Last week, BlackBerry confirmed it would stop designing and producing its smartphones in-house. Yes, there are lessons we can take from the world of manufacturing and from the world of recognizing your rivals, but everyone interested in modern advertising and marketing should pause and be thankful for the roads that BlackBerry blazed.
In our own offices, we have BlackBerry holdouts, and I hear them mocked during engineering meetings or during data integration sessions. The owners of the vestigial phone are taunted with “How can you be overseeing such sophisticated initiatives yet still use a BlackBerry?” and “I thought real engineers used Android?” While it is funny, it also fails to recognize that much of the modern marketing and advertising ecosystem would simply fail to exist without the impact that BlackBerry had.
The BlackBerry was the first mobile device, and its sheer simplicity now fuels the biggest trends in marketing and advertising. The first BlackBerry had no apps. The BlackBerry didn’t bring you Facebook. It didn’t bring you Twitter. It brought you solely email, and it dominated the market. And it was here that everyone who now works in people-based marketing owes a debt to these pioneers.
People-based marketing, for the uninitiated, is essentially allowing consistent marketing to the same person, irrespective of device. This has become the single biggest issue in marketing and advertising, as we creep towards a world where the average person has over four devices. Everyone in the media and advertising industry is struggling with how to strike at the heart of this challenge: What is the silver bullet for reaching people irrespective of device? As everyone looks to the past for clues, they arrive at the same answer: The BlackBerry. And the only technology simple enough to work with the BlackBerry: email.
There’s no doubt that email is experiencing a resurgence. Famed entrepreneur Jason Calacanis is the canary in the coalmine, launching his own newsletter: Inside. Publishers are using email as a salve in their war against ad-blocking and Facebook’s dominance. Tech reporters at institutions like Pando have excoriated the industry for not having more resources thrown towards email. Recently VentureBeat’s Ken Yeung wrote a banner think-piece about all that the email address has going for it. It was the latest, and to date, most in-depth piece to declare how email is experiencing a resurgence.
How does this all tie back to the BlackBerry? Well, the BlackBerry was the first device to go cross-device, and email sat at the center of that. As everyone struggles to come to grips with a world rife with fragmented attention and proliferating devices, they’re remembering little old email. It’s persistent, and in its anonymized (hashed) form, it works cross device without compromising privacy. In other words, when marketing is in email (rather than the email as marketing itself), it works flawlessly across devices. It’s the silver bullet for reaching people wherever they are paying attention, and it’s not subject to the whims of Facebook or the fickleness of reliability of cookies on mobile devices (the traditional way ads are served on desktop browsers).
This is the true legacy of BlackBerry. BlackBerries forced those marketers working in the email channel to innovate in the mobile space before everyone else. It’s because of this that those marketers in email have now come to be seen as sophisticated. Email, for years, was seen as the dopey sibling to display, social, and video. But because email was forced to learn how to travel across devices, (while everyone chased the shiny sirens of Facebook and YouTube and Display), those in email honed expertise in what would become people-based marketing. Flash forward to today and the hashed email address forms the backbone of modern cross-device marketing as the workhorse of CRM. As luck would have it, that email address is used as a passport around the web: You need it to log into apps like Spotify and Facebook, and you need it to log in to Amazon and iTunes, where the intent data that fuels modern marketing is generated. Email has become a connector from online to offline, and it’s become the glue that holds together your online experience.
And that’s all a result of the BlackBerry forcing people in email to learn how to work across mobile devices. So, as we perform rites for BlackBerry, let’s remember them not as a failed company, but as the ship that launched modern marketing. They forced those of us in email to think critically about serving ads on mobile devices before everyone else. We thought it was a curse at the time, but it’s led to extraordinary successes. So, goodbye BlackBerry, and thank you for the headstart.
Matt Keiser (@mrkeiser) is founder and CEO of LiveIntent. He previously cofounded and served as president of Datran Media (now PulsePoint). He is also a founding partner and co-chair of the investment committee of Grape Arbor VC, one of NY’s most active teams of angel investors, is co-founder of Perky Jerky, and is on the advisory council for the Rosenbach Museum of Philadelphia.