Earlier this month, fellow Email Insider columnist Elie Ashery wrote "Social Media Vs. Email: The Debate Continues." Elie's right that there is a social vs. email debate going on; however, I'm not sure it's a valid debate. In fact, casting it as a debate makes it sound like marketers need to choose sides when, in fact, the real issue is one of integration, not selection.
Research Fueling the Perceived Divide
In March, Nielsen Online released a report on the use of social networks under the headline "Social Networks & Blogs Now 4th Most Popular Online Activity, Ahead of Personal Email." According to Nielsen, the global active reach of email in December 2008 was 65.1% compared to 66.8% for member communities.
But wait a sec. At the same time Nielsen was releasing its data, Pew Internet found that 91% of online adults use email, compared to 35% of adults who use social networking sites. Confused? You have every right to be. Two very respected organizations seem to be saying very different things about the usage of social and email.
Digging into the Nielsen Data
To get to the bottom of the issue, I spoke with Jon Gibbs, vice president of media analytics for Nielsen Online. According to Gibbs, "There are two things to consider. First, Pew Internet collects their data through surveys while we collect data through our observations of an online panel. Surveys are prone to overestimation. Second, we only track email accessed through a Web site."
The Council for Research Excellence recently looked at the issue of overestimation of self-reported media consumption. They found that while survey respondents underreport the amount of time watching TV and overreport time spent watching online video, self-reported data on overall time spent online is only slightly underreported. This does not mean email use isn't overreported, but it doesn't imply the presence of a smoking gun either.
The line share of the difference between Nielsen and Pew numbers should be attributed to Nielsen's use of email accessed through a Web provider, such as Yahoo, Hotmail, or Gmail, as a proxy for personal email use. This doesn't account for email accessed through desktop applications, such as Outlook, nor does it account for email accessed through mobile devices. While these may be more commonly used for business accounts, it's not a clean split.
Furthermore, we simply can't compare Nielsen's 66.8% figure to Pew's 35% -- it's apples to oranges. Nielsen's "member communities" figure includes both social networks and blogs, something that has been glossed over as the story has been circulated. Mediaweek's headline, "Social Networking Overtakes E-mail in Popularity," misrepresented Nielsen's report. An accurate headline would have read, "Social Networks & Blogs Combined are More Popular than Web-Based Email Sites" -- which doesn't grab your attention, but makes more sense.
End of the Debate?
No. Social media is a phenomenon deserving of the attention of email marketers. That said, suggesting one will "win out" over the other is misguided. Our attention is better spent focusing on how the two will evolve together.
Email is social and social needs email. Pitting social and email as opponents in an online marketing deathmatch doesn't make any more sense than continuing to debate whether the earth is flat. But apparently, that debate lives on, too.