The past, present and future of email as a channel

James is editor in chief of TechForge Media, with a passion for how technologies influence business and several Mobile World Congress events under his belt. James has interviewed a variety of leading figures in his career, from former Mafia boss Michael Franzese, to Steve Wozniak, and Jean Michel Jarre. James can be found tweeting at @James_T_Bourne.

Just to get some necessary housekeeping out of the way: this is not going to be another article that harps on validating whether there is any staying power left in email. Don’t get me wrong, I actually think one has to pay homage to a humble beginning before being able to truly appreciate the possibilities of full potential.

Those of us who actually happen to be fortunate enough to have careers in the email channel, the ones of us who are passionate and enjoy being trendsetters, can appreciate what the father of email Ray Tomlinson was able to accomplish in 1971 and the tone of the 1981 Honeywell “Electronic Mail” advertisement which was set for being just that – trendsetting. Fast forward being cognizant of things past and what’s present, and let’s look to the future.

Oh, the days of old…

Email used to be about acquiring an address at any cost, to the tune of paying for addresses and lists.  Back in the day, it didn’t matter what you did as long as you were able to show significant growth in your data lists.  From the top down, volume was king because the train of thought was that size matters.  Arguably so, if you send enough of anything…you might eventually achieve some variation of a desired outcome.  But that was the point wasn’t it? Disregard the metrics and send to an even larger audience because someone with an office and title that’s preceded by a three-letter acronym said to do so.

This is how it is now…

What’s happening today though?  We as marketers have “groomed” our audiences to be more intelligent and even savvier than they once were.  Voltaire couldn’t have been more appropriate (“With power comes great responsibility.”).  People have come to expect more from the companies they do business with.  Increasingly because of this, companies in turn are seeing the value in behavioral triggered messaging.  It isn’t just undeniably expected, but has proven time and time again to be highly relevant and to yield high return. 

In today’s world, consumers want what they want, when they want it – how they want it.  Look at companies like Coca-Cola stepping up and listening to their global consumers, giving them options of which types of communications to receive, which format to receive them in and wait for it – evening going a step further, setting the expectation upfront about message cadence.  Ah (insert thirst-quenched sigh here) – now that’s refreshing, isn’t it?

We’re in an age where a company like Pepsi uses everything in their arsenal to reach their loyal product consumers.  Launching an email campaign, follow up with giving users redemptions via a mobile app (Pepsi Loot) and then partner in the daily deal space (LivingSocial) all the while strengthening the brand’s digital footprint.

Suffice it to say, we’re not talking about the root of all evil here.  But more so iterating the fact that, like it or not, the channel will always be immediately measureable and a point of entry for any account that’s created or established online via a social network or ecommerce site.

Where it’s going…

So where does that leave us?  People change.  Time changes and points of access and adaptability also change.  With the increasing role of social/mobile, location-based content in everyday and business communications – how will email adapt to this and what form will it take in the coming years?  What big things are on the horizon?

Just like many of the web bookmark or site aggregators (a la delicious), email’s future will see rise or incorporation of web-based aggregators that will enable single sign-on and a portfolio/wallet-type of email management.  Developers will look to make it easy for consumers to have an online-based web tool where a user can view and update their preferences for multiple ecommerce, social and loyalty programs – all manageable from one place. 

Going beyond what mobile apps are currently used for (and there are some excellent ones out there), email will be more of a focal point for the mobile app, incorporating geo-tracking and offering up mobile-optimised emails at the push of a button.  Take what UrbanDaddy is able to currently do with their mobile app, make the experience even more robust by serving up a mobilise-optimised email that utilises localisation and regionally based cross-sell opportunities for an even richer consumer experience! 

Imagine a mobile email app as an aggregator that allows users of multiple loyalty programmes the ease and capability to manage, organise and share their loyalty offerings with their friends, family and networks all from the comfort of one place.

At the end of it all…

Federal Express Founder & CEO (Fred Smith) was quoted in 1978 as having said, “The information about the package is just as important as the package itself.”  Realising that email is one of the most intimate customer touch points that exists in the customer lifecycle and being respectful of that will help ensure that email as a package – like a fine-aged wine – will continue to get better with time.  For the past 40 years, we have seen it evolve and adapt to change; the sky is the limit.

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