What happens when you put four email visionaries together on a panel and ask them to predict email’s future? You get four sets of opinions, some contrary views … but a firm conviction that email’s best days are ahead of us.

That’s what happened during the “Future of Email” discussion earlier this month at the recent Email Innovation Summit in Las Vegas. The panel included moderator John Thies, co-founder, Email on Acid, and included these four industry thought leaders:

  • Alyssa Jarrett, senior content marketing manager, Iterable
  • Greg Kraios, CEO/founder, 250ok
  • Allan Levy, CEO, SellUP Inc.
  • Laura Madden, senior email marketing strategist, DEG Digital

The conversation was fast and furious. Here are three takeaways:

  • Today’s omnichannel marketing means using technology like automation and AI to match up the right channel and the right message, not just knocking out one message across all channels.
  • GDPR won’t kill email marketing. It’s just forcing marketers to do what they should have been doing all along.
  • “Batch and blast” email’s days are numbered. You’re definitely going to want to read the edited transcript below to find out why.

1. What’s the most innovative thing you’ve seen in email today?

Allan Levy: It’s the whole cross-channel model of understanding where the data is going, where engagement is going. Do I contact my customer on Facebook, how many customers am I acquiring through search? How many emails should I send? What’s next in the email process?

Those channels used to operate in silos, but marketers understand now that it must change drastically to move email forward, that the cadence and channel of the message is adjusted based on what’s proper for the product and for the user.

Alyssa Jarrett: With omnichannel, it’s interesting to see the email marketer moving from single-channel technology to true engagement marketing. For so many growth marketing platforms, the focus is on “How can I optimize send time and frequency, not just in one channel but across my suite of platforms and technology?”

As we see platforms consolidate and silos break down, we are seeing a lot of interesting campaigns triggering across all channels.

Laura Madden: We can become ‘channel-humble.’ We’re all email geeks, but sometimes the best tactic is to talk in paid search or in social. by understanding how all those channels work together we can take a step back.

Email can be our No. 1 channel, but we can see where email might not be the best contact point. We can know that’s the case because we have educated ourselves on the omnichannel experience.

Greg Kraios: What I see from where I sit, where we work with platforms and blacklists and the people who are sitting between you and your subscribers is that they’re all starting to share more data and become more transparent. It’s important to realize that you all share that subscriber and want the subscriber to have the best possible experience with the email and in the inbox.

I’m also seeing big platforms getting serious about email again. There’s going to be a war for attention, and they want those subscribers back, so they’re willing to be more transparent.

2. What implications does GDPR have for email marketing?

GK: It all started with CASL [Canada’s Anti-Spam Legislation]. You look at what Canada did with consent being important and not just implied. We’ve seen that privacy is becoming more important. The EU took this development further with explicit consent. How you collect and store data is making businesses more accountable.

Then you look at CAN-SPAM, which has no data provision. I think we’re going to see more pressure. We can see it now with Facebook and people not being forthcoming. There’s going to be pressure on people in the U.S.to change as well.

LM: I see the attitude going from panic to Zen. It’s about things we should have been doing anyway, about best practices and doing what you should have done as a good email marketer. It will help you in the long run to have things in place to speak to people better.

AL: I’m going to take a contrarian view. I lived through the implementation of CAN-SPAM. I was with a lead-generation company, and we were watching CAN-SPAM come down, shaking in our boots about what would happen. These were the days when companies shared lists, traded lists and built lists out of anything.

Operating with more regulations worked for us because we could see there is a cost to email, and you do want to mail to the best people, the ones who will respond. Will we see prosecution on GDPR? I don’t encourage clients to follow the others who have gone down the “re-opt-in to our list,” because that’s not what the law mandates.

The best way to succeed with GDPR is to do the right thing, but you don’t need to burn everyone who hasn’t opened an email.

3. We’ve been hearing a lot about AI – artificial intelligence. What do you think about AI and where will it take email marketing?

AJ: It’s top of mind at the moment. We’re bringing it to our clients. There’s a lot of jargon and black-box thinking about it, and it doesn’t mean anything to a lot of people.

It’s on parity with other platforms. For us, AI means that omnichannel engagement is not just which subject line to use in email.

Instead, we ask, ‘Is it even right to send an email or would the customer respond better to SMS? Should we cap frequency at 1 triggered? Should we try retargeting on social media before hitting a touchpoint with email?’ AI can help us make those decisions.

AL: We’re not quite there yet. We need AI to help us with so many channels and messages. It doesn’t fit everywhere. Maybe relevant product recommendations can go into an email message, but it still takes marketing and common sense. AI doesn’t take the risks. People take the risks. AI won’t figure those out.

GK: I think of it more as automated intelligence than artificial intelligence. A machine can be too good and doesn’t understand context. That’s the missing link.

Companies that do only list-based mailing are still growing. A lot of people are just trying to get content out once a week. For them, that’s the win.

If AI can help automate things and improve the customer experience, that’s great. But you must understand what it means before you choose a vendor, what data points you will use to make that decision. It takes a lot to acquire a customer but not much to lose one.

4. AI and automation are not cheap. What’s the future of email budgets?

LM: I see email capturing more budget. It will be easier to prove out why we need more money. Showing how effective email is and how to apply it will help get more budget.

AJ: While email budgets might increase, it’s important to note that you don’t have to pay an arm and leg to do good email marketing.

It comes down to consolidating the technology and breaking down silos, and it should be marketer-friendly. It should be something your teams can use without having a large in-house or staff agency and cause a five-day delay because you had to fill out a ticket for support and you’re still waiting for an answer.

LM: A lot of the automations we do will reduce costs. That should not make the case that we need to cut the budget, though. We can relocate that money to do other cool things.

5. Where is the greatest need to innovate? What are we missing?

GK: We need platforms that talk to each other, that integrate better and offer better options to clients. To date there has been a ceiling on innovation. We don’t have to use SMTP to transmit messages because there should be things to allow you direct access to the inbox.

Customers don’t care how the message gets there or whether it was authenticated. They care about how the message displays to them and how they can interact with it.

LM: One element of innovation is using the data you’ve been collecting. A few years ago, we were saying, ‘It would be great if I could personalize my emails, but I’m not collecting the data I need to do it right.” So, the first step was to start collecting the data. Now you have this big bunch of data. Use it for dynamic content or personalization, and take your email to the next step.

AJ: For us, it’s all about workflows. We’re getting to the point where we’ll never need to click “send” on an email because they will be automated.

We’re going to see more behavioral context, more personalized campaigns without having to think about it. You don’t have to be an engineer to make it happen, either. I see more empowerment for email marketers, and I see us getting away from “batch and blast” entirely.

6. Will email ever become the conversion tool? What needs to happen?

LM: I don’t know that I want that to be our goal. It’s going in that direction with interactive email and being able to put products in carts, but the idea of privacy and credit-card security has many people leery.

If we put those capabilities in email, it would be the responsibility of the email industry to reassure people that their credit-card number is safe in processing in email as well as on the website. That’s a lot of responsibility.

GK: It will happen if mailbox providers allow it to happen. No matter what we think, they must protect their users. They want things to happen but not at the sacrifice of privacy and security.

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