Accepting the ESP identity crisis

In 2004, the punk-pop band Bowling For Soup had a hit song called "1985." If you've never heard it, check it out. It has great hooks, and even better lyrics. One of my favorite lines from the song is the plaintive question, "When did Mötley Crüe become classic rock?" It's a great commentary on the unnoticed passage of time, and the speed with which things evolve in the world of popular culture and music.

This re-labeling -- or re-categorizing -- also happens in the world of marketing technology, oftentimes for reasons I don't quite understand. Like the world of popular culture, the digital world evolves at a speed that is sometimes hard to comprehend. You wake up one day and something has acquired a new label, been relegated to has been status, or both. Let me give you an example. I'm old enough to remember a time when everyone referred to display ads as banner ads. I'm not exactly sure when we changed the name or even why we changed the name. If there was a vote held on the name change, no one told me about it. But all of a sudden, if you continued to use the word "banner" to describe ads on websites, you were considered to be a bit of a dinosaur. Sort of like the person stubbornly clinging to MySpace from 2007-2008, when Facebook was exploding on the scene.

It happened again more recently with the term multichannel. The concept behind this approach to marketing is that the customer can engage with a marketer in a single seamless, integrated, and consistent experience across all channels at any time. Then out of the blue, the cool kids of marketing stopped using the word multichannel, and instead started referring to something called omnichannel marketing. And what does that mean? It refers to a marketing approach where the customer can engage with a marketer in a single seamless, integrated, and consistent experience across all channels at any time. Sounds familiar, right? Once again, who made the decision to make this change? Was there yet another vote in which I wasn't invited to participate?

You really have to ask yourself, what's up with this latest change in terminology? Is it so Company A can tell a prospect, "Sure those guys at Company B are good at multichannel marketing, but you really need to be doing omnichannel marketing… it's the next big thing and we're experts!" It's not so different from the apparent decision made somewhere to change data to big data. I guess big data and omnichannel sound more important.

So what does any of this have to do with email marketing? If you are active in email marketing communities (yes, they exist) you probably have noticed a growing identity crisis among both the traditional email service providers as well as many practitioners of the craft. That's because at some point in the last four to five years email marketing went out of style. Not because it wasn't still the most effective marketing channel in the universe. Rather the cool kids of marketing decided that the bright and shiny new objects like mobile and social were the One Direction and Katy Perry's of the marketing world. And practically overnight, email became classic rock.

One of the most interesting things to come out of this development was that many of the top ESPs suddenly wanted to be known as something -- anything -- other than email service providers. So they added social and mobile tools to their platforms and overnight transformed into multichannel, I mean omnichannel, service providers. There isn't a single name around which they have yet coalesced, but there's plenty of experimentation with different variations of the same words. If you happen to visit the websites of many of these ESPs, you'd be forgiven if you didn't even think they were any longer in the business of email marketing.

But guess what? The Relevancy Group surveys over 1500 marketing executives a year, and personally speaks with another 200 executives. And we've learned that when you get below the C-level, most executives couldn't care less about the multi/omnichannel pitch, compared to the ESPs and the cool kids of email marketing. The C-level guys say all the right things when it comes to multichannel/omnichannel marketing, but they are merely saying what they believe the trade publications and their fellow C-level executives expect them say. The folks making the real decisions in the trenches are more often best-in-breed focused.

This isn't to say that the investments ESPs have made in multi/omnichannel capabilities aren't of any value. At a minimum an ESP today risks being perceived as slightly behind the times if it hasn't done anything in this area. Marketers care whether or not their ESP offers these capabilities, while actual intentions to leverage them may lie several miles down the road. What's ironic is that at the same time these companies were running from the email label, they were also continuing to innovate and introduce new email functionality into their platforms. Anyone who tells you that nothing has changed in email marketing in the last five years is someone you shouldn't take very seriously.

Will the acronym ESP go the route of "banner" and "multichannel" and come to be considered an archaic term? I don't know the answer to that. I hope to be notified if we do hold a vote on it, but if past experience is a guide, no one is going to give me a heads up. But changing a label doesn't change what something inherently is. It's a cosmetic change. ESPs aren't going anywhere -- regardless of what we end up calling them.

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

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