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A Primer on Interactive Emails

ideas Feb 23, 2019

Interactive emails are the technical breakthrough no-one is talking about yet.With mobile app business models on fire, and developers frantically running to messenger apps, you can’t afford not to know about them.

R.I.P. Mobile apps

Three years ago, I started a mobile app business. At that time, apps were a novelty and smartphone owners tried out new apps regularly.

Today, the market is oversaturated with new apps. And to make things worse, many smartphone users have simply stopped downloading them altogether. Think about it — when was the last time you downloaded a new app?

Mobile apps are deep in the trough of disillusionment.

 

Messenger apps are destined to repeat history

In China, native mobile apps never took off in the same way they did here. Instead, developers build rich applications inside their instant messaging apps, like WeChat. No need to download a new app — just add them as you would a contact in Messenger.

Facebook is running after this model with Messenger and Whatsapp. At face value, this sounds like great news for developers. But when a platform owns the users, and businesses are willing to compete for user attention, the platform gets to extract the profit margin.

It happened with WeChat, which is making money hand over fist. It happened with Search, the source of Google’s profits. It happened with native mobile apps (Apple launched app store ads a couple of weeks ago). And Facebook has explicitly said that this is how they plan to monetize Messenger.

Email is the dark horse

Is it possible that most businesses are completely underestimating the potential of email? You better believe it. Look at the advantages that email has over other communication channels:

  1. Email is designed for mobile. How many of us prefer to check our emails on our phones?
  2. Email has high engagement. The average open rates of email are far higher than mobile apps.
  3. Email works on any operating system. No need to redesign for iOS and Android.
  4. Email is quick and easy to customize. Want a button? Add a button. It’s just HTML.
  5. Emails are a great channel for AI. Hit reply and respond in natural language.
  6. Emails don’t need installation. Just open them and there they are.
  7. You actually own your mailing list. There is no pay to play — just send them.
  8. Emails now support basic interactions. Oh yes!

Interactive email is still virtually unknown

Since emails have no JavaScript—the programming language behind most web interactions—we tend to think of them as a ‘read-only’, one-way channel; good for sharing calls to action that get people back to your website.

But if you think this, you are completely wrong.

What most people don’t realize is that CSS3 — the code that describes how HTML elements are displayed on screen — allows for basic interactions, like switching tabs, without any JavaScript at all. Mark Robbins of RebelMail describes a technique called ‘Punch Card Coding’ that uses CSS alone to allow users to click buttons that change what they see on screen, essentially by having every permutation as a different ‘tab’.

The following GIF shows interaction within a shopping cart, inside the email client:

 

The ‘buy now’ button takes the user directly to online payment. This is a really big deal. There’s no need to download and install a separate app. No need to sign-in to an account. All you need to distribute this simple application is an email address.

The WeChat of the West has been sitting under our very noses. It’s email.

Email could give you the upper hand

Ask any marketer about email and you’ll hear that ‘the money is in the list’. Some of today’s most successful startups use email as a core channel for user engagement.

Product Hunt started life as an email list and today it still represents their biggest channel. Baby2Body, a startup I’m advising, built an entire service for pregnant women and new mums entirely through email based on due date/date of birth. Today it’s much cheaper to acquire an email sign-up than an app install. Inside.com pivoted from mobile apps to newsletters after they realized that the engagement in their newsletters greatly surpassed their own mobile apps.

 
Inside.com recently pivoted from mobile to email

These examples reveal a common misconception about email. Having too much email isn’t a problem. The problem is that we get too much bad email.And there are massive opportunities to create great email that can make life better.

Taking emails to the next level

Since I learned about interactive emails, I’ve been thinking about how mobile services could adopt them to create better experiences for users. For some companies, it’s a way to leave the native app sh*t show altogether.

And for the millions of entrepreneurs dreaming of building yet another mobile app — why not get ahead of the curve and build an ‘email-first’ application?


 

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