Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Email in the Content World - Growing but Dying?

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Anne Holland for MarketingSherpa today, focusing on what needs to happen for enterprise and media business content producers in the near term to build successful strategies. We'll post a link when she's done with the piece, but in the process of being interviewed I did a dumb thing - I actually had the temerity to say that email was dying as a communications medium. Marketing guru that Anne is, she quickly snapped a towel across my virtual butt through the phone and reminded me of the oodles of research that shows that email is alive and growing at tremendous rates as a marketing medium. Touche, Anne. Even Shore's own research shows that the most popular content technology tool for people on a daily basis remains the email inbox, and we oftentimes recommend to clients to focus on email as a key delivery channel. Guttenberg's invention was hardly perfect but we've gotten a few centuries of use out of it; email is going to be with us for a long time as well.

But I do believe that we're at the beginning of an era in which more effective personal communications tools for content are both necessary and emerging. The incorporation of elements from the Groove collaborative desktop into Microsoft Office 12 and the increasing popularity of collaborative online content services point towards ways of sharing information with trusted peers that preclude the need to push and pull content through email channels. Feeds from weblogs in RSS and Atom formats to desktops and mobile devices allow people to tune into and tune out messages from trusted sources at will, a fact that frustrates some marketeers but that quietly has allowed content to reach its destination unmolested by firewalls, spam filters and other agents of non-delivery with increasingly sophisticated tracking tools. Google's Gmail service and similar services from other portal providers use the email ID as a unique ID to leverage a broadening array of communications services.

So yes, email is growing, but I don't know that this means that it will continue to thrive in its current form. It's poorly adapted to a world in which people are using multiple devices to manage similar content services simultaneously. Instead over the next few years we're going to see a new breed of communications services keyed by email addresses initially but using altogether different communications methods to sync up publishers and audiences. Emerging communications methods and services are being driven more by peer communications than hub-and-spoke communications, a factor that will place a higher premium on being a member of a social community than sheer firepower from a central source for getting a marketing message out.

The primitive "forward" function of email will be transformed into a simpler metaphor that allows content to appear on a user's desktop or other device in a more useful and organized context than the inboxes that we deal with today, even as peers are alerted to new valuable content in a far more effective manner that accounts for its value in the eyes of a specific community in much the same way that many search engine results take into account content's popularity. Services such as Google Desktop that merge emails, Web, desktop and enterprise sources are already knocking at the door of this value proposition: why have an inbox here and a search engine there when you can have one content interface that delivers the most valuable content in one place?

I am sure that this all sounds far too futuristic for its own good to many, but looking carefully at the content industry it's clear that many of these phenomena are already taking shape. We're at the very early stages of developing collaborative publishing services, one in which most publishers will assume that it's fair game to milk the email cow much as print was milked long after it was clear that new channels needed to be nurtured. The next two to three years are going to require a lot of thinking about how you are going to adapt from an email-centric world to a peer messaging world that may look superficially like email in many ways but has far more sophisticated services and options to consider for publishers. In the meantime, get out the bucket and milk the email cow, to be sure, but keep your eyes open for the emerging alternatives.
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