Everyone has heard of the old sayings “Familiarity breeds contempt”, so I thought it apropos to introduce it as a less understood concept when it comes to large scale Internet mail challenges. The “spark” for me was a copy of a TechCrunch article entitled “Why No one has tamed e-mail” by Gentry Underwood that was forwarded to me this morning. It’s a really good article and highlights some of the challenges the mail space is / has been / continues to go through. Not sure if it really matters, but for full disclosure TechCrunch is an AOL company, although the content was generated by the guest author.
The article highlights many of the challenges with mail today and how it is broken, or more correctly how it has become broken over time. The challenges around SPAM, the content of mail being long and convoluted, most e-mail clients being absolutely terrible and the like. The author also correctly highlights that it’s a hard problem to solve from a technology, design, and business perspective. As good as a primer as I think this article is, there are some larger issues at play here to truly fix the mail problem.
First Problem – This is not an Email Problem
E-Mail is just a symptom of a larger set of challenges. I would posit that the problem space itself has evolved and morphed from e-mail into a “Digital Lifestyle Organization” (DLO) issue. Solving issues relating to e-mail, only solves part of the problem space. The real challenge is that users are now being bombarded by messages, information, news, and the like from tons of different sources. The signal to noise ratio is getting extremely high and is resulting people’s frustrations to grow increasingly caustic. Yes, there is Spam. But there is an equal amount of opt-in notes and messages, social updates from various social media platforms, RSS feeds, News updates, and a lists of other categories. It can all be a bit mind-boggling and off-putting. The real question should not be how to solve the e-mail problem, but rather – how to solve the Digital Lifestyle Organization problem. Mail is simply a single element in the larger problem.
That’s not to say the points in the article are wrong or cant be applied to this wider definition. You still face a huge design, interface, workflow challenge trying to organize this kind of data. The client in whatever form it takes must be easy to use and intuitive. A task that is elusive in the e-mail space to be sure, and is likely to be even more rare in this new “DLO” world.
Second Problem – There is comfort in an old pair of Shoes
One of the interesting things I have learned here at AOL since taking on the role of CTO is that there is actually strata of different kinds of users. I would place myself in the category of power user willing to try and jump platforms for better look/feel, even minor differentiated features and capabilities. This layer of “Technorati” are constantly looking for the next best thing. There are other strata however, that don’t necessarily embrace that kind of rapid change, moderate change, or in fact there are layers that don’t like any change at all! It’s a complicated set of issues and engineering challenges. At a rough business level, you can lose users because you change to much or don’t change at all. Some of my friends in the space consider this a timing issue… of when to perfectly time these transitions. The facts are however, these different stratas change at their own pace and we should understand that certain strata will never change. In essence you have a few options – An introduce a platform that changes regardless of the user base desires, stay stagnant and never change, or try to find some kind of hybrid solution knowing that it may ultimately increase some of the cost structures around supporting different kinds of environments. Unless, of course, you build something new that is SO Compelling at to change the game entirely.
Candidly speaking, this is an issue that AOL has struggled with longer than just about everyone else in the space. Historically speaking we have oscillated across all of these solutions over close to 30 years with varying degrees of success. While we can debate what ‘success’ looks like, there is no denying that we have been looking at the science of e-mail for a long time. With a loyal user base of tens of millions to hundreds of millions users, it provides us with a rich data set to analyze behaviors, usage patterns, user feedback, costs, trends, and the like. Its this data that highlights the different usage patterns and strata of users. Its data that is impossible to get as a start-up, and so immensely massive that categorization is no trivial task.
The process we use in terms of understanding these strata could best be described as ‘Electronic Ethnography’. There are some interesting differentiations in how mail and Digital Lifestyle in aggregate is used across a variety of variables. Things like age, gender, location, locale, friends, social circles, and a host of others all play a role in defining the strata. Simply speaking there are some strata that simply don’t want to change. Others are very comfortable with their current e-mail experience and don’t see a driving need to change, etc.
This essentially nets out to the fact that E-mail and information aggregation is a very complex space. We must face the fact there will be segments of users that will simply not change because something cooler has come about or some features were added or modified. In my personal opinion the only way to truly impact and change these behaviors is to come up with something so compelling, so different, that it changes the game and solves the DLO issues.
Third Problem – BIG and Complex
While this was called out by Gentry Underwood in his article it cannot be stated enough. Whether you focus on mail, the larger DLO space, or any kind of personal information aggregation – there are a host of factors, variables, and challenges to really solve this space. It also drives big infrastructure, operations, and the like. Its not going to be easy. As the TechCrunch article headlines – Go Big or Go Home. It’s a huge problem space, It’s a huge opportunity, and half measures may help but in and of themselves wont do much to move the needle. Mail and what I call the DLO space is a huge opportunity of the future of our usage of the Internet medium, in fact it may be the biggest. There will likely continue to be many casualties trying to solve it.
Fourth Problem – Monetization
From a pure business perspective – Its hard to make money off of mail. The most common way to monetize mail (or aggregated information) is likely to be advertising. However, advertising has a direct negative impact on the overall user experience in general and is a key driver of user loss. You can easily see this in the overall reduction of “advertising” in mail across a number of key players. Another method is tying it to an overall paid user subscription. But this is challenging as well, are the features and overall “stickiness” of your product something that customers will see a continued value for. At AOL we have both models in use. Interestingly, we have users in both models, that fall into the strategy that consider “change” as bad. As mentioned in the third problem, mail is a big problem, and will require some kind of monetization scheme to justify some of the efforts. While the larger players have existing user bases to help with this challenge, it’s a real issue for some of the more innovative ideas coming out of smaller start-ups, and is likely a key reason for their potential demise. The person or firm who comes up with a non-ad/non-subscription based monetization strategy will truly change the game in this space.
With Google’s purchase of Sparrow, the re-design of Microsoft’s Outlook product, some interesting announcements that we have coming out, and a small explosion of start-ups in this space – Things are starting to get interesting. Hard. But interesting for sure. May have to post more on this in the near future.