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Ryan Phelan's Journey from Priesthood to Email Marketing Expert

Ryan Phelan has 25 years of experience in email marketing, and has written 83 articles for MarTech on that and other topics. He’s the co-founder of, a digital marketing services company with an agnostic approach, and is the chairman emeritus of the Email Experience Council Advisory Board. He began his marketing career after leaving the priesthood, and has since gained valuable insight from his years as a DJ. Ryan believes that email is still a vital marketing channel, and with the abundance of data available, it has the potential to provide full-spectrum customer experiences.

Q: How did you get into marketing?

A: I went to college and studied to be a Catholic priest and decided, halfway through the program, that I didn’t want to be a priest. So I worked at a nightclub for six years, being a DJ and running the club. During the dot-com boom, I got an internet job with, working in the affiliate and email world. I got a degree in Psychology, and decided that email was where I wanted to go. It was more fun and exciting, and so I started my email career back in 1998.

Q: From the DJs I know, it sounds like there’s a psychological component to hosting a party.

A: There is. I took two things away from being a nightclub DJ that are still useful for marketers today. I learned how to read a room, paying attention to the micro-movements and the energy level of the crowd in order to predict what they’ll react to. This customer-centric focus is what I started back in ‘95, entertaining 600 people a night in a nightclub. Taking that into email marketing, it’s about putting the customer first and reading the room.

Q: In email marketing, there’s no single room where everybody is mingling together. Is that why it has to be data-centric?

A: Yes, the “room” in email is the reporting, conversion rate, online behaviour, heat maps, etc. It’s still a centric approach, but recognizing that everyone is different. When I was DJing, we developed a science on how to play music in a nightclub, starting with a couple two-steps, a triple-step, and then another faster song, until you reach a crescendo. Different types of people come onto the dance floor based on what you’re playing. This is similar to segmentation done in marketing.

Q: Why do you think email is still such an important marketing channel after all these years?

A: There are two upsides for email currently. Firstly, many marketers are still under-utilizing it, and Covid showed that companies need the right technology stack in order to execute email. Secondly, with the abundance of data available, email has the opportunity to continue to grow in sophistication, using propensity, demographic and geographic data, looking at persona-based models, and differentiating the message to different archetypes and groups. Email can still power full-spectrum customer experiences.

Originally reported by Martech:
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