The Future of Digital Messaging

I am fortunate to work with great brands and brilliant marketers who ask questions like this:

When does email die?
Today email is the king of communications – it’s fast, cheap and relevant – but how long will this last?
What are the other emerging channels?
What is the next email?

While I don’t have a crystal ball, I do spend a lot of time thinking about interactive marketing and developing theories about its future. I have observed how our tools and needs have converged since the days before the PC, and recently revisited that journey via the “Steve Jobs” book by Walter Isaacson. It’s hard for me not to gush about this book, as many will attest, and the business lessons therein apply to the questions at hand.

In the interest of full disclosure, I work for a company whose primary offering is email software. While we’re not likely to kill that particular goose, we have a vested interest in nurturing its goslings in the hope that they, too, will lay golden eggs. History shows that we are too quick to predict the death of a medium, no matter how many times those predictions fail. TV did not kill radio, VCRs did not kill movie theaters, RSS/Facebook/IM did not kill email. The predecessor had to adapt and change, but continues to fill a need. I believe email will always have a place and fulfill a need.

Be that as it may, here are the trends I see and the implications for digital marketers:

  1. Convenience and simplicity. Apple has set the bar for simple, intuitive user interfaces. Mobile devices, with their small screen and lack of context, extend the need. As usability expert Steve Krug cautions, “Don’t make me think.”
  2. Deals, deals, deals. I want to know about great deals – daily, flash, and all others. I want to receive and redeem coupons for extra savings.

I used to have CDs and now I have iTunes. I used to have DVDs and now I have streaming and digitally recorded media. But I still have a wallet full of loyalty and credit cards, stacks of coupons, and a folder of retail receipts.

It’s not hard to imagine all of these things living in my phone.

Bringing the retailers, credit card companies, handset manufacturers, and telecoms together will require a herculean effort. But when you consider the radical changes in business models that Apple has delivered in the name of serving the customer, it doesn’t seem impossible. (Read the book!)

I am willing to give up a lot in exchange for convenience. I gave iTunes and PayPal access to my bank account, for example, so that I only have to remember a username and password to effect a transaction.

If I can pay for any purchase, redeem the applicable coupons, get loyalty points, and store a receipt at any retailer with a swipe of my phone, I’m in.

So the question becomes: when I have all of this convenience and retailers know more than ever about me, how will they communicate new product launches, sale events, and other promotions?

My bet is on push notifications. They have the advantage of employing rich media without the cost to the consumer of MMS and can take advantage of location. You can notify me, when I’m in the vicinity, about the great new products and specials you’re featuring right now.

Another big advantage is the ability to store notifications in a persistent inbox in the app. I am selfish about my text messages – they are for my inner circle and retailers have not shown me, to date, why they should be allowed in. The downside is that to get push I must install an app and accept location tracking and notifications. Still, it has my vote for communicating with customers when, where, and how they desire when payments, offers, and receipts all live on our phones.

It’s one thing to facilitate purchases at the moment and point of sale, and another to stimulate interest. I walk into my favorite retailer for one thing and walk out with 10, thanks to eye-catching displays. One of the most popular links in email and on websites is the weekly circular, that dinosaur, which lets us browse. These trends will be increasingly important for browsing.

  1. Sharing and soliciting feedback. We want to know how friends/experts/celebrities/a majority of strangers rate and feel about products and services. We are passionate about a few products/brands and eager to share that passion with the world via Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, and Twitter.
  2. Entertainment. We want to be entertained and amused, in large and small chunks, via video, humor, great design, and clever writing. If we are adequately moved, we will share.

When we’re browsing, these factors lure us in and move us toward purchase. We will continue to consume this content on laptops and desktops, but tablets – those “lean back devices” – will be the browsing device of choice.

Telling the product story in a compelling way, with validation via recommendations, is key. The winners here will be brands that inspire passion and invest in the entertainment quotient of their marketing messages. Entertaining marketing, while not “fast and cheap,” can extend traditional marketing campaigns and be delivered via QR codes, augmented reality, and, that workhorse of digital marketing, email.

So that’s my take on the future of digital messaging: push notifications, QR codes, augmented reality, and good old email. What’s your take?

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