Every year, I write my favorite column, "The Future of Email," about all the things I predict for the upcoming year. This year, it's a bit tougher to isolate this to purely email without referencing the interdependencies email has to so many other aspects of marketing.
For marketing purposes, email has the closest ties to "real-time" and to personalization of an experience in the context of a medium, while offering marketers the control they desire. Merge this with the less controllable (social), the less known (cookies and anonymous visitors), the passive (web experiences) and the emerging "real-time" of mobile apps, and this year will be a collision of connected experiences.
My prophecies for email for 2011:
1. The social Inbox will finally emerge. Email, while still supported the same way it was 10 years ago, will merge with the ad landscape to offer real-time ad serving -- all in the inbox. No longer will you worry about inbox "pole position," as you'll have the means of controlling the ad space and the dynamics of the email, and of delivering a combination of rich media and functional value -- all within live email. You'll connect threaded email with the same cadence you've developed in social networking and you'll find much more functional value in the inbox. This will be disparate at the ISP level, but I'm a firm believer that the only way ISPs will survive in the coming years is by offering a more valuable, contextual experience. I think they are motivated now.
2. Personalization will connect offline, online and real time. The on-premise experience, online experience and app experience will allow savvy marketers to connect content and personalization in ways we couldn't imagine years ago. They will apply context, experience, content, channel and optimization in real-time decision-making capability that will allow optimization of personalized content. Few marketers have truly connected the online and offline experience, and even fewer have connected offline data with online data. The key to personalization will be the quality of data at the point of decision-making, and the ability to manage fluid content through multiple channels. Some exciting innovation is coming in this area.
3. Email volume will increase. You may think, "I'm mailing too often today and caught in this trap of more is best." Email volume will grow substantially in the next year, not due to mailing cadence, but due to email's pervasiveness and efficiency. Databases will grow and the brands will apply push-oriented strategies to drive to other engagement vehicles (web, device, apps, social media, rich media). The throughput and complexity of email will grow as will consumer expectations.
4. Privacy will drive email growth. Not a sexy topic, but important. Email has held a firm position with regard to permission standards. The web is going to go through a transition that will press for a great deal of transparency in the "consent" and "notice" functions. This alone will force the traditional channels, and YES, I include email as a traditional channel, to support the burden of the changing privacy landscape. Our model will shift from the anonymous to the known, the permissioned, and the engaged. Consumers will be oblivious to this transition, but the behavioral shifts are already happening and all companies will rely on traditional channels as the pervasive factors in bridging permission.
5. Loyalty will redefine engagement. I've written quite a bit about loyalty and rewards. There is a new currency that companies will find more valuable than traditional rewards systems -- behavioral currency. It's not a new concept to some, and it's a pretty mature concept in some areas (gaming for instance). Traditional brands are beginning to embrace new definitions of rewards and loyalty, and engagement is the outlier that defines how consumers form purchase habits, and how in the end loyalty is formed and fostered. This will be based on today's loyalty currencies, plus virtual currencies and behavioral currencies. This exchange will be fun to watch.
This year will be an exciting time for transformation as marketers. The trends support this shift, the market supports the rate of pace, and the consumer is driving renewed expectations, tacit or not.