Published April 2-7, 2021
Email is 50
Email is 50 years old. As per the Lindy effect, “the future life expectancy of some non-perishable things like a technology or an idea is proportional to their current age, so that every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy. Where the Lindy effect applies, mortality rate decreases with time.” The death of email has been forecast numerous times through the past couple decades, but email’s usage has only increased with each passing year. Even as the popularity of messaging apps like WhatsApp and Slack has grown, email has more than held its own. In the coming cookieless world, the importance of email is only going to rise – the email address is first-party data that brands will need to engage with their prospects and customers.
In Netcore, we have been in the email business for almost 25 years. We had started in 1997-98 by providing Linux-based email servers for businesses. A decade later, we launched our email mass marketing platform. Today, even as the Linux email servers business is still going strong with hundreds of corporate customers in India, we have added Cloud mail via Google and Microsoft. The bigger success has come from being an email service provider (ESP). Netcore delivers 11 billion emails each month for its enterprise customers globally, making it among the top 5 independent ESPs in the world. So, we in Netcore have had a ringside view to the rise of email by B2C enterprises.
P2P email’s rise began with Hotmail and Yahoo, and then accelerated with the launch of Gmail. Anyone could create a mailbox for free. Even as the cat-and-mouse game continues between spammers and the mailbox providers to ensure clean inboxes, the use of email for both transactional and promotional emails has continued to skyrocket through the years. Along with the mobile number, email has become the ubiquitous digital identity that provides entry for social media and ecommerce. For push-based brand communications, email has no competition – A2P SMSes are too expensive, WhatsApp is too restrictive and even more costly for commercial use, and push notifications are more blocked than delivered. Brands need scale and certainty; only email can deliver both cost-effectively.
Over the past few months, I have been working on an idea to make brand communications better. Microns – micro newsletters/nudges/nuggets – can take response rates of emails even higher, and enable specific use cases like reactivation and branding. I had discussed microns briefly a few months ago. (The one change since I wrote that series: we are building a B2B platform for publishing microns at MyToday, and thus have moved the content microns to Vartam.) In this series (and future ones), I will go deeper into microns and explain how it can make email and Gmail better.
A Brief History of Email
Emails have been a very powerful communication channel for many decades. It started with person-to-person email communications. While I don’t remember having an email address at IIT during my undergrad (1984-88), I definitely had one at Columbia during my graduate education. Email became the way I communicated with other friends in the US, while letters were still how I interacted with parents and others in India.
Somewhere along the way came the rise of business-to-person emails. Businesses found email as the perfect channel to send promotional content. Even some informational services started on email. I remember a service called Individual in the 1990s which offered daily custom news by email. Confirmations for transactions came on email. When I started IndiaWorld as an India-centric portal, I also had a twice daily “IndiaWorld Headlines” newsletter. We had our own open source email platform so sending emails was close to zero incremental cost.
During this period came the rise of free personal email inboxes. Before that, people had to subscribe to an ISP to get an email ID or had a corporate ID given by the organisations they worked at. Hotmail changed all that in 1996 and saw a meteoric rise. All one needed was a web browser to access the email box. Hundreds of millions signed up. Yahoo and other portals offered free email. The constraint in all cases was the storage offered. All this changed in 2004 when Gmail launched with 1 GB of storage – 500 times the 2 MB offered by Hotmail and others. Suddenly, the world of email exploded. The low cost of sending email, the ubiquity of email addresses coupled with almost infinite storage saw a massive growth in the use of email by individuals as well as businesses.
Somewhere in the 2000s, the idea of a “mass mailing platform” as a commercial hosted service came into vogue. As email subscriber lists started becoming larger, organisations realised that managing these lists and sending emails required much more expertise than was possible through an in-house setup. Netcore started offering these services to Indian corporates in 2008 or so. Incidentally, we had started A2P (application-to-person) SMS services a couple years earlier.
In those early days, email and SMS cost almost the same. The one difference was that SMS was restricted to 160 characters while emails had no such constraint. Over time, emails became richer in content and moved beyond the text-only format. Since emails got priced based on volumes (number of emails sent), the content in emails started getting longer and longer – infused with graphics and links. It didn’t cost more to send a long email rich with content than a short email with just text.
The price of SMS rose rapidly in India as efforts were made to combat abuse in the form of spam. In 2007, SMS cost 1 paisa. It now costs 13 paise. That’s a compounded annual growth of 35%! During this period, email costs have remained the same – about 1-3 paise per mail.
The rise of email also saw the rise of spam. Inboxes started becoming crowded as the years went by. The email ‘subscription’ relationship started getting abused. Email lists were available for sale and unsolicited emails matched legitimate emails in the inbox. This cat-and-mouse game has continued through the years. Gmail and other inbox providers work hard to ensure clean inboxes even as spammers work to get their emails into the inbox. Email’s huge RoI is what has ensured it has remained the most attractive communications channel for brands in the face of alternatives like WhatsApp, push notifications, Twitter, other social media, and even SMS. In fact, in the past few years, email has seen a renaissance in its popularity and volumes have continued to rise rapidly.
Long and Short Emails
Through the years in keeping with its rising popularity, emails have become longer and media-rich. Text competes with graphics, charts and links for our attention. Design plays an important role as the content payload. As consumption has moved from desktop to mobile, emails have had to be redesigned to ensure they look good on the mobile. Since email is priced based on volume (number of emails sent), the tendency is to send longer and longer emails in the hope that something ‘clicks’ with the recipient. As inboxes have become crowded, open rates have fallen. But the RoI on email has not. For many media and ecommerce platforms, emails remain the most important channel for sourcing incoming traffic.
Netcore has also grown with the rising popularity of email. We send 11 billion emails a month and are amongst the top 5 email service providers globally. A lot of attention goes into email design and deliverability to ensure opens and clicks.
A few months ago, I started thinking about what innovation was possible around email. My colleague, Chaitanya, who leads the email business at Netcore, identified the key email marketing trends for 2021 in our MartechBrain conversation. Among them: the rise of AMP (interactive emails) and interestingly, the return to simple emails.
The question that I had started thinking about a few months ago was: What would it take for every email sent by a brand to be opened? My answer was short and simple emails. High signal, no noise. A single message. I also created MyToday, a content platform to try this out. It was like going back to the long-forgotten early days of email. Short and simple. I needed a new word to describe this type of email. I came up with “micron” – micro newsletters (or micro nudges). Could microns be the next big leap for email?
The content microns that I started getting were very helpful. Just the news I needed to know. And some variety – quotes, health tip, a dash of philosophy, Hindi word, and so on. These were all daily channels – one new micron which could be consumed in 15-30 seconds. Short and simple. Only signal, no noise. No distractions. I noticed that my open and read rate on these microns was very high. Many other newsletters would get ignored because I was too busy at the time they came and so would keep for them for later reading – which ever came. Microns by contrast were an instant and easy read. This opened up a new line of thinking about emails and microns.
Drip, Drip, Drip
I was still thinking of micron channels as lifetime subscriptions. This meant creating fresh content daily. This arose from my desire to make microns a habit in the life of the recipient. That worked in some cases. But it is not easy creating new content daily forever outside of the news world. Which led to think of microns that could have a short life – in the sense that the subscription to channel is for a few days rather than for life. My mind went back to a factoid I had read when I was young: the mayfly lived for just 24 hours. Could the microns become the mayfly of content?
This is where the idea of “micron moments” came in. There are many times when we need to know more, to be nudged repeatedly. Ads do that – we don’t buy a product the first time we see its ad. Repeated exposure creates an imprint and somewhere along our resistance to purchase falls. Microns can help brands in the same way. Convert an initial interest into a short relationship with periodic nudges to prod towards an eventual transaction. As long as the content was useful and triggered by a context – the micron moment – I would be open to opting in to receiving the email. I know when signing up that this is a brief relationship. It gives me additional time to decide – or simply works as a repeating reminder of something I have read. There are many use cases in which microns could fit.
Marketers have used drip campaigns for a long time. Wikipedia defines drip marketing as “a communication strategy that sends, or “drips,” a pre-written set of messages to customers or prospects over time. These messages often take the form of email marketing, although other media can also be used. Drip marketing is distinct from other database marketing in two ways: (1) the timing of the messages follow a pre-determined course; (2) the messages are dripped in a series applicable to a specific behavior or status of the recipient. It is also typically automated… The phrase “drip marketing” is said to be derived from “drip irrigation”, an agriculture/gardening technique in which small amounts of water are fed to plants over long periods of time.”
Here is more from Joe Stych:
Email newsletters are a great way to send out your team’s latest announcements, but they have a major problem: new subscribers only see new emails, and never get the first emails you’d sent out to your list. All they’ll see is the stuff you send after they sign up.
Often called drip campaigns but known by many other names—drip marketing, automated email campaign, lifecycle emails, autoresponders and marketing automation—the concept is the same: they’re a set of marketing emails that will be sent out automatically on a schedule. Perhaps one email will go out as soon as someone signs up, another will go out 3 days later, with one more going out the next weekend. Or, the emails can be varied based on triggers, or actions the person has performed like signing up for your service or making a purchase, which is why they’re also sometimes called behavioral emails.
So, clearly, the idea of a short series of messages where every new person starts with the first message in the sequence has been around for some time. How could microns make a difference?
Creating drip campaigns requires a marketing automation platform and is part of a larger purchase decision. As a result, we don’t see too many drip campaigns. Think of all the moments when we would like to get something and which are not leveraged by brands. A book I showed an interest in, a product I want to buy, an article I read, a movie that piqued my interest, a habit I want to develop, a person or idea I am keen to know more about, a concept I want to dig deeper into, a smartphone I just bought and whose features I want to understand. All of these are what I think of as “micron moments” – when a short duration micron subscription could be triggered to create a win-win for both brand and consumer, publisher and subscriber, sender and receiver.
A number of innovations would need to come together to make microns a reality and then ubiquitous.
- Creation: microns would need to be created at scale that costs don’t become prohibitive. What would it take to make a 5-micron series on every book in the world? For every movie? For every product?
- Publishing: microns created would need to then be made available via a publishing platform – such that their amplitude (time period between microns) and frequency (number of microns to be sent) could be easily controlled.
- Subscription: a subscription to a series of microns could either be activated by the brand or publisher based on an action (trigger) done by a person, or the person can opt-in by entering an email ID. Perhaps, there is a need for single use (“burner”) email IDs to ensure that there is no abuse. Still better, an intermediate platform can connect publisher and subscriber without the exchange of email addresses.
- Consumption: for now, the microns would be delivered to the email inbox. But over time, would there be a need for a new inbox? If we think of the microns as a customised RSS feed, could a repurposed RSS reader do the job? The key is to ensure that recipients can subscribe to tens of microns (knowing each one is short-lived) without necessarily having to flood the primary inbox.
- Closure: as a subscriber, I must be confident that the relationship will come to an end once the micron cycle is completed. Today, when I give an email address, I have the feeling that I am going to be receiving emails from that brand for the rest of my life! (In fact, I still get emails for brands I signed up 10-15 years ago and have been too lazy to unsubscribe from. They obviously don’t track opens or clicks.)
- Metrics: brands would need a set of tracking indicators to know this is working and worth their investment. Opens, brand recognition, clicks could be some possible metric to track.
- Cost: this can be the real innovation. Microns are available at a fraction of what email costs. And only an existing email service provider can do this. Microns become a prequel to the primary offering, an appetiser to get the brand interested to the full suite of email marketing and marketing automation services.
If all these micro innovations could be brought together on a single platform, we could indeed see the start of a micron revolution.
An entrepreneur has to imagine tomorrow’s world and make that future happen. I like doing that. So, I decided to look ahead to what is possible.
Microns could be a good complement to the long, rich emails that we get today. Short form mails could be either infinite period (a forever subscription with something new daily) or a finite period (a short duration relationship with a limited number of microns). I can imagine subscribing to many such microns – to know and learn.
We have discussed uses of microns for brand-customer relationships. It has applicability in many other scenarios. New employees in a company could get a 30-day micron sequence telling them the organisation’s history, reinforcing the values, and telling them more about their colleagues. While all this info can be packed into a single orientation session, giving it as a drip marketing in smaller chunks is likely to create a more lasting impact.
Imagine if I can create an agent that watches what I do and auto-subscribes me to the relevant microns. Just searched for the hydrogen energy economy? Here is a 15-day series that tells you more. Clicked on a link about capital allocation? Here is a 10-day series from “The Outsiders” with profiles of CEOs who delivered huge per share returns. Have an exam coming up? Here is a question series that will test you every hour. Just started writing a book? Here is a series with 10 tips which can make you a better author. Just remembered about the poem “Daffodils”? Here are 5 more poems from your childhood which will bring back old memories.
On a long drive or train ride in the countryside? The map starts a micron series telling you more about the places you pass. A bit of history, some geography and some photos or short videos to bring the world around come alive.
An election coming up? You get a micron series telling you more about the candidates, their track record (in governance, in changing parties), and their criminal cases (if any).
In almost all cases, the info is out there and can be found if one searches for it. But do we search? Do we know what to search for? And given the diminishing attention spans, will we read what is shown in one chunky sitting? That’s where the microns with their intelligence, brevity and context can come in. Right time, right place, right length, right info, right price (near zero). Microns are made for the modern world – someone just needs to bring them to life!