The eCommerce Growth Series – How eCommerce Brands Can Be Successful with Retention Marketing

Brittany Currieby Brittany Currie

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In this episode of The eCommerce Growth Series, we’re joined by Cory Whitfield, Senior Director of Solutions and Partnerships at Listrak, to discuss how eCommerce brands can utilize retention marketing to their benefit. Some of the topics we covered include: 

  • How to use SMS effectively
  • Using SMS as a complementary tactic to email marketing
  • Pre-internet tactics that work today
  • How to personalize your messaging
  • Utilizing the right channel at the right time
  • How to be successful in a cookieless world


If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at And you can email Cory at’ll see you next time.

Ron: Welcome to the eCommerce Growth Series. My name is Ronald Dod, Chief Marketing Officer and Partner at Visiture. I’m here today with another episode where I talked to Cory Whitfield at Listrak. Cory and Listrak have been a long-time partner of Visiture and I am really excited to have him on the show due to our history. He’s just a wealth of knowledge when it comes to retention marketing, email and more. He spoke really in-depth about retention marketing from email and SMS. We spoke about 35 minutes and he really got into the details of how to be successful with retention marketing, which I really liked.

We talked about how SMS should be complementary to email marketing, not a substitute for email marketing and talked about how to be successful with SMS, how it’s gaining popularity and why it’s important for merchants and why merchants should be utilizing it. We talked about messaging and how to be successful with messaging and even you-do-you messaging, which I really liked from Cory and the Listrak team. We talked about how your most loyal customers can probably be the majority of your sales and even went back in the 1990s and history to talk about different strategies utilized pre-internet era and talked about how those tactics are still being utilized today.

We also talked about how to personalize your message and have the right channel at the right time and the right message at the right time. We talked about how things can change with a cookieless world and how third-parties cookies are going away and how to be successful with that. And Cory really alluded to three things: acquisition, acquisition and acquisition. And, finally, Cory wrapped us up and talked about his predictions for the future of retention marketing and eCommerce. Enjoy.

All right! Welcome, Cory. Welcome to the eCommerce Growth Series. Can you tell us about yourself?

Cory: Hey, good morning, Ron. Yeah, thank you. Thanks for having me. My name is Cory Whitfield. I’m the senior director of strategic partnerships and solutions here at Listrak. I have been here about five years. I wore a couple of different hats and, yeah, I’m happy to be working in partnerships now. I get to hang out and chat with people like you.

Ron: Yeah, perfect, Cory. And for those who don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about Listrak?

Cory: Yeah. So, Listrak is a marketing automation platform that’s been around since ’99 and we really kind of found our focus in retail probably around ’08 or ’09. I know that sounds kind of commoditized now–you know, a market automation platform that focuses in retail–but it really is our niche. I mean we’ve got about a thousand top brands and retailers out there that we support through email marketing, mobile, insights, cross-channel orchestration, SMS. So, we kind of moved outside of the realm of just kind of supporting retail and kind of find yourself needing to market and send messages to know where people are and, as we all know, that’s changing here daily, I guess.

Ron: It seems like you all are definitely one of the biggest and long-lasting partners I’d say in the eCommerce market automation space. I know a lot of technologies out there like to say they do marketing automation, but to me, you all truly do market automation. Can you speak a little bit more to that and how you really help eCommerce merchants with their full lifecycle marketing?

Cory: Yeah, it’s a good point. I mean, you know as far as being one of the last remaining privately held market automation platforms out there, it does make us not only nimble, but able to kind of take that feedback of what’s happening in today’s market and be able to innovate at the pace of eCommerce. So, as far as going back to 15 years ago–or maybe 10 years ago–it was even before my time, is really when our CEO Ross Kramer had the idea to formalize an integration with, at the time, Magento, so that we could consume a lot of that consumer behavior even before ESPs were really automating the process and launched one of the first publicly available retail abandonment campaigns back in email. So, you know, that was 10 years ago and then you fast forward to the innovation of today and it’s like, yes, you still have to be able to innovate and come up with new strategies in this highly competitive market where you know there’s X number of automation platforms out there and all kinds using the same buzzwords, right. Everybody’s got personalization, everybody’s got cross channel, everybody’s got some sort of orchestration and automation. But it really comes down to how well can you do it. And that’s really where we take pride in the fact that all of the innovation, all of the retention efforts, all of the marketing we do is to drive results.

Again, it might sound kind of cliché, but we’re not out there either buying up software or developing some check box that says, “Yes, we now have this.” We’ve always been kind of at the forefront of innovating the automation techniques that really get to the nuance of what retailers need in order to communicate at the right place, the right time. I mean, it’s nothing new. It’s just how well can you do it and I feel like we are kind of at the forefront of that channel.

Ron: Yeah, it’s so interesting throughout the years. I mean, I remember when cart abandonment was the coolest thing ever when it first came out and email has been such a big channel. But it seems like SMS is really gaining steam. It’s just another way to retain customers and get them back to buy again. So, can you tell us a bit more about SMS and what you’re seeing now?

Cory: Good point. It is definitely gaining steam. That’s one of those channels that we’ve been in for five years, but it was almost just like this channel that we either hoped was just going to kind of go away or retailers were going to adapt it. We’ve seen recently, probably even more than ever, a huge amount of retailers starting to get into SMS where you are going to probably find some barriers to entry that are much more difficult to navigate than email, right. With email, you can kind of start out with a platform and kind of make your way through some best practices, whereas SMS is just going to have some regulations out there, some terms and conditions that you have to apply. So, there can be a little bit of a challenge there, but certainly it is a channel that we’re realizing is here to stay. It is just kind of something that really should be supplemental.

A lot of retailers are going to try to go out and find a pure play SMS provider that maybe doesn’t quite orchestrate with the rest of your market automation. I would say, you know, while people are out there kind of evaluating this new space, it’s probably best to evaluate all your options, but it’s probably best to do it with one that can closely orchestrate with email and your marketing automation. I mean, there’s certainly going to be some other channels out there that are perhaps owned by eCommerce and then some are owned by marketing and then some are owned by store. But the reason we got into it five years ago is because it’s the most natural supplemental piece to email. It does give you a way to kind of orchestrate or kind of cluster together your marketing messages. So, yeah, it’s certainly something that we’re seeing more and more retailers get into today.

Ron: Yeah, that’s such a good point that it’s really complementary to email marketing–not really a substitute–and I really like that because I’m honestly very naive when it comes to SMS and I’m sure a lot of merchants out there are naive to it. How do you even really start with SMS? Because I’m sure you can’t–as you said, it’s regulated–just take out your customer list with their phone numbers and just start messaging them. How does one even begin with SMS marketing?

Cory: Yeah, good question. There’s even some regulations where you can’t even just preemptively start collecting phone numbers or maybe you have records of phone numbers from transactional. But as far as acquisition, it can actually be very easy because you can acquire in so many different spaces, right. If you wanted to acquire SMS and mobile, you could do that in store, you could do that in print, you can do that in broadcast, in any of your digital or social channels just by simply kind of posting out there your keyword and your short code. But that’s how you build your list. How you get started can really be a little bit of a difficult route to navigate. I would say most of your partners out there in the space that you’re going to want to evaluate someone who can do that for you.

I mean, we have specialists in the space to kind of get you set up with those regulations and terms and conditions–and there are a lot of them. But actually the acquisition is not the issue. That’s the fun part. Unfortunately, you can’t go back and look at all the mobile numbers that you have on file and then just message and opt-in. You could think of it almost like an old email. You know, double opt-in. At time of acquisition, you do need an opt-in and then you have to follow back up with that reply with the why terms and conditions in the SMS channel. And you have to do that within a certain period of acquiring the mobile number.

So, yeah, I would say it’s definitely worth looking into. It’s a very lucrative channel. It is just going to be one that you’re going to want to kind of navigate with a partner who does it regularly.

Ron: Yeah, and just off the top of your head, do you know the time that you have to send them that double opt-in text message?

Cory: I don’t know the exact timeline. I think we could obviously check with the compliance specialist team, but I think it’s relatively quick–and by quick, we might mean like a week. I could be off on that. But my point is you can’t just pull out this old outdated list and then follow that step of compliance and get them to reply yes to your terms and conditions. But the point of that is even once they do reply with that yes–like “yes, you have the right to message me in my SMS channel”–you have to do that regularly. And while with most retailers we would recommend maybe once a week is a good place to start, you still have to engage with them every month or so. For most of the carriers out there, if you have a message to somebody in that SMS channel within three to six months, they’re going to start to assume that’s almost like a passive opt-out where you’re going to have to opt them back in. You know there’s a fine line there. You’re going to want to start your cadence probably once a week, but you’re going to want to make sure you’re reaching out to them. It’s got to be timely and personalized and relevant as with all marketing communication. You have a special privilege there to reach the inbox. It’s got to be relevant. You’re going to want to find a message there, either in a broadcast or you know transactional or in some other sort of personalized alert, that you’re going to want to send probably every month or so.

Ron: Yeah, and so there’s two questions we’ll ask you to build on that. And starting with the first, what do you think is the strongest messaging that merchants are utilizing or being successful with when it comes to SMS?

Cory: Yeah, good question. As with any marketing, we always kind of tell our brands and retailers around here, “You do you.” You know, what fits you and your brand and your style and what is going to work best for you and your consumers. But I think what you’re asking there is from a high level–like what is that message. And some brands choose to kind of start out in SMS with transactional. That’s the easier one of like, “Hey, your order is placed, your order is shipped, your order’s out for delivery” and then once you start that transactional piece, you then have the right to the inbox for that marketing message. You don’t have to be super promotional. It can be funny, but it’s just got to be relevant with your brand. And if you were going to start out with a once a week marketing broadcast message, you’re going to want to kind of do whatever’s on your homepage, more than likely.

People aren’t really getting into segmentation in SMS right now. We’re not really at that level. It’s, you know, think back to that best message at the best time. We are sending that best marketing message and then you probably grow your channel into a more orchestrated abandonment. You know, we were talking about email abandonment. You’re definitely going to want to reach out to somebody in an SMS message for some triggered automated campaigns. Like I said before, you’re going to want to cluster those. You’re going to want to find the channel that works for you and they can be supplementary and complementary. You know, you could send somebody an abandonment email if they don’t engage.  Then, you send them an abandonment SMS. But for the most part, I think people are going to start out with your transactional and more of those broadcast messages.

Ron: I love it. I love it. I appreciate you going in-depth with that. You answered a lot of questions I wanted to ask you. And on the flip side of that, the second part that I want to ask you is what kind of pitfalls do you see in merchants doing that? Anything merchants need to be aware of when starting SMS campaigns?

Cory: Well, I think this one I’ve already kind of alluded to. You have a personal obligation there to remain relevant in that SMS channel. And as soon as you don’t, you will be unsubscribed to and as soon as you start reaching out too often, as soon as your message is not personalized or is irrelevant, you’re going to be unsubscribed pretty quickly.

Ron: Yeah, and so with personalization, I feel like it’s a big buzzword. I know you just talked about that a little bit ago and I feel like many eCommerce brands are talking about, “I really don’t know what it means and how to execute on it.” Can you just tell us about what your thoughts are on personalization and how you guys are helping merchants succeed with it?

Cory: Yeah, that’s a funny one because, I mean, it is that buzzword that everybody says and I think it means something a little bit different to whomever you ask. It’s interesting that it’s so top of mind right now. We were having an internal conversation the other day where one of our EVPs brought up the fact that there was a book in 1993 by Don Peppers and Martha Rogers called The One to One Future and, literally, I was just looking back at it and they were talking about some very simple concepts. In 1993, they were like, take a look at your top 20 most loyal consumers. Twenty percent of your most loyal consumer base is going to be the majority of your revenue. Okay, that’s still the way we do it today, right, and then they said, “Personalize your message to them.” Now back then, they were talking about exploring new channels and they were saying, “Don’t just use mail and fax.” They were saying maybe explore voicemail and phone and interactive TV, which I’m not even really sure if that ever came to fruition. Personalization is so hot right now, but it’s been around forever and it’s just finding the right channel and the right message.

There’s so much data that we have access to as an ESP marketing automation provider, but, also, all of this data is almost siloed, if you will. I mean, your loyalty provider is going to have data on you. Your ratings and review provider has data–all of this data, your eCommerce platform. Obviously, all of this data begins to communicate with each other and you then can really get into some very hyper-personalized and I mean one-to-one. I mean we’re not talking “wisdom of the crowd” that we were talking a couple of years ago. This is the one-to-one personalized message that is going to recommend content, product, tutorials. It’s going to be more timely. Even the personalization piece can just be about timing of when someone is in their inbox or when someone does their shopping or what channel they prefer to be communicated to.

I think the takeaway there on personalization, while it means something different to everyone, I think the piece is make sure your vendors are aware of each other. Talk to your account manager. Share with them what you’re doing in loyalty. Share with them what you’re doing in CRM. Share with them what data you have. You might be surprised. Even like, if we were to kind of talk about social, we always lean. People might say, “Oh, well, I never asked you that because, you know, Facebook or Instagram already has  some methods of integration there where I’m doing that today. I’m pulling in the data that I have for my ESP market automation and I’m sending that to social.” But, are you? Are you really optimized there? Are you really personalizing a message based on timing, recency, where they are in their journey? All of that data typically lives in your email, right. That’s where people focus their personalization, but have you considered taking those segments, those audiences that you have in your email and then specifically market out those channels through social and through search? And, what I mean by that is that if you have an audience in your email channel–and I hope that you do–that the 24 hours after the initial purchase that you want to talk to somebody within those 24 hours, which is when we know it’s the most optimal time to get a repeat customer, second purchaser within the 24 hours. So, we know you probably have a segment in your email campaigns that say follow up on a loyalty kind of retention or an upsell cross-sell.

You should also be funneling that to your social channels to go out and re-target to them immediately and that’s the personalization that we’re talking about. It gets into cross-channel orchestration. It gets into timing. It gets all the way down to the specific body of the email. So, it does really mean a whole lot of things to a lot of different people. So, we can spend a whole other podcast on personalization. It’s really a focus here within kind of all retailers. It’s just what’s important to you. Is it a channel? Is it retention? Is it loyalty? Is it acquisition? You know, you can personalize all of that journey.

Ron: Yeah, I love it. And it’s funny you mentioned 1990 because when I got my master’s in marketing, we had a class about customer relationship management (CRM). And we did a lot of studying on the number one user of CRM at the time, which was the Las Vegas nightclubs and hotels.

And they were very masterful in the way that they would get people to come back to gamble and stay at their hotels. And it was really interesting seeing their strategies they used to take these big databases. You know, this is pre-iPhone. This was back when people are using desktop and email marketing and really studied the way that they did direct mail. And it’s funny because the stuff they did back then, we’re doing now. And we look at all these really complex technologies when it comes to personalization, but in the day, you were either sending an email, a direct mail or a SMS. It’s really similar messaging. So, it’s really interesting to see how a lot of these old age philosophies are still being utilized in modern age technology, so that’s really interesting you said that.

I really liked what you talked about with segmentation. Obviously, that’s been talked ad nauseam. It’s something every merchant should be doing if you’re not. But I’d love to get your feedback on what are your thoughts on segmentation and obviously its ties into personalization. What are ways that merchants can use segmentation to better their marketing, their retention?

Cory: I mean, isn’t it funny that here we are in 2020, we’re talking about personalization and AI and, fundamentally, we’re still talking about segmentation. And it is such a crucial part that I think that we often kind of overlook. We often look at this hierarchy of marketing and let’s just call it, you know, level one, level two, level three and level four. And level one is somebody that I would think they would say, “Well, yeah, we’re doing segmentation.” And maybe level two is like, “Yeah, we’re doing personalization.” And level three is, “Well, we’re getting some predictive.” And then maybe level four is like, “We’re tying them all together and we’re really looking at kind of identity and behavioral acquisition and things like this.”

But let’s go back to level one because that’s where we spend a lot of our time. How do you take an audience, like a segment, that we’ve been talking about, even like I just referenced 1993? We’re talking about going back and looking at your most loyal customers, your top 20 percent. That’s a segment. And I think you said, ad nauseam, people have understood like, okay, I’m not going to tune into a podcast where they’re talking about segmentation. But if you just pause and you go back a second to where I just said, I hope retailers and brands out there are using some sort of 24-hour filter on recency from initial purchase. And I think everybody would nod their head like, yeah, of course, 24 hours is the best time to get a one-time buyer into a two-time. But what are you doing to monetize it or to make that actionable? And then a lot of people would say like, “Oh well…” and they kind of hem and haw like, “Oh well, we’re kind of doing…” But really that is an audience where I think people are missing an opportunity and that’s not the only one. But my point is the blocking and tackling, the fundamentals of segmentation, are still there. And what I mean by that is that even if you go out and you kind of try to evaluate some new AI platform, or you’re getting into CDP or CRM because you really want to focus on this blend of personalization and segmentation. And what I mean is that if you turn on some new AI technology and all of a sudden you start to find more segmentation, more audiences, you recognize some more recency type models and you recognize some more personalization and you’re consuming all that behavior to where the AI can start spitting out some results for you. And you think, okay, that’s not just supposed to be insightful because a lot of retailers and marketers don’t do anything with insights. They just kind of shake their head. But you take those insights and you make them actionable. So if you take an audience that your CRM, your AI tells you is important to market to, and just for simplistic terms, let’s just go back to let’s say something spits out, “Hey, here’s your best chance to turn a one-time buyer into two-time buyers within 24 hours.” Do something about it. Create a segment, market to it, be personal and be cross-channel. It goes back to literally what we just talked about. It’s the fundamentals of going back to 1993.

Sorry to keep bringing it up, but we’re not changing the tactics really. I mean, I guess fundamentally there are some new techniques, but it’s all stemming from the same fundamental marketing efforts that you did your master’s on in the ’90s. It’s segmentation, it’s personalization. Yes, it’s automation. Yes, it’s AI, but they all have to orchestrate together.

I guess that’s where I would leave it on the segmentation piece. You have data from your loyalty provider. You have data from your CDP. You have data from your eCommerce platform. What you do with it is up to you. And I guess it goes right back to the last question. If you can talk to your team, if you can talk to your account managers–we have, I think, some of the best in the country here. You share with them what you’re doing out there in social. You let them know what you’re doing in programmatic. You let them know what you’re doing in paid search. All of that helps us create a strategy to understand segments, how we can then personalize. It gets fun, it gets in-depth and it kind of gets into a very creative collaboration with you. And hopefully you’re with a vendor who would have that conversation with you and get to understand your entire kind of cross-channel initiatives, if you will.

Ron: Yeah, and it’s interesting how marketing is going to change from across channel perspectives, especially with cookies going away. I know something we talked a little bit about pre-show is kind of a world without cookies and how that’s going to change. So, kind of in your opinion, how do you view the landscape is going to change when we can use less cookies to do targeting and we’ll have to rely on other marketing channels?

Cory: Yeah, I wish I knew the answer because I think that, you know, probably we’ve already seen it some with Apple and Google’s going to I think start to implement some different policies probably about 2022. I think we’ve got another year left here, but we’ll find a way. And I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but I can tell you it’s all going to circle back to acquisition, acquisition, acquisition. Like rule one, acquisition; rule 2, acquisition; rule 3, acquisition. It sounds silly because our CEO has been saying it for the five years that I’ve been here–but if cookies go away and all of a sudden you look back internally to like first-party cookies… Let’s be clear on that. I mean, first-party cookies aren’t going away. It’s third-party cookies, right. So, we’ll always know who our brand clients are on our brand sites. Listrak will always be able to communicate differently with someone who’s behaving on the site that we already have identified and recognized. But you look back internally and you think, “ Who’s on my list?” That’s my SMS list that we talked about how you can acquire SMS subscribers. Simple–keyword short code. On your mobile device, you could use a tap to join technique. It’s a pop-up that once you click through, it auto-populates the keyword and auto-populates the short code as well, so you just literally click send and you’re communicating with that brand and SMS.

But it also goes back to your email acquisition. The cookies have helped us lean on identity for a little while and identity is big because as good of a market automation provider as we are, we’re limited by the channels and the list that we can market to. So, we’re going to get back to the basics. We’re going to find a better way to do it without cookies, but it’s going to rely on acquisition through email, acquisition for SMS and orchestrating our messages with our first-party data. We still have first-party cookies. And we can still orchestrate a message in clusters to one user via email, SMS, paid search, affiliate or social. We’ll still have that. That’s not going away. As device proliferation really just continues to expand, all of a sudden they’re forecasting a user is going to have 13 different devices that they’re engaging with brands on in a couple of years and it seems too hard to even fathom. I have like four, but I still think that’s a lot. You know, I have my desktop, I have my home PC, I have my iPad, I have my phone. But that is difficult and that’s really where cookies help. That allows us to say, “Hey, Cory is on our list, either SMS or email when he’s engaging with our brand on this device.” We recognize that. And then when he goes to another device, hopefully, we have it cookied and then we can identify that’s the same persona, that’s the same person. That’s going to be the challenge here.

But if we can continue to acquire and we can continue to communicate and, if you’re doing it well, a first-party cookie will always remain. And what I mean by that is that if you’re sending your transactional messages, if you’re sending your loyalty messages, if you’re sending your automated messages, if you’re sending your broadcast messages, all of those emails or SMS pieces of communication, they all get clicked through because everybody wants to track their package, everybody wants to see their order status, everyone wants to see the newest release on a product. If you’re doing your marketing campaigns well through email and SMS, a provider like Listrak, at least, will have all of those devices already cookied and that doesn’t mean those are going away. We will still be able to identify that’s Cory Whitfield’s iPhone and that’s Cory Whitfield’s desktop because I’ve opened an email or an SMS on both of those devices so there’s always going to be a way around it. You’re then just going to have to go back to the basics of, let’s say, we have first-party cookies on those devices and we still can recognize that’s Cory. It goes back to the question we just covered for the last 30 minutes. Now what? I don’t think it’s going to change a lot. I think we’re going to find ways. But if you’re not doing email or SMS well today, you’ve got about a year and a half probably to get good at it.

Ron: Yeah, that’s interesting–you know a year and a half–and I’m glad that we’re not getting rid of first-party cookies. I feel like it still helps. I can’t tell you how many products that I’ve looked at on Instagram and thought, “Oh, that was really cool” and then later wished that they were retargeting me so I can remember that product when I go back to buy it later when I was ready to buy.

So, we talked a lot about email marketing and SMS, but I’m just kind of curious. I mean, are there any other retention strategies or things that eCommerce merchants need to know about in the future?

Cory: I wish I knew where the future of eCommerce was going. And I’m certainly not one of those analysts out there that is going to tell you that I know it. But I also know that we’ve been in SMS for five years and yet we’ve had a hundred new clients subscribed to SMS in 2020. That’s all of a sudden people are catching up to strategies that we had even before COVID-19. This pandemic, I think, has changed what every analyst has said the future of eCommerce is going to be. And I think right now we’re scrambling to know what is the next big channel. And I don’t know what Silicon Valley’s going to come up with next. But I know that some of the tactics–some of the basics, some of the techniques–that we have been providing to our clients are all of a sudden now the future. All of a sudden, I want to do that. I’m either down because of the pandemic or I’m killing it because of the pandemic. Sorry, maybe that’s not the best phrase there. But you see a lot of retailers that are doing really well and you see a lot of retailers that are struggling right now because eCommerce is changing and I don’t know what that’s going to look like–as far as what the next big channels are. I don’t know, but I know it’s going to be probably unpredictable. It’s going to change just like it did here four or five months ago. I wish I knew, Ron.

Ron: All right, Cory, thank you for joining the show.

Cory: Yeah, good conversation, Ron. I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

Ron: Thank you for joining the eCommerce Growth Series and a big thank you to Cory Whitfield. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at And you can email Cory at and Whitfield is spelled W-h-i-t-f-i-e-l-d. We’ll see you next time.

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