Is Email Strategic? Or Dead?
I guess certain Wall Street Journal reporters will go far to get attention. If journalism is supposed to be provocative, it worked. The recent article "Why Email No Longer Rules," by Jessica E. Vascellaro, made the case that communicating through social media like Facebook and Twitter is so much more "for the way we live" -- which just didn't make sense, and drew many objections and comments. The subsequent follow-up blather from Vascellaro didn't add any clarity, including a "non-scientific poll."
I am writing this because really smart email strategies may be publishers' single most important distribution strategy. Email may also be your most important advertising strategy. And I don't want you to be distracted from focusing on what is important.
Whoa! I had a moment of hesitation there. Is email really more important than smart search engine optimization for a publisher? After all, it is commonly said that 80% of all Internet sessions start at a search engine, principally Google. People who know what they are looking for often type the actual URL into the Google search box, and then you, as a publisher, have to compete to win that next click rather than let your loyal reader slip through your digital fingers when they click on the next search result rather than your own link. And for most successful Internet publishers, search-driven traffic is the largest source of visits. So search engine optimization is also very important!
It is true that distribution of your headlines through social media like Facebook and Twitter, and empowering your readers to point out your articles or your site to their friends through social media, is important distribution too. But social media hasn't eclipsed search in volume of traffic delivered to publishers. And I assert that email strategy is even more important.
Let's think about the importance of email for a minute. I'm sending this article to my editor by email because I don't have to check and see if she has email. Everyone has email. Ubiquity is the first key to understanding its importance and permanence. Yes, I have a Facebook account. And, yes, I have a Twitter account. And I use AOL Instant Messenger sometimes. But none of them are ubiquitous communications vehicles: i.e., reaching everyone.
How important is ubiquity? Metcalf's Law states that the value of the network increases by the square of the number of nodes on the network. The power and value of a truly big network is best illustrated by the value and power of the Internet itself. And email reaches virtually everyone who uses the Internet.
But Vascellaro discussed the number of email users, who are essentially all on one network, and compared them to social media users -- that's many different social networks added up together. As anyone with junior high school math understands, when you multiply two numbers (the square of the number of nodes) together, you get a much bigger number than when you add them together. So the value of a network like email, one network -- with, as Vascellaro said, 250 million users according to Nielsen -- is far greater than several social media networks that all add up to 300 million users in a comparable period. So email's ubiquity is a key element in its importance.
There is another thing that makes email especially important to publishers: when users give you their email address, you as a publisher have a direct relationship with them. They have given you the authorization to reach them. You can publish to that audience rather than waiting for the audience to come to you. Publishing through email is like subscription publishing, while putting your content on the Web is like single-copy sales: you have to wait for your customers to come find you.
Consider this very publisher, MediaPost, whose email you are reading now. As a company, MediaPost's many opt-in, email-delivered columns and news stories have more monetizable impressions in a month than it does through all the loyal Web readers who find the site directly or through social media links or through Google. Yes, more impressions through email.
Better yet, because MediaPost publishes through email, it is in control of the publishing schedule. MediaPost is not waiting for you to remember that the OnlinePublishingInsider is interesting, snarky and fun, or sometimes useful. MediaPost can publish to the market as often as it has advertisers to support it.
Then there is the issue of the ephemeral nature of social networks. Who out there remembers that Yahoo bought GeoCities for $1.2 billion? This year Yahoo formally closed it down. A few years ago MySpace was touted to take over the world, and News Corp paid $580 million for it. And Tech Crunch wondered if it might be worth $12 billion! More recently, an article wondered if it is worth anything at all on the open market now, having been eclipsed by Facebook.
And remember Second Life? One minute articles were appearing in Ad Age that every company would have to have a store there, and Sam Palmisano, the CEO of IBM, "opened" the IBM presence there. Then last year an article appeared saying. "Will the last one out of Second Life please turn out the lights." So let's not leap to conclusions on social media quite so quick. Do they matter? Yes. Are they "strategic"? No. Will they eclipse basic services like email? I think not.
When I asked my son for comments on this article - he's a denizen of Facebook - he said, and I quote, "Duh, Dad! When they invented the telephone it didn't eclipse the postal service." Interesting thought. Although the postal service is hurting today, I'd wager that the number of pieces of mail delivered by the post office today is many times what it was 100 years ago, when the telephone began to be adopted by business and then in homes across America and then the world.
Enough said. I have to get back to my email -- there might be a notice from a Facebook friend!