Four Questions for Predicting E-Mail’s Future

E-mail has revolutionized the way we work, communicate, and market products. But where will it be tomorrow? And how can you anticipate and capitalize on the societal and technological changes this rapidly evolving medium will bring?

We don’t have to look further than across Karen’s kitchen table — where her husband, Jim, sits — for guidance on how to predict change. A professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Business, Jim studied with media visionary Marshall McLuhan years ago. Today, he uses McLuhan’s Four Laws of Media in his management and leadership classes, to stimulate thought about the effects of innovation.

Here’s an excerpt from his article in the Harvard Management Update that explains how the laws work:

Simply put, McLuhan’s four laws state that every innovation — whether it’s a product, a service, a process, or an idea — does four things: It enhances something, obsolesces something [makes it irrelevant”, retrieves something, and, eventually, reverses into its opposite.

Let’s take a look at business-to-business (B2B) email and see what happens when we apply these questions to it:

  • What does B2B email extend, enhance, or make possible? E-mail enhances communication between B2B marketers and their prospects by opening up another avenue of almost instantaneous communication. It allows direct access to a prospect’s desktop — unimpeded by voice mail and gatekeepers. It’s faster and less expensive than direct mail. E-newsletters give marketers an easy way to keep their prospects current on new capabilities. The day-to-day exchange of work-related email can help build and cement relationships, facilitate idea sharing, extend networking capabilities, and more.

  • What does B2B email make obsolete? Our fax machines have been gathering dust. And for the longest time, our business phones barely rang. The majority of client exchanges and even marketing efforts were silently taking place online. Trips to the post office are few and far between — as are visits from the friendly FedEx guy. And when was the last time you used a Rolodex? Think about the processes, tools, and technologies you’ve let go of since you started using email. What’s doomed next?
  • What previously obsolesced opportunity does B2B email revive? How about letter-writing skills? Another quaint custom email retrieves: Communication between correspondents goes back and forth several times a day again, just as it used to happen via the postal system.
  • How does B2B email’s original impact get turned on its head? This is the most paradoxical but also the most important consequence of any innovation. With B2B email, the obvious “flip” is into email clutter. No one has time to read email, and messages from unknown senders are regarded as spam. At a certain point, too, people get fed up with writing. They often find it easier to pick up the phone. We’ve been noticing lately the phone is now ringing more. Some marketers find fax broadcasts get attention — since faxes are so rare these days. Are there any old ways of building business relationships you can revert back to — to stand out from the email clutter?

Some of your initial thoughts when you first start asking these questions will be obvious. If you continue probing and pushing beyond the limits of what you know about B2B email today, you can start anticipating its awesome potential.

No one could have predicted the impact the car has had on every facet of life. We no longer have to walk to work, so we must exercise outside of work — spawning a whole exercise industry. Fast-food and drive-through restaurants have created an obese nation looking for new diet solutions, wider-collared shirts, and mega-sized coffins. What other changes will email bring when taken to its extreme?

We’d love to hear your thoughts and predictions about the future of email. Send them along — as well as your B2B case studies — to Karen.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Strategies is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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