MyFonts: upping the ante

How I helped MyFonts move from monthly newsletters to a packed email programme

May 09, 2020 email development, email workflows

Starting in April 2010 and continuing right up until August 2018, I was in one form or another anything and everything email for the online font retailer MyFonts. My work on MyFonts’s newsletters in that time is pretty much where I learnt my trade, from balancing audience engagement against driving revenue, to building robust email HTML, to designing efficiencies and creating scalable systems.

Looking at that time now, I can see that I was incredibly privileged to be able to work in such an autonomous and open environment. For the majority of my time with MyFonts, I was an external consultant, accountable only to my collaborators (often also external contractors) and Kevin Woodward (effectively MyFonts’ managing director, but also something like the CTO, as well as the marketing director), to extent of fulfilling a commitment to get two newsletters out the door each month, to a high technical, creative and editorial standard. Any improvements or optimisations to the code or workflow were mine to identify, initiate, work on and deliver (or not).

There were three distinct evolutionary phases to my role with MyFonts. At the outset, and for two years until early 2013, I was mainly contributing visual content, proof reading text, and preparing the HTML files for release by duplicating a previous version, copy/pasting in text and image assets, and going through the whole thing with fine-tooth comb looking for missing closing tags and inserting typographic HTML entities by hand. But without having worked like that for a good year or so, I doubt I would have seen the potential for improvements and embarked upon the next phase.

Around the end of 2012, start of 2013 I discovered the importance of HTML tables to the world of email. The files I’d inherited and carried on using for two years had been built on the modern web convention of using divs and CSS to control layout. It was only by chance that I discovered that this wouldn’t work reliably, or even at all, in many email clients. It was this moment that set me on the path of really getting to grips with the technical demands of creating, deploying and optimising marketing email. Over the next few years, until around mid 2016, I implemented sweeping changes to the email production workflow, achieving some significant wins in terms of efficiency and stability, but also causing some monumental screw-ups and running hard into some limitations (my own and organisational) along the way.

The biggest, most significant improvement was to move away from duplicating a previous file and populating new content via copy/paste, to a componentised system based on a PHP templating language called Smarty, that would separate the content from the layout. MyFonts’ lead developer Joe Vieira set me up with a basic tutorial, then let me run with it. The application I built took text files and converted them into PHP arrays, which were then used to compile a HTML file from predefined snippets. In one step, production time collapsed from around 7 days to just two.

This led to two important outcomes: our capacity for creating marketing email suddenly rocketed, and we introduced several new kinds of email (principally those driving revenue); and I became intensely interested in improving other parts of the workflow, such as learning about our ESP’s API capabilities and using the command line to perform certain RESTful operations. At one point, I got a little bit ahead of myself and triggered a campaign send in our ESP (which at the time was Sendgrid) which contained only the content <html>test this trigger</html> to a live audience of 500k MyFonts newsletter subscribers.

From this episode, not only did I learn not to play with new API toys anywhere except in a sandbox, but also that the best way to recover from something like that is to own your mistakes, both as an individual and as an organisation. I fessed up to my colleagues immediately, and we sent out a follow up to that list as soon as we could explaining what had happened, written very much in the first person. A few individuals expressed grumpy sentiments, but most appreciated getting to see the humans bumping along behind the marketing curtain.