Push This

Ever since PointCast dropped itself on its own sword in 1998, the word “push” has been a word snickered at around water coolers. The idea was exceptional: “Push” to the desktop only the content that the end user requested, effectively wiping out the need for “pulling” people to the web and making the whole Netscape versus MSIE battle obsolete.

This concept had the Internet holding its breath, and in ’97 it was reported that Robert Murdock offered to buy PointCast outright for $450 million. That offer reportedly rebuked, the company navigated toward but then widely missed an IPO in 1998. A year later, PointCast was sold to the Pasadena, CA based Idealabs for $7 million.

The problem: technical bugs froze machines, and audiences and advertisers that once subscribed in droves peeled off almost instantly.

The word “push” has since been reserved for heretics. PointCast disbanded while the World Wide Web expanded, and today more than a billion web pages exist for our viewing pleasure. With the Internet highway now bumper to bumper, it’s becoming harder and harder for both the audience and advertiser to rise above the clutter. Enter the bold, rather unanticipated comeback of the “P” word, all happening in that one place online that’s visited most: the inbox.

With email becoming more commonplace than a phone call, there’s little doubt about its effectiveness at attracting and retaining audiences. But until recently, the inbox was nothing more than a static text environment without the sex appeal or draw of the web. At best, text messages were blasted out in the hopes of drawing people back to a URL, where graphics, banners, interactivity, and occasional rich media moved and branded products.

Today, with the advent of these same qualities in email, it’s becoming more and more unnecessary to leave the inbox at all. New technologies and the increasing pervasiveness of HTML email clients has allowed for the delivery of information how and when we want it. Attributes once reserved for the web like e-commerce, audio and video content, search engines, and the like can now be “pushed” to targeted audiences and tracked extensively.

Even with all those attributes, however, email as a marketing tool is still only half realized. Because in the long run, the picture is certainly broader than the delivery of single messages or one off sales pitches. As the saying goes: “It’s the community, stupid.”

The true potential of email isn’t about reaching out and touching the customer once, but about delivering a continual “channel” that is opened again and again. No longer should email be thought of as a static medium that can’t be changed once it is deployed. Since the initial email acts simply as a placeholder, and all the rest of the content streams in when the email is opened, that same content can now be changed on the fly. So emails can now literally change from one moment to the next, a dynamic, fluid, and variable medium. So instead of receiving this email each and every day, audiences would simply click on their Z desktop icon.

The natural progression takes it even a step further. The true beauty of the web has never been about rich content but about the exchange of information, a quality now available in email. Just as a channel of communication is opened from server to inbox that allows variable information and content to flow downstream to the end user, so too can end user information flow upstream. This enables e-commerce and data collection, and points to a time when the email, or channel, will change dynamically from one person to the next depending upon their past history.

Take a Dow Jones email, for example, containing the end user’s unique portfolio that is continually updated with new quotes, new content, and new buying opportunities every time it’s opened. Personalization that puts the “Dear John” data field to shame. Encouraging? Could be. The efficiencies are clear, and the near future could very well hold a time when these targeted and fluid email channels sit on the desktop.

But as PointCast reminds us, the true potential of the inbox is as fragile as it is promising. As more and more marketers recognize this potential, more and more abuses of it will inevitably occur. If basic marketing premises like “opt-in” are ignored, then this great marketing tool will also implode, only to be written wistfully about years from now. And “push,” a fine idea, will take its place once again as the Net’s red-headed stepchild.

Related reading