Really? Why? When? Let us explain...
What's going to happen to digital communication over the next five years? Will we still be weeding out unimportant messages and fishing through enormous email chains trying to find one pesky link to a business plan? Will we still battle to get to inbox zero?
I sure hope not.
I'm predicting that a new communication channel will replace email by 2020. In fact, there are already signs that business is starting to move away from email as a primary form of digital communication. We have so many alternatives. You can send a text message or a DM on Twitter. You can drop someone a note on Facebook or start a chat.
In my own workday, email has become less and less important. There are entire groups of people (public relations, for one) who contact me primarily on social networks first. Friends never send email anymore. They almost always send a text or chat on Facebook. Even a few of my colleagues tend to use apps like Campfire more than email.
Many companies are starting to use tools like Slack to create group discussions and relying much less on email. There are a few important reasons for this. One is that Slack creates a public archive of discussions which is easily searchable. Everyone sees what you are talking about and can add comments. Another reason is simple overload. There are too many portals and not enough good communication. Slack is one good attempt to try and gather business intelligence into one private portal.
Meanwhile, email has become a black hole. People don't respond--or they take forever to respond (which is sort of the same thing). A discussion starts nesting into multiple threads with multiple people and no one can make any sense of it anymore. Spam filters become overly aggressive. We spend hours per week trying to get rid of unimportant messages. By 2020, someone will have figured out how to make digital communication much more efficient. We don't have the answer yet, but it's clear that many people don't even use email outside of work. If you are under 20, it's possible you don't even have a personal email account at all, or, if you do, you rarely check it.
It's hard to imagine right now. We tend to think the technology we have today--the apps and services we rely on so heavily--will always stick around. The social network of today will be the social network of tomorrow. But that's never true. Technology evolves. People create new services. In 2010, apps like SnapChat (for photo messaging) and Meerkat (for live video streaming) didn't even exist.
Five years is a long time in technology, and yet it is not that long at all. In 2010, we had easy access to the high-speed internet, cars had some of the same emerging safety tech they have now, like collision mitigation braking, and smartphones were common. (It's easy to forget the iPhone was released way back in 2007 and Android debuted in 2008.)
Yet, in just five years, social networking has hit the roof. Facebook has quadrupled in value. In 2010, Twitter users sent only about 50 million tweets per day. They now send over 500 million. In terms of car technology, just five years ago, the idea of a car driving itself on the highway was a distant dream. Tesla will probably make it a reality this summer. And no one expected virtual reality to make such a splash in 2015, but it is quickly becoming a legitimate market segment.
Maybe digital messaging will morph into something brand new. I'd love a tool that knows, monitors, understands, and archives the digital communication methods I use automatically. It could be a one-stop shop for all messaging, including texts, chats, social nets...everything. Today, that's not really possible because it is all so fragmented. Heck, Facebook chats alone are held in a digital jail cell. And my texts are all entirely self-contained.
Email has mostly worn out its welcome. By 2020, it won't be the primary form of communication anymore. I can't say what will replace it because I don't think the idea has been invented yet. (Slack is too self-contained, although maybe the company will use some of their investment money to tackle that problem, too.) We won't even bother putting an email address on a business card. Come to think of it, hopefully those won't exist, either.
Email marketing has changed significantly over the past several years—driven by migration of email reading to mobile devices, the debut of email on wearables like the Apple Watch, and broad adoption of engagement-based email filtering by inbox providers. Given all of these changes, we were curious what the next several years had in store, so we asked 20 experts: “How will email marketing and the subscriber experience change by the year 2020?”
Collected in our Email Marketing in 2020 report, their predictions cover everything from inbox functionality and email service provider functionality to email design and deliverability. While every prediction is interesting and thought-provoking, a handful of them are particularly disruptive to the status quo:
1. Brands will stop creating email campaigns because machine learning and automation will completely redefine what a “campaign” is.
Marketers have long sought to send relevant emails by sending the right content to the right person at the right time. The good news is that technology will enable that on a scale not previously possible. The bad news is that new scale is far too vast and complex for people to manage.
“As the number of behaviors captured increases, using the fixed message flowchart-type approach to creating automation sequences that is common to all current automation vendors leads to unmanageable automation,” says Tim Watson, Founder of UK-based email marketing consultancy Zettasphere.
The solution? Handing over many more decisions to machines, and moving to “principle-based automation rather than the current prescriptive-based methods,” says Watson. However, as the result of this shift, marketers will cease designing email campaigns as we currently think of them.
“To deliver a one-to-one experience, customer data and content must be completely divorced from one another and algorithms applied that identify which content should be delivered to which customer, and when,” says Morgan Stewart, CEO and Co-founder of email marketing agency Trendline Interactive.
Organizations able to shift to this abstract level of marketing will pull away from the pack, while those caught in the status quo will struggle to stay relevant in the marketplace.
2. Subscribers will be able to opt out of tracking.
Marketers are investing heavily in technology and processes that set them up to deliver on the power of hyper-personalized 1-to-1 email messages. They are breaking down the silos between marketing channels, building a single view of the customer, and mining an increasingly deep pool of Big Data.
“Learning to drive loyalty with the use of contextual data clues—time, geo-location, weather, events, behavior, etc.—is gold,” says Kristin Naragon, Director of Email Solutions at Adobe. “By 2020, the ability to use these data points to inform campaigns will become the status quo.”
Get our best tips. Join the smartest marketers who receive our weekly update.
However, what if privacy laws or technology providers give subscribers the ability to mask a lot of those context clues? What if subscribers have the ability to mask simple inbox behaviors such as opens and clicks?
“We can expect ever greater restrictions imposed on marketers,” says Andrew Bonar, Founder of deliverability consultancy Deliverability Ltd. “We can expect users to demand the right to opt-out of many tools and data points that marketers take for granted. Open tracking, device tracking, location tracking, click-through behavior, and other data may all be subject to subscriber opt-ins and opt-outs.”
This will put the onus on marketers to explain and demonstrate to subscribers why sharing data back to brands will result in better subscribers experiences.
3. Marketers will have to cater to an entirely new audience: machines.
Email volume is going to go through the roof over the next several years. Thankfully, a good chunk of that volume will never be seen by human eyes. Instead, the recipients of those emails will be machines that we want to keep in the loop, says Paul Farnell, Chief Executive Officer & Co-founder of email creation, testing, and analytics software provider Litmus.
“Email is the universal plumbing that connects the Internet of Things,” he says. “When I get low on milk, my smart fridge could email my grocery store app, adding milk to my shopping list. And when I go grocery shopping, the receipt will be emailed to my financial software app.”
To serve this new audience, marketers will have to adjust how they message and adopt new tools. “Building on the example of the calendar’s .ics file format, emails will make more use of standardized data formats,” says Farnell. “In the years ahead, there will be many more of these standard data formats available—think status updates, travel information, receipts…”
Just how much machine-to-machine messaging will there be? Len Shneyder, Vice President of Industry Relations at email service provider SparkPost, says, “The IoT has the potential to generate trillions of messages a day.”
4. Email messages will morph into push notifications.
Mobile email clients now dominate the list of top platforms for reading emails, with 55% of emails opened on mobile devices during March, according to Litmus Email Client Market Share data. This multi-year shift from emails primarily being read on laptops and huge monitors to being read on 4–6 inch screens has had a profound effect on email design. Email copy has gotten much shorter, and many emails have reduced their focus down to a single call-to-action.
Now imagine what will happen to emails as they make the jump from smartphones down to wearables like the Apple Watch, to Internet of Things–devices like cars and smart fridges, and to voice-interface devices like the Amazon Echo. That’s right: Short emails will get even shorter.
“Two things happen when you focus on ‘small screen and up’ for creating emails,” says Dan Denney, Front-End Developer at Code School. “You remove content because it’s more challenging to build, and you remove content because you realize it’s not necessary. The ‘necessary’ in email is going to continually reduce.”
If you extrapolate this idea, you’ll likely reach the same conclusion that Dan does: “By 2020, I expect the bulk of email marketing to be similar to the experience of Gmail’s Quick Actions. The whole message will be the length of a current subject line with a call-to-action.”
5. Email messages will morph into mailable microsites.
At this point you might be saying to yourself, “Hey, which is it? Are emails turning into push notifications or microsites?” The answer is both.
That’s right—the functionality of inboxes is being pulled in two directions. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the Apple Watch, which can’t display images or support links, since the Watch doesn’t have a web browser. And at the other end of the spectrum is Apple Mail and other WebKit-powered inboxes, which support HTML5 video and other code that allow marketers to create hamburger menus, carousels, and more.
Soon the most sophisticated inboxes will enable the holy grail of interactions: “Subscribers will be able to make purchases right inside a marketing campaign, without ever leaving their inboxes. Campaigns will offer more of an app-like experience, too, with embedded video and other interactivity,” says Tom Klein, Vice President of Marketing at email service provider MailChimp.
Following in the footsteps of social networks like LinkedIn and Twitter, email will try to make the transition from gateway to destination. The prize will be worth the pain this transition will cause email marketers in terms of added development costs.
“Early analytics have shown far greater engagement from users who receive interactive messages,” says Mark Robbins, Email Developer at Rebelmail, which has been a pioneer of interactive email experiences.
Email marketers will simultaneously cater to these high-sophistication and low-sophistication inboxes using the same tools they use today: multipart MIME and responsive design. For instance, the plain text version of a multipart MIME format email is served up when the inbox can’t handle the HTML version. This key way of serving up appropriate experience to both high- and low-sophistication inboxes will likely become even more targeted and indispensable going forward.
The fact that the Apple Watch supports a new MIME part, watch-html, is an early sign of the growing role that multipart MIME will serve. The Apple Watch reads the watch-html part preferably over the plain text version, allowing marketers to optimize messages for the Apple Watch’s limited functionality. Watch-html may become the standard for similar devices, and we may see the creation of an audio-html part that caters to voice-interface devices.
The email marketing channel is firmly ensconced in our daily lives and will continue to generate outsized returns for brands. As it continues to evolve in the years ahead, it will require marketers to stay flexible and be open to experimentation. Get ready for some rollercoaster changes!
6. What Else?
Email will be more visual
As humans, we naturally excel at using visual interfaces when they're personally meaningful. The email inbox of 1999 looked like a text list, in reverse chronological order. The inbox of 2017, with a few exceptions, looks very similar.
There are the seeds of new options which tap into our more visual nature coming out of university labs like MIT , startups (my own for the iPhone), and large companies (Google Inbox).
In the future, all important links within an email will be surfaced and previewed, all attachments will be previewed and shown without having to jump into an email to download them first, and contact photos will be better and more prominent for people we're close to vs robots that send us promotional emails.
Finally, there will be ways to sort and shape an email app to be more visually customized to an individual user. They will be able to touch, sort, compress, expand things in ways that make them more effective and pickup and reorganize emails in order to organize them according to priority.
Email app interfaces will continue to move in the direction of personally meaningful visual schemas that make us more efficient, less prone to the distraction of our own monkey minds, and more effective.
Email will be more interactive
The hardware that's in our hands when we use a smartphone already offers a lot more possibility than email apps are letting us access. We have devices that know their exact orientation in space and developers create gesture and motion based games for fun but most mobile email apps are still relying on a visual list where we can swipe right or left to archive or snooze an email.
That's already changing and is going to continue to get better. Users will be able to interact with their inbox is new ways that feel like superpowers in the near future.
Apple is preparing to announce the iPhone 8 this fall and developers everywhere are already playing with ARKit (Apple's toolkit for developers to build augmented reality apps).
Imagine picking up, tossing, and grouping emails in whatever way you see fit in 3d space. You can already do things like that now in a 2d space on some of the more innovative new apps for the iPhone.
The next big thing will start out looking like a toy as venture capitalist Chris Dixon says and this applies to the changes in interaction models for the email space we're about to experience.
Email will give users more control
Email in the future will gives users vastly more control. This includes a) control through interaction and b) control through personalization and c) control through programmability.
Users will be able to organize an inbox environment in a more personal way. This includes organizing the main email interfaces of what they see first on both desktop and mobile. This will include choosing to see favorite contacts and the user's most important folders or labels being more prominent and customizable.
Programmatically, the inboxes of the future will allow something along the lines of personal hashtag type rules that give priority contacts permission to 'top post' on your inbox. The email hashtag #erikonehour could be a personal hashtag I create and give out to a few colleagues to use when there is something urgent to consider and a decision is needed asap. Rather than having an associate send me something and choose their own choice of urgent subject line ("URGENT: Deal terms need decision!!! Call me"), I as a recipient get more control and organization if I choose how to share priority access to my personal inbox in a way like creating a personal hashtag that pins an email to the top of my inbox for one hour.
Another way of having control as a user will be interfaces where I can get into a focus mode and look at only the emails from today or a certain person easily. This allows me to better manage how I focus and get through my tasks.
Email will be paid
Isn't the possibility of paying for email in the future a bad thing?! That's one viewpoint but it's also largely responsible for the mess that most modern day inboxes are today. Retailers and spammers try to increase their reach exponentially because the cost is almost nothing.
Paying even fractions of a cent or bitcoin to send a piece of email changes the equation for senders. No longer will it make sense to barrage recipients with junk.
What's the effect for you as a recipient? Will you be raking in the bucks or bitcoins to read your normal emails?
Most likely not because we're really talking fractions of a cent. But that's not the worst thing in the world when you hear the other positive effect that will happen.
A paid model or protocol layer will naturally sift and improve the quality of emails that make it through the 'pay filter' protocol to your inbox. That means.... less junk email!
The primary reason that the internet isn't already built on a paid protocol model is that credit card transaction processing costs make micro-transactions of a few pennies or fractional 'pennies' too costly. Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies can in theory handle this by lowering transaction costs but they would need widespread adoption or a layer that makes mass usage easy and possibly invisible.
An interesting model of this 'pay for email concept' is what 21.co does which is create a way to pay to contact influential contacts in the tech world. There are a number of startups that also try to create a market where potential hires are paid by recruiters for responding to emails. This allows some of the benefit to go directly to those involved vs large tech companies absorbing all the profits.
The inbox of tomorrow will make email more manageable and meaningful again. For many of us, that can't happen soon enough.