By Margaret Farmakis
Senior Director, Response Consulting
[Ed note: This is the final blog on our IN Conference sessions. Do to some technical issues — and a late night on Thursday — it’s a little later than the rest.]
The last panel session of the day was moderated by Return Path CEO Matt Blumberg and included Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures. Fred has been in the VC space since 1987, was the founder of Flatiron Partners and was recently recognized as the #1 most influential insider in the New York tech scene by Silicon Alley Insider.
Also on the panel were Tom Evslin, the inventor of the “Blok” which delivers books in serial format via blog postings, and Phil Hollows, the CEO of Feedblitz, a leading independent RSS to email alert service.
The session really took the form of an informal chat between four messaging gurus and it was fascinating to hear them talk about email: its past, present and future.
Matt kicked off the discussion by stating that email isn’t just evolving – it’s “turbo-evolving.” Over the last 20 years, new forms of messaging and communication have rapidly expanded. So where does that leave users, subscribers and marketers?
Before the gurus answered that question, Matt posed some questions to the audience using the Perception Analyzer tool. Those included:
Do you have Outlook open all day?
Yes = 83%; No = 17%
Do you have multiple email accounts open all day?
Yes = 69%; No = 31%
Do you use Twitter?
Yes = 18%; No = 82%
Do you spend more time “messaging” now than you did 2 years ago?
Yes = 86%; No = 14%
Matt then turned the floor over to the gurus.
TOM: The biggest change with email in the past 20 years is that it’s easy and cheap, which is good news and bad news. Today’s problem is not about the cost, but about getting the “signal” out of the noise and standing out from the clutter.
FRED: Email used to be a terrible experience and the younger generation knows that best. In Facebook, email only comes from people you know and your friends and no one can be spammed, which is one of the reasons why the younger generation embraces it. As a result of some poor email experiences, we’ve trained a generation not to use email.
PHIL: Therein lies the challenge. Emailing was a lazy form of communication – in the past, once it went out you knew it would get delivered.
MATT: Do your kids use email?
FRED: Not really. It’s text messaging and Facebook or Blackberry messenger. Their school has its own web-based email system, but it’s more like a Facebook messaging system in the way that they use it.
PHIL: As they move into the workforce, they will be drawn back into email.
FRED: The corporate enterprise world will stick with email longer, and that won’t change for a long time.
TOM: The model that we have today, where companies establish a presence in all those spaces/channels isn’t going to survive. It’s not efficient and it’s costly. Social media services and permission-based messaging will fold into the websites.
MATT: This leads to fragmentation on the user side and the sender side. How can we unify this?
FRED: I don’t think anyone has figured out a way to do it that actually adds value.
TOM: You want whatever tool you’re using at the moment to be the best – the best email client, the best social media service, etc. Something that does it all in the best way doesn’t currently exist.
PHIL: When it comes to email marketers, you should offer the choices that matter the most to your subscribers.
MATT: Why are there no messaging platforms driven by relevance?
FRED: I think you’re starting to see that in the social networking space. Twitter’s clients rank streams of incoming messages by who has the most followers. Also, Facebook is starting to do this. Part of the problem is that reputation is unique to each individual recipient. Return Path is great because it creates a score across the entire sender universe, which is a collection of standard best practices. There would be so much metadata involved in scoring individuals that it probably wouldn’t work.
TOM: When you look at email as a whole, that’s what spam filters are. You, the subscriber, can make your own exceptions, however filtering is at a very awkward place because the sender can’t control it and the user can’t control it.
MATT: What advice would you give to marketers about how they should interact with their customers?
FRED: You’ve got to figure out how to have a conversation with your customers, which is why social media is so important. It’s conversational media – people can comment and reply. You can have a conversation with a CEO of a company – it’s real and authentic.
TOM: Marketers have to offer more choice – subscribers want to receive their messages in different ways. We need tools that let us put out one message, but deliver that message in a way that’s appropriate for each subscriber. We need to make sure that what reaches the customer is what they actually want. Conversation isn’t good enough – you have to promote conversation between your customers as well, which is why social networking stuff needs to get embedded into sites.
PHIL: For a lot of companies that’s scary because they feel like they’re losing control of the conversation, but what they’ll actually find is that their customers will become more vibrant and engaged. And yes, sometimes bad things will happen, but more often than not your fans will come to your rescue.
PHIL: No one suggests email is going away – the death of email is somewhat overstated and premature. It will be the common denominator for a long time. It’s how we, as marketers, deal with email and social media and mobile platforms. If it’s not your primary media, how do you reach those subscribers using something else?
TOM: The reality is that there are subscriber segments we won’t reach if we’re using email only.
FRED: Email is a one-to-one channel largely. Those millions of people who get it can’t reply to the millions of others who get it. I just use a comment system on my blog called DISQUS [Ed note: it’s pronounced “discuss”] and when I get a comment, I also get an email. I can reply to that email and it will post a response on my blog. I would like to be able to reply to the email alert I get in Facebook and have that posted. I think we’ll see email and the web start to merge.