Email Defines, Not Defies, Innovation

At least once a year, I have the same old conversation with people who want to zero email out when dividing up the marketing dollars by claiming it's a stale technology that can't keep up with innovative digital applications like RSS, social networking, SMS marketing and microblogging (Twitter, for instance).

Let's not forget that email itself was once the shiny new toy that attracted those who got bored fast with Web marketing. They nearly broke it because they didn't understand the medium, and then wandered off to the next cool new thing.

You can't beat email for its ability to reinvent itself, overcome performance challenges, integrate with other technologies and channels and provide multiple distinct value propositions to both senders and recipients -- characteristics that distinguish a truly innovative technology from the merely new, along with cool toys that haven't yet found a real-life application.

Just because your grandma can email better than your 16-year-old doesn't make it yesterday's technology. Here's my quick list of the innovations that keep email a fresh and vital component of an effective marketing strategy:



  • It works even when you don't do it well -- and it delivers the highest ROI when done well. If your email results aren't what you want them to be, it's probably because you're not using the medium correctly, more so than an inherent email fault.

  • Email generates almost immediate results, which allows for rapid testing and optimizing in marketing campaigns.

  • Consumers still request and respond to email and have become skilled managers of their own inboxes, confident in their ability to deal with spam.

  • You can easily demonstrate email's bottom-line value to your management through tracking and analytics. After all, your CEO is more interested in what adds value to the organization than in trendy but untested new apps.

  • Email is the first channel to recognize that consumers truly are in control of the medium. It paved the customization trail by giving recipients many options for tailoring content to their own interests.

  • The email industry actively develops new ways to build trust and confidence in the medium. Authentication, strict permission policies, reliable unsubscribing and transparent opt-in policies are four I can name without thinking too hard.

  • Email is still the primary medium that provides a solid two-way connection with your customers, bolstered by the trust-building initiatives listed above.

  • If email is so last-generation and stodgy, why is it a core application in many of the new, supposedly more innovative, technologies? Two examples: aggregated RSS feeds and blog posts, as well as messages, posts and friend requests for networking sites like MySpace, LinkedIn and Facebook.

  • Keeping up with the expanding platforms is another way email stays fresh and relevant to your subscribers, whether you read it on your clunky desktop computer, your ultrathin notebook with a 17.5-inch screen, or your iPhone, Treo or BlackBerry.

    All this doesn't mean that email practitioners can set the autopilot on their email programs and go off to hit the golf course or play in "World of Warcraft" or "Second Life." Some far-thinking individuals are already worrying that email might become irrelevant to young people who communicate via blog posts and text messages within barricaded friend or family networks.

    I'm not too worried about that prospect. Email's brain trust has risen to identify and craft solutions to the challenges that could have brought email to its knees in recent years, such as spam, image blocking, rendering challenges and phishing. While not all of these have been solved yet, steps have been taken to keep the channel alive and kicking (or sending and receiving). I'm confident that this natural bent for true innovation will help it meet any challenge shiny new technologies can throw it.

    I would love to debate this point further, but I have to check my email. The latest posts from my favorite blogs just arrived in my inbox, handily aggregated in a single email, and I just got an email from someone who wants to add me as a friend on her Facebook site. Bottom line: You want innovation? Stick with email and its infinite capacity to correct itself, meet your customers' needs and deliver measurable value to your organization. Web 2.0 applications are getting all the buzz these days, but where would they be without email?

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