Email marketing, Social Media, Trends

A Look at Email Ten Years From Now

You'd need a crystal ball.
Have you ever wondered what email marketing will be like ten years from now? Will it still exist? What devices will people be using to read their email? We do wonder sometimes, and it can be fun to try and make some predictions about where the field is headed.

Predicting the future is always a tricky matter, and things you feel so sure about can turn out to be so wrong. A popular prediction in the fifties was that by 1970, we’d all be flying to work in our own personal airplanes, and in 1989’s Back to the Future II, predicted that in 2015, kids would be skateboarding on wheel-less hoverboards. Ten years ago, Runt of the Web made this prediction about the newly released iPhone:

“This stupid ‘iPhone’ that Apple is pedaling is never going to catch on…expect cellphones to just keep getting smaller and smaller until they reach the size of a postage stamp sometime around 2017.”

We’re not sure you could make this prediction anymore inaccurate if you tried.

In 1997, email was still a relatively new tool for most people. Back then, direct mail marketing and telemarketing were the most popular (and annoying) methods of pitching products. Email marketing was catching on, but so was its evil twin: spam. Any predictions in 1997 about where email marketing would be in 2007 undoubtedly would’ve been wrong. Between 1997 and 2007, the world of email marketing changed dramatically. HTML in email became more common, and spam got so bad that governments started passing legislation to prohibit the sending of excessive and unwanted email.

The next decade was far less eventful. By the early 2000s, the catchphrase that you should format your email “like it’s 1999” was catching on. Mailbox providers were loath to add the latest features to their email readers, fearing potential hacks and viruses. By 2007, nearly every email client restricted their email formatting capabilities to basic HTML, with no CSS options. Styles needed to be embedded within the content, and divs were out of the question; tables were preferred. During the past two years, we’ve started to see this policy loosen up, and some email apps, such as Apple’s Mail app, allow nearly every feature of HTML5, even when the individual iPhone client apps do not.

With all of this in mind, we’re going to make our own predictions about where email marketing is going, and what it might look like in 2027. Some of these predictions are already well on the way to coming true, while others are educated guesses.

Technological Convergence

Text messaging is a relatively new technology that has been quickly adopted and widely used by a broad spectrum of the population. Many of the messages that are sent via text messages could also be sent as emails, and if text messaging had not come around, email probably would have been the mechanism used. Will one of these technologies “win” and the other fade away? It doesn’t seem likely. Each of these seems to have developed its own niche. Text messages lack formatting options such fonts, tables, and colors; and a message is required to be short. Would text messages be more usable if you could send longer messages with formatted text and layout elements like HTML provides? Text messages are casual, often with spelling errors and the heavy use of abbreviations and acronyms, but that is the environment we’ve come to expect. Text messages are different enough from email messages to make them a useful tool for daily communication.

While technology could advance to allow text messages to share many of the features of email, it seems that would destroy its value, so we do not predict that will happen. In ten years people will still send short messages for nearly instantaneous communication, and will still expect little or no advertising via this method. Meanwhile, look for richer, more informative communications to come via email.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things

More of our modern devices can communicate with us in non-verbal ways. Refrigerators, thermostats, vacuums, cars, etc., all have information to push to us in ways that aren’t accomplished via simple screen displays. How will these devices push their messages in the future? Will it by via email, text messages, or some new technology that hasn’t been invented yet? Part of the challenge is the same one we face today. I would be okay with my car texting me that someone is attempting to break in, but I don’t want text messages that there is a carwash nearby offering a discount. So perhaps the Internet of Things will need to use both text messaging and email. Finding the dividing line between useful messages I want to receive from my refrigerator and annoying messages that irritate me will certainly still be an issue in ten years.

New Email Authentication Protocols

This is a safe guess. New methods of validating emails are suggested all the time. Most of these, most notably DMARC, are built on SPF and DKIM, the two current standards for email validation. We don’t see any changes in this, but we don’t think DMARC is the last word in authentication either. We can foresee new methods that would make issues such as phishing and spoofing in their current forms extinct. That’s not to say there won’t always be scammers, but anything that makes it harder on them is okay by us.

CSS Animations

Until recently, any animation in an email was limited to gifs. Now we’re starting to see some clever use of CSS animation, such as Eddie Lin’s spectacular CSS-only fireworks display that Litmus used in an email this year. Right now, their use is still a novelty, but as more email clients ease up on CSS restrictions, and folks like Justin Khoo at FreshInbox, and Anna Yeaman at StyleCampaign continue to push the envelope of what’s possible in email design, we’re bound to see more of these types of kinetic displays crop up in emails.

More Videos in Email

No big surprise here. Some email clients already allow it. Since it’s HTML5 only, it’s just a matter of time before videos become common in emails. As to how people will react to this remains to be seen, but as long as most marketers don’t start using autoplay on these them, everything should be okay. Autoplay is the wild card, nobody likes videos to start playing when they reach a web page, and they’ll hate it even more if it happens upon opening an email. How email clients react to this will depends on how their users react. It’s a double-edged sword. People like videos and respond well to them, but when poorly executed, there are few things more annoying (for more on this subject, see Using HTML5 in Email: Video).

Simpler Responsive Design Techniques

Let’s face it. Short of sending unformatted text, it is difficult to come up with a design that works as well on an iPhone as it does on a desktop monitor. That was the whole reason for responsive email design. But as we reported in our four-part series on the subject, responsive email design can be a pain the neck to implement. We can foresee a day when this won’t be such a hassle. When responsive set-ups will be so standardized that implementing will only take a couple additional properties or classes. We’re already starting to see this with CSS frameworks such as W3.CSS, Milligram, and Spectre, which don’t use any JavaScript. Expect more to come that will be specific to email. And while we’re on the topic of JavaScript…

HTML Scripting

JavaScript is a big no-no in email, and it’s easy to see why. As a programming language, it is not far removed from running an app. You’d never run an executable file that came attached to an email from someone you didn’t know (at least, we hope you wouldn’t), but opening an email that can run JavaScript is almost the same thing. Early on, some email clients tried offering JavaScript, but scam artists were quick to pounce on this.1

But we can see a day when JavaScript is abandoned in favor of newer features in HTML. HTML5 already has some of these features, but they can’t be used in email because none of the email clients recognize them yet. Eventually, most, if not all of HTML5’s features will be acceptable in email. We see this development arriving around the time that HTML8 is released. Of course, by then, email marketers will be telling us to format “like it’s 2017.”

Forms in email

Forms in Email

Right now, forms are taboo in emails. This is primarily a security issue. Forms require interactions that can include personal data, so email clients are understandably loathe to grant any email that much control. But as HTML5 achieves wider adoption in email, and designers start to really crank up what you can do with it, we can imagine a day when the email clients will find a way to make HTML-based forms acceptable without sacrificing security. If that happens, forms will start appearing in emails on a regular basis. It is the one feature we regular hear email marketers lament the absence of. If email safe scripting is ever developed, we predict this will be the first thing people will start including in their mailings.

“The Death of Email” Articles

We pretty safe on this next prediction. One thing that won’t have changed in ten years is that there will be articles predicting the death of email. In 2007, Slate magazine published an article titled “The Death of Email” in which they predicted that email would soon be eclipsed by other online services, such as “Facebook or MySpace.” Every year since then, online magazines and websites continued to predict the same thing—at least until the end of 2012, when Monetate’s quarterly report showed that email was crushing social media when it came to conversion rates. In spite of the evidence to the contrary, at least once a year, somebody writes an article declaring that email is on its way out, about to be replaced by the latest thing. Our prediction is that email will still be around in ten years, and still going strong, and so will the articles predicting its demise.

Incorrect Predictions

For our final prediction, we predict that some of the things we listed above will be wrong. We don’t think so, but looking at the predictions of others from ten years ago, we know better than to get too cocky. The future has a way of throwing curve balls. We realize some of these things are probably pipe dreams, but so was Dick Tracy’s wrist radio2, which led inventor Martin Cooper to create the first mobile telephone. It will be interesting to come back to this post in ten years and see how we did. What do you think? Are we on target or way off?


1. Microsoft tried to take this idea one step further by allowing Visual Basic to be used in email, a move that proved to be disastrous.

2. According to the inventor, although the communicator in Star Trek is usually cited as his inspiration.

Email marketing, Social Media, Trends

The Secret Side of Email

The Secret Side of Email

Hardly a week goes by when someone isn’t proclaiming that email is dead. “E-mail a thing of past for business, young” [sic] declared a headline in the Boston Globe. Young people, the article goes on to claim, no longer use email, preferring to communicate via text messages and social networks. It brings to mind the Wall Street Journal article from four years ago stating that email is a thing of the past. “Email has had a good run as king of communications,” the article states, “but its reign is over.” If a person went by the news articles, it would seem as if we should have all stopped using email ages ago. Recent events prove otherwise, and suggest that some of these predictions could well have ulterior motives.

In January, 2013, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff was invited to appear on stage at the International CES, one of the largest consumer electronics shows in the world. “How are you connected with your customers, your partners, your employees,” he asked. “Email? Those days are over.” In the aforementioned Boston Globe article a couple months later, Anna Rosenman, the senior product marketing manager at Salesforce concurred with her boss: “Email is one-to-one communication, and that’s not how we need to be communicating.”

On second thought…

Then in May of 2013, Salesforce announced they were buying the email marketing provider, ExactTarget. Acquiring a company is no small task, and any responsible company is going to research their proposed acquisition thoroughly before following through with a purchase of this magnitude. These things take several months; sometimes years. While it’s possible that Mr. Benioff woke up the morning after the CES show and said, “Gee, I think I’ll acquire an email company,” and didn’t bother to tell his senior marketing manager, it seems unlikely. It’s far more probable that his and Ms. Rosenman’s talk about the death of email was a smokescreen to keep the competition off the trail. In that light, all the talk about email no longer being viable starts looking downright Machiavellian.

But Salesforce is, by no means, the only company to incorporate email marketing into their offerings. Oracle did it last December and Deutsche Post (DHL) joined the bandwagon a month after Salesforce. Suddenly it’s looking like a trend. So why all the sudden interest from these major players in email marketing systems?

It probably has something to do with the flood of recent surveys showing that email is not only alive and kicking, but thriving. According to Forrester, 25% of the adults online in the United States value email as a way to learn about products and promotions—up from 17% in 2010. Contrary to the reports that email use is waning, the Pew Research Center found that email is tied with search as the most popular online activity. A lot of press has been given to the idea of marketing via Facebook and Twitter, but according to Merkle’s 2011 View from the Inbox research study, 74% of adults still prefer email when it comes to communicating with brands.

The World Goes Mobile

Another factor in the rise of email’s effectiveness comes in the forms of tablets and smart phones. 72% of the respondents in Adobe’s 2013 Digital Publishing Report on Retail Apps & Buying Habits use their tablets to shop, and 71% of those say their decisions are influenced by company email, second only to recommendations by friends. Among smart phone users, a whopping 78% use their phones to check email, ahead of all other uses including making phones calls!

It should be no surprise, then, that Wired Online this month includes a story headlined, “Email Is Crushing Twitter, Facebook for Selling Stuff Online.” Based on data gathered by Custora, a marketing analytics company in New York, the article says that email far outpaces any of the social media when it comes to sales results. This is no small segment either. Custora’s data came from 72 million customers shopping on 86 different retailer sites—a mighty convincing sample.

The Obama Factor

It’s also probably no coincidence that this sudden rebirth of interest in email marketing software came after the 2012 presidential election. As we discussed in a previous blog post, Team Obama’s use of email was an important factor in Obama’s successful bid to retain the presidency. Obama was on Facebook and Twitter as well, but it was the email that received the most attention. More importantly, it also pulled in the most donations by a long shot—approximately $500 million.

So the next time you read somewhere that some big mucky-muck says that email is dead, give that person six months and ask again. The odds are good they’ll have a change of heart.

CRM, Deliverability, Email marketing, Social Media

I Want You, Not Facebook!

This is the second in series of articles about the use and abuse of social media in digital marketing. Today we will look at the practice of Facebook bait-and-switch, and why you should avoid it.

Facebook complaints

A trend we’ve seen recently is to use email to push for social site interactions. An email goes out offering customers a discount coupon, but when the recipients click on the link, they are taken to a Facebook page where they have to login or click “Like” to receive the coupon. Many people use social channels every day and are big fans, but a small percentage resist sharing their lives on social channels and do not want to be associated with a social site. Still others don’t mind using the social channels for personal communications, but refuse to connect to businesses. Sending these people to Facebook, Google+, or other sites will cause many to just ignore your offer and be frustrated that everything must be social.

Recipients expect active links in their email; it comes with the territory. What they don’t expect—and don’t like—is to be forced, without warning, to log into Facebook from a link for more information on your products or services. We’ve seen examples where a customer sent out invitations to a party event via email, but made the links go to a Facebook page. In some ways this is great marketing – as people confirmed they would be attending other people could see the growing list of attendees, and those that wanted to could comment. The problem was that not everyone wants to be sharing everything on Facebook, so many of the comments were angry customers asking why they had to use Facebook. Who knows how many non-Facebook users never even got that far. The company quickly backpedaled and provided a web page on their company site for people to go to (the link destination was changed on the fly, so recipients who were slower to click never saw the Facebook page).

A Facebook “Like” button in your email is still the best way to draw people to your Facebook page (ditto for Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+). If customers like what they read in the email, they can prove it by adding you to their Facebook list. From there it’s fine to reiterate the offer in the email and give them the opportunity to share it across their networks. Just remember that you’re still going to want them to get back to your website at some point. This eliminates the privacy concerns (both founded and unfounded), and, more importantly, it puts the analytic information back in your bailiwick instead of sharing it with Mark Zuckerberg. This also holds true for any ads that you’ve placed on Facebook. Link them back your site. Never forget that, regardless of Facebook’s marketing potential, people first and foremost consider it a place to contact friends, and not a place to listen to sales pitches.

Part One: Successful Social Media Tactics

Deliverability, Email marketing, Social Media

Successful Social Media Tactics

This is the first of a two-part series on social media and digital marketing. In this series, we’ll look at the advantages and disadvantages of using social media, and how to ensure your social media efforts don’t interfere with your email marketing efforts.

Facebook and email

Every day, it seems, a new channel pops up for marketers to use to get their messages out to the public. Many now use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (when video is applicable) to promote their products and services. Other sites such as Pinterest, Google+, and Foursquare are also gaining traction. Too often, though, marketers treat these various channels like baseball cards, trying convince the public to “collect ’em all.” To achieve this, marketers will use a teaser process to get people to connect to them on every channel. An email with a link to a coupon takes the recipient to the company’s Facebook page, where the person has to click the “Like” button to receive the coupon, and on the Facebook page, there is an announcement that you’ll have to follow them on Twitter to get special daily discounts.

There are, no doubt, a few people who enjoy this sort of scavenger hunt, but most people find it annoying. “Why can’t you just give me the coupon?” They wonder. The end result is frustration for the recipient and the potential to lose a customer you have worked hard to get. If they get a communication that says they should now sign up for a different channel to get what was offered in the first email, many people will feel frustrated, wondering why their chosen channel isn’t good enough. In our experience, emails sent to customers telling them to sign up on Facebook can lead to poor deliverability. They have higher complaint and unsubscribe rates, which leads the ISPs to direct more of your email to the junk folder. We’ve seen such a significant hit on deliverability that it can take several more engaging emails before the deliverability rates recover.

The customer that does sign up for all your social channels can also turn out to be more of a burden than a boon. If you are sending the same message in several channels, recipients may read the message in one channel, and not bother to look at it in the other channels. In the case of email, this means an email may get deleted without being opened, which the ISPs take as a sign that the recipient is not interested in receiving that email. If this continues long enough, the ISPs will take notice and start sending any new email from you directly to the junk folder. Additionally, many people will feel exhausted if the same message is delivered multiple times. Research indicates that most recipients don’t want frequent emails with the same basic content, but what if that message is magnified multiple times when the persons gets the email, but also one or more social sites, plus Twitter or other direct SMS? Clearly this will lead people to start tuning out on your message.

Different users like to be communicated with in different ways. Some people love social sites and don’t use email as much anymore. Others resist social sites and prefer the one-to-one communications of email. Whenever possible it is better to let the customers decide which channels works best for them. Communicate with people in the way they request, and don’t coerce them into changing channels or signing up for multiple channels.

Part Two: I Want You, Not Facebook!