The consistent theme of the moms was the issue of time -- they don't have any. Their priority is running the kids between soccer practice and music lessons. When it comes to time on the computer, they are competing with their children and spouses. While one mom on the panel was consistently connected because she runs an online business from the computer in her kitchen, the more common scenario was one where Mom checked into her inbox late at night: "Around 10 o'clock at night, I can generally elbow my way between the kids so I can go through my email and check things online," one said.
In general, what we heard is that moms' email use is very utilitarian. They want information that is easy to digest. They value clarity and highly structured information over content. There is value in getting email from companies to which these consumers feel affinity, but all too often, they find the messages cluttered and the process of checking out frustrating. "Tricks turn me off. I recently responded to an email that advertised $10 off, but when I got to the end of the process, there was a catch, I had to do something else to get my $10 back." Instead, what these consumers wanted was upfront information about the total cost of completing the transaction: "I don't have time to figure it all out. Just show me the fully loaded price, even if it is an estimate. I'm willing to pay more for something if I know the process is going to be quick and easy!"
Contrast these insights to what we heard from the panel of college students in May. First, email may not be the first place college students turn for personal communication, but it is the place for "official" communications -- be that communicating with professors, parents, or potential employers. Second, college students do sign up for emails, but they are savvy about using second and third inboxes to manage the communications they receive. Third, college students have a lot more time to interact with their favorite brands and get involved in immersive experiences. Email can serve as the mechanism that invites their participation.
Seems to me that in all the conversations we have about being relevant or about the influence of social media on email, we need to acknowledge that there is a fork in the road. Moms' use of email (and the Web in general) is incredibly utilitarian, while students use of the Internet is incredibly interactive. To me, this suggests that there is no single way to think about the future of email -- no more than there is a single way to think of the future of the microprocessor. The microprocessor simply allows a lot of other things to work. In the 1970s, microprocessors were used to power electronic calculators. Now they are used to power our computers, this week's talking Happy Meal toy from McDonald's, and things far beyond my comprehension.
As we look forward, we need to challenge ourselves to move beyond conversations about "How much email is too much?" or "Is demographic or behavioral data more valuable when segmenting your list?" The opportunity lies in proactively delivering the power of the Internet into our subscribers' inboxes the way they see fit. For moms, this might look like making our messages more streamlined and easy to categorize. For students, this may involve bringing the social experience closer by embedding more feedback mechanisms directly into the email.
Whatever the case, we have a phenomenal tool whose adoption by online audiences is nearly universal. Even so, we need to seriously consider the question Joseph Jaffe posed this week at the Summit: "Have you really even scratched the surface?" What do you think? Have we?