25th Anniversary Issue: E-Mail Passes Through Puberty

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When looking at e-mail's evolution, one thing becomes clear: Judging e-mail as a medium today would be like trying to judge a person on what he accomplished by high school - some of life's lessons have been learned, but his legacy is far from determined. E-mail now is a troubled teen, working through growing pains but heading to college to mature tremendously.


When e-mail became popular as a communication channel and marketing medium in the mid-1990s, marketers began salivating because, like traditional direct marketing, it was a way of sending a personalized communication to a potential customer. But unlike traditional direct, the cost of sending an e-mail was near zero. So, commercial e-mail's history looks roughly like this:


1995: E-mail emerges as a content tool and ad vehicle with pioneers like Infobeat sending local weather or news headlines surrounded by banner ads.


1996: Marketers learn how to say "please." E-mail moves into customer acquisition through permission-based list rental services like NetCreations' PostMasterDirect and YesMail.


1997: Marketers learn to "color between the lines," and e-mails based on dynamic personalization and triggered messaging enter with applications like eBay's bid notices and MovieFone's ticket purchasing.


1998: E-mail gets the bake-sale mentality, becoming a mainstream customer retention and upsell tool, with Amazon.com paving the way via the use of purchase data and collaborative filtering.


2000: E-mail works its way into electives, getting the attention of operations departments, with companies like AT&T, American Airlines and Pay-Trust leading the charge on online statements and online billing.


2002: Spam becomes Public Enemy No. 1 and begins to dilute e-mail's effectiveness for businesses.


2003: E-mail takes off as a market research tool as companies like SurveyDirect and Greenfield Online help researchers combat the tricky, costly phone channel following no-call legislation.


2004: E-mail marketers realize the importance of having things in common with customers to avoid being dumped with "This is spam" or "block" buttons provided by companies like Cloudmark.


Despite periodic cries that e-mail is dead, its demise is greatly exaggerated. That's because it works really well when used properly. Though spam has added some pollution to the channel, e-mail adoption is rising.


That said, marketers must take e-mail seriously for it to perform and, in some cases, to get it delivered. Ironically, many long-followed direct principles - segmentation, frequency, list hygiene, targeting, integration, delivery monitoring - have become required considerations to increase e-mail effectiveness and alleviate spam perception. Direct marketers using e-mail simply need to return to their roots.


I see five trends in the years ahead:


· Getting delivered to the inbox will become less of an issue for permission marketers as authentication, reputation and best practices become mainstream.


· Smart marketers will work harder to use the channel correctly. Firms like sporting goods retailer REI, which produces e-mail content around its users' passion for sporting activities and the great outdoors, and toymaker Fisher-Price, which remembers the age of your children and sends promotions based on that, will win the day.


· Companies will work to converge mail streams. Just as we see in the offline analog realm, e-mail bills will start to carry marketing messages.


· Marketers who focus on permission and retention will continue to grow e-mail presence on house files from today's 20 percent range to near 100 percent.


· E-mail will find its home in the marketing mix. Firms like Williams-Sonoma already do this by coordinating e-mail campaigns with catalog drops to maximize lift.


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