The Medium Versus the Message

In the age of ubiquitous brand reach that spreads from inboxes to social media and beyond, it’s the quality and context of the content that really matters.


Last month, the Harvard Business Review published a blog post, “Email is the Best Way to Reach Millennials” arguing that, despite the various channels consumers use to interact with our favorite brands, email is still the “standard of communication.”

Is email the be-all, end-all?

While email might be the status quo for some Millennials – the “home base” that’s visited each morning, afternoon, and evening – we have a responsibility as brand advocates, marketers, and experience designers to keep email and direct-to-inbox content from becoming an overused and prescriptive method of reach. Just because they’re there most often doesn’t mean that’s where they want to interact with brands.

It’s presumptive – and more importantly – dangerous to assume how people will behave with brand content.

Take, for instance, the variety of ways people interact with their inboxes. Like real-life mailboxes that discourage stranger’s hands from entering, inboxes are expected to be treated as sacred spaces for personal communication. Some people create throwaway email accounts dedicated to the barrage of advertisements, announcements, and flash sales that often come with both brick-and-mortar and online checkout. Others use folder systems, such as the ones Gmail provides, to either ignore, sort, or archive brand communications, giving users full control over who enters their inbox. Some keep their inboxes open all day, on desktop clients. Others check in periodically on mobile, or keep their inboxes silenced until they choose to hit refresh.

As the HBR piece mentions, less is more – but that doesn’t always mean less is better either. Millennials have told marketers that they want to see 39% fewer emails in their inboxes, and 32% want to see less repetitive “spam” that they have to manually unclog, or further, unsubscribe from. Thus, the issue at hand isn’t the medium. When it comes to how Millennials interact with email from brands, it’s context and quality, not just quantity – less or more – that proves to be a winning formula for brands.

Instead of aggressive list building, systematic email deployment, and false urgency in subject lines, what if our email communication offered real value when and where it matters most? As marketers, what if we harnessed the opportunity to reach Millennials on their terms, rather than when we think they should be paying attention to our story?

Did you know that over 45% of Millennials check their email in bed at the morning and at night? This illustrates a prime opportunity for brands to understand mood and motive at the right time and place, rather than an opportunity to send an email “blast” just because there may be a captive audience. Instead of boisterous “click here!” messaging, we would better serve our Millennial customers by creating email campaigns that are sensitive to and tailored toward their needs, whether they’re just waking up or winding down for the day.

Below, we’ve compiled four tips for mindful email marketing:

Cut through the clutter.

For us, all brand communication all starts with a big idea, a feeling, and an intuitive understanding of what customers want to see, hear, and digest more of. How we determine that is by listening to what consumers want. We look for ways to connect brands with customers and spark chemistry between them wherever they come in contact, whether that happens through retail experiences, digital experiences, email experiences, or a combination of each. What marketers know about their audiences should be the leading factor in how they create an experience that fully meets consumer needs – not assumptions by brands about what they think they need to say. To cut through the clutter, define the big idea your brand stands for, what makes it engageable, and build an experience that aligns content with context.

Create relationships between content types and provide opt-ins for future communication.

Services that allow audiences to give consent to their inbox are becoming more widely use by content creators. One good example of brands honoring the opt-in is Like to Know It, a shopping service that allows style-savvy Instagram users to “like” photos from top bloggers, designers, and stylists, before receiving details about specific fashion pieces in their inbox. Not only do interested Millennials have the opportunity to interact with their favorite people online, but they’re giving restricted access – one email with valuable information – rather than an all-access pass to their inboxes. Like to Know It provides a roundup of favorited posts, customized to each “like” with more details on how to buy, and gives fans opportunities to stay up-to-date with their favorite blogs as well.

Ask, don’t abuse, your customer’s inbox.

The old saying goes, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness after the fact than to ask for permission.” In the case of email marketing, the opposite is always true: it’s crucial to ask for permission before, than to ask for forgiveness after, because by then it’s too late to gain back a consumer’s trust No matter where you ask people to sign up for branded communication, make permission a priority. Avoid auto-adding customers to email lists at checkout, and instead, offer up full control to the customer in the frequency of emails they’d like to receive.

Let customers tell you where the best place to reach them is.

Have you noticed that most service providers ask us when and where the best time to reach us is? Whether it’s morning or evening, by email or social media platform, it’s helpful to test this question with new and returning customers. Instead of assuming email is their standard, tune into where they’re most likely to be present and want to hear from you. The answers might surprise you – and your communications strategy might just get a necessary shakeup that proves to be more effective in the end.

If we believe email is the only “standard of communication,” we’re likely to pepper our audiences with messages that let the medium speak for brands, drowning out the real value-based content. Brands today would be wise to focus on communicating across channels based on consumer use and preference with messages that resonate with audiences and bring real value to consumers in the way they want. This allows brands to design content for context and ramp up the quality and depth of the messages creating real opportunities to let the messages speak for themselves.

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