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The thing that email's critics just don't understand

Christopher Marriott
The thing that email's critics just don't understand Christopher Marriott

My stepkids know that I played in bands for years, both in college and after college. So when they recently asked to hear some of the music we used to play, I put together a CD for the car. One of the songs is called "I Like Your Mind." (If interested, you can hear the song here.) Two things struck me as I played them this song. First, it opens with the sounds of a dial-up modem to modem "handshake." If you started using the internet after the year 2000, you might not have ever heard that sound, nor would you recognize it. Sure, we still use modems with our high speed networks, but we're always online. When the song was recorded in the mid '90s, that wasn't the case. That's why it was called "going online" back in the day. (You might not make it if the modems didn't talk to each other!) Today we expect the internet to always be there waiting, just like we expect a dial tone every time we pick up a phone (though come to think of it, landlines seem to be going the way of dial-up modems).

The other thing that really struck me was that AOL played a central role in the song, down to the "you've got mail" sign on. No one would write a song about AOL today (or make a movie about it either), but this was the '90s, and AOL dominated the online world in ways young people today would find hard to fathom. The thought that AOL would ever be anything other than the dominant player was inconceivable. Of course, after AOL came Yahoo, and no one thought it would ever be anything other than the dominant player in the online world. And then came Facebook -- and who at this point can conceive of a future where Facebook isn't the center of the digital universe? That said, in some circles, it is now fashionable to predict its impending downfall. And just because many of these same people have been telling us for years that email is dead or dying doesn't mean they are always going to get every prediction wrong.

The mistake we often make in marketing is to inflate the importance of one particular publisher or another and downplay the channel of communication. TV networks rise and fall based on the success of their programming. Each network runs the table for a few years, and then another one starts appealing to a larger share of the viewing audience and their places switch. It's not like a network ever goes completely away (well, unless you happen to be the DuMont Network, but that was before my time!). But the makers of the TV commercials -- advertising agencies -- don't care where they place their clients' commercials; they care that these commercials get seen. Hence the popularity of the Super Bowl regardless of the network on which it airs in any given year.

Those of us in the world of email marketing need to think the same way. We are broadcasters of a message, and we shouldn't care where our message is received as long as it is received in a format viewable by the recipient. As email marketers -- and digital marketers in general -- we face an ever-shifting dominant digital network. Just like in the world of broadcast television. AOL was in many real ways a social network before we had anything called social networks. Anyone who spent time in one of its many chat rooms with names like "Cops who Flirt" (you know who you are) would readily acknowledge that. AOL didn't invent email or chat, but it put them both on everyone's PC. Maybe that's why, to this day, I maintain my AOL email address. And Yahoo replaced AOL not because it added different features from the chat and email of AOL. No, it bolted on more features, like a search engine.

The lesson for email marketers is that properties come and go, as do popular features, but email remains the constant. And, true to a promise I made in a speech last September, I'm not going to pivot into another "email isn't dead" defense. What I am talking about is the sheer power inherent in email's growing "network" over time. I've used the analogy in the past that one telephone is useless, two telephones are somewhat useful, and that usefulness grows with the expansion of the installed base. Think about email's installed base of users. It's a user base that keeps getting larger every year. Not even Facebook can make that claim any longer.

There's something about email's installed base that makes it incredibly valuable. Maybe we need to think about email as the anti-network. Think about it: You really can't use Facebook to communicate to people who aren't on Facebook. Your email will work in just about every client there is (yes, rendering challenges, etc.). There's something marvelous about that. And like a cell phone number, your personal email address never needs to change unless you change it yourself (with some exceptions). And while someone might change his or her email address, I doubt any of you have ever heard someone say, "That's it, I'm done with email forever!"

If we continue with this line of thinking, then your email client is like a television show you never get tired of or can't stop watching. Marketers would know that they could always reach you there. It's like you tuned into "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" (again, you know who you are) every week in perpetuity, and every marketer knew you'd be there should they want to deliver you an advertising message. In the real world, you will eventually stop watching that show -- if only because Honey Boo Boo has grown up -- and perhaps even the network on which it airs. But in all likelihood, you will still be at the same personal email address. Imagine if CBS or Fox were the most-watched networks 15 years running. That's the power of the email network. It's both a message and a medium that has proven itself enormously adaptable in the past. And it will continue to adapt -- as must practitioners of email marketing.

On a final note, one of the other songs I played for my stepkids used a manual typewriter as a sound effect in one part. Try explaining to a 10-year-old today why anyone would ever need a typewriter.

Chris Marriott is the vice president of services and principal consultant at The Relevancy Group.

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