ISPs Live in the Age of the Customer, Do You?

The final session of the Email Evolution Conference has generated a lot of discussion. For deliverability experts in the room there wasn’t much that hadn’t been said before though it was a great opportunity for those who aren’t members of M3AAWG or who don’t live and breathe deliverability to hear directly from the horses’ mouths.

The underlying theme, weaved through the technical details of infrastructure and filtering, was that this is the age of the customer and marketers need to behave appropriately. This too isn’t new but it clicked for me in a new way. I believe the tension in deliverability has always been due to ISPs wanting to deliver only the email they believe their customers want while marketers want to maximize revenue. There are many nuances to the arguments but this is the heart of it.

It is the tension between shareholder capitalism (capitalism’s second era) and customer capitalism (the third era). Also known as the transition from the age of the seller to the age of the customer. In the era of shareholder capitalism access to information was controlled by the seller. In the age of the customer that access is controlled by the customer. It is this change of control, this shift in power balance, that many email marketers are struggling with.

Digital messaging channels have always placed the customer in control. It is the customer’s inbox not the marketers. Marketers may own, or pay for the use of billboards and signage, TV channels and websites but not the customer’s inbox. The customer gets to decide what is in it and what is not. As John from Microsoft said, the ISPs got where they are today because 10 years ago they were losing customers. Email was being destroyed. Customers no longer felt in control of their inboxes. The solution was to empower customers. To ensure that their wishes were paramount. Not the wishes of the marketer no matter how legitimate they claimed to be.

This is a challenge for many businesses used to working in the age of the seller. As Blasingame’s third law says “When Customers are empowered, Sellers are disrupted”. Many marketers focus on strategies to increase reach, to drive more sales and to maximize revenue from email. They cut corners on permission and address collection. They argue in favor of email appending and list purchase. They focus on maximizing reach and frequency in order to increase sales. They’re unwilling to let any subscriber leave the list. It’s all wrapped in a veneer of being in the best interests of customers but it comes from a place of seller empowerment. The list and the customers on it are a business asset to be exploited to the max.

In the age of the customer however the only way to win is to be focused obsessively on the customer experience. As Forrester Research says “The only way to win, serve, and retain customers is to become customer-obsessed.” and that “A customer-obsessed enterprise focuses its strategy, its energy, and its budget on processes that enhance knowledge of and engagement with customers and prioritizes these over maintaining traditional competitive barriers.”

In my opinion that, in a nutshell, is the message from the ISPs at the deliverability panel. Become obsessed with delivering an outstanding customer experience from the very start to the very end. Do everything in your power to achieve this and deliverability will not be a problem.

I for one welcome our new customer overlords for they will make us better marketers.


Derek Harding | @DerekBHarding
eec Advocacy Subcommittee Member
Managing Director, Javelin Labs
Javelin Marketing Group