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Marketers must capitalize on the new wave of email innovation…

The latest round of acquisitions – Adobe/Marketo, Salesforce/Rebel and Twilio/SendGrid – is exciting because it means email-led innovation is entering a new era. It’s proof positive that email is not just surviving but thriving

For email service providers, it’s a warning not let up on innovation and improvement. As a marketer, you should not be content to coast on past success, either. These acquisitions and innovations signal that email is an investment-worthy channel, with cool things happening to make email an even more valuable driver for revenue and engagement.

What are you — and your ESP — doing to capitalize on the changes happening all around you?

First, how we got here

The last two decades saw a steep innovation arc, driven by leading ESPs that invested heavily in platform growth and technology. Those investments spurred other participants to invest in innovation to stay competitive. Marketing automation, personalization, reporting and other critical areas benefited from this mass concentration of brainpower.

These acquisitions and investment rounds shaped the email landscape over the last 18 years:

Timeline of email technology acquisitions

Click on graphic to see it larger. Use your browser back button to return.

Although these acquisitions signaled faith and innovation in email, they also had an unintended effect after 2013. Innovation stalled because companies no longer had competitive giants like Responsys or Exact Target to push them along.

Innovation rides a second wave

That leadership vacuum opened the door to smaller, more nimble companies outside the ESP space. Their innovative initiatives pushed companies along the innovation arc instead of being pulled by them.

Marketing and advertising technology providers, digital agencies and ancillary SaaS programs now challenge every aspect of the email space.

Additionally, ESPs and other industry players are growing exponentially, faster than at any other time in our history — even including the boom-boom years around the turn of the 21st Century.

Now, it’s all about the data

Every brand and technology provider wants email at the center of its martech and ad tech strategies. Email itself has grown far beyond its original construct – to send a message from Point A to Point B. If that’s how you still see your email program, you need to rethink your concept of email because it doesn’t have a place on the innovation arc anymore.

Probably the most important part of this is the fact that email kills cookies. The primary email address beats cookies as the consumer identifier across channels. It’s the supreme identifier and the one you need to persuade your customers to give you. (Key to that persuasion? Building trust and delivering on your promises!)

The primary email address is the digital equivalent of a Social Security Number, through which innovation is unlocked and empowered. That rebranding of email is where we need to focus.

Innovation is ready to ramp up again

With the recent Marketo, Rebel and SendGrid acquisitions, we see the new era for the maturation of email because each of these powerhouse companies has taken email in a new and exciting direction.

These acquisitions are about more than the eye-popping sums their buyers paid for them. These companies have shown us what they can do with their data and their capabilities.

As a group, these acquisitions say to the rest of us, “Email’s value goes way beyond sending a message.”

Here’s my short list of companies that are stretching email in new directions that we couldn’t have anticipated 10 years ago:

  • Monetization/Onboarding: LiveRamp, LiveIntent
  • Interactive messaging: Movable Ink, Liveclicker, Campaign-Genius.com (new player)
  • Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing: Phrasee, Persado
  • Email design and rendering: Litmus, Email on Acid
  • Retargeting/Remarketing: Traverse Data (new-ish player)
  • Validation: BriteVerify (Validity), Kickbox, Webbula

I mentioned earlier that this expanding innovation arc has implications for ESPs, and now you can see why.

ESPs that are content to coast, tweaking features under the guise of “improving on a theme,” or thinking it’s just a matter of time before somebody waves a big check in their direction because they’re “special,” will get left behind.

You know what happens to people who fall behind the pack, right? They’re the first ones to get eaten.

I’m not talking about orchestrating omnichannel marketing, the Never-Never Land, all-in-one fantasy that few if any providers have truly achieved in a frictionless way. Rather, I mean understanding what’s new and coming up with email and embracing it (and selling your executives on the need to dedicate time, money and people to make innovation happen).

I also don’t mean innovation for the sake of innovating, which leads to “shiny toy” syndrome. We know how futile and wasteful that can be.

Rather, think of innovation in terms of what it can do for your customers. How are you enabling them to push their limits, and what new tech developments could help you better serve them?

Bringing it home to those that matter

As you plan for innovation in 2019, whether you are looking to grow (customers, sales, revenue) incrementally or set off an earth-shattering kaboom, take stock of the technology you already use, what your competition is doing, what the top brands in your market are doing and the innovations you wish you could use.

SendGrid, Rebel and Marketo share a common characteristic: They grew beyond the classic definition of email. They pushed email beyond the limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, they expanded and redefined email, its capabilities and how people could use it to make their lives better. That’s what may have driven their value.

  • SendGrid appealed to large-volume senders like Uber, Spotify and Glassdoor, three industry-disrupting companies, none of which needed a traditional ESP.
  • Rebel (formerly RebelMail) developed a technology that allows consumers to buy items in an email without leaving the inbox.
  • Marketo improved and grew marketing automation in ways that accelerated B2B email communication.

Twilio, Salesforce and Adobe might have bought these companies, in part, because they saw the expansion of email as critical to driving business. They saw these companies push innovation, rather than be pulled by it.

How can you translate this to your own business? Focus your energy on the push of your own innovation and not allowing outside forces to pull it away.

You know your customers better than just about anybody else in your company. What do they want? What will they need, even if they don’t realize it yet?

Your worst-case scenario is to stall out, to wait until the time feels right to think about innovation. As you put your 2019 plans together, think about what you need to do to stretch your use of email so that it works better for your team, for your company and for your customers.

Then figure out how to make it happen.

This story first appeared on MarTech Today. For more on marketing technology, click here.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Ryan Phelan brings almost two decades of worldwide online marketing and email experience. Ryan is a respected thought leader and nationally distinguished speaker with a history of experience from Adestra, Acxiom, BlueHornet, Sears Holdings, Responsys and infoUSA. In 2013 he was named one of the top 30 strategists in online marketing and is the Chairman Emeritus of the EEC Advisory Board and is a member of the Board of Directors for the Email Sender and Provider Collation (ESPC). Ryan is also involved many companies in the start-up space as an advisor, board member and investor.


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