You've Got Mail


As I wrote this, Americans were finishing our first full-month of stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of Covid-19, a worldwide pandemic the likes of which our generation has never witnessed. Restaurants, bars and brick-and-mortar retail establishments were shuttered. Office workers (or at least the lucky ones who still had jobs) were on indefinite work-from-home policy.

Other workers the country over were classified into essential and non-essential categories while millions more filed for unemployment benefits.

Flights were cheap and traffic was light but we had nowhere to go. Social distancing became a virtue not just for introverts like me. I live in Los Angeles, famous for its smog, air pollution and jam-packed freeways during rush hour and otherwise. Suddenly, LA’s air quality was being described as the “best in the world.” The streets were empty.

In Italy, the typically cloudy and brown Venice Canals were reported to be pristine blue with fish and dolphins seen swimming along them. We all awaited the virus to peak in some parts of the country who were first to be hit so we could more accurately assess the long-term implications and the potential impact in locales where it was just getting a foothold.  

The world was on Pause for the first time in our lives.

Just before all this, in December, Ryan Phelan penned an article titled “Email marketers: Keep growing, but also take the time to teach others.” In the article, he theorized that many people who enter careers in email marketing only stick around for about 3 years or less, causing a constant cycle of churn and a corresponding loss of critical institutional knowledge.

He encouraged email marketers to document and share institutional knowledge, such as key historical metrics, campaign records or the results of testing and optimization efforts. This information risks getting lost in the churn. Ryan’s theory intrigued me. I have been “in email marketing” for twenty years. Many of the people I know share a long tenure in the industry.

I have had the privilege to hire and mentor dozens of new email marketers over the years, many of whom still work in the industry. Despite all that, I would gamble that Ryan is right. I realized I lived in an email bubble, so I never thought about career tenure in general being a real problem. The article made me wonder, “Why am I still in email marketing?”

The global pause that began right after Ryan’s article was published provided a rare opportunity to get in some extra workouts, try to lose a little weight and binge-watch some good tv shows. It also provided a chance to reflect on my 20 years in email marketing, why I’m still here, how email marketing has impacted my career and where email might go in the future.

Before the dot-com boom, there was AOL. Those of us around to witness the birth and commercialization of the modern Internet will certainly remember AOL’s groundbreaking slogan from the mid-90s – “You’ve Got Mail” – and the barrage of installation CDs constantly arriving in our mailboxes. At a certain point, I collected so many of the discs that I started using them as coffee table coasters!

A lot of change happened in the years leading up to the dot-com boom. The Internet was still a new phenomenon and the desktop PC had become as commonplace in American homes as a television. Those CDs were used to install AOL’s all-in-one Internet dial-up access portal on a consumer’s PC. For many of their customers, AOL would be their first onramp to the commercial Internet.

A few important trends were converging at that time. First, with the help of services like AOL, Prodigy, MindSpring and others, consumers were able to set up an Internet access account relatively easily. And with every account, the consumer also created his or her personal email address. PCs had become affordable for the average American household.

As more consumers got on the Internet, PCs moved out of the office or kitchen and into America’s living rooms. They also became more Internet-centric in their design, most notably illustrated by Apple’s original line of candy-colored iMacs. Despite its sole embrace of USB peripherals to the exclusion of all others, the original iMac became a huge hit for Apple, returned it to relevance and saved the company from going bankrupt after a years-long decline in sales. E-commerce and online shopping exploded onto the scene.

“You’ve Got Mail” kept popping up everywhere. It was imprinted boldly on the CDs in our mailbox and in print ads across every newspaper and magazine. It achieved near-universal recognition as a soundbite in television and radio commercials. AOL featured email as the centerpiece of its all-in-one Internet portal and thrust email into the global consumer spotlight for the first time. With millions of consumers newly in possession of an email inbox, email marketing was born.

I did not know it but the start of my email marketing career was just around the corner.

Early in my career, I managed a series of print newsletters for a paper industry trade association in Atlanta. Aldus PageMaker, Quark Express and the early iterations of Adobe’s Illustrator, Freehand and Photoshop – along with the printing press -- comprised our marketing stack.

The job suited me. I had just earned a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Advertising from a college in Kentucky. I could write and I had a particular affinity for desktop publishing which had emerged while I was in college. In order to graduate from college with a marketable technical skill, I took up newspaper page layout and desktop publishing, learned on an original all-in-one Macintosh II.

Around 1995, I decided to pursue a burgeoning new field called “e-commerce.” At the time, the World Wide Web was still pretty new and mostly consisted of online corporate brochure-ware. My trade association set up a website and I used articles in our newsletter to drive traffic to our online brochure. In order to pursue a career in e-commerce, I knew I needed to beef up the “tech” on my resume.

I took night classes at Mercer University in Atlanta three nights a week for the next five years to earn a master’s degree in Technology Management.  I also took a certification course in computer networking administration where I learned how to set up and manage a Windows NT network. I soon took a new job building and managing Intranet sites for BellSouth Business.

I’ve always believed that email marketing requires a special blend of skills. It is both art and science. As such, the ability to write, an eye for well-designed creative, some technical ability to understand basic computer networking and how marketing technology works, and a strategic and analytical mindset all coalesce to create the perfect email marketer.

The work I had done in print newsletter writing, layout and production and in building Intranet sites paid dividends later when creating and coding email newsletters. The technology courses and networking certifications came in handy for understanding how an email system works – how data flows into and out of the system, how DNS records are configured, and the server architecture for sending and tracking opens and clicks via pixels and redirect pages.

As I was finishing grad school at the turn of the millennium, the infamous Y2k, I took on my first email project working for a startup in Atlanta. Roger Barnette (now CEO of Message Gears) was the founder and CEO of eTour. We had collected over a million user registrations for our online advertising and editorial service, which created a huge opportunity to expand our web-based platform with a series of targeted, personalized email newsletters.

My job was to conduct an RFP process, select an email marketing platform, create 12 topic-based newsletters and leverage our new platform to target and send out the emails. Little did I know that my boss at eTour, Mark, had a sister named Jeanne who was forging her own email marketing career (Jeanne Jennings, as we know her today).

This was the dawn of the email service provider (ESP) industry. Some of the platforms we considered were the current heavy-hitters - like 24/7 Exactis or Digital Impact. They were black box full-service solutions but were more established and had the highest market share by far.

Other newer companies were offering a software-as-a-service model with a self-serve user interface. Companies like FloNetwork, Dartmail and CheetahMail enabled customers to upload data, lists and creative assets and to deploy and report on email campaigns using a web-based interface.

Still others offered an on-premise installed software solution. All considered, this may in fact have been the first generation of marketing technology platforms. If websites had become the hub of online marketing, email was the first spoke.

We ended up choosing an on-premise installed software solution called Annuncio. This system included everything we needed to build out and manage an entire email marketing infrastructure - Netscape Application servers, a relational marketing database, redirection servers for tracking and MTA servers configured to send high-volumes of email. That experience of building out a fully loaded email marketing infrastructure so early on in my career paid many dividends over the years in contributing to my understanding of the technical architecture beneath an email marketing platform.

I think many, if not most, email marketers start out in an entry- or mid-level position with either a pure marketing focus or some blended marketing, technical or creative role. Many of us graduate into positions with a broader set of marketing, strategic, or operational responsibilities. I believe email marketing can imbue its adherents with distinct advantages in the pursuit of future career opportunities.

I see it as almost like a prism effect whereby a single beam of light is bent, shaped and refracted outward in many directions and varieties of color. 

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Email marketing is both art and science. As such, working in email exposes one to many disciplines and experiences within a very short time. A few examples: 

  • Developing content and calls-to-action
  • Email coding, layout, and design
  • Database management
  • Customer segmentation
  • Deliverability and marketing technology infrastructure
  • Marketing operations
  • AB Testing and optimization
  • Technical problem-solving
  • Analytics and marketing strategy
  • Cross-channel campaign coordination

While not an exhaustive list, these represent a potent set of cross-functional skills and experiences that enable email marketers to branch out in many different directions as they plot their career path. Exactly the type of phenomenon described by Ryan Phelan. 

This concept was not always so clear to me. Starting around 2007, the business media began publishing a steady stream of “email is dead” articles. When they first appeared, I worked at a leading Email Service Provider, CheetahMail. They rattled me. The effect compounded into anxiety as I witnessed a burgeoning and fast-changing martech landscape swirling around me. I wondered, “Am I going to be pigeon-holed as an email marketer and go down with an industry in decline?”

Facebook was making a splash and social media marketing suddenly became cooler than email. The iPhone had ignited a new focus on mobile marketing. It seemed at the time that social media marketing might be the disruptive force that would upend email and cause my career to become irrelevant.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one worried about this. Many of the major ESP platform providers began to retool, rebrand and reimagine themselves as multi-channel communication platforms. “Email. Mobile. Social.” became a mantra that appeared in RFPs and on their marketing materials. At CheetahMail, I experienced this transition first-hand and witnessed it amongst our chief competitors.

The ground shifted under those of us working at ESPs. Gmail had launched a few years before by invitation-only at first and without a postmaster. Gmail was a new kind of mailbox and was making waves across the industry. When Gmail first came onto the scene, a consumer had to submit a request form and wait a while to eventually be granted an invitation to open their very first Gmail account.

Google made some smart choices. First, the invitation only scheme made everyone want a Gmail account. But the real game-changer was nearly unlimited storage and searchability. It seemed at the time that 1 GB of storage was an endless amount. The mantra for Gmail was something like, “never delete an email again.”

Pretty soon, the dominant percentage of subscriber emails shifted from the traditional mainstays like Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL to Gmail. First, Gmail approached 50% then zoomed to 60% of most companies’ consumer email lists. Gmail had spelled the beginning of the end for “mailbox full” and “quota reached” bounce codes. Many of us worried, “Would Google be able to bring email into its oligopoly, exerting the same type of stranglehold it held on search?”

Then, something unexpected happened. Facebook introduced its email service in 2010. At CheetahMail, we instantly began tracking the number of email addresses that circulated through our client databases to assess how much of a threat Facebook might become. That service disbanded a few years later, after not meeting the original hyped-up expectations.

The real sea-changes in email turned out to be from Google and Apple. For me, being able to search my email with the accuracy and reliability of a Google search changed everything. This turned my email account a personal searchable database. I could forward myself articles and documents with keywords and incorporate tagging and foldering organization. I could keep everything and find it when I needed it, as evidenced by this screenshot of my email inbox.

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As an aside, for a cool party game or icebreaker, have everyone take out their phones and compare to see who has the largest number of unread messages in their red bubble. (Ok, maybe this only works for a party of email marketers….)

After Gmail, the next key innovation affecting email came about with the advent of iPhone. iPhone ushered in an entirely new category of mobile marketing as consumers moved to plans that included pre-paid text messaging. But iPhone also reignited email by creating the first image-rich mobile email experience comparable to that consumers could get on their desktop PC.

The Palm and the Blackberry were early attempts at creating a mobile email experience but were best suited for text-based messages and primarily appealed to executives in tech companies and startups. I was the first employee at CheetahMail to get an iPhone and I instantly saw a sea-change coming to the world of email. Prior to that, the Inbox was a place the average consumer checked a few times a day at most. With iPhone, the Inbox had moved from the desktop to the pants pocket.

In a 2014 article, ClickZ declared that “Email is a native mobile application. As people started consuming information more on smartphones and tablets than other devices, email consumption and usage soared. Mobile email usage now exceeds 50 percent. And email is by far the number one app on mobile platforms.”

“The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

This is one of my favorite quotes to reference each time a new email-is-dead article appears. Often attributed to Mark Twain, I often imagine it as a personified email’s terse response to those tired old claims.

The articles haven’t stopped. But a few things have changed. Social media handles did not become a publicly addressable messaging system. Marketing messages sent via social media instant messaging platforms and even SMS remain less popular with consumers and are viewed as more invasive. And Gmail created Postmaster Tools and deliverability guidelines to assist with establishing and controlling your sender reputation and overall delivery rates.

Despite many challenges and an exploding martech landscape, email has continued to grow, remain resilient and thrive. Here are a few reasons that, I believe, explain this.

  • First, it’s really useful. Email’s utilitarian nature in the everyday lives of consumers is underrated. Email has reached an adoption rate that few technologies ever achieve, maybe surpassed only by the Internet itself. It’s reliance on what many consider old protocols and standards have allowed it to remain relatively platform agnostic. They have prevented it from becoming controlled by either a monopoly or oligopoly, unlike even telephone service or cable TV.
  • Email has become ubiquitous. The combination of what appears before and after the @ sign in an email address is inherently unique, making the trusty email address the ultimate global user id for creating accounts and profiles across all types of systems around the world – from your power and cable company to your Hulu subscription.
  • It is transitory. A customer can change their email address like they change their style of dress. Even though it is useful as a personal unique identifier, it is not a permanently assigned ID like a passport, social security number or driver’s license number.
  • Email enables multiple communication “lanes” to accommodate personal, business and all layers in between. It has proven difficult to navigate these different lanes of our lives on social media.
  • It enables file transmission between devices.
  • It is contactless by nature, which made email incredibly valuable during the COVID-19 global crisis.
  • One of the hallmark features of email is its asynchronous mode of communication, differentiating it from live communication and chat messaging.
  • An email appearing in a consumer’s inbox is equivalent to another ad impression for brands. The Inbox is a place brands must be to stay relevant and top-of-mind.
  • Email plays well with others and integrates easily into a cross-channel communication strategy.
  • Email is still the best and most common way to receive notifications for e-commerce purchases or social media account activity.

Email is convenient in so many ways. One thing I’ve learned as a marketer – convenience often wins.

That may explain why email is still here. But where might email be headed? Will Slack or some other new mode of messaging spell the end of email as we know it? Possibly. But In my view, based on the utility and ubiquity of email and its decentralized architecture, the more likely scenario is that email simply continues to evolve. It is quite possible that someday email may look unrecognizable compared to how it looks and works today. But the journey from here to there is likely made up of many incremental and some revolutionary improvements.

Sure, corporate workers now have a variety of collaboration and messaging tools, some of which may better meet their needs in certain situations. Sure, some studies indicate young people don’t use email in the same ways or with the same frequency as their predecessors, opting instead for newer instant messaging and group chat apps. But here’s the thing: what are the they using to set up and sign into their Instagram and Snapchat accounts? An email address.

Innovation sometimes comes in bursts but often it comes in long waves of incremental change. RadicalMail came on the scene in the early 2000s with a compelling proposition for rich media and video emails. There were limitations, though, with regard to how the email would render across software- and web-based email clients. A newer, richer version of this feature set re-appeared just a few years ago – RebelMail. RebelMail was acquired by Salesforce in 2018. So, an innovation that began more than fifteen years ago came back around and lives on.

One thing is certain – the pundits will keep predicting the death of email. Someday, they will be right. But for now, whether you are new to email or a seasoned veteran, don’t sweat it. The utilitarian, ubiquitous and convenient nature of email cements its position as a contender in the age of social media and mobile marketing. And the skills you hone and perfect as an email marketer are all transferable to many different and varied career paths.

So, take Ryan’s advice and share your knowledge. Document your learnings and achievements in your current role. But never minimize the decisions or passions that lead you to where you are today. Capitalize on them. And at the end of every day for the foreseeable future, just remember this – You’ve Got Mail.