First, the limitations of email standards and client software mean we don’t often get to push the envelope, technically speaking. Moreover, we’re an empirically minded bunch, so we tend to iterate and fine-tune what’s worked for us in the past.

And maybe most of all, we know that any radical change to our sending and content practices introduces a real risk of deliverability challenges. When our businesses depend on staying on the good side of the inbox, it’s understandable we often default to the attitude “once bitten, twice shy.”

So a lot of email marketing sticks very closely to the established playbook. Why would someone want to rock the tried-and-true? You’ve seen these down-the-middle campaigns time and time again, and it might seem like their formulaic approaches aren’t going to change any time soon.

At the same time, even the stodgiest email marketer among us has become enamored, even if just for a moment, with the shiniest new technical feats: video embedded in email! Live content! Text-to-join! In-mail transactions! Virtual reality opt-ins! (Well, perhaps not that last one.)

There’s a maxim that the short-term impact of technology changes often are slighter than we imagine, while their long-term effects are more pervasive that we realize. So while jet-packs and flying cars are still the stuff of space-age fantasy, it’s easy to take for granted how radically a decade of social media has changed the business of how we consume news and information. The ground has moved beneath our feet while we were staring at the stars.

Looking forward at how we’ll look back

That’s why I think we’ll look back in five years and realize how, even while certain flashy technologies were doomed to fizzle and bust, the rules of email marketing were still about to evolve in ways we didn’t even notice until well after the fact.

What’s going to be the driver for this radical change? Data, naturally, and our systems’ ability to make automated inferences about user behaviors and needs. Those of us who still see marketing as more art than science are going to have to continue to adapt or be left more than a few steps behind.

So let’s plug in the crystal ball and take a look five years forward, at the Shape of Email to Come.

In 2021, true personalization will rule the (email) world

Personalization via Big Data is going to become the baseline standard for most marketers — not the domain of a select few forward-thinkers.

Even today, if marketers haven’t yet adopted personalization and/or behaviorally triggered email, they’re very seriously preparing to do it. Forrester scoped that out when it surveyed email marketers about their timeline for implementing email innovations.

But getting there? That’s where the elbow grease comes in. Consider this: A Forrester/SAP Hybris study found 66 percent of marketers thought their personalization efforts were “very good” or “excellent,” with 48 percent actively leveraging behavior-based data.

But at the same time, only 16 percent said they were capturing data on customer intent and using it in real-time marketing. Moreover, 40 percent of consumers said most promotions they get don’t interest them.The future of email marketing is already here

Five years from now, how well they’ve accomplished that will decide whether or not they’ve survived the shakeout that’ll come as a result of Big Data.

R.I.P., batch-and-blast?

Remember the hidebound email marketing formula I mentioned at the top of the column? We’re already seeing how it’s going to change.

Consider Pinterest. The company has been on the leading edge of email innovation for a while, and in 2016 it’s decided to drop batch-and-blast in favor of a personalization strategy where every email is customized to the individual recipient.

Even better, the social-sharing site has done it in a way that can be seen both as a radical break from the status quo and a natural technical evolution. How can it be both?

It’s because Pinterest genuinely is using data-driven marketing to drive highly personalized, emotionally connected engagement. It’s executed so well that the change doesn’t seem disruptive; instead, it feels how marketing should have felt all along.

Pinterest makes it look easy, but of course, those of us who build email marketing efforts know that it didn’t happen without a strategic vision and real work. Pinterest went all-in because they recognized this sort of data-driven email as a key tool for reaching their goal of $2.8 billion in revenue by 2018.

The company has an obvious leg up: the huge amount of Big Data insight they collect, pin-by-pin, into the personal tastes and behaviors of their 100 million monthly users.

Still, as other companies get better at extracting and wrangling customer and prospect data, they’ll shoot for the same results that Big Data adepts like Pinterest are pursuing: far higher levels of engagement thanks to better personalization.

And the platforms we use to get there are getting a lot smarter.

The rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning

Unlike Ultron, these AIs will want to sell you something. And they’ll do it well.

Broader integration of AI into email marketing will move marketers light-years ahead in precision-targeting messages and content to each individual. Already, AI has graduated from the research divisions of companies like IBM and into applications from mid-level and third-party providers. Right now, you can’t throw a stone without hitting an algorithm.

Consider a few examples of how machine learning is getting applied to email just in the present day:

Google’s application of AI to generating Gmail Inbox replies is a consumer-side implementation of machine intelligence, as well as internal mail management platforms that promise to help people get to Inbox Zero like it was productivity’s Holy Grail.

On the marketing side, virtual engagement assistants that acquire and then service subscribers are already being offered by marketing automation providers, and platforms that apply AI to “above-the-funnel” social analytics are springing up.

Now, it’s true that today’s AIs don’t look much like the self-aware machine minds of science fiction, and they’d be unlikely candidates to pass a Turing test. Don’t expect them to pull off brand-to-consumer dialogues that replicate human interaction. Instead, they represent the sort of below-the-radar advances that actually drive change.

Integrated into email, AI will help lighten the burden on marketing automation of complex branching workflows and managing millions of customer conversations. They’ll enable hypertargeting and context-sensitive conversations between marketers and the individual, generating ROI that’s a league-and-a-half beyond what we’re already seeing from personalization and dynamic content.

Getting ready for 2021

“That’s great, Len,” you might be thinking. “But how does this do me any good in the here-and-now?”

Hey, knowledge is power. And knowing the probable paths that email marketing is going to take in the next five years gives you the power to get out in front of those changes, because they’re going to affect every email marketer.

You’ll either adopt and adapt or see the competition make those moves and jump ahead.

So what are the steps you can take right now to take advantage of tomorrow’s email evolution?

  1. Get your Big Data house in order: Nearly every advance we’ve listed depends on Big Data, so if your enterprise can embrace better ways of capturing, sharing and leveraging customer and prospect data, the better off you’ll be.
  2. Lay a plan: Don’t wait for tomorrow to hit you square between the eyes — put an email evolution plan in place that’s developed by marketing leaders, your CTO and IT team and other stakeholders.
  3. Think 1-to-1: There’s a change that occurs when a marketer evolves from thinking of subscribers as names on a list to viewing them as individuals. It’s called a “service mentality,” and it’s what millennials (and other digital media users) are coming to expect from brand interaction — so it’s where your marketing culture has to evolve, too.
  4. Explore the provider landscape. The one-ESP-fits-all model will likely be a thing of the past in the future, thanks to the rising tide of third-party vendors and developers. Your master marketing dashboard may integrate with APIs from an email delivery provider, an AI/deep learning platform and a dozen other vendors, all cloud-based, offering you more agility and responsiveness than today — and better ROI.
  5. Pay for performance: Wean yourself of batch-and-blast CPM-based thinking and begin exploring vendors and partners that get paid on the basis of actual results, not tonnage per drop.
  6. Elevate email in your marketing mix: Email is second only to organic search in ROI, so it deserves a better seat at the marketing team’s table. Its importance is only going to accelerate as the effectiveness of advertising and other channels drops away, and mobile continues to dominate.One last recommendation? Symbolically promote your Manager of Email Marketing to a title and job that’s a more worthy fit, like Director of Essential Engagement.Because in five years, or even farther up the road, that’s what email will be delivering more than ever.