I once heard a web developer explain to a client that the easier a website is to use on the front end, the more complex the programming on the back end. He was saying this to explain to the client the potential increase in cost to make the simplicity possible.

But I remembered this incident as I was reading a DMA report on complexity in cross channel marketing, and I realized how this could apply to email marketing tools as well. Marketers want more capabilities but not necessarily more complexities, but are we getting there? Are we building the platforms that can do it all without requiring a marketer to be a know-it-all?

As marketers pursue the one-to-one email marketing Holy Grail, being able to segment, target and analyze is imperative. But that’s a wee bit more difficult to do than simply send out a mass email to an entire list. Ditto for tracking to track the results of that effort.

That’s where we get to the tradeoff of all of this: complexity vs. simplicity. Complexity makes things possible…but it can also make them hard.

How much time does a marketer want to invest in learning a platform, especially when that marketer isn’t very tech savvy? Plus marketers have plenty of other tasks on their to-do lists, so it’s not as if they have any free time for digging deep into an interface to figure out how to use all of functionality.

Consider Microsoft Word as a quick comparison: There’s a whole lot that Word can do that most people aren’t even aware of, because they simply want to get in, do the task at hand (type up a document), and get out again. The complex functionality is there, but it doesn’t get used except by a small minority of knowledgeable power users.

Then there’s the output: How much insight can a marketer gain at a glance vs. going through training to learn how to manipulate and interpret (and explain to management) convoluted reporting? Because the greater the complexity of what the marketer can do, the greater the intricacy of what the marketer can learn.

And let’s throw yet another wrench into this: paying for features that don’t get used. This is a potential downside of increasing complexity, particularly with the bigger email service providers and marketing automation platforms that may offer much more functionality built into their platforms. Companies might be paying more to have access to that functionality, yet not be taking advantage of it because it’s not easy to use on the front end.

How complex can capabilities evolve to be while still providing a simplicity marketers can easily master? And can it be cost effective to do so?

About the Critic: Scott Hardigree is Founder of Email Industries (The folks behind Indiemark, BlackBox and FormSwell). Connect him everywhere, here.