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Sometimes you’d be forgiven for considering email as a thing of the past. We’ve all read the thought pieces, and those of us who find ourselves needing to deal with teenagers on a consistent basis are well aware that messaging apps appear to be the new normal when it comes to digital communications.

There’s only one problem with that otherwise convincing thesis: the numbers don’t stack up. We’ve gotten so used to talking about the death of email that we haven’t noticed that open rates appear to be remarkably resilient. A smart email strategy starts with understanding why that is and works back from there.

First of all, it’s a general fallacy to assume that young people today will simply continue their habits into middle and old age. I call it the “death of jazz” effect. A music critic notes few young people at jazz concerts and fears jazz will die out with its audience, but misses the obvious point that people’s interests change as they get closer to their 40th birthday.

The same applies to email. In the business world, we understand that a single persistent store of communications, which supports longer and more thoughtful arguments, is actually useful. We apply that recognition to our leisure time, and learn to appreciate and use email in every sphere of our lives. But before we all get too complacent, that is NOT to say that nothing has changed and our expectations remain the same – quite the opposite.

How Mobile Changes Everything

While we still use and respond to email, we don’t do it so very often from a desktop computer. Close to 70 percent of our ‘digital minutes’ are spent on mobile, and that changes things – a lot.

I won’t dwell on the importance of ensuring your email communications are incredibly ‘responsive’ to mobile (i.e. they display okay on a phone) or ‘mobile-first’. Frankly, if a business hasn’t got that message by 2017, it’s already too far behind.

Instead, let’s stop for a moment and consider how mobile access changes the way we as consumers behave, and what we expect from brands and marketers. We carry our phones with us every hour of every day. We sleep with them beside us. We check them 100 times a day. That makes the mobile a powerful opportunity to marketers. But it comes with an accompanying risk: irritation.

In the mobile world, it is no longer good enough to ‘spam’ the user with largely irrelevant content. Not when so many people (quite reasonably) receive alerts for incoming mail on their device. At best, you are training your users to ignore your brand. At worst you are actively damaging the relationship you have. And the surest way to alienate users is to keep on emailing in the way we we did at the turn of the millennium.

Here are a few warning behaviors to check for. If you find yourself doing any of these on a regular basis, you may have a paradigm problem:

  • Sending a single email to more than 10,000 people at a time
  • Trying to decide the right time to send an email by instinct
  • Constructing elaborate ‘segments’ for email campaigns

At this point you might be scratching your head and wondering what is wrong with some of these practices. The answer: the mobile generation don’t respond well to the batched marketing model that was tolerated on desktop (where emails that aren’t relevant are easier to ignore).

So What Does Great Mobile Email Look Like?

It doesn’t look like just more of the same. Great email is no longer about ‘campaigns’ but is instead interactive, dynamic one-to-one communication – just as it is between human beings. Mobile leaders are already doing this today. Successful mobile email:

  • Is personalized in terms of personal detail and relevant content
  • Is sent to an individual at the time that they are most likely to read and respond (based on data)
  • Is usually triggered by a specific individual behavior (in any channel – not just web activity but also in the ‘real world’ and mobile apps) rather than the fact that the user has been put into a ‘bucket’ by marketers

In other words, email is no longer about large-scale marketing ‘campaigns’ and more about highly personal, relevant and helpful messages sent to individuals, rather than groups, and sent at a time that suits that individual. Taking this approach will deliver real benefits when it comes to making email effective and keeping it relevant to your business.

Unfortunately, traditional ways of thinking about marketing can keep you from connecting with your customers. Good communication requires rejecting that old model and embracing the mobile opportunity.