Going Underground: E-Mail Consumers

After 10 years on the Net, I’m ready to disappear.

No, I’m not headed for an enclave in Wyoming. And I certainly don’t intend to close up shop and stop writing. What I mean is soon, as far as email marketers are concerned, I’ll cease to exist.

How? I’m going to change my email address and never pass my new one along to anyone who’s not a client, friend, associate, or editor. Ever.

Why will I take this drastic step? And it is drastic… I’m sure I’ll have some major headaches for a while. After returning from six days of vacation and confronting 3,600 pieces of spam, I give up. I surrender. I’m throwing in the towel. Judicious filtering, unsubscribing, and avoidance haven’t worked. I’m done.

All those newsletters I read? Bounced. The ones I really care about I can get on the Web anyway. What about receipts and other vital communication from commercial vendors? Off to Hotmail-land where I can get them when needed. What about all those business cards I’ve handed out? Well, that’s one of the issues I’ll have to deal with. Besides, I’m not changing my phone number. Let ’em call. If I give out my email address to people, they’re going to have to pass a very strict screening.

I’m somewhat unique because I’ve posted my email address all over the place in connection with my writing. In doing so, I may have brought a lot of this on myself. But I have a hard time believing I’m the only consumer who’s decided (or is on the verge of deciding) it’s time to go underground.

We’ve all seen the statistics about the rise of spam and its consequences: Over $9 billion in corporate costs last year. Legislation proposals are popping up faster than pundits around a sex scandal. Brightmail’s dire prediction is we’re about to reach the tipping point with spam, the point where it makes up over 50 percent of all email sent. Similar studies say some companies are now seeing spam rates reach nearly 80 percent of email traffic. There’s even a new report from Clearswift and the ePolicy Institute that found U.S. employees spend 25 percent of their time on email. Seventy-six percent reporting losing time due to email.

Clearly, we’re on the brink of a big mess.

“But,” I hear you say, “I’m not a spammer! I only use quadruple opt-in! My list is legitimate. My customers love me! They’re actually buying stuff!”

So what? You may be OK for now, but it soon won’t matter, unless your users are savvy enough to filter your particular communiqués to a separate folder. The best techniques in the world — the best list management, the cleverest subject lines, the most carefully targeted content, the richest of rich-media — aren’t going to matter if people can’t see your mailings because over 50 percent of their inbox content is junk mail.

Economists refer to “the network effect” when describing how some systems work better the more people use them. eBay, Amazon.com, and Friendster are examples of the phenomenon. The more users they accumulate, the more valuable they become to users, and the more users they attract as a result. E-mail used to be (and still is for may) like this. If none of your friends or colleagues use email, you probably won’t. If they do, you probably will. It just makes sense.

The network effect only works in situations in which a greater number of users increases the value of the system. Amazon works better because more users rating more products results in smarter recommendations, something of benefit to users. On eBay, more users means more selection and more price competition, both clear benefits. Friendster works because more users means more chances to meet people.

Communications media are different. The clear benefit is an ability to quickly connect with other people we want to connect with. The telephone, the fax machine, and email are all useful because they allow these connections. When noise is introduced into the system — competing messages from entities we don’t want to connect with — effectiveness declines. Simply put, when messages you want get drowned out by those you don’t, the usefulness goes away.

But isn’t email like snail mail? And doesn’t direct mail still work fairly well in the physical world?

Yes, direct mail does still work and will probably continue to work fairly well for the foreseeable future. But email isn’t equivalent to snail mail. Period.

Why? Form. No direct mail marketer worth his salt would think of putting every mailing in a plain, white envelope with the same stamp, one-sentence offer, and generic-looking return address. But that’s fundamentally what email marketers are faced with. Imagine if every catalog, flyer, postcard, and brochure had to come in the same package, with the same limitations. How many would get opened? Not many. It’s options not available online, stock, design, size, color, multiple offers, type of envelope, that get mail opened.

E-mail has none of those options. Everything looks the same in an inbox. Sure, the body can be as exciting as human creativity allows, but if people don’t open it, it ain’t going to work. Until it’s opened your email looks just like everyone else’s email. It’s not a big problem when there are 10 to 20 to compete with. It’s a whole different story when there are 3,500 competing messages.

The trendlines are clear. Every month brings another increase in direct email, spam or otherwise. And every month, every consumer who’s ever put her email address on a list gets more messages in her inbox, decreasing the medium’s effectiveness. It’s inevitable. To be a bit radical, I’ll venture to say if current trends continue, email will prove a far worse marketing method than traditional direct mail.

Are email marketers doomed? No. But as the bar is raised higher and simmering consumer discord (and related legislation) becomes a full-fledged revolt, and more consumers go underground clutching their personal email addresses like family jewels, the job’s will be a lot tougher. Only brands that can establish credibility, privacy credentials, and usefulness will slip through the screen of obscurity erected by tomorrow’s underground consumer.

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