Are We Making Things Easier for Consumers, or Harder?

A recent New York Times article about online retail sales caught my immediate attention. Titled “Online Sales Lose Steam,” the piece detailed new research from Jupiter showing that in the last year, growth has slowed sharply in major sectors like books, tickets, and office supplies. “Analysts say it is a turning point and growth will continue to slow through the decade,” the article said.

To be sure, some of the slowdown is just simple math: Internet sales are forecast to hit $116 billion this year, approximately 5% of all retail sales, and as the overall size of the market grows, it’s harder to maintain the same growth rates as when it was smaller. Still, some of the slowdown was attributed to consumer attitudes: “Consumers seem to be experiencing internet fatigue and are changing their buying habits.”

The value proposition of email marketing—for consumers—must have to do with ease and convenience. You can surf the web at your convenience, obtain the products or services you like when and wherever, and we arrange to have it sent to you. We can then even track what you’ve bought and let you know about offers on related things.

Email marketers tend to talk about relevance a lot, but it isn’t just because being irrelevant leads down a nasty path toward deliverability issues. Relevance—we’ll get you what you really want— is about making it easier for consumers to get things done online.

Yet, does email as a marketing channel overall make things easier for consumers, or more difficult? “Online, it’s much more of a task,” the Times piece quotes Macy’s executive Liz Hauer as saying. The article cites Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn who suggests that online shopping, because it involves a computer, can feel like work.

What are we as email marketers doing to minimize this feeling? Have we made it easy for consumers to tell what messages are real and desired? Or have we defined “relevance” as whatever we can send that doesn’t get us blocked? As a marketing medium, email is a pretty motley mix now—urgent email from bosses, overt scams, multiple copies of the latest viral video hit forwarded from multiple college friends, bills and statements, and regular old-fashioned spam.

What are we doing to make things easy for consumers?

—David Atlas