Spam Resource Spotlight: Matthew Vernhout

Canadian Matthew Vernhout has been a member of the Secret Society of Very Smart Deliverability People (SSoVSDP) for many years now. He's been connected to those worlds of email and deliverability, in some form or other, going back to the turn of the millennium. Not only that, but he's been publishing the deliverability and email marketing blog EmailKarma for just about 17 years. Quite an accomplishment, if you ask me! As a CIPP/C certified privacy professional, he knows a thing or two about data privacy protection, and he's my go-to when I need to better understand Canada's Anti-Spam Law (CASL), since he co-authored a guide to that very law. A smart guy, all around.

You can find his Linkedin Profile here.

Matthew, thanks for talking to me today. I'm so happy you were willing to sit down and talk about email and deliverability here, on a competing blog (heh)!

Reading through your Linkedin CV, the evolutionary steps in your initial email-adjacent career remind me a bit of my own. In my case, it started with me as a Macintosh graphic/prepress specialist, then ending up as the unix guy running the new mail server and struggling to deal with spam, to chasing after spammers and causing them trouble, to later helping email marketers understand how to keep the lights on and avoid getting spam blocked themselves. How does that compare with your version of "career path toward email deliverability enlightenment" and what were your initial experiences like in our email realm?

After graduation, it was never my intention to be in email or delivery. I was looking at IT services, networking, and even software development as a future. However, that aspiration was short-lived as I ended up needing a job. It just so happened that my sister's roommate, who worked for this email company, was hiring at the time. That was how I started in the business, initially in Network Operations for a Canadian ESP -- FloNetwork. From there, I eventually progressed into a Team Lead role, ultimately responsible for all network issues, including email delivery issues, which in turn progressed into a full-time role. Over the years, the role has evolved and changed into the core focus of my career. The combined experiences have led me down the path of being a privacy generalist, compliance expert, and Delivery Consultant.

Congratulations on your very new role at Email Industries. What does that entail?

Thanks! In my new role, I'll be collaborating with clients who function similarly to small ESPs. This entails providing assistance with building compliance programs, configurations, client consulting, abuse management, training, and other delivery-related tasks. Essentially, it's about offering outsourced deliverability management, even for clients who operate on top of an API/SMTP platform but require assistance with the platforms they build and manage. Additionally, I'll be serving as a mentor and senior resource for the team, assisting with more complex delivery issues and developing strategies to help our clients repair, build, or maintain their email program reputations.

I think it's fair to say that industry collaboration and community building are something that we both believe in; it's a unique environment where we can compete, but also share knowledge (via blogs and community) to help others, and improve the state of the email ecosystem overall. What's your take on the current state of industry collaboration? Do you find it useful, or challenging? What successes (or failures) have you found through that collaboration?

I often hear this sentiment echoed, and it's true that many other industries lack the same levels of collaboration seen in the email industry. Thanks to communities like the EmailGeeks slack (with over 30,000 members worldwide), M3AAWG, the ESPC, and others, we've fostered "circles of trust" where sharing and assistance are paramount—something other industries simply don't seem to have. One of the main catalysts for this was individuals like you and I who effectively were there at the beginning of what is now known as deliverability consulting. This concept simply didn't exist before we entered the scene in the early 2000s. We had to engage in dialogue and exchange notes on how things were done or worked. We sat at the table during the drafting of laws like CAN-SPAM and CASL, representing the industry during those pivotal moments. Many of the organizations we now actively participate in were constructed as we progressed, essentially bringing together the delivery veterans in a way that forged bonds uncommon in other industries. Ultimately, we all share the common goal of distinguishing commercial email from spam and ensuring it's useful for consumers—a rising tide effect.

However, there is a downside to this landscape. The influx of new players in email and deliverability means that some of the old guard and relationships are becoming thinner and more dispersed. The lack of experience can lead to confusion within the industry, with individuals publishing articles containing outdated information, thereby perpetuating more confusion and disseminating bad advice throughout the industry. This issue also extends to new marketers who may unknowingly repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, lacking proper guidance or relying on misguided advice from questionable sources—such as purchasing email lists for cold emailing, for instance.

I was just thinking of "cold leads" as you were mentioning that. Every once in a while somebody pops up, pretending to be an expert at successfully sending spam, trying to persuade people to engage in things that we know don't work very well. I feel like to some extent, we've been around long enough to just wait those people out. Check on their Linkedin profile in a year or two and see if they're still in the email business. Most of the time they've moved on to something else.

There are lots of snake oil sales people in the realm of cold mailing. From hashbusters, IP waterfalling, IP/domain rotation and several other tactics that are all short term functions. I don't track these 'experts' enough to see if they are still in the industry or not over time. But if someone is coaching you to send hundreds or more emails a day that is not cold email any more. True 'cold email' should be one off communications to highly vetted recipients -- we've all had to do a cold outreach at some point -- vs the general 'rotate, spray and pray' models we see with a lot of these experts or coaches. If you have to ask 'please pass this along to the right person' you're doing it very wrong. You should know the right person before sending them an email and you can't do that at scale.  

You started publishing the Email Karma blog way back in July, 2007. What made you want to get into the blogging game? Besides just wanting to be cool like me, of course (kidding). Do you still find value in blogging after all these years?

I recall a conversation with the CEO of the company I was working for at the time, where I expressed my interest in writing a blog about email best practices. There was so much content I wanted to share that it seemed like a lot for the company blog to handle. As a solution, it was decided that I could start my own blog and publish whenever I wanted. This opportunity allowed me to establish my own brand, which I believe has greatly benefited me over the last 17 years. While I don't write as frequently as I used to due to time constraints and other responsibilities, I still find it valuable. Often, when someone asks me about a particular topic, I can readily point them to a relevant article on my blog. If I don't already have an article on the subject, it may inspire me to write one, knowing it could be useful to others in similar situations. These days, I aim for fewer articles of higher quality. I also continue to enjoy reading other blogs, such as Spam Resource, as they provide ongoing learning opportunities and different perspectives. Additionally, I use them as references for topics I may not cover on my own blog, EmailKarma.

OK, we've covered email, deliverability and blogging. Now let's move on to the tough questions. Do you hate raisins, or are you wrong?

LOL -- I've always loved raisins. There is a family photo floating around from when I was 1 or 2, where I am clutching a box of Sun-Maid raisins. I also like craisins and grapes, as well as a wide variety of other dried and fresh fruits.

Being Canadian (as is my wife -- you're in good company), I would imagine that you're tired of hearing jokes about poutine. What's an example of good food, a delicious cuisine, or even a fabulous restaurant from up where you are, something that is either uniquely Canadian or just fantastically better compared to something down here in the US?

Lots of people think we are vastly different from the US for food, but honestly there are a lot of similarities. Where I think we are uniquely qualified to have opinions on quality (beyond Poutine) is Maple Syrup. Did you know Canada produces 85 per cent of the world's maple syrup? We put it on or in so many things beyond breakfast foods -- if you enjoy whisky, I'd recommend you get a bottle of Sortil├Ęge Maple Whisky. Also, we have great chocolate bars that are unique to Canada -- I'm usually traveling with a small stash of 'Coffee Crisps' for my friends in the US who are in the know. Last up, Hawaiian pizza is also a Canadian creation, and yes, I think pineapple, ham, and bacon on a pizza is just fine. Maybe you'll think I'm wrong, like your thoughts on raisins… but it is okay; we can still be friends.

As long as you bring me a bag of mini Cadbury Dairy Milks the next time you head down this way. I've always been jealous that Canadians get the good, UK-sourced Cadbury chocolates, but here in the US, they're made by Hershey and they are just not the same.

Last question, promise. Your world is made up of a series of overlapping connecting, but distinct realms, including deliverability, best practices, policy compliance and privacy. It's good to be well-rounded, of course, but do you ever tire of having to juggle it all? If you could laser focus what you work on in the email sphere, regardless of what it meant for career success (or monetary happiness), what would you choose to focus on?

I'd probably stick to the deliverability world. Solving challenges and fixing issues is something I still really enjoy, and you really can't do delivery in a silo; you need all the pieces you mentioned -- an understanding of best practices, privacy, legislation, and policy. I've long since given up on development, deciding to dabble and build little widgets rather than a big intricate program, which 19-year-old me had aspirations of doing.

Matthew, thanks so much for sharing your expertise (and thoughts on poutine) with me and everyone reading. This was a lot of fun, and I appreciate you.
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