Email: The Next Frontier in Digital Marketing (Yes, Really)

Corey Frank

Ok, you’re a sales gal (or guy). And it’s circa spring 1860.  

Here’s your pitch: You have an express mail system that can reach a targeted inbox 1,900 miles away that is powered by oats, rancid bacon and creek water, and costs north of $100 per message sent. It will also take more than a week to get there.

Any takers?

Pony Express: The only tool in the mid-19th century marketing tech stack

Founded by William Russell, the Pony Express connected the population of the big city centers on the East Coast to the pioneering settlers in the West. Their entrusted parcels and letters, with their scented ink, rough stock, and cherished content were delivered from St Joseph’s, Missouri to Sacramento, California in about 10 days. It was expensive – and these important packages, hand delivered by the most experienced and rugged riders available, traveled at a peak rate of 25 mph.

Let’s compare this to email

Email today travels to your inbox at a rather brisk rate of about 300 million mph, a near instantaneous clip to any inbox in the world. Safe to say the “speed” box can now officially be checked-off for digital communications.

But we’re not done: what about the impact of relevance, volume and familiarity on the spectrum of driving effectiveness of communication?

Well, before we tackle that, let’s get inside the head of the man who invented email as a tool.

Where it all began

Ray Thomlinson, a young computer engineer and graduate of MIT, was an ambitious team member at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN). In 1971, BBN had a government contract to work on the ARPANet, which is the precursor to today’s Internet. Ray was charged with building operating systems. In his spare time he liked to tinker and one day came up with a program he wrote called SNDMSG (“send message”) to better communicate and collaborate with the team in the vast office.

When the momentous time came to hit “send” on his first message, his Alexander Graham Bell moment was not, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” Instead, he sent the historically unremarkable and unpoetic message, “QWERTYUIOP” (the first complete line of letters on a keyboard).

But it was a hit anyway. This novel electronic mail tool fast became an internally geek-powered mainstay that the rest of the ARPANet programmers then used regularly to send and leave messages for one another.

Then entered Microsoft Mail, CompuServ, LotusNotes, Hotmail, Outlook, free AOL CDs and Gmail…and dozens of others that released the common email kraken to the rest of world.

Also enter spam

You can’t have good without evil. You can’t know sweet without sour. And, it also seems, you can’t have a clean inbox anytime.
So over the past 50 years of this tool (specifically over the “modern era” of the most recent 10), we’ve gone from putting out the welcome mat and posting a virtual “come on in; we’re open” sign on your inbox to now being the reclusive shut-in neighbor who merely cracks the door to see who’s lurking in the hallway.

The “You’ve got mail” novelty has worn off and been replaced by “You shall not pass” spam filters, email reputation scores and most recently, vaunted AI systems.

Email has become a dumb tool in the face of all this tech thrown at it since the day of Ray’s invention.

As an example, Google’s new AI spam filter powered by Tensorflow technology was rolled out in February of this year. The company now boasts that Gmail is blocking an extra 100 million spam messages every day.

But what is spam, anyway? Neil Kumaran, product manager of Counter Abuse Technology at Google, says, “There’s no one definition of spam out there, but (Google’s Tensorflow) AI could help work out the best definition for you.”

In other words, spam lies in the inbox of the beholder. That may be good news to the average person, but it’s potentially bad news if you’re a sales or marketing professional who uses email to prospect and communicate.

So, can email still be useful?

Yes, but it has to be approached the right way. Because just like the formerly common household landline phone service that eventually became a conduit for robotic telemarketing and fraud, so too is the inherent challenge with today’s email in trying to distinguish pertinent and welcome communications from the spam, schemes, and noise that radically abuses email’s open nature.

But working with vendor teams who possess pedigrees in advanced email security, spam-fighting technology and have deep experience in the digital advertising world would naturally lead to better inbox performance and quickly reaping this rich greenfield. Finding a digital marketing Sherpa who can guide you through the menagerie of these three critical skillsets would also then empower you with a virtual Rosetta Stone of digital marketing insight to help maximize the underutilized power of traditional email marketing.

The four ingredients for real email success:

  • Speed (which we’ve covered)
  • Relevance (creativity, layout, subject line and email content opportunities)
  • Volume of the emails (how many attempts are too many?)
  • Familiarity of the sender (reputation score)

Combining these factors with the large amount of underlying MIME data (think of it as email residue or its DNA) helps reveal critical and unharvested meta elements to inform you when emails are opened – and how often - on which device, which links in the email have been clicked, and even knowing their frequency. All these seemingly disparate data elements can then reveal such statistically relevant patterns of a recipient’s email reading practices, the true effectiveness of your teams creative messaging efforts, and even best predict a prospect’s logical buying behavior.

Oh, and the fifth ingredient? Working under the helpful guidance of a skilled digital partner who can help sift through the vastness of this data is crucial to understanding when a recipient is truly engaged.

This blueprint truly helps make you “email smart.”  

Like the world of mid-19th century America, today’s email and digital marketing landscape has much yet to be discovered, much to be feared and so much to hope for.

Just don’t drink the creek water.

Corey Frank is chief revenue officer at Black Pearl Mail Limited, a modern and fresh snap-in software that enables progressive companies to transform the way they communicate, market, and sell to match the way humans actually respond, shop, and buy.