At the start of 2019, we’re getting a closer look at a communication tool we often take for granted: email.
Depending on who you ask, email was invented in the mid-60s to early 70s.
Since then, VHS and Betamax came and went, the first mobile phone was created, the Internet was invented, flash drives rendered floppy disks obsolete, and the first MP3 player—along with iTunes and Napster—all but eliminated the use of CDs for music. Dozens upon dozens of major, life and world-changing innovations and thousands of smaller advances have occurred since the invention of email. Yet, despite many of those innovations being rendered obsolete, or morphing into something barely recognizable from its predecessor, email has stood the test of time.
That said, to suggest email hasn’t changed would be grossly inaccurate. Email services from long-time innovators like Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and others have sprung up over the years leading to better spam filters, improved organization, more personalized emails, and more.
Even as late as 2011, huge email innovations, like the development of Unroll Me, an email organization service, are still occurring. Unroll Me flipped the world of email and email marketing on its head by offering users the ability to unsubscribe en masse and consolidate their subscriptions. Seven years after its invention, the product is still changing the game, especially now that it has been bought by Slice, a subsidiary of Rakuten Intelligence, and integrated into their shopping application.
So What’s Next?
When it comes to looking out on the horizon for anything tech-related, including email, artificial intelligence and automation usually come to mind. As COO and CTO of SAS, a North Carolina-based analytics company, Oliver Schabenberger said, “It [AI] can possibly transform numerous businesses—perhaps every industry.” He goes on to say that AI will not be the “all or nothing scenario” that people might be worried about. Rather, the implementation of AI will change people’s job roles, rather than replacing them completely. And email is no exception, particularly when it comes to email marketing.
In recent years, email advertisers have helped to drive the adoption and widespread use of A/B and multivariate testing. The same must be said for things like personalization, analytics, email customization and optimization. As of today, many of these trends—which have been instrumental in email’s continued evolution—are conducted by humans. That said, over recent years we’ve seen the growing influence of artificial intelligence and automation on these critical processes. Looking out to 2019 and beyond, it seems clear that this trend will continue to grow.
But, again, this doesn’t mean the human element of email marketing will be eliminated. Take Unroll Me as an example. This email service automatically scans a user’s email inbox to search for emails that come from the lists that the user is subscribed to. From there, Unroll Me automatically generates an interface within which the user can easily unsubscribe from any lists they no longer want to see emails from. In a similar way, the service can also consolidate all your list emails into a single email so you don’t have to read each individual email. As you can see, the user is front and center in the Unroll Me experience; he or she hasn’t been eliminated by this automated innovation. The user is simply using technology in a better, smarter, and different way, thanks to Unroll Me. And ‘different’ doesn’t have to mean bad.
A New Way to Work
In just about every aspect of email marketing there’s a tech vendor (plus a few dozen more) ready to sell you a solution that supposedly does it better than anyone else. MailChimp, GetResponse, SendGrid, Zoho, GoDaddy and hundreds more technology tools automate workflows, analytics, and list segmentation. They deliver insights on campaign performance, automate tests and experiments, and much more. In many ways, such as with Unroll Me, automation and AI are already here.
All that said, not everyone is reaping the benefits and in that way automation and AI are years away from reaching their potential. Many efforts to integrate technology are dead on arrival at large, legacy corporations. Moreover, with such a saturated market of email tools, marketing and non-marketing related, it’s not always that companies can’t adopt new technology, it’s that they can’t keep up with the pace of change.
Clearly, especially with the way things have accelerated in the technology world since the late 90s, it’s a fool’s errand to try to make perfectly accurate predictions about technology several decades into the future. In fact, very smart people, from huge consulting companies like McKinsey, who’ve toiled with the question of how AI and automation will change the workplace of the future still can’t really pin down a concrete answer.
In an MGI report on the future of work called Jobs lost, jobs Gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation, the authors found that between 75 and 375 million people globally could need to change jobs and invest in developing new skills. That’s a plus or minus of 300 million and between .9 percent of the global population and 4.9 percent, so to say we don’t know what’s going to happen would be an understatement.
Still, we do know that things are going to change in some way; that much is certain. The path forward, then, for executives as well as lower-level employees and organizations as a whole, is to adopt a new mindset, that of a continuous learner. Just like the days of sifting through hundreds of email in an attempt to clean up inboxes have come and gone thanks to Unroll Me, the days of doing tedious tasks like cleaning up an email list are numbered.
Employees and executives in the world of email will have to find new ways to allocate their time. And the demand (and budget) for creative, strategic thinking will continue to grow.
The New Oil
The value and promise of big data was (and still is) espoused for years before it really began to take hold. But thanks to the continued rise in computing power and other ancillary technological advances, even small companies can get their hands on and leverage tools which deliver insights that are only possible with the help of big data. Data has become so important to companies like Google, Facebook, Adobe, and virtually all others, that The Economist went so far as to say that data—not oil—is now the world’s most valuable resource.
Email, unsurprisingly, is one of the tools of the trade in the business world that benefits greatly from using data to drive optimization. Amazon has shown this to be true by using automated email campaigns that get sent out to every one of their hundreds of millions of customers. But it’s not just the automation that makes it work, it’s the data they leverage in order to tailor every single email they send to the unique interests of the user who is receiving the email. Which brings us back to the most important player in the world of email: the user.
Crafting an Experience
As easily as we send a text message, we can order a ride, check in for a flight, order a couch, stream a TV show, or have a hot meal delivered to our home. The innovative thinking required to create the idea of these experiences is admirable. But what’s truly become a common theme in the new world of technology is that innovation must fit within the existing fabric of our everyday lives. It’s why the mobile design of apps and websites so important. With the vast majority of consumers in wealthy countries owning smartphones, a company that fails to craft an experience within the mediums that those consumers already use is doomed to a short life.
Slack co-founder, Stewart Butterfield called email the “cockroach of the Internet.” For reference, cockroaches are notoriously hard to kill. Insecticides fail to kill them because they are already pre-adapted to many toxins. In fact, cockroaches are one of the few things on Earth that could survive a nuclear bomb. But back to email. Why would Butterfield liken email to a cockroach?
As he puts it, “Email has many benefits as the lowest common denominator for official communications.” However, he says (unsurprisingly in favor of Slack) that messaging apps are better for collaboration because your email isn’t locked up in a box. That may be true, though Unroll Me and other email improvements make it less so.
Regardless, the key thing to remember about email is that, when it comes to business to business communication, email reigns supreme. And that’s thanks to its ability to adapt (like the cockroach) to the changing times.
Just as Uber’s success is inexorably tied to mobile, so email became mobile in 1999 thanks to the BlackBerry. The same decade, email spam began, closely followed by anti-phishing and junk mail filters offered by the likes of Microsoft and Yahoo! A few years later Google shook up the industry of webmail with Gmail which offered improved email features. Publishers began monetizing their email lists. It became standard for email to be used as a login which meant email became brands’ most important piece of information about their customers, enabling more personalized messaging.
As dozens of studies have shown us, the only thing that is certain about the future of technology and our world in general is that things will change. And it’s almost a certainty that email will change with it. Email is so ingrained into the everyday functioning of both business and consumer users. Those who succeed, like Unroll Me and its founders Jojo Hedaya and Josh Rosenwald, will be the ones who innovate within the world of email to make the experience more efficient, easier, and user-centric.
Threats to Email
The most obvious, and likely the most serious, threat to email is the rise of the messaging app. The major ones in the business world include Slack, Glip, Convo, Cisco Spark, and Fleep. Outside of the business world, there’s WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Viber. Let’s start with the business world.
Butterfield, referenced earlier, makes a good point about email in the business world. That is, email conversations are locked within the email inbox. One major benefit of apps like Slack, Glip, and others is that the entire history of a conversation is saved. New hires can come into a new company, join an internal channel, and take a look at the sort of topics that get talked about as well as the communication and collaboration style of internal members of the company. Put simply, this makes communication much more open throughout the company. And more open communication is something that has grown in popularity and perceived importance, especially at the leading tech companies of the day.
Beyond that, for certain types of business communication, people may find messaging apps more suitable. For example, because messaging apps allow you to communicate in real time more seamlessly than email, you can work on something simultaneously more easily. The communication is more dynamic than the static email. Moreover, searching through past messages and sharing files is generally less cumbersome.
Of course, open communication is not without its downsides. Legal documents, contracts, private information, privileged conversations, and otherwise confidential information should be protected from prying eyes in some cases. So at the same time that business messaging apps threaten email, they also carve out a more well-defined, very important role for email.
Now to the consumer side of things. While it’s hard to imagine a world in which email becomes obsolete in the modern workplace, perhaps it’s a bit more feasible to imagine consumers moving away from email towards messaging apps. That said, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that email will go the way of the dodo in the consumer’s eyes. So long as products and innovations like Unroll Me keep coming and keep making email more useful, more fun, and easier to manage, the difference between email and messaging apps may become inconsequential. Moreover, since email is already firmly entrenched in the fabric of our daily lives, it holds a serious competitive advantage over the incumbent messaging applications. This is part of why Unroll Me and similar companies are so innovative – responding to a functional issue as opposed to introducing a totally new method is more likely to catch on with users.
Moreover, there are quite a few, strong corporate interests behind keeping email as the standard of digital communication. In messaging apps, at least so far, there hasn’t been a huge push towards serving users ads. Even Facebook, one of the internet’s largest advertisers, has yet to significantly monetize the messaging platform WhatsApp, which they recently acquired. This stands in stark contrast to Instagram, which they acquired and subsequently monetized so significantly that they alienated the original founders who then left. The lack of monetization reflects the difficulty of monetizing messenger apps.
Email, on the other hand, provides seamless avenues for large publishers and advertisers to reach targeted segments of their audience. This and the near-universal use of emails as logins for everything from your credit card account to your social media login mean the email will be extremely difficult for anything to unseat.
Cybersecurity and Email
Beyond any specific program or application that threatens email is the presence of cybersecurity threats. If you ask any cybersecurity professional what the single biggest risk to a firm’s cybersecurity is, “human error” will be at or near the top of the list. And email is one of those places where human error often rears its ugly head.
Unsuspecting users open an email that’s from a fraudulent email address disguised as someone they know and they click on a link or download a file. Before you know it, a nefarious virus is spreading throughout the company, possibly infecting their vendors as well. Anti-phishing and spam filters have helped to curb the tide of cybercriminals who are able to perpetrate this crime, but it’s far from a perfect system.
A HIMSS Analytics Survey that was released in early 2018 showed that IT directors believe that email was the “most likely source for a breach.” Another study found that of the data breaches caused by human error, the majority of them were caused by someone sending an email to the wrong person.
Conclusion: What Adaptation Comes Next?
Like the cockroach, email has shown an ability to survive and thrive like no other technology through the years. The thought that the vast majority of internet users still communicate with a tool that was invented over 40 years ago seems inconceivable. Though, to be fair, email in its current state is nothing like the email that was first sent in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson on ARPANET.
Countless innovations by legacy companies such as Microsoft, IBM, and Google carried it through the 90s and 2000s while game-changing tweaks by upstarts like Unroll Me shepherded email through the teens of the new millennium. What happens next is anyone’s guess. But even with threats from messaging apps, cybersecurity worries, and a rapidly changing world, it appears as though email is here to stay, though the likelihood that it remains in its current form just five years from now is close to zero. Like it has done since the 70s, email will continue to evolve and adapt and—short of a complete paradigm shift—it will remain the dominant form of digital communication well into the 2000s.