Social Vs. Email: It's The Wrong Debate

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.

  •         Intensity of usage. According to Gibbs, "Determining if [online adults] use something or not does not measure the intensity of interactions." The nature of communications is different for email vs. social media. Email works well for messages ranging from the highly personal to mass distribution of coupons, while social networks help facilitate interactive dialogues.

  •         Signal-to-noise issue. "There is a large signal-to-noise issue in email," says Gibbs. "In social media, advertisers still have a chance to stand out from the pack, primarily because the signal-to-noise issue is not there yet."

  •         Integration works. Elie  wrote, "Just using a social media link doesn't cut it. It didn't with 'forward to a friend' and it won't for social media either." This doesn't prove email and social media shouldn't be integrated any more than penny-stock SPAM proves email marketing doesn't work. Integrating email and social media is already working and will continue to do so.  (For examples, check out my recent whitepaper.)

  •         Social network fatigue. While some people are swearing off email, the phenomenon took years to develop. Social network fatigue is already setting in, even among some college students, who have found it liberating to free themselves from updating statuses and reading details about their "friends'" daily lives. (See "Are you a twit if you don't want to Twitter?")

  •         Email Resurgence? In an upcoming report, we will release data with Dr. Michael Hanley at Ball State University showing that the iPhone has initiated an email resurgence among college students. All-inclusive data plans are allowing iPhone- touting students to replace text messages with email that comes "free" with the data plan.

    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.

  • 5 comments about "Social Vs. Email: It's The Wrong Debate".
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    1. Alex Czajkowski from eGaming 2.0 Ltd, April 29, 2009 at 10:47 a.m.

      Great piece! Fairly nonsensical statements made sense of and with value-add besides. Good job.

      Had to laugh though: someone who "only track(s) email accessed through a Web site" should shut the hell up about grand statements regarding email. Talk about getting only part of the story...!

    2. Elie Ashery from DEMY Media, April 29, 2009 at 11:03 a.m.


      This is a good piece and a very good analysis. My tirade wasn't an either or debate but rather a distant prediction of social media cannibalizing the social use of email for the 35 and younger crowd. Therefore I should have chosen a more suitable title however I don't think it would have been as enticing. My comments on integrating social media with email are to stress to marketers that they shouldn't rely on technology alone. Technology facilitates the integration, but content is the impetus for success. If your messages are construed as boring, what incentive does an individual have to share them? This is why just having a social media link doesn't cut it.

      If you have any stats regarding social media integration I would love to see them. I don't think it's a far cry to hypothesize that success is based on message content not technology.

    3. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, April 29, 2009 at 11:16 a.m.

      @Elie - thanks for the comments. You are correct, content is king. The best data we have released on the subject is contained in the whitepaper I referenced ( For some, just inserting a link does work. The Powell's Books example in the whitepaper is very simple in it's execution--they just asked people to friend them on Facebook. However, they are a niche brand with a loyal following (the largest independent bookstore in the US), which may have something to do with their success.

      At the other end of the spectrum is the work being done by TripAdvisor, where the integration is very sophisticated and does a great job of aligning messaging with the "Facebook mindset."

      Oh, and yes, most of the examples focus on Facebook because, with the possible exception of Twitter, the marketers we interviewed all reported significantly less success with integrations with MySpace, Bebo, etc.

    4. Jason Baer from Convince & Convert, April 29, 2009 at 11:33 a.m.

      Morgan - Fantastic piece. Important to keep clarity about this issue, as ironically social media has fanned the flames of the misleading headline.

      Does email need to do better? Absolutely. But to suggest that social media vs. email is some sort of zero sum game death match, is a sure fire indicator that people just don't get it.

      Using smart, relevant email to create greater awareness and brands and offers within social media is an emerging best practice. It's a partnership, not a contest.

      Great stuff. Thanks for writing this. I wish it would have been published a couple weeks ago!

      Jason Baer

    5. Jared stivers, April 29, 2009 at 12:59 p.m.

      Excellent article Morgan, the "signal to noise issue" I think is what in the end is causing email to lose out to social media as an attractive marketing channel. And yes I think that the rise of social media is causing email to lose relevance.

      Much like the concept of "peak oil" where people believe there is a finite amount of fossil fuels and we've used half of them, we reached "peak email" around 2003. For better or worse people are not spending more time on email, now their attention is shared among many socially connected networks.

      The combination of personal communications and marketing messages is what made email such a great communications avenue back in the day. That personal part is now the domain of social media while email is increasingly relegated to commercial marketing messages.

      I wrote about it recently at

      Jared Stivers

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