Microns: Theory and Economics

Published April 16-20, 2021


Less is More

When Twitter launched in March 2007, a lot of people wondered what could be communicated in 140 characters. Its popularity soared through the years, and it has more than 300 million users and a market cap of over $40 billion. (In 2017, Twitter doubled its maximum tweet length to 280 characters.) A single SMS is 160 characters and until WhatsApp came along, we had all learnt how to keep most messages within that limit. So, brevity in communication and information is not something new.

Some of us will remember the world of the postcard. When writing letters, we had two primary choices – the inland letter or the postcard. The postcard was the shorter and cheaper option. We all learnt how to say maximum with the minimum words. And if we go further back, we had the telegram where the pricing was by the word – all the more reason to stick to the basics.

In the early days of the Internet, with dial-up speeds slow, websites had to keep the page size under control. It’s only in the past 10 years or so as access speeds have accelerated that the worries on page size have vanished.

Marketing email too had started with plain text and then evolved to web page like design with the use of HTML for formatting the content. Images became the norm along with long emails full of clickable links.

What has not changed is our attention; it is the currency. With our time as the constraint and the rise in incoming messages across multiple channels (emails, SMS, push notifications, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Snap, Pinterest), the time we spend with each message has diminished. Studies have shown than marketing emails have just 3 seconds to capture a reader’s attention. Tick, tick, tick. Done. Next email. Repeat. No wonder that Tik Tok’s 6 second videos took the world by storm – something new before our impulse for something new takes over.

Marketers have little incentive to shorten their emails. Since open rates are anyways low, the focus is on maximising RoI from those who do open, and give them many possible reasons to click through. And it has worked well. Email has very high RoI given its low unit cost. So why try and fix something that is apparently not broken with microns?

Because less can be more. Small can be big. Signal can and must overwhelm noise. That’s why microns which can be fully consumed in 15-30 seconds. Information-rich, permission-led microns can transform email communication. Think of microns as driving the minimalism revolution in brand-customer interactions.


The Past of Microcontent

As I was thinking of microns, another word from my past flashed in my mind. Microcontent. It was very much a part of my life around 2005-10. And there was much discussion then around it among bloggers, writers and innovators. So, I went into my Emergic.org blog archives and searched for some of the thinking around that time. Here is a collection. (As I read it, I was surprised how some ideas come back – perhaps they never went away.)

Sep 2006: Quoting Wikipedia then: “The term Microcontent has first been systematically introduced and defined by Anil Dash in 2002: Today, microcontent is being used as a more general term indicating content that conveys one primary idea or concept, is accessible through a single definitive URL or permalink, and is appropriately written and formatted for presentation in email clients, web browsers, or on handheld devices as needed. A day’s weather forecast, the arrival and departure times for an airplane flight, an abstract from a long publication, or a single instant message can all be examples of microcontent.”

Sep 2006: Quoting Dion Hinchliffe: “Information is often the most useful in bite-sized pieces.”

Feb 2004: Quoting Steve Gillmor: “In a micro-content world, business documents are broken down into their constituent elements: notification, transaction, context, priority and lifetime.”

Jan 2009: “Is it possible to build a direct-to-consumer model for content subscriptions, a sort-of iTunes for microcontent. Pushed content has a charm of its own on the mobile. It just comes to us. Because of the immediacy and 24×7 availability, we welcome it – as long as it not spam.”

July 2003: About an RSS aggregator that I had created in the early days of Netcore: “Our Info Aggregator was created with the same belief in mind: people (the mass market) want fewer tools and programs. Email is the one everyone is familiar with. I see the future as being driven by RSS feeds to which we will subscribe to, microcontent from these feeds which we will read in the email client, and then blogging tools which we will post to. The RSS ecosystem is being created, nearly a decade after the HTML system ecosystem brought us the web. The new web will be a Publish-Subscribe web.”

June 2003: Me. “What is needed is a mechanism for microcontent from the sites (or people or databases) we want to be delivered to us in near real-time. Ideally, we should be able to do this with the tools that we already have, specifically the email client and the browser. There is no need to add to the complexity of downloading and learning yet another application… Another way to think of the PubSubWeb is as an EventWeb. Each update of the content (publishing) is akin to the occurrence of an event. What is needed is for us to be able to (a) subscribe to the event stream and (b) receive notification and details of the event as and when it happens. From a publisher’s point of view, there may also be a need to restrict access to who can subscribe to the event stream.”

The context that time was different. It was a world of blogs, RSS, aggregators, P2P content, XML. The precursor to what became Web 2.0. I tried many things then – an IMAP-to-email RSS aggregator, a blog search engine, MyToday SMS (content subscription channels) and MyToday Mobs (SMS grups). None of them succeeded. But the basic idea of microcontent has not gone away. Twitter epitomises it, so do the various other social media platforms. RSS gave way to the feed – the stream of endless content that so consumes us.

It is in this world that I think microns delivered over email from trusted sources (publishers, businesses) to willing subscribers can find a place. In our new world of clutter, microns can deliver clean and clear content. Amidst noise, microns are the signals. A breath of fresh air. And just about the length of a breath!


A Theory of Microns

We are now ready for a framework to better understand the world of microns.

  • A micron is a single short email which is sent as part of a subscription to a micron channel
  • A micron channel is what subscribers opt-in to. A channel consists of two or more microns.
  • Microns follow a pub-sub model: there is a publisher and a subscriber. The publisher is the brand, the micron creator. The subscriber makes an explicit decision to opt-in (subscribe) to receive microns.
  • A subscription is an active relationship between publisher and subscriber. When the subscription ends either because of the recipient’s decision to opt-out (unsubscribe) or because of the micron sequence getting exhausted, the subscription is rendered inactive and the relationship is terminated. Publishers cannot send any further microns to subscribers after this.
  • Micron channels can be of two types
    • Infinite series which can be live (instant publish, like news or alerts) or scheduled daily fresh (which are not time-sensitive like quotes or factoids); in all cases, the same micron is sent to everyone as a broadcast
    • Finite series which are part of a serial feed where a recipient starts with the first in the sequence; this means different subscribers could be receiving different microns; so this is more of a customcast (or a personcast) rather than a broadcast
  • Infinite series microns are activated to keep alive a relationship
    • Communicating with the long tail of customers: these are the ‘Rest Customers’ who can be nudged to the next purchase in a non-pushy manner – with a mix of information linked with their interests and suggestions on what to buy/read/view next
    • Targeting the inactive email database who may not want promotional content on a daily basis but would be open to receiving informational content and thus getting brand exposure
  • Finite series microns are activated because of a moment
    • Product-linked: pre-purchase persuasion, post-purchase engagement
    • Visit-linked: Connecting with unknown customers, Interacting with anonymous visitors
  • Microns can be measured with three metrics: T, R, S (for time, reproduction factor and subscriptions)

Microns can thus open up a new, unexplored world for marketers – long-term relationship building with informational content, going beyond the transactional and promotional mails with a focus on branding, and leveraging moments to trigger short-duration enriching engagements.


T, R, S Metrics

The metrics to measure the success of an email campaign are, in that order, inbox delivery, open rates and clickthroughs. Inbox delivery hinges on the brand’s domain reputation and to a large extent an assessment by the email provider’s spam filtering algorithms. Every mail has to be tested against how Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail would handle it. Once delivered, there is a competition among various other emails to get opened and not ignored – this is where the subject line and send time optimisations come in. AI assists the marketer in both – which subject line is likely to attract, and when should the email be sent to ensure the recipient has the greatest likelihood of opening it. After that, the goal is to get an action – the click which takes the user to the brand’s website or app. All these metrics serve like a funnel.

A micron’s success is not just being opened but that action happening without latency. Microns can also be shared thus bringing a multiplier in reach. Keeping these factors in mind, microns can be evaluated with three new metrics:

  • T (time): the time elapsed (latency) between receiving the email in the inbox and it being opened and read; this should be as low as possible; a good T would be under an hour given that we don’t check emails as often as say SMS or WhatsApp which intrude with notifications
  • R (reproduction number): this is used to measure virality; how many people does one person share the content with; an R of 1 or more ensures spread – as we have seen with the coronavirus
  • S (subscriptions): the number of active micron channels; from a brand’s perspective, the goal would be to have at 2 or more, with at least one of those subscriptions being a daily connect which creates the habit and offers recurring brand visibility

T, R and S are the metrics that can replace opens and clicks to measure micron efficacy. The simplicity of microns will ensure delivery into the primary inbox. The brevity and minimalism of the content-rich microns will ensure they get consumed. And the hope is that every so often the recipient will find something unique and interesting to share so that the micron can go viral. Consumers will have subscriptions to two types of microns: the infinite series (something new every day) or the finite series (a limited sequence of microns for a very specific purpose linked to a moment).

The target for a brand should be to have a T of less than an hour, an R of 1 or more and S of 2 or more.



How does the economics of microns work? How much does it cost? Who pays for it?

The cost of sending an email is low – as compared to many other channels of communication. Spamming is expensive in terms of domain reputation and the low hit rate thanks to the increasingly good spam filters of the email inbox providers. But a low cost still does not mean zero. There is a finite cost in terms of email infrastructure that needs to be accounted for.

Microns can be very useful for businesses and publishers as a way to build temporary connections and lasting relationships. They can do so today by using an email service provider. Because emails are priced on a per email basis (10-40 cents per thousand, or about 1-4 paise per email), the temptation is always to pack in as much content as possible in a single email with the hope that something ‘clicks’.

This is the rationale for making microns available at a fraction of the cost of emails. By lowering the cost element, the focus can move to the content – and the recipient. Subscribers are paying for the mail – with their attention. The goal can now be how to build microns into habits – so they are welcomed and not ignored, they are read not surfed, they are remembered not blanked out. Brands have hardly used email for intelligent communication.

Consider this email I got recently from Amazon:

Look at what it doesn’t tell me – what is the book about, why I should buy the book, what will I learn while reading the book, who wrote the book. The assumption is I already know all that – but what if I don’t. Just reminding me that I accessed the book page recently is not as useful as a few gentle informative nudges. This is the gap microns fill – they prime us for purchase, providing the necessary info prior to the decision.

This is the hope of MyToday and Netcore: that a billion people can get 3-5 useful microns daily. The brands sending will then want to talk to Netcore over other types of emails, and the subscribers may have interests which could be monetised. By making the email inbox as the container, the need to download and manage another app is eliminated – making the attention that much more valuable.

Microns and MyToday can become the next attention platform – built on the email inbox, rather than a new app. Microns can be delivered where every digital user’s content is already focused many times a day. What has been missing is to create that something useful which invites rather than irritates – that is the world of microns and MyToday. Welcome to a new world of micron-omics!