A Fork In The Road?

One of the first sessions at this week's Email Insider Summit in Park City, Utah, was a panel of five moms who shared how they use email along with the things they like and the concerns they have with their inboxes. While there were some great nuggets in the session, I believe it is more interesting to compare what was shared in the moms panel with the panel of college students at the Email Insider Summit held last May in Captiva, Fla.

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?

Tags: email
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7 comments about "A Fork In The Road?".
  1. Kelly Samardak from Shortstack Photography , December 10, 2008 at 10:55 a.m.

    Interesting, regarding moms needing the long and short of it right away instead of the song and dance riddles. Could be why there is such a hug chunk of them on Twitter, getting reference in 140 letters snippets with direct links and no hoody hoo.

  2. Claire Kuhl from Park Seed Company , December 10, 2008 at 11:04 a.m.

    No matter the delivery device, no matter the technology, the essence of effective outbound communication is getting the right message to the right people in the right way at the right time. A basic constant in the changing environment!

  3. Cynthia Edwards from Razorfish , December 10, 2008 at 11:23 a.m.

    Great article, Morgan!

    A good way to allow customers/users to communicate their own email preferences at sign-up is to show samples of emails on your web site and let them pick what type they like to receive. (This assumes you offer a choice.) Some companies do this, but most do not.

    On the other end of the equation, I have seen some good unsubscribe pages that offer different selections of emails (by topic, cadence, etc.) to people who are bailing. That's rather shutting the barn door after the horse is halfway down Cherry Lane, but it probably salvages a few email subscribers.

    This article illustrates again that to succeed, email marketers have to think much harder about how to find out their recipients' preferences and usage patterns, and how to leverage that information usefully.

  4. Cynthia Samuels from Cobblestone Associates LLP , December 10, 2008 at 12:04 p.m.

    It's impressive how well YOU were listening! I work with moms (especially mom bloggers) frequently and the time issue is real. Just as real, though, is the desire to be treated as an individual, not an address. Put the two together - efficiency and respect - and you have a winning formula.

  5. Rahna Barthelmess from Beacon Marketing , December 10, 2008 at 8:24 p.m.

    Marketers need to remember that e-mail is simply another medium, another way to deliver their message. The differences shown between college kids and moms is merely indicative of the multitudinous ways that the medium is used. The visual is not a fork in the road…the image that comes to my mind resembles the myriad computer cables that snake under the floor of the stock exchange! There are as many ways to use e-mail as there are consumer groups that use the medium. Just think of the television. Most providers offer over 600 channels from which to choose…not two. Marketers need to look at their messages and find out how best to convey their message to their audiences, on HGTV, ESPN or Nickelodeon, in fifteen second spots or thirty minute infomercials. Email, just like television, is just the medium.

    The marketer’s job, AS ALWAYS, is to understand their consumer--their media consumption habits and desires so that they can deliver their message in the most impactful, compelling manner possible.

  6. Rahna Barthelmess from Beacon Marketing , December 10, 2008 at 9:45 p.m.

    Marketers need to remember that e-mail is simply another medium, another way to deliver their message. The differences shown between college kids and moms is merely indicative of the multitudinous ways that the medium is used. The visual is not a fork in the road…the image that comes to my mind resembles the myriad computer cables that snake under the floor of the stock exchange! There are as many ways to use e-mail as there are consumer groups that use the medium. Just think of the television. Most providers offer over 600 channels from which to choose…not two. Marketers need to look at their messages and find out how best to convey their message to their audiences, on HGTV, ESPN or Nickelodeon, in fifteen second spots or thirty minute infomercials. Email, just like television, is just the medium. The marketer’s job, AS ALWAYS, is to understand their consumer--their media consumption habits and desires so that they can deliver their message in the most impactful, compelling manner possible.

  7. Brian Elkin from valpak , December 11, 2008 at 12:14 p.m.

    is everyone advocating sending relevant emails based on search results or to opt-in only from that site?