Inbox Evolution May Force Facebook To Change Its Business Cards

The email marketing industry's love-hate relationship with social networks continues. Social networks -- and Facebook, in particular -- were talked about so much during the Email Insider Summit last week that more than one speaker half-joked about it being the Facebook Insider Summit.

The Summit began with a panel of Ball State University students, who were clearly gravitating toward email as graduation approached -- but also had a tragically expansive definition of "spam." The conference ended with Loren McDonald of Silverpop declaring, "Old people rule! We pay too much attention to what my 13-year-old daughter is doing."

We're trying very hard to see social networks as enhancing email rather than supplanting it. We're trying very hard not to see it as us vs. them, even if they see it as them vs. us. While at the Summit, I got the business card of someone from Facebook -- on which there was this tag line: "Have you got anything without SPAM?"

The sign-of-relief moment came at the end of the first day's sessions, when Chip House of ExactTarget shared the results of his company's 2008 Channel Preference Survey. The killer stat: 72% of respondents said they'd prefer to receive opt-in promotional messages via email, while 0% prefer them via social networking sites. After that we were able to talk about email again with our heads held high.



The Channel Preference Survey looked at direct mail -- which also fared well -- plus phone, text messaging, instant messaging and RSS, all of which were non-starters when it came to promotional messaging. What really struck me during Chip's presentation of the survey was that while we're now talking about all these channels being separate, in the future they may not be so separate.

For instance, August Miller, one of the Ball State students, said that since he got his iPhone he has started emailing his friends that have smartphones instead of texting them -- because emails are free and SMS is not. As more people replace their cellphones with smartphones, more will make the transition from SMS to email on their mobile devices.

But wait! While 72% of people like email for promotions, only 1% like text messaging for promotions. Does that mean that as email migrates to mobile devices, people will be less open to promotional messages, because they'll be carrying their inbox around with them?

And what about social media? It's no secret that these networks are working on beefing up their messaging platforms, opening them up to emails and messages from outside the network (just as the early email platforms like AOL eventually opened up). It's also no secret that Yahoo and Gmail are both working on adding more social network functions to their email platforms. So in the not-too-distant future, social networks will look more like email clients, and email clients will look more like social networks. What will that mean for the acceptance of promotional messages?

Meanwhile, email clients are already starting to do double-duty as RSS readers. Outlook does it already, and Web-based email clients won't be far behind. But while promotional messages are welcome in the email inbox, 0% welcomed promotions in their RSS inbox.

All of this is not to disparage the results of the Channel Preference Survey, which is a fascinating snapshot in time. But it seems pretty clear that messaging preferences could change significantly over the next few years, as your email inbox becomes simply your inbox for everything. But so long as email marketing continues to deliver relevant content and deals, I don't have any concerns about it weathering the inbox evolution.

But there very well may be seismic changes. For instance, the newest communication channels, social networks and RSS, give users total control over permissioning. They won't have to hope that you'll honor their opt-out request or that their ISP will block spam. They'll have all the power in the relationship. It's not farfetched to envision a future where users have permission control over their inbox, where unless you're whitelisted -- as a friend, safe sender, etc. -- you'll have zero access via any digital channel. The inbox evolution may very well achieve what CAN-SPAM could not. Facebook will have to change its business cards because young people won't understand what "spam" is.

Can you foresee other potential changes as digital channels converge?

Next story loading loading..