Marketing breakthrough or brave new world?
Hans-Peter Brøndmo discussed the concept in a recent column prior to Gmail's launch. In it, he outlines opportunities for geotargeting based on search. It's a remarkable concept, and he plans further discussion from a privacy perspective.
The McNealy Principle
"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." That famous utterance from Sun Microsystems' CEO, Scott McNealy, still resonates. To begin discussing search and email integration opportunities, privacy concerns must first be addressed through acquisition of consent.
It amazes me people will give up so much information for an incentive or a sweepstakes. Google's incentive, 1GB of free email storage, should certainly be enough of a lure to induce users to explore search/email integration.
The most important part of the consent process may be for Google to first tell users what it plans to do with archived data and may do in the future with shared applications, and only then request permission. Users must be supplied with clear, conspicuous terms and conditions. Privacy statements shouldn't be buried in legalese, and users must understand the "McNealy Principle" of zero (or limited) privacy before signing up.
It Starts With Relevance
If you receive in the mail a catalog that's exactly targeted to your demographic, containing items that seem to match others you've purchased in the past, do you consider it a great catalog or a privacy invasion? There's a fine line between personalization and privacy. Usually, it's threaded through relevance. Once too much relevance is achieved and the items become too personal (or irrelevant), users become either concerned or turned off.
If ads are delivered in email messages, users may view them as they do all advertising, provided they're relevant and not too personal. When relevance is too close for comfort, users become turned off and potentially resentful.
Contextual and Consensual
Google has said one intention in providing 1GB of email storage is to enable users to use search for relevant archived messages. What's not been revealed is whether ads in archived messages are archived as well, or if they're dynamic. If they're dynamic, meaning they can be changed on the fly, what's to stop Google from inserting keyword ads related to the search queries used to find the archived messages?
Say I visit a friend in Washington. During a previsit email exchange, we decide on a restaurant. After the trip, I go into my archive to find that restaurant for a future trip. I find the email, but this time it displays an ad for a brand-new Washington restaurant. Hans-Peter nailed this issue as far as geotargeting opportunities are concerned. What about dynamically inserting ads based on historical email exchanges, coupled with search requests?
The Internet has always been a roller coaster of concepts. It's torn between push and pull advertising. In the beginning, ads were pulled from banners tucked away in Web site headers or footers. Then, ads were pushed with pop-ups, pop-unders, and third-party commercial email lists. Today, ads primarily come from pulled, first-party opt-in lists (push-pull hybrid) and keyword searches. Tomorrow, we may see pushed search.
If a search provider were to integrate search with an email account, why wouldn't it give users an option to receive their top five search requests, or a summary of requests, via email? Why not special incentives from sponsors keyed to keywords and delivered via email?
How often have you performed a quick search, only to run out of time, or you wanted to save a search for future reference? Your searches could be emailed to you, or you could retrieve them. (Amazon's new Google-powered A9 search product allows search retrieval, without an email component). Dynamically inserted keyword ads could appear in the messages.
Privacy Fears Turn Into Nightmares
Privacy advocates' real fear isn't contextual email advertising, it's the integration of search with email. They're worried a search engine could track all your inquiries, create a profile, then integrate historical activity with an email account. E-mail ads would be based on an ultra-relevant, sensitive profile. This could easily cross the relevance line into personal space.
What may be more worrisome is the database would be similar to one proposed a few years back, that would link online behavior with offline purchase patterns. This cooperative, intuitive database would be an incredibly powerful vehicle for marketers and be susceptible to intense hacking attacks, fraud, and governmental intrusion.
If such a database could maintain anonymity, wouldn't it serve as the best resource for relevant email advertising? A massive, activity-driven database isn't a threat to anyone, providing controls are in place for consent, suppression, and security.
The Future of P2P?
The integration of email and search may not end there. It could morph into a new hybrid. Consider the rise of P2P community sites such as Friendster and Google's Orkut. A community site with relevant search and an email engine could provide all kinds of opportunities.
If I were single and wanted to search for someone based on my interest criteria, my search request could pull relevant contextual messaging from a profile database, search requests, and email. The service could push a message to a targeted, relevant person, inviting that person to email me. It would connect back to my profile on the P2P community. Consider the same model for e-commerce, with connections to eBay or craigslist. The opportunities go on and on.
The P2P example may be a bit out there, but the concept of integrating email and search is here to stay. Gmail, or any other email application, can request permission, receive it, then expand the horizons of this hybrid media. Relevance issues will be tested with the launch of these email products. Eventually, an acceptable usage line will be defined. If providers cross that line, there will always be privacy advocates to set them straight.
Should email and search be integrated? Send me your thoughts!
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Ben Isaacson is the privacy and compliance leader for Experian, overseeing Internet and advanced technology privacy and compliance affairs across Experian Marketing Services products including CheetahMail, Digital Advertising Services, and Hitwise. Mr. Isaacson's previous roles include serving as the executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), a former DMA subsidiary. He regularly blogs at EmailResponsibly.com.
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