The Impact Of Formal Vs. Informal Communication On Marketing

When email started to gain widespread adoption 15 years ago, the idea of delivering account statements or status updates via email seemed absurd to the majority of consumers. Was it secure? Was it safe? People simply didn't know, nor trust, that email was a permanent and valid form of communication for official matters. Instead, they needed hard copies of those statements, delivered to their mailbox, to recognize formal documentation.


In the mid-1990s, email was not yet recognized as an appropriate channel for "official," or formal, communication. Direct mail was. Sure, some people wrote back and forth about business using email, but it was primarily a tool for interpersonal, or informal, communication.

I believe this distinction allows direct marketers to put the current communication landscape into proper context. Consider:

Informal communication drives widespread adoption of new tools. The widespread adoption of email was fueled by the fact that it made written interpersonal communication easier. As an email tutorial from 1995 put it, "Email is cheaper and faster than a letter, less intrusive than a phone call, less hassle than a FAX." The same faster, cheaper, less-hassle rationale was true of the telephone, just as it is true in the current adoption of text messaging and social networks. Alternatively, communication tools launched primarily for formal communication (e.g., fax and RSS) don't get widely adopted by consumers.



Some, not all, communication channels evolve from informal to formal.When email came on the scene direct marketing was delivered via the mailbox. As more and more business was conducted via email, so also, more and more marketer-consumer communication started to be conducted via email. Consumers expect and welcome direct marketing communications via the same channels they use for other official communications -- like bills or business correspondence. Alternatively, instant messaging gained adoption for informal communication but never evolved beyond that, and the telephone is still reserved for interpersonal communication.

Consumers have become sensitized to marketers' use of informal channels.While marketers get bombarded about the commercial potential of social media and text messaging, it is critical we keep in mind that telemarketing once had incredible marketing potential as well. Telemarketing's potential was never realized and never will be. Why? Because marketers invaded the personal space of their consumers and soiled the channel. Text and social run the same risk if not handled carefully.

How people prefer to communicate differs based on whom they are communicating with and what they are communicating about.For example, in a survey conducted in June 2009, we found that 24% of consumers communicate most frequently via text ("texters"). Of them, 33% are using email more frequently than they were six months ago, compared to only 10% who are using email less frequently. Furthermore, 67% of texters want marketers to send permission-based promotions via email -- compared to 10% who want promotions via text. Consumers use multiple channels and they use them differently.

Marketing messages are "acceptable" to consumers through formal channels. In our research, 90% or more of customers want to receive marketing messages (promotions, polls and surveys, purchase confirmations, account status updates, and general customer service information) through either email or direct mail. More and more, they prefer email. The majority of consumers believe these messages are unacceptable through other channels.

There are two primary exceptions. Many consumers want to receive alerts (e.g., fraud detection or travel alerts) via phone or text messaging. Many also want to use these channels for dealing with customer service issues -- though the majority still want companies to send them email for these interactions.

So, what's the point? This distinction provides context for filtering the hype surrounding text and social media. This video promoting the release of "Socialnomics" by Erik Qualman now has over a half million views on YouTube. The video opens by presenting two questions: "Is social media a Fad? Or is it the biggest shift since the Industrial Revolution?"

Neither. Social media is not a fad and social media represents an evolution, not a revolution. Do marketers need to evolve? Absolutely! Are we in the midst of a revolution that requires us to completely rethink everything we have learned about good marketing? Absolutely not!

Consumers' expectations in informal channels are fundamentally different from their expectations in email or direct mail. Consumers may want to contact you through these channels; they just don't want you contacting them first. But this is not to say they don't want to get our marketing messages -- they really, really do. They just want the communications we initiate to be delivered through formal channels.

Note: the formal release of data referenced in this article is scheduled for release next week, at which time it can be found at

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