I've been following the Free Debate blow by blow for the past couple of weeks. If somehow you have missed this, then here's the rundown. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a pointed critique of Chris Anderson's latest book, "Free: The Future of a Radical Price" (which you can read for free. Seth Godin jumped in and said that Malcolm is wrong, and the online community has started lining up on different sides since.
Despite the debates that have surfaced about the viability of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube or the future of publishing, there is consensus about the digital age having ushered in an era where information and ideas are abundant. Regardless of whether these companies can develop sustainable business models, the fact remains that there is more free information available to consumers than at any prior point in history. Moreover, while some people do still choose to pay for some information (e.g., through books, newspapers, magazines, etc.) that is "superior" to the information they can get for free, there is still a lot of very good information available to them at no cost.
I dare not attempt an exhaustive list of the implications the information abundance era will have on email marketing, but here are a few of the things that I believe we are already seeing as a result.
1. Free is not cheap enough. Consumers are not interested in registering for "free email newsletters." Why should they be? If they want information on a topic, it is easier and timelier for them to simply search for it. If they are required to pay with their email address, consumers demand something that is not only free, but really, really good as well.
2. Permission is the beginning. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of permission marketing. Unfortunately, permission has been used as an excuse to send spam. Recently, I asked a group of new employees to hit the streets and interview consumers about their attitudes toward direct marketing and email. Despite a general sentiment among consumers that permission does give marketers the right to send email to them, most still referred to the majority of these messages as spam.
If much of what is sent with permission is spam, then anything sent without permission is spam -- no matter how relevant. One consumer interviewed said he had a "relationship" with some of the stores where he shopped frequently, that he "was the one who initiated contact, and that this made all the difference." In a world where relevant information is abundant, permission is still required so that you have the right to deliver it.
3. Relevance is delivering the unexpected. Relevance says that you should deliver information that people want when they want it. This is true, but if you look at programs that consistently transcend consumers' concept of spam, you will find programs that don't just deliver the information consumers know they want. They deliver information consumers didn't know they needed.
If I know I want to buy something, I can search bargain sites or comparative shopping engines. If I know I want information on a topic, I use a search engine. However, there is information out there I don't know about that is relevant to me. Recommendations from Amazon work so well because they notify customers about books they should like. Amazon isn't simply hoping to get the right offer in front of you at the right time. The company is opening new doors by introducing books to consumers they should know about, but don't yet. This is where email marketers earn the trust of their subscribers.
4. The bigger the brand, the higher the standard. Much of the free debate is centered on the fact that technology now allows anyone with time, energy, and an idea to make that idea widely available. They may not all be good ideas or good content, but that is for consumers to decide.
For marketers, the implications are enormous. Professional content producers are being held to higher and higher standards -- a trend that will continue. If the professionals cannot provide superior content, then consumers will look elsewhere; there are plenty of amateurs happy to fill the void. If brands want to earn the trust of their customers, they need to meet the expectations of consumers who believe big brands with big budgets should be able to use those budgets to deliver really, really good content. Doing so has the potential of opening doors because of the trust it builds. Not doing so opens the door for hobbyists to become trusted experts, putting the brand at their mercy.
"Free" means that there is an ever-increasing level of competition facing our programs, and consumer expectations will continue to grow. While the debate about "free" continues, don't get lost in the details. Take stock of the things that are unquestionably going to be affected and start figuring out how to respond.