In order to have a successful email program today -- but more importantly, in the years ahead -- marketers need to understand how much the world in which email messages are created, distributed and read is changing.
These changes won't make email any less powerful and relevant. In fact, one of email's great attributes is its flexibility, its ability to evolve as the communications world evolves.
I believe, however, these changes are bringing email to a critical stage as a marketing and communications vehicle, where a converging set of trends and realities will force email to deliver on its promise as a true one-to-one communications channel.
Five Trends Driving Email's Evolution
1. The social inbox is shouldering much of email's old workload, freeing up email to achieve greater aims. Social media, via platforms like the Facebook news feed and Twitter, are emerging as efficient and cost-effective channels to distribute "broadcast" messages. Social messages also have more potential to go viral in a bigger way through retweets, "likes" and content-sharing.
2. Mobile email and devices create a different environment and purpose for checking and reading email. In email's early days, you might have had time to relax at your desk and scroll through your inbox looking to see what interesting items came in.
Mobile readers -- those on smartphones, tablets and other portables -- probably are more time-pressed and purpose-driven or simply have less time to scroll down through the inbox.
The email that will catch the eye and demand to be opened is a message that is timely and relevant at the individual level.
3. More readers are getting their online content from mobile applications. These applications can be branded, like those from The Wall Street Journal or New York Times; aggregators like Flipboard or Zite; or via Twitter apps.
Apps and social feeds will increasingly mean that consumers will be notified of new content via these other channels and fellow content curators.
4. Relevance and activity are becoming more important determinants of inbox placement by ISPs and Webmail services. We've talked before about how Webmail services are factoring activity and relevance into the inbox-placement algorithm. Gmail, for example, has launched features such as Priority Inbox and recently SmartLabels, which automatically organizes and prioritizes inbox messages based on message type and user engagement.
The concern for email marketers is that these and similar features from other Webmail providers are pushing their messages farther down or out of the inbox. Undifferentiated broadcast emails will be the primary victim.
5. Marketing automation and innovation is more affordable and available. Ford's Model-T made the once-luxurious automobile affordable for the average American family. The same thing is happening with automated email services: targeted/triggered messaging, lifecycle campaigns and data-driven integrations such as browse and abandoned-cart campaigns.
The technology is becoming easier and less expensive to use as more ESPs offer these capabilities. It's even more imperative now for marketers to use these technologies to create more messages that deliver on the "right time, right message" promise.
Defining a New Role for Email
Sowhere does email fit into this new and more challenging world? One of the first ideas to fall by the wayside might be the notion of email as a branding exercise. Messages with no other purpose than to keep the brand fresh in a customer's mind could disappear into a bulk folder or the bottom of an already overloaded inbox and go unseen by most recipients.
The branding function might be more effectively done through social channels or via mobile apps. That leaves more room in the inbox for the kinds of messages recipients really do value, such as notifications, transactional and behavior-driven messages.
The trends I outlined above will increase email's value on the marketing spectrum rather than devalue it, because they will force marketers to create and send the kinds of messages that recipients care about, value, open and act on.
What do you think? Are we at the beginning of the end for the batch-and-blast message -- or is it here to stay?
Until next time, take it up a notch.