The challenge for every forward-looking business is to always keep an eye out for what circumstances or threats may prove disruptive. The most successful businesses do not merely aim to delay the arrival of a harsher climate or more competitive environment, but seek ways to outpace the passage of time by staying in front of threats.
For example, the competitive threat posed by USPS entering the overnight delivery business spurred FedEx to acquire Kinko's and redefine itself more broadly as a business services company. The modern McDonald's restaurant offers far more than burgers, fries and shakes. Google has evolved from a simple search engine into a media, advertising and technology platform touching nearly every corner of the Internet. And Enron transformed itself from a humble energy company into global exchange for... OK, maybe Enron isn't the best example from an execution standpoint, but it was not content to simply watch its business slowly erode. That, at least, is laudable.
What all of these businesses have in common is that their leadership surmised the threats posed against them, as well as the opportunities available to them, and made un-subtle changes to continue to survive, and even thrive.
Your email program is a business as well, just like FedEx and McDonald's (though hopefully very unlike Enron). As an email marketer, you are the CEO of your company's email business. We spend much of our job in an operations capacity, looking for ways to squeeze out a little more productivity by tweaking a subject line, analyzing bounces, working on ways to lift deliverability. Inching every metric forward is useful and necessary in email marketing. But as the CEO of your email business, you have a strategic responsibility as well. If there is a threat out there liable to hamstring your email program or compromise its effectiveness, you are the one who has to know about it. And then it is your responsibility to address it as well.
So what are the biggest threats to your email business, and how can you ward them off or dodge them entirely? Here are a few, offered more as questions than answers:
Disruptive Technologies: The first disruptive technology to affect email was the spam filter, which made reaching the inbox more difficult. Today one could argue it is social media, which makes reaching the inbox less relevant. What is the next disruptive technology headed straight for email?
Shifting Consumer Trends: Consumers have older inboxes than they did a few years ago, meaning more senders have their addresses and clutter is on the rise. Subscribers are also more likely than ever to use filters and folders to triage their email, and even have function-specific accounts. Their attention is at an all time premium as well, with increasing channels and devices vying for their affections. And on the subject of devices, mobile email consumption is through the roof, and the roof itself is getting higher and higher. In all of these examples, the shift has been more gradual than "disruptive," allowing email marketers to parry them with operational and design tweaks. But collectively they result in an email landscape that is very different from 10 years ago, and most emailers have been responding to the changes all decade. What consumer trends are you seeing that an email business CEO should get out in front of, instead of chase down from behind?
Fast-Followers and Leap-Froggers: Mature email programs have years of experience, well-established practices, institutional learning and large and predictable house lists. But nimble upstarts see all of that as legacy processes and operational baggage. We are now seeing a new type of business built around the unique advantages that email affords -- promotional, urgent and anticipated messaging. Retailers like Groupon and The Clymb exploit email in remarkable ways, bringing excitement back into the inbox. Their very business model is to sell at 60% to 70% discounts off of MSRP, and for a very limited time only. Traditional retailers who try to match the promotional impact of these messages will see their metrics rise, but their profits plummet. And these new businesses raise the bar for what constitutes "promotional," making some of email's tried and true tactics less successful.
Irrational Competitors: A business that does not play by the same rules is an irrational competitor. It is not governed by the same restrictions as other businesses, and can compete in ways that seem almost unfair. A decade ago it was the VC-fueled dot coms that were relentlessly pursuing eyeballs, customers and accounts, disregarding profit in exchange for valuation. In the email arena, the irrational competitor over the past decade has been spam. Laws, schmaws, and sender reputation be damned. If a message sent to millions of unscrupulously obtained addresses costs $1,000 to send but nets $1,100 in sales or affiliate or click revenue, then the spammer will send it 10,000 times to millions of addresses and hope to make a cool million. What are the next decade's irrational competitors? What rules will they conveniently ignore? How will they further ransack the industry landscape?
If you could invent a business to put the screws to your existing email business, what would it look like? Chances are you'll see it soon enough, in the form of a new competitor in the inbox. Until then, keep improving and optimizing your day-to-day email business, but make sure one eye stays on the horizon as well, watching for the threats and opportunities that could spur the radical shifts that you as CEO need to consider. The CEO's job is not merely to survive, but to find or create the market in which your business can dominate.