The Future Of E-Mail

Every once in a while you come across a great article that just spurs your intellectual juices. One such article was written by Paul Gillin in BtoB magazine's print edition last month, titled "New Technology, New Media and New Paradigm." If you have not read it, I highly recommend you do.

We read a lot about strategy, issues, trends and client work, but rarely do we see anything written about the future of e-mail and its dependence on the rest of the digital world. I don't have time to wait for the analysts to make their predictions. I need a far-reaching vision of how this channel fits into our business and consumer lives now and in the future.

So follow this logic and let me know what you think. A couple of passages from Paul Gillin's article rang particularly true, not least for the sheer simplicity of how he laid out his thesis. He said:

"We hear a lot about blogs, but blogs aren't important. What's important is personal publishing, or the ability to communicate a message to a global audience almost instantaneously. Personal publishing will permeate electronic media, providing counterpoint to mainstream sources and adding depth and color to the conversation.



"We hear a lot about podcasts, but podcasts aren't important. What's important is time-shifted media. The phenomenon that started with TiVo has spread to digital audio and will soon capture portable video. Information consumers will no longer be beholden to program schedules or even their living rooms. Our TV shows will travel with us.

"We hear a lot about RSS, but RSS isn't important. What's important is the ability to subscribe to information that really interests us. RSS is mainly used to subscribe to blog posts and podcasts. But in the future, they will use it to subscribe to ideas."

So, as someone who aspires to effect a change in the paradigm of digital communications and consumer behavior, I put my spin on the future of e-mail using this same logic. I conclude that we hear a lot about e-mail, but e-mail isn't important. What's important is our ability to communicate in a synchronous and asynchronous fashion in a mixed media world. E-mail will be our notification agent, alarm clock, Post-it® Note, pager, cell phone, fax machine, instant messenger, and document management system all combined. It will be supported on any device via many different sources.

Users are becoming creatures of their communication devices and are already molding their communication patterns to mixed media. Younger generations are already driving this through social networking, reliance on instant messaging, the growth of mobile usage, personal publishing and online video.

Today you have people answering e-mail in the strangest places, mobile devices that keep them connected longer and new generations developing their own cultural traits. You have a household of four people who instant-message each other rather than walking into the next room to chat.

Then you have this rather faceless channel of e-mail. E-mail will evolve and people will develop their own digital signature, voice, personalities, behaviors and preferences, all of which will lead to the customization of the devices and communication patterns. There will be a blur as to what e-mail, RSS and mobile messaging are to the consumer. In the future, people will say, "Remember when we had SPAM? It was such a nuisance," the way today we might recall when televisions sets were only available in black and white and programming was limited to eight channels.

As someone who has invested dearly in this channel, I am charged with building a business, talent and partners to support its evolution, as well as creating a global connection that will allow it to permeate our environment. If we continue to think of e-mail as a singular channel with its own unique issues, we'll never see the potential it brings as a communications tool in driving consumer and business experiences.

The future is bright, and consumers are even brighter. How well we stay open to the possibilities will determine our success.

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