Back in 2017, I wrote an article for MarTech, “Message to email marketers: Show me something different in 2018.” It popped up again while I was preparing a presentation, so I scrolled through to see if anything I advocated back then had become standard practice.

The answer is, sadly, not much.

Here’s what I was looking for:

  • Stop depending on batch-and-blast.
  • Use incremental innovation to create change.
  • Use customer data to inform email programs.
  • Look for something to fix instead of using the same playbook year after year.
  • Call on vendor and tech partners to help us succeed.

So here we are, nearly seven years later and we haven’t moved far on complexity.

Yes, we have made incremental gains, and yes, some dramatic leaps in innovation. That’s what we should be doing (see the second point above). But now, we need a lightning bolt to propel us down the innovation path.

I thought COVID-19 would have done that. In the opening years of this third decade of the 21st Century, email became the saving grace for many enterprise and mid-level companies.

Email was the quick pivot, the messaging and the low-cost way to insert their companies into the customer experience in the inbox. Email was the one action that preserved and grew revenue, saved jobs and helped stabilize the financial future.

Fast-forward to 2024. We are at an inflection point in our industry. We need to turbocharge our path to innovation and greatness. Not that email hasn’t been great over the last 25-plus years that we’ve used it to connect with customers. But we are still struggling.

The list of changes marketers must cope with now isn’t getting shorter. It’s getting longer, but we are still fighting for inch-by-inch gains with the usual lack of time, money and resources. How do we recognize that we are at this turbocharging moment and prepare for it? I see three areas where this acceleration is happening.


1. The rise of data proximity

Marketers like to debate whether we’re served better by the wheel-and-spoke model of technology or the unified platform model.

With this approach, data is at the wheel’s hub, and vendors like your email or marketing automation platforms are the spokes. Also, called the “best of breed” model, you choose each vendor individually and then focus on integrating all your platforms.

The unified platform is the “all in one” model, which provides all of the platforms you use in your marketing programs, with your data theoretically accessible and easily across all platforms.

In the past, the argument against unified platforms was that they often were built on technology that vendors acquired by buying the companies that developed the platforms and then stifling any further innovation.

But in speaking with customers and vendors in recent years, I’ve learned this big negative has faded away. Technology companies continue to invest in their acquisitions and fully utilize them.

I’ve seen these shifts in companies like Zeta Global and Marigold, which acquired disparate tech vendors and integrated them to create unified platforms. But proximity to data is the key gateway we need to act on every innovation over the last two decades.

One-to-one messaging comes from being able to access data in real-time so you can change your message. Marketers, how close are you to data overload as you look across your martech stack?

To what degree do you have a frictionless relationship with your full data set? You don’t always want all the data but need options and access. Beyond that, you need tools to assemble data that may be disparate in location and unified identification.

You need the power to pick and choose data that powers different segmentations, models and ways to render your message according to the information you have available, not just the information in your ESP.

This data proximity is the key to sending the right message. This is a central focus for enterprise companies. They want to know how close they can get to their data and how reliable and accurate that data is so they can use it across channels.

To answer questions like these, look at your martech stack and see how easily you can retrieve data and how to expand it. When shopping for new vendors, look beyond the features and capabilities of a platform to discover how it can help you access all of your relevant data.


2. Generative AI

Generative AI is still in its infancy, but it helps you see what it can do for companies and where it’s going. Aside from incorporating language models like ChatGPT for creating content, many email platforms are working on using AI to get users closer to their data. Your full use of AI depends on the data proximity I discussed in the previous section.

As I’ve viewed product demos in RFPs and talked with clients, I’ve seen something promising: Companies are improving how they give you access to data for insights. They’re proactive in the form of predictive segments or the ability to rapidly assemble new customer segments based on your needs at the moment. They’re moving beyond basic language models toward actionable language models.

Yes, it’s all still in the infancy stage. However, vendors are bringing us to realize what we have been promised since I wrote that MarTech article in 2018.

For marketers, it’s time to move beyond fooling around with prompt engineering in ChatGPT. It underscores one of my firm beliefs about email marketers: Great marketers know how to code and market.

When you learn to code, you experience a mind shift. You have to infuse your planning with strategy and structure, think about how to set up A and why it’s important that B comes after it and C and D, all the way back to Z.

That mentality can carry over to how you plan and execute your marketing strategy. The work you do to learn about AI and generative engines will teach you the muscle memory you will call on as AI evolves.

You also gain a broader perspective. What you accomplish today can help you understand the next iterations of ChatGPT, Google’s Gemini (formerly Bard) or DALL-E for images.

Understanding this rapid development tells you what you need to look for as you evaluate your tech stock and seek out new vendors. You know what you need to become more innovative in creating more relevant messaging.


3. Innovation

Data proximity and AI can power innovation, but only if you know what that innovation should look like. With my mantra of “strategy first, tactics second,” you’ll be more effective at using your proximity to data and wider vision of AI’s possibilities to map out your innovation path and bring in others in your company to get you there.

Knowing how generative AI works, how platforms that use GenAI work and how GenAI exceeds its current mandate gives you goals to work toward. Having a program isn’t enough to succeed. A program without goals and a plan to achieve them is just pushing buttons.

Success isn’t just about reaching the end. It’s about charting a sustainable path to success and being open to the technology from ESPs and niche vendors that offer singular solutions to challenges.

Knowing where you want to go and how to get there is critical. Your innovation map can show you where to free yourself from repetitive, mundane tasks and put that time toward creating strategy and bringing innovation.


Wrapping up

I know it’s hard to dive into the future when you’re still challenged with time, resources and money, the drive to launch the next campaign and the seasonal craziness that devolved from the channel we profess to love.

But as I learned in teaching the Master Class, we are trying to accomplish things I wrote about in 2017. Back then, we were still bemoaning that we had already been talking about these basic changes for 15 to 20 years.

We need a seismic change in the industry if we want email to survive as more than the cheap channel that drives discounts and brings in incidental revenue. We will have to depend on technology to get us there.

What I’ve listed here should show you where to focus your efforts now, how to raise the bar and how you can see the wider field and become more than the marketer who sends out one 20% discount after another. It’s difficult to do with everything else you have been tasked to achieve. But if not you, then who?

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