Are Email Marketers Outrunning The Bear?

There is a joke I  frequently tell clients and use in presentations as an analogy for email marketing. Like everyone else I’ve told it to, you’ve probably heard it before. Please indulge me anyway:

A woman met her friend at the trailhead for an all-day hike in the wilderness. Her friend showed up carrying a heavy pack filled with a day’s worth of food and water and emergency provisions in case they got lost. He wore long pants and sleeves to protect himself from poison oak and mosquitoes, and his feet were shod in heavy hiking boots. The woman, in stark contrast, was dressed in running shorts and a tank top, with lightweight running shoes on her feet. She began stretching.

The man looked at her, puzzled. He asked why she was dressed like that for hiking. She replied that there had recently been a number of reported brown bear sightings in these woods, and she wanted to be prepared to make a quick escape.

“But brown bears can run 40 miles per hour. You’re never going to outrun a bear!” he exclaimed.



She looked at his long pants, burdened backpack and heavy boots and replied, “I don’t have to outrun the bear.”

I’ve used this joke to make the point that marketers’ biggest competition in the inbox is clutter, and that to succeed with email all they needed to do was beat the bell curve so that theirs is not one of the messages to be ignored, deleted or filtered. But the email landscape is fundamentally different in 2013 than it was a couple years ago. Today we have to contend with:

-       Email volume continues to rise, to the point where consumers are no longer distinguishing between unsolicited spam and messages they simply can’t be bothered with right now.

-       The availability of inbox management tools (Alto, Inky, Mailbox app, Glider and many others) has blossomed from cottage industry into hotly contested market.

-       Corporations are studying the productivity loss from time spent in email, and even banning email for internal communications.

-       The biggest email story (now that the Petraeus scandal has faded) in business and mainstream media is how to deal with bloated inboxes. The “Today Show,} Forbes, USA Today, lifehacker and many others revisit the topic regularly.

-       The M&A activity around email over the past year has been staggering, with much of the investment going into automation. This means each of us will receive more messages than ever.

To continue to succeed in and after 2013, marketers must do far more than be slightly less disruptive, annoying or irrelevant than the next message in the inbox. Success in the inbox of the (very near) future means forging genuine engagement by learning about each of our subscribers and – importantly – acting on that knowledge with every message.

Many of the tactics email marketers currently use do fulfill the need the bear joke defines. Symbols in subject lines, embedded multimedia, preference centers that relieve us of the burden of data mining and targeting, even A/B testing that helps us lift the performance of each message but doesn’t improve our overall program -- all these leave our hiking-booted companion behind us on the trail so that we can live to email another day.

But tactics that are as easy to implement as a change of shoes do not position our email programs to continue to thrive as the channel inevitably evolves. Rather, systemic and strategic improvements are necessary: data integration, marketing automation, responsive design, proactive analysis and segmentation, and dynamic content are some of the approaches that will quickly evolve from cutting-edge to cost of doing business.

The changing landscape means that (mercifully) I need to find some new material. Outrunning the bear is no longer an appropriate metaphor for email marketing, not when we’re hiking through a forest full of bears.

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