For my column in MediaPost this month, I wrote about a digital media conference I attended – 10 years ago. I heard something from one of the speakers there that is still in my head, and causes me to take a long view of the email business on a pretty regular basis. It’s about meaningful points of differentiation – what makes email unique, and what direction can we (each of us) take our email practice that exploits what email and our companies and we ourselves do best. You can read the article on MediaPost here, and the full text is below as well.

Will Email Ever Be ‘Beamed Into Your Cerebral Cortex’?
by Mike May
Published on 10.20.10 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

I was at an industry event some years ago (a Jupiter Consumer Online Forum, to give you an idea of how many years I’m talking about here) when Martin Nisenholtz, then CEO of New York Times Digital, was on stage discussing the newspaper business. He made a point that still resonates with me today, some 10 years later. He defined the New York Times business not as the business of printing and selling papers, but of creating and distributing content. His position was that the New York Times would put its content on the web, send it out via email and the push technologies available at the time, and vigilantly look for new digital distribution platforms. “If there’s a way to beam it directly into our readers’ cerebral cortex, we’ll do that too,” he said.

Since then, we’ve hashed that debate out quite a bit. By today’s standards it doesn’t appear that provocative a position, but Martin was taking that stand without a clear revenue model in mind, either for online advertising or for digital brain-beaming. He identified content creation and distribution as his company’s (and the newspaper industry’s) meaningful point of differentiation. For any future revenue stream to be successful,  it would need to exploit that point of differentiation.

I’m no Martin Nisenholtz, but I try to think about the email industry from the same perspective as he assessed the newspaper business a decade ago. Whether or not he was right, or how much of the Times’ current state can be attributed to his position is not that important. What is interesting to me is the strategic filter he peered through to examine his business.

How, then, would we describe the email industry based on its meaningful points of differentiation? And how will this description influence the way email evolves into the next decade?

Is email:

A digital message distribution service? This definition may be narrow in scope, but does allow for significant evolution. One could argue that everything from fax to RSS and even Twitter fall within this description. The gist of this definition is that the distribution of the message is more important that an inbox-specific delivery.

A messaging and analytics platform? Email’s tracking and analytics are unrivaled by most other communications channels. Defining email thusly takes it down the path of marketing intelligence, and splits its focus between delivering messages and analyzing the impact of campaigns.

A customer relationship tool? The analytical focus here is less on the results of individual messages or campaigns, and more on a view of customers’ levels of engagement based on their responses (or non-responses) to messages.

A customer conversation engine? It’s curious to me that almost as quickly as email became an industry, the “do not reply” sender address was created. It is currently en vogue to use social media for customer conversations, which does have its advantages to the customers. Posting a complaint or question on Twitter or Facebook is like cc’ing the CEO — it’s right out there for everyone to see, and impatiently awaits an official response. But social media, despite its growth, simply does not have the far-reaching tendrils of email. More conversations still take place in the inbox. Will the movement towards candid discourse between companies and customers – spurred by blogs and social media – make its way into the inbox? Ad if it does, will it shift email from one-to-many back to its one-to-one roots and promise?

This exercise isn’t solely a bit of intellectual navel-gazing. There is no one definition the “industry” (whatever that is) needs to agree on. Rather, each one of us who currently considers email marketing our principal occupation gets to decide how we define our own email business, based on what it does best for our company and how we personally are uniquely qualified to exploit it.

What do you think email does best, and where will those unique qualities take us?