Originally published in MediaPost’s Email Insider, 11-15-12.
My inbox is losing its voice. Or rather, most of the messages in there have lost theirs. It wasn’t long ago that almost every marketing email I received was copywritten expressly for the email channel, allowing me to hear the voices of all the brands I subscribed to. But now most of the messages in my inbox have no such voice, and were instead authored by machines.
Over the past six months especially, native email content is being replaced by transactional, triggered and other data-driven messages. Instead of carefully worded pitches and prose, the content is instead curated from websites, blogs and online product catalogs, or generated directly from an application where the closest thing to actual copy is a template with some framing language like, “Here are some tweets you might like.” The content in these messages was not written expressly for email; the brands are using email as a delivery channel for previously created content. This is an important shift, and has profound implications on audience attention and engagement.
Look at your own inbox after you’ve deleted everything that is not relevant enough to warrant your attention. What’s left? Notifications from your social network(s) of choice alerting you that someone has recently followed, friended, mentioned, messaged or tagged you; confirmations and shipping notifications from retail and other e-commerce businesses; and newsletters and digests comprised of a single article written for a publication (like this one), or aggregating links and abstracts from a number of articles into a digest format. What makes many of these messages highly relevant to you is that they are written – er, generated – expressly for you. Anyone else who hacks into my inbox will be bored stiff with the contents.
We may lament the waning of the copywriting craft in email, but modern email marketers will immediately understand why the shift is occurring: because the results support it. Plainly, machines are better at assembling and targeting content at the individual level than we are. Google generates more relevant results than NetGuide; Amazon’s product recommendation engine is far more scalable than Nordstrom’s personal shoppers; and Pandora builds better playlists than a college station DJ. When targeting, relevance and scale all matter, machines win.
The inflection point driving this shift in email is clutter. Now email marketers must operate in the Attention Economy. Message volume has outstripped our subscribers’ time to read and act on it all. Our challenge then is not to send messages that are relevant on an absolute level, but that are more relevant than most of the other messages in the inbox. We are not competing with our industry rivals as much as the 60 messages in front of ours in the inbox. Shorter, personal, better =-targeted and more frequent messages are better equipped to engage in the Attention Economy than long narrative paragraphs that say more about the mailing brand than the receiving subscriber. In a battle of narcissistic wills, smart brands are letting their subscribers win.
We can now break email into three separate categories, which tracks the rise of the machines:
1-to-1: When email rose to prominence as a marketing channel about fifteen years ago, it was billed as the first true “1-to-1 communications channel.” It never was, of course. We know now that a single name in the “To” field of a message 500,000 people are receiving simultaneously is not the same thing as 1-to-1 communications. Real 1-to-1 emails are the messages we personally receive from other people, and are what anchor the channel’s utility.
1-to-Few: Dynamic content allows a range of emails to be assembled from content blocks and targeted to subscribers based on preferences or attributes in a database. This falls short of 1-to-1, since the range of distinct messages is limited by the number of separate content blocks and corresponding subscriber attributes. They move the ball forward in relevance, but are hampered by an inability to scale.
1-to-Many: Most commonly, email has been a 1-to-Many communications channel, with the majority of recipients on a list receiving the same message, or lists broken into very broad segments and targeted with a separate creative treatment. Almost all email marketers I speak with know they should segment and target better. Finding the resources is hard, particularly since wasting an email appears to be far less expensive than running an unresponsive print ad, or squandering an expensive TV commercial on poor creative. Email is inexpensive and marketers own the audience, so segmenting and targeting are easily deferred to some future message or campaign. The rising importance of engagement metrics on deliverability is creating awareness of the need for increased targeting, though I have not yet seen any data that signals a change in email marketing tactics as a result.
0-to-1: Machines change the game. I call this category 0-to-1 Communications, as the machines – once programmed – churn out highly targeted and personal messages without a marketer writing copy, pulling a list or clicking “send” for each one. They can tell you which six products (or price points) in a store each individual customer is most likely to buy, when the merchandising accuracy of a 1-to-Many message is limited to a much broader segment. They can create messaging opportunities for a brand based on interactions (someone commented on your comment, these people have viewed your picture) too small to otherwise notice and act on. And they are scalable, able to perform the same level of targeting on a practically infinite number of people, at a frequency unmatched by even the most productive marketing team.
Should I be hedging my bets and claiming that some brands will continue to use a traditional one-to-many copywriting model for email and enjoy success? I suppose if you consider the family market on the corner that manages to stay in business despite a Safeway or Wegman’s down the street a success story, then yes. Some brands will persist, and the handcrafted artisan email will come to be regarded as quaint and possibly sufficient. But the machines are coming, and the gulf in engagement that their highly personal and targeted messages create compared to traditional email marketing is going to fundamentally alter the inbox landscape, and how consumers manage and respond to email.