Yes-reply@, bots, and the future of email marketing

Summary

  • Email is still the preferred way to hear from a brand.
  • Commercial email, however, limits the user experience because of its one-way nature: we browse & search because we cannot ask.
  • At the same time, dramatic growth in the use of messaging apps is pushing marketing to become more conversational.
  • New technology could lead to conversational email marketing.

The preferred way

Email is still alive and kicking. Some keep pronouncing it dead, but many have written eloquently explaining why it’s not. There’s even a dedicated web site on the topic.

With over 4.5 billion accounts, 200 billion messages sent per day (report), and substantial innovation happening in the inbox (e.g. Inbox by Gmail, Alto by Aol, Front, etc.), there is no evidence of a decline. Why? Because email is a fantastic tool for open, non-real time conversations that can be stored, tagged, searched, forwarded, printed, archived, … you name it.

Precisely because of its non-real time nature, it’s also a less stressful, less distracting, less invasive communication tool compared to other solutions, some argue.

And it’s great for marketing. Research has indicated again and again that email is how most people like to hear from their favorite companies. Which explains why email marketing has remained such a strong revenue generator, often cited as the marketing investment with the highest return (over $40 on the dollar invested, according to many studies).

Despite what many believe, this is true not just for those belonging to Generation X and older, but also for Millennials and even teenagers.

Earlier this year email service provider Adestra did extensive research on the topic and found that email — in the US— was the preferred way for both groups when it came to how they wanted to hear from their favorite brands.

Recent research by Brightwave, an Atlanta-based email marketing agency, confirmed the data: they surveyed over 1,500 Millennials across the US and again found that they pointed to email as the best way to stay in touch with their favorite companies.

At the same time, they also found that almost 90% of them responded negatively to brands showing up in their social media feeds.

No expectation of a reply

There is one aspect of email marketing, however, that has always been somewhat of an anomaly. When you look in your inbox, you find plenty of emails for which the expectation of a reply is simply not there.

It’s always been that way, yet it’s counter-intuitive if think about it: most people like to hear from brands via email, and yet have no expectations of being able to communicate with them through the same tool.

Due to technological limitations and the high cost of human-powered customer service, commercial email has overwhelmingly been a “one-way thing”.

Is this the best possible user experience for you? And for the brand, is this the best possible way to communicate with you?

It some cases, it may not be. And if it isn’t, things might be ready for a change.

Here is why.

We search because we can’t ask

Think of these simple scenarios…

  1. A popular music service lets you know that one of your favorite artists just released a new album. You haven’t been to a concert in a while, so you’d like to ask for a schedule of upcoming shows in your area… and then go back to doing what you were doing.
  2. A car magazine emails you their weekly newsletter with some new reviews. You’ve been wondering whether there is a more environmentally friendly option for your family: “what’s the minivan with the highest MPG?”, you want to ask. And then go out for a run.

If you ever found yourself in a similar scenario, the thought of replying and ask a question probably never crossed your mind.

Technically, you could have. You didn’t because you knew that none of those emails would trigger any response.

So in these and similar scenarios, you do what Internet users have been doing for over 15 years:

  • Open a browser
  • Run a search
  • Get the results
  • Glance & click on the one(s) that look the best
  • Find the answer to your question on the landing page, hopefully
  • Run additional searches if needed

You just wanted a list of upcoming concerts. You didn’t even need it right then. Instead, you’re forced to search.

Is this the user experience that you were looking for? Is this the natural next step when someone sends you a message and you have a quick question? It may not be. If you trust the source, the natural next step may simply be to ask the question.

In many scenario, you search because you can’t ask.

We do so at least 2 trillion times a year on Google alone.

The search giant & many other companies are fully aware that “leave what you are doing and go run a search” is often not an ideal user experience.

That’s why they are investing heavily in new conversational interfaces that will allow you to do just that: ask a question and get an answer (or get a simple task done, like play music, re-order home supplies, turn off the lights, etc.).

Amazon has been among the pioneers in this space, with its Alexa voice assistant getting better and better at doing its job. Google is trying to catch up with the upcoming release of Google Home. Many others are joining the race.

As brilliantly described in this article by Matt McAlister, the web has created an in-between layer that did not use to be there. We’ve all been accustomed to it, and it’s been OK in the absence of a better solution. But what if technology allows for an alternative?

No wonder the idea of chatbots is receiving so much attention and venture capital investment. If messaging apps can help provide that alternative — a way to ask a question and get an answer — and deliver a better user experience in the process, then “messaging becomes the new browser”, says McAlister.

The AI-powered assistant in Google’s new Allo messaging app goes precisely in that direction.

Of course, “better” is the key, and early critics immediately point to many examples of a bad user experience when the conversation is with a bot.

Bots are best when providing simple answers to simple questions. When the dialog is more complex, humans like to talk to a human. In fact, things can get rather tricky when you ask a bot to handle more involved conversations, as Microsoft’s Tay project famously showed.

That said, if bots can allow people get quick, good-enough answers, and help companies get to personal conversations with their customers at scale, they’re certainly worth the large amount of interest that they are receiving.

How much interest? Since Facebook announced general availability of the Messenger Platform in April, over 30,000 bots have been developed for it.

TechCrunch and Whole Foods bots in action on my phone

When bots help with simple interactions and humans are freed to handle the more complex ones, that’s when conversational marketing can really happen. And many see tremendous opportunity in this development.

But what have bots to do with email? A lot, it turns out.

Why we live in a world of no-reply@…

How come you can’t just hit reply to the emails you receive from your favorite brands and ask a question?

It’s not that these companies love the idea of ignoring their customers. No company deliberately makes a decision to provide poor customer service. On the contrary, successful companies are perfectly aware of the high number of statistics that highlight the cost of providing bad customer service.

And yet, we’ve been in a world of rather underwhelming customer service for a long time. Except for rare exceptions, even the companies we like the most can’t give us the level of service we’d like to get from them.

Why? The cost of providing human-powered, high quality customer service is so high that it is often not a viable business strategy.

There are rare circumstances in which it works, such as markets with few customers and high-margin products (e.g. luxury goods). In most other cases, the math just doesn’t add up.

And since technology — until recently — did not provide a good enough solution… well, when it came to email, the only option was to send messages from a sender that often said: “no-reply@…”

How technology can lead to yes-reply@…

The good news is that this landscape is changing fast. The same technologies that are powering changes in the conversational interfaces mentioned earlier are coming to a level of maturity, availability, and affordability that could allow for radical changes in the email space too.

As a result, the current world of one-way commercial emails could be nearing some dramatic transformations, for the better.

Let’s briefly explore how.

First, there have been substantial improvements in natural language processing (NLP) and understanding (NLU). At MobileBeat 2016, for example, several companies presented impressive technology that — they claim — is really taking NLP and NLU to a new level. For instance, read about Pat.ai and SoundHound.

Secondly, there are more and more tools — and service providers — to help brands develop intelligent bots that can take that information and perform tasks based on it.

Continuing on one of the examples mentioned earlier, a bot could query a car database, retrieve information on the minivan with the highest MPG, and pass the information back to a messaging system that will send a mobile-friendly email back to you.

Botfunded is a site that tracks investments into bots: take a look at the kind of projects that are being funded, and you’ll see the sort of momentum that is building around this space.

Thirdly, there are ways to store extremely large amounts of information and process it to make those intelligent bots smarter over time, so they gradually perform their assigned tasks better and better (machine learning).

Lastly, messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, Kik, Telegram, and others are providing a platform where these conversations can take place, at scale.

Put it all together, and it’s clear why chatbots have attracted so much attention.

Now… how does email fit into all of this? It does.

From chatbots to emailbots

To understand how, let’s separate “chatbot” back into its two original keywords: chat & robot.

When talking about chatbots there is a tendency to forget that the bots themselves are mostly agnostic to the channel.

The channel does not have to be “chat” at all.

The input, in fact, can be a voice request (e.g. through your smartphone or Amazon Echo), a text message, a strawberry emoji in the Whole Foods bot for Messenger, or … an email.

It does not matter.

If there is technology that can take the input and translate it into something that the bot can process, a conversation can happen.

As long as the bot works well enough, the number of conversations escalated to a customer service person will be dramatically smaller than if the bot weren’t there.

If that number translates into a cost that’s manageable for the brand… bingo! Their customers can now ask questions and receive answers, right where they are, including the email inbox.

What used to be economically unfeasible becomes doable. What used to be “no-reply@…” can now become “yes-reply@…”.

Or maybe: “please-reply-at-any-time@…”, since having more engaged customers is key to the success of any company. They will invite them to reply to their emails, gradually changing their expectations and leading to an overall better email marketing experience.

P.S. There is a cherry on the cake for the email marketing team, in all of this. As email experts will tell you, higher engagement in the inbox can contribute to higher deliverability rates (i.e. the % of emails delivered into the inbox vs. the spam folder), which in turn leads to higher returns on the marketing investment. Gmail, for instance, specifically tracks replies as a strong indication of engagement. If you needed one more reason to embrace the “yes-reply@” revolution, there you have it!

Yes-reply@ could shape the future of email

Messaging app Kik recently reported that its users — who are mostly teenagers — have exchanged over 1.8 billion messages with chatbots, and the company is investing significantly in their “BotShop” to capitalize on this trend.

The release of Google Allo responds to the same trend: this younger generation is getting more and more accustomed to asking a question and getting an answer… not just when messaging each other, but also when getting stuff done and communicating with a brand.

Chris Messina in Will 2016 be the year of conversational commerce? argues that allowing frictionless, conversational interactions with brands is precisely one of the reasons why messaging apps could play a significant part in the future of commerce.

In this rapidly changing environment, where marketing becomes more conversational, the issue with commercial email is that — today — this conversational piece is completely missing.

On one side, marketers are being encouraged to “Think 1-to-1” and understand that they don’t manage email, but rather engagement, as Len Shneyder explains in The Future of Email Marketing Is Already Here.

On the other side, email marketing as a tool dramatically limits that engagement because of its one-way nature. This status quo leads to a user experience — the forced trip to the browser — that hasn’t changed in over 15 years, and is ripe for improvement.

Luckily, there are technologies that are getting better and more affordable, and will increasingly allow conversations to occur in scenarios where they were not possible before.

When a reply to a commercial email can be understood, processed, and responded to, email campaigns become not only clickable, display advertising in the inbox, but also a way to start a conversation.

Brands will embrace the opportunity to better communicate with their most loyal customers and the resulting “yes-reply@” movement could shape the future of commercial email, transforming it into an active player in the rise of conversational marketing.

I’m looking forward to see what happens.