The Hot New Channel for Reaching Real People: Email
Christopher Mims, wsj.com
Kids think it’s fussy and archaic, but for brands, creators and businesses of every kind the emerging medium of choice to reach audiences is the only guaranteed-delivery option the internet has left: email.
Consumer email services have been around for almost three decades, but to hear email’s most ardent fans talk about it now, it’s an undiscovered country too long neglected by those who could benefit from it the most. In the #deletefacebook era, it’s become a way to fight back against the algorithms that try to dictate what people see. Unlike on Facebook, readers receive everything they signed up to receive, in neat chronological order, alongside missives from friends, family and their various communities.
For marketers great and small, the algorithms that power social media represent the ever-rising cost of doing business on the platforms owned by the duopoly of Google and Facebook. Email allows authors to intimately connect with readers, lets brands address their most loyal customers and budding startups develop armies of influencers.
Readers’ ready access to the “unsubscribe” button is largely a good thing for all involved, since it nudges email content creators to produce authentic, high-quality experiences rather than superficially engaging ones, and to connect in ways that are deeper than what advertising-first mediums like Facebook generally allow.
He’s Got Mail
Seven years ago, Wales-based jeans company Hiut Denim was on the brink of collapse. Co-founder David Hieatt—who sold another clothing firm to the Timberland Co. in 2006—got the idea to start a thoughtful email newsletter full of content people would like whether they were buying his jeans or not.
Today, these emails include tastefully curated roundups of the articles, videos, products and quotations that Hiut employees found fascinating that week, plus yearly features such as “100+ Makers and Mavericks” and this monster gift guide which features exactly none of the company’s own products.
“If you ask me, would I want a mailing list with 1,000 people on it or 100,000 followers on Twitter, I’d take the 1,000 emails all day long, because the business you get from 1,000 emails will be much more than you get from 100,000 people on Twitter or Instagram,” says Mr. Hieatt.
Hiut has become a thriving boutique fashion brand (Exhibit A: Meghan Markle), and Mr. Hieatt has written a book about the power of email newsletters for business.
Email still has the highest return on investment per marketing dollar spent, according to the Data & Marketing Association. And while Facebook, especially, has whipsawed marketers with ever-changing rules about how to reach customers—and how much Facebook will charge for the privilege—with email, a company owns its own lists.
What’s happening isn’t really an email resurgence—it just never stopped growing in scale and importance, says Sara Radicati, chief executive of the Radicati Group, a tech-industry analyst firm. Unlike tweets or Facebook posts, no one company controls or even sees all the world’s email, but estimates from Ms. Radicati’s firm show steady 4% growth a year in the number of emails sent, with a record 281 billion emails a day sent in 2018.
Many companies help firms handle marketing and related email communications— Adobe , IBM and Oracle are some of the biggest—but even medium-size tech companies specializing in email handle mind-boggling volumes. SendGrid delivers 45 billion emails a month for more than 74,000 customers, including Airbnb, Spotify, Uber and Hertz. The company processed 2.8 billion emails on Black Friday 2018 alone, an increase of more than 1 billion emails from the previous year, a company spokeswoman says.
Email’s success is due to a handful of factors. The first is that, like the web, it’s one of the few open standards we have left. No one controls it, and no company can get between a sender and its recipient.
Another factor is a dawning awareness that social media may not be particularly good for our mental health or our democracy, leading to a wave of users scaling back and even opting out entirely. The things that drive people to subscribe to and actually open emails are very different from the things that motivate them on social media. Email, by contrast, can feel healthy, says Robin Sloan, a writer who started an email newsletter—like a blog delivered to the inbox—almost 10 years ago.
Other creators, particularly journalists, are also turning to email as a creative outlet. “What other technology do we use everyday that doesn’t require a terms-of-service?” says Craig Mod, a writer and essayist who recently argued that one future of the book could be serialization as an email newsletter.
TheSkimm, a daily news digest started by two former news producers, has 7 million subscribers and recently raised $12 million from Google Ventures and other backers.
On Substack, a subscription-based email newsletter startup launched in October 2017, journalist Judd Legum publishes a daily politics email. While he says over 37,000 subscribers receive the free version, a small percentage pays $5 a month for a premium version. After Substack takes its cut, Mr. Legum still makes what he calls a comfortable full-time income.
The underlying technology of email hasn’t changed in decades, which is both a blessing and a curse. The average email client is like a “preweb 1.0 browser,” says Substack CEO Christopher Best. This means, for example, that it’s impossible to embed a video that would play on all of the major email apps. Not only are emails blissfully free of annoying autoplaying videos, they’re also relatively light on privacy-vandalizing trackers common to webpages and apps.
A continued and growing love of email isn’t about to upend the cash machine that is search and social media. “The whole world is just spread thin across devices and apps, so you also have to be on social, video, on paid search—everything all at once,” says Ben Chestnut, co-founder and CEO of MailChimp.
But marketers and anyone else trying to reach people would be remiss in ignoring it. When faced with a decision of going with a newsletter or a chatbot, for instance, consider this: Chat apps are a guaranteed way to get people’s attention on mobile, but they demand an immediate response. Meanwhile, we’re more likely to consume email on mobile devices than anywhere else, but at our leisure. This makes it the perfect slow-read companion for a device that is otherwise demanding constant attention.
“[Our smartphones] might as well be a brain implant, so the question is, what’s the right way to wield that to talk to other people?” says Mr. Best. “If the answer is, anyone you’ve ever known and people you don’t know should be able to interrupt you at any time, that is obviously dystopian.”