Will Social Media Kill The Email Star?

Despite the recent Nielsen Online study that claims social networking and blogs are more popular than email, I believe email will survive, especially for commercial and transactional messages.
Social media is having an effect on email, however. It's changing our own expectations of email and how we use it to communicate.
This is the issue many marketers are failing to address. The growth and adoption of social media doesn't mean email is dead, or that marketers have to abandon everything they've done to build a successful program and then start over.
However, companies that don't understand or respond to this rapid and radical change in expectations will likely see their email programs decline in performance and engagement. In short, email needs to become even more "social" in its tone, personality, conversational style and relevance.
The Inbox Is Evolving

Emailers like to say that email was the first social network. This is still true, but the network is evolving, and you can see it in the inbox.
Because so much personal communication is happening on social networks now, what's left in the inbox is commercial messages, social-network notifications, time-sensitive alerts like payment-due requests or appointment reminders, and, of course, a bit of spam.   
Every week, I have less incentive to log into my Gmail account, where I receive personal and commercial email, because so little of it speaks to me as an individual. It's a disheartening blur of subject lines that all say basically the same things: "Free shipping!" and "25% off!"
What stands out are not the commercial messages I opted in to receive, but the ones triggered by social-networking functions, such as my Facebook and LinkedIn notifications and announcements.
Emailers Are Sitting on the Sidelines

My own "ah ha!" moment came recently on my birthday. In my personal email account, I found 33 notifications from Facebook that friends had left birthday greetings on my Facebook page, but only two company-branded emails with birthday greetings.
Two observations:
1. Most interactions came from my social networks. Not only did most of my birthday greetings come via Facebook and Twitter, but almost all of them were made where other people could see them. Those public greetings prompted several well-wishers to add their own.
2. Email marketers were noticeably absent. Email marketers did not take advantage of my personal occasion, for which I had given them data (in this case, birth date, which I know I've provided to dozens of companies), to send email that is personally relevant and therefore, more interesting to me.
My point is not about birthday information, but that, in general, most marketers are not using the data they collect to deliver the relevant messages that consumers increasingly expect.
Message to Marketers: Make Email More 'Social'

People will still rely on email for many functions for a long time. Even young people who currently text, instant-message and post messages on each other's walls will likely use email when they join the workforce.
Email is the backbone of so many social-media applications, from Facebook and MySpace to Twitter and LinkedIn and beyond, to the social-bookmarking, music- and video-shares sites and more.
However, more than ever before, marketers must change the way they deploy email to maintain their place in the communications environment, which social media has been so instrumental in changing.
This means using the information you have on customers, whether personal data you collected from profiles and preference pages or customer data from transactions that you incorporate into your email program, to create messages that speak to your subscribers as individuals, not a mass audience.
Making email more "shareworthy," as I described in my recent Email Insider column "Are Your Emails 'Shareworthy'?" is a start, but I believe you are going to have to start rethinking many aspects of your emails, including these:
  • Subject line (does it look the same as every other marketing email, does it incorporate personalization and stand out in the inbox?)
  • Personality and tone (more personal, less sales-oriented, more like two friends talking to each other)
  • Cadence (is frequency tied to a schedule or to consumer preferences, actions and events?)
  • Personalization that reflects customer data or previous transactions/interactions
  • Incorporation of reviews or user content
  • Incorporation of a human voice, such as people who speak for your brand in other outlets. (Think of Scott Monty for Ford, Tony Hsieh for Zappos, etc.)

Now Is the Time to Get Management Buy-In for Change

Maybe you were able to be successful just by sending out the same old "batch and blast" emails, because the ROI was still good enough. Now, in tough economic times, many of these same companies are simply amplifying their past actions, with greater frequency and more aggressive offers and discounts.
This approach might not work much longer, and it isn't because the email channel is no longer a great marketing channel. It's because consumers are getting smarter and have greater expectations and other communication outlets to which "batch and blast" just doesn't measure up.
If ever there was a time to lobby management for additional resources to take email to a more sophisticated level, it's now. More than ever, you must begin delivering on all of the capabilities that the email channel has -- and also incorporate social elements -- or risk becoming just another irrelevant and ignored brand in the inbox.
What has your own experience been? Do you see your own use of email evolving as well? I welcome your comments below.



10 comments about "Will Social Media Kill The Email Star?".
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  1. Christopher Grimes from Positive Digital, March 26, 2009 at 10:53 a.m.

    Great post! An eye opener and thought provoking!

  2. Greg Miller from Three Deep, March 26, 2009 at 11:54 a.m.

    Good post. Only issue I have is that it takes a little more money and time to make the necessary changes to create a relevant and personal email communication... And that often isn't allowed in the budgets (though it should!).

  3. Stephanie Miller from Victory Song, March 26, 2009 at 12:02 p.m.

    Great article, Loren. There is no "if" here. The "when" is now. Our subscribers and customers ARE acting in a socially-networked world and they seem to like the control and access it gives them. Email marketering must evolve.

    It's always been true that the best email marketing is less frequent and more relevant. That means investing in data integration and segmentation and actually listening to subscriber behavior in order to trigger recommendations and thanks (and birthday greetings) when the moment is ripe for action.

    The blessing and curse of email is the same: it's inexpensive. Yet, if we want this channel to continue to perform, we must create a better and more compelling subscriber experience.

    It's more than better subject lines. It's more relevant content, at a pace and candence that appeals to the subscriber. It's VIP treatment for your "influencers" so they will share your message, and it's respectful engagement rather than hyper-speed broadcasting.

    Thanks for a great article.
    - Stephanie Miller of Return Path

  4. Steve Webster from iPost, March 26, 2009 at 1:22 p.m.

    Loren's thesis is "make [commercial] email more 'social'" so it's more like social networking.

    I think he's wrong -- people by and large don't want to be social with brands they like, they want a good deal or to learn what's new. Being "friends" with The Gap is dorky, getting 25% off is smart. Our own clients' testing bears this out.

    The interest our clients have in social networking right now is in exploiting its word-of-mouth power, and our job is to make that really easy for their subscribers.

    But working to make email feel like a social network is fashion, not business.

    -Steve Webster, iPost

  5. david Baker from RedPill, March 26, 2009 at 1:33 p.m.

    nice post Loren...

    I think our greatest challenge with Social and email is operational in nature.. How do you create content optimized to a different environment (FAcebook, MySpace, Bebo etc..) without creating an entirely new operational process. strategically it makes sense, but the chunking of information and how it's consumed in email vs. social environments is vastly different so it will challenge how we operate today... but I like that many are testing the waters and trying to shift, it will hit us faster than we think as an industry...

  6. Elie Ashery from Gold Lasso, March 26, 2009 at 2:17 p.m.

    Loren, I agree with your analysis of the evolving inbox. It supports the theory that your inbox will soon resemble the metal mailbox sitting on your front lawn... filled with bills and junk! Unless Social Networks become the new inbox providers, "email" marketers will be shut out of the social channel. No one wants to post a commercial email on Facebook - way lame!

  7. Heather Blair from SNAPe Media, March 26, 2009 at 2:43 p.m.

    I am that person who responds to emails that tout "free shipping" as the subject dejour. I am also that person that frequently ignores the email newsletter as "not relevant" most of the time.
    Our company sends emails to our membership announcing new tournaments and since they are playing a game, this email is definately opened and read and responded to! I do like the idea of sending them a BDAY wish, ( since we do collec that information) nice sentiment that is definately more personal. thanks for the post!

  8. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, March 26, 2009 at 6:37 p.m.

    Great post, I must admit I always find relevant articles here.
    To help you even more; in my free book "7 Killer Tips To Get Your Emails Read" grab it t I reveal the how to get marketing emails opened, read and acted upon. It has worked for me and many others and if you use it as described there is a good chance it will work for you too.
    I am happy for you to grab at your free copy - IT WILL help the individual marketer, small-medium business and even corporates.
    Cheers Kurt - Australia's Email Marketing Guru

  9. Janet Roberts from Content by Janet Roberts, March 26, 2009 at 8:19 p.m.

    I would disagree with Steve's comment that people don't want to be social with brands. I think the numbers show people do want to connect with the brands they use or aspire to.

    No, they don't want to be buddy-buddy ... but I do agree that people want more from email.

    Making email more social means marketers are looking at their audiences and finding new ways to connect with them, whether it's by opening a new channel (using a fan page or Twitter tweet to push out a special deal) or by moving to segmenting and away from broadcasting the same message to every subscriber whether she buys from every other email or hasn't opened a single one since she signed up.

    We know subscribers want email to be relevant to them. If they shop at at the Gap, to use Steve's example, especially if they shop a lot online with the Gap, wouldn't they want the Gap to acknowledge that somehow in the email? Like,"thanks for your recent purchase; here's an extra 25% off for our best email customers."

    That's what I took away from this column: marketers have to consider the inbox environment, and if their emails always say the same old thing, they'll get overlooked in favor of emails that do manage to capture something personal about the subscriber.

  10. Ian Hendry, March 27, 2009 at 4:44 a.m.

    About ten years ago I was interviewed by a UK technology newspaper for my "innovative" use of e-mail and other messaging forms. In short, our whole company had AOL Instant Messenger and was used more than e-mail for short written communication. The rule was, if, before e-mail, you'd have written a letter or memo to someone then e-mail is the best way to communicate the same thing; for everything else internal, use AIM if you can't think of a good reason to just pick up the phone. It worked really well and results came much quicker. IM didn't kill e-mail, but it ensured we didn't rely on it.

    We are facing the same situation with social media. Here I would say that informal approaches are best made on social media -- I wouldn't expect to get a resignation notice or contract termination that way, nor would I welcome businesses approaching me on a network I am on to only communicate with friends. But a message on a business focused network as to whether we could explore businesses avenues would be more welcome there than on e-mail, where I might consider it spam.

    The things to consider are:

    1) Is the approach in the context of why the recipient is on the network (i.e. don't make a business approach on a purely social network etc.)?

    2) Do you need to make a formal or official approach best suited to e-mail?

    The other thing is that the "walled garden" and proprietary nature of socnet message systems means that spamming is harder to do (on our site impossible). This means that achieving your goal may be harder, but that there is a greater likelihood your message will get read, as such sites don't need/have spam filters either.

    Ian Hendry
    CEO, WeCanDo.BIZ

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