Jan 18, 2012

Introducing Wavelength

Every once in a while a MailChimp customer will ask me, "Hey, MailChimp’s been great for keeping in touch with my loyal customers. But is there any way to buy or rent an email list from you guys, so I can promote my business to potential customers in my area?" That’s when I explain to them the perils of purchased emails, and the virtues of organically growing a permission-based list. I also tell them they could just look around for other local merchants who might have newsletters (or similar publishers in their industry), then partner with them. In the back of my mind though, I’ve always dreamed of creating a tool for MailChimp customers to make that process easier.

That tool would analyze your list, then scour the vast database of MailChimp customers, looking for similar publishers to recommend. But this idea has been on the back burner for years, because such a tool would require 1) a vast database of MailChimp customers, and 2) the ability to analyze it–fast. Well, going freemium back in 2009 kinda helped with requirement #1. We’re at 1.2 million users, and manage over 800 million email subscribers for them all. And launching our Email Genome Project helped with requirement #2.

Helloooooo, serendipity. Finally, we have all the pieces we need to build Wavelength: a MailChimp service that uses a massive amount of email data to help you find publishers who share something in common with you:

 

Wavelength doesn’t help you send a promotion to another list, and it definitely doesn’t give you other lists or email addresses. It simply shows you screenshots of other newsletters that some of your subscribers read. The goal is to help you contact those publishers and maybe form a relationship with each other. Ideally, you can link to each other and help each other grow your lists organically.

 

How Wavelength Works

Basically, Wavelength analyzes your MailChimp list, then compares it to all other MailChimp lists (really, really fast). It looks for subscriber overlap, then recommends similar publishers by showing you screenshots of the email campaigns they’ve sent.

For example, let’s say I own a local pub, and I’d like to find some email newsletter publishers in town to partner with.

I’d go to Wavelength:


 

 

and authorize it to connect with my MailChimp account:

 

Wavelength will ask me which list to analyze, and it’ll ask for some descriptive tags for that list:

 

Then, it starts thinking:

It usually takes under 20 seconds to compare a list with about 1 million other lists containing 800 million emails.

And in order to deliver the results really fast, we pre-generated over 3 million campaign screenshots in the system (#NBD, as the kids tweet).

 

Once the analysis is complete, I get screenshots of email newsletters that my customers are also interested in.

They’re listed in order of "similarity" (subscriber overlap):

As one tester put it, this is where you meet all your "email cousins."

From here, I can drill down to see an archive of past campaigns by each publisher, and then subscribe to any of their lists.

 

See your subscribers, and maybe even yourself, in a new light

The example scenario above is very typical for what we’ve been finding in our initial tests. You’d think that other local pubs would be listed first, but you’re more likely to find local theaters, beer-related iPhone apps, local coffee shops, etc.

When I ran my various MailChimp lists through Wavelength, I expected to see mostly email marketing or design related results. Instead, I saw that my customers subscribe to newsletters about social marketing tools, CRMs, content management systems, productivity apps, design publications, and newsletters about company culture and innovation.

Here’s a snippet of my newsletter’s wavelength:

 

But what’s really fun is when I manage different lists in Wavelength, I get some different results. For example, we manage a list that talks about our various giveaways (t-shirts, monkey hats, plushies, etc) that I think is mostly composed of very loyal (and obviously very stylish) MailChimp fans, and the Wavelength for that list looks like this:

 

Yet another list I set up for an event we hosted in London had a Wavelength like this:

which actually gives me some ideas for other international events to sponsor.

 

When’s this available?

Update: Wavelength is live now

We plan to open up access to Wavelength in about a month. Why the wait? Well, it scans our system for what it perceives to be public email campaigns, and it makes an attempt to exclude any email campaigns that it thinks are "private" (I’ll explain what that means below). But instead of just relying on algorithms to tell us what to exclude, we thought it’d be good to let our customers manually exclude themselves. We want to give you plenty of time to do that.

 

Public vs. private email campaigns

MailChimp was built for email marketing, which is an inherently public activity. So what in the world should be considered a "private" campaign, and why would someone use MailChimp to send one?

Usually, it’s an internal company newsletter, or a wedding invitation, or a one-time prize notification or transactional kind of message.  The information in the email is not usually super private or sensitive (email is just not an extremely private medium), but it might be something that you don’t exactly want promoted, or something with expired content. Wavelength will almost always exclude these, because it won’t search lists that were only imported manually, it won’t include tiny lists or fresh new lists, and it won’t show campaigns sent to a segment of a list. For a campaign to be shown in Wavelength, its recipient list must be greater than 200 members, and show signs of being public. Namely, opt-ins were received from its public signup form, or the campaign archive bar (that thingy with all the social sharing buttons) is activated.

But if you want, you can manually override everything, and totally exclude your list from Wavelength searches.

For example, I have my list where customers can sign up for a chance to win a t-shirt. For some reason, I just don’t want this to show up in Wavelength results. Maybe the t-shirt designs are top secret prototypes or something. For that list, I can go to "Publicity Settings:"

 

And then mark its campaigns as private:

 

You’ll notice that while we were at it, we combined two other previously released features that have publicity and privacy options (the archive toolbar and the subscriber count chiclets). We figured it’d be nice to consolidate everything in one place.

 

Using data to make email better

Wavelength is a project I’m happy to finally see the light of day, but we’ve only just begun. In 2011 we brought on a server/devops guy to help us handle all this "big data" and we hired an internal data scientist to analyze that data (here’s some fun stuff he’s found). We’re already heavily using EGP behind the scenes here to prevent abuse and protect the email ecosystem. For example, about a year ago, a hacker stole someone’s identity to create a MailChimp account, then used it to send spam (one reason we’ve added so many security features to MailChimp, and why we make free 2-factor security apps like AlterEgo). After that incident, we analyzed their list and found other accounts that had lists very closely matching the hacker’s:

The "evil doer" is in the center, with similar lists surrounding (users’ names obviously have been obfuscated). See any common theme here? What we found was fascinating. Some of the "similar" accounts were legit users, and some appeared to be accounts that the hackers were in the midst of setting up. But this kind of graph raises questions like, "Why are they all London arts / entertainment organizations? Did they initially steal their list from some London theater? Or did they all scrape their lists from the same source?"  We’re also able to test incoming new accounts for the presence of stolen/purchased/scraped lists (based on data we’ve accumulated from accounts we’ve shut down for abuse), with the goal of keeping our system clean and our deliverability high (and also, you know–protecting email). And most exciting of all (to an email nerd like me), we can use what we’ve learned while fighting abuse to build cool new features like Wavelength that help us improve our email marketing. Who knew math could be so useful?

Visit Wavelength at: http://wavelength.mailchimpapp.com

For general announcements about our Email Genome Project, subscribe here.

 

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