A few thoughts on socializing e-mail, taking a stand on net neutrality, and the rising challenge of self-branding.
Occasionally, when I start writing this column, I'll have a really specific topic in mind that, unfortunately, just doesn't have enough weight to generate enough words to fill up a page. I suppose this is a by-product of doing lots of blog posts and status updates - you get to thinking in small chunks. When this happens, I usually end up with a few paragraphs about a topic that just sit in a notebook. This week, I thought I'd pull a few of those proto-columns out of the notebook and assemble them here, in one place, in no particular order.
Socializing E-mail: "Liking" Will Rule
E-mail has long been the core task consumers engage in online. Certainly we're seeing a rise in watching video and playing games, but, mostly, e-mail remains a core activity. That means that the companies that offer e-mail are in a prime position to own a large chunk of consumer digital time and attention. Yahoo, Google, and AOL have managed to keep e-mail at the core of the experience, and build out more services from there.
Now along come the social powerhouses. Social media represents a chance to offer a very particular kind of e-mail. LinkedIn has long used the ability to message other users as a way to upsell paid services on the site. Facebook, this week, announced its particular take on e-mail, which is an integrated inbox, pulling together e-mails, Facebook messages, and text messages.
E-mail and social media are set to converge at some point in the near future. Both have contact lists at their core, and both are about sharing information. Really, what we're talking about is a rearranging of the way that messages are displayed. E-mail has always been chronological (latest message on top). Social technologies will change this so that messages from people you care about appear on top.
This means that now (more than ever) brands have to make sure that people care about them, not just have opted in to their database. Social is going to disrupt e-mail marketing because it will require the consumer to have engaged in an action that signifies to the e-mail client that he cares about messages from a particular source. Think about it: Gmail has no idea that you opted in to an e-mail list, but Facebook knows if you have "liked" a brand. That liked brand gets to the top of the list.
E-mail has long been a new form of direct marketing. Now, it is a new form of relationship marketing.
Net Neutrality: Time to Take a Stand
Net neutrality is a bit of a wonky concept that has been fairly far under the radar of most brands and advertisers, but it is high time we pay attention. Essentially, Net neutrality refers to a particular state of the Internet where all traffic is treated equally. Visiting a blog set up by some kid in Parsippany, NJ, travels across the same wires at the same speed as a page created by a powerful media company. Packets are packets.
But there is a creeping idea that the companies that create content and the companies that carry content can align themselves so that the packets of the powerful media company get delivered sooner, quicker, and more reliably than the kid from New Jersey. This (in my view, of course) is a bad idea.
Open and free access to any site, service, application, or idea is the absolute lifeblood of this new media. That kid may have a stellar idea that will transform the world. If we enter a space where only established stuff from established and powerful brands makes it to our screens, then we narrow our future. Net neutrality ensures that the Internet operates as a marketplace of ideas and a thoroughfare of innovation. That innovation appeals to the marketing world because it creates new opportunities for us to connect with consumers and do business. We can't cut down on the ability for us to discover blogs, Facebook, Twitter, or any other new experience. It will only lead us back to being reliant upon a handful of large companies and the options that they decide to allow us.
Today, take a minute to read the Wikipedia page about Net neutrality to better understand the concept. Come to your own opinion about this topic, and be prepared to confront the issue, maybe in the very near future.
The Rising Challenge of Self-Branding
One of the things that new media channels have allowed for is the rise of self-branding and promotion. I've certainly engaged in it, specifically using Twitter to connect with people and communicate ideas. I also just did my own little URL hack: http://garyste.in. I like the idea that I can now tell people that, if they want to find me, they can just put my name into a browser (along with that dot). The rush to the online, social, self-publishing channel by so many people has put us into a very odd space: a surfeit of talent, ability, and insight. There are too many smart people out there, in nearly every category.
The problem with this is the same as any market where supply outpaces demand: real value of an individual item drops. And when that happens, there tends to be two things that happen: one group of products just decides to roll with the low value and drop the quality. Another group tries very hard to make their particular offering better.
I realize that I am one point of light in this vast galaxy, so I'll try not to be too personal and instead talk about how I have gone about winnowing down the number of sources I pay attention to.
Here's my new rule: I pay attention to practitioners, not pundits.
With precious few exceptions, I only follow and read the people who are in the actual trenches, doing the job. These voices hold the most authenticity for me, and make me interested in sharing ideas. These people are truly embracing the inherent altruism of the medium and sharing for the sake of sharing. I appreciate that and find it totally worthwhile.
Thanks for reading a few of these scattered fragments of columns.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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