In the landscape of communication between brands and consumers, I happen to believe that email is the foundation for building great relationships.
How much do I believe this? So much so, this month I launched an agency focused on helping companies use email more effectively. company with a focus on email marketing. That said, I'm not naive enough to think that email is the end-all-be-all. Far from it.
For example, mass media plays an important role in building awareness and long-term brand value. As Jim Spaeth of Sequent Partners pointed out recently, a considerable portion of Procter & Gamble's balance sheet has nothing to do with its quarterly sales. Instead, it is wrapped up in the name recognition of the brands the company owns. Email will never be able to drive that kind of awareness on its own, but it can help build loyalty and influence purchasing behavior among current customers.
Then there is the new kid in town -- social media -- which brings a new dynamic to the relationship between brands and consumers. For the first time, marketers can interact directly with their customers, anywhere in the world, in real time, and put a face to the name. In social media, my customers are no longer faceless, lifeless entities on a list. Social media is forcing marketers to realize that the names on those lists represent real people with real emotions. They get happy when we deliver content that helps them, and they get angry when we act with disregard to their personal preferences.
However, email still plays a critical role in the relationship between brands and consumers. Email allows brands to send messages according to their schedule, and it allows consumers to respond at their leisure. Consumers don't like being interrupted by brands and email provides them a channel where they feel in control. Moreover, email is still where consumers, on average, are the most likely to engage with brands online.
Whoa? But what about the recent Nielsen study that says time spent with email went down 28% between June 2009 and June 2010?
Over a year ago I wrote "Social Vs. Email: It's the Wrong Debate," for which I interviewed a representative from Nielsen. Care to guess what I heard?
"Nielsen only tracks email accessed through a website." This was a direct quote from Nielsen's Vice President of Media Analytics. The way Nielsen measures the time spent on email use is by looking at website traffic. If someone opens a browser and goes to Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, or something similar, they are "using email."
This measure takes no account for the time spent using email through Outlook, MacMail, Thunderbird or any other desktop client. Nielsen developed this methodology years ago, when the main reason people used a desktop client was if they worked for a company that had a Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange Server and they could connect at the office, but this is not the case anymore. I just set up my new company's Gmail account, which connected to my account using a desktop client by simply opening up Outlook and entering my email address and password. I rarely go to Gmail.com -- which, according to Nielsen, means I rarely use email.
Moreover, Nielsen's own research suggests that email activity on mobile devices is increasing and accounts for nearly 42% of all mobile Internet time. Combined, these suggest a shift in consumer behavior, not the end of email.
Contrast these results with the results of a survey I fielded in April of 2010. We asked consumers "Over the past 6 months, are you using email LESS often, MORE often, or about the SAME amount?" 25% of consumers said they were using email more often. Only 6% said they were using it less often. In focus groups, I consistently hear about how social media is causing people to use email MORE. Not only because of the status updates they receive in email, but because they reconnect with old friends and want to catch up with them in more detail using email.
Email use isn't decreasing. The methods used for estimating the use of email simply haven't kept up with the times.
Recently, Loren McDonald asked, "What are you doing in your company to make email sexy again?" in "Email Must Embrace Its Inner Lady Gaga." With all due respect to my friend, I don't believe email ever lost its appeal. Marketers, like someone who has grown too accustomed to their spouse, simply stopped noticing. They forgot their first love because they saw something new and tempting. Based on the first few weeks of my new business venture, there is still a lot of excitement around email marketing.