Tuesday, using Marketing Cloud?” The answer would be no, but you’re still welcome to ask. We’re all still learning.

Anthony Lamot: Thank you, Jenna, for taking the time today and for doing so much for the Marketing Cloud community. Your passion and curiosity are very inspiring. Thanks again for being here with us today.

Genna Matson: Thank you for having me. This was a lot of fun.

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