Teens: OMG. Email Is For Old People

Haven't we been here before? 

A. Research firm find teens don't use email as much anymore.

B. Pundits proclaim, "Email is dead!"

C. Cooler heads prevail. 

This time, the research firm is comScore, whose new report, "The 2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review," found email usage is down 59% among 12- to 17-year-olds. Right on schedule, some drumbeaters began forecasting email's demise. 

Analyzing the Data 

Here is the actual section of the report on Web-based email usage: 

Web-Based Email Usage Heads South

As communication platforms and devices continue to proliferate, the usage of Web-based email has begun to decline, particularly among younger segments of consumers who are increasingly shifting towards instant messaging, social media, and mobile communications.



Total web-based email usage declined 8 percent in the past year, with the most precipitous decline occurring among 12-17 year olds (down 59 percent).

Usage also declined marginally among 18-24 year olds, while more noticeable declines were seen among 25-34 year olds (down 18 percent), 35-44 year olds (down 8 percent) and 45-54 year olds (down 12 percent).

In contrast, however, usage actually gained among 55-64 year olds (up 22 percent) and among those age 65 and older (up 28 percent) most likely because of continued adoption by these age segments.

OK, let's break this analysis down:

·       Teen Web-based email usage has declined 59%? I didn't realize that teens EVER used email heavily, whether marketing or personal. Teens live on their mobile devices. Even if they were frequent users of email, they, like all age groups, are shifting to mobile access of their email.

·       The data focus just on Web-based email usage. Without any corresponding look at mobile and email client usage, we don't really know what is going on with these segments.

·       The study offers no insight into the types of messaging: personal, transactional or marketing.

·       If we compare this research to Nielsen's from last summer, we see that email access overall is actually shifting from PCs to mobile devices.


The Evidence in My Household

My elder daughter is very tech-savvy and lives on both her MacBook and Motorola Droid smartphone.

Like most teens, she rarely uses email but communicates with her friends via texting, cell phone calls, Skype, IM and, to a lesser extent, Facebook.

However, as her 16th birthday approached, she wanted to tell my wife and me about a Tiffany heart-shaped necklace that she thought would make an excellent present.

Did she link to the product on her Facebook page? Did she text her mother? Did she get me on Skype while I was out of town? She did not. Instead, she emailed us to lobby for the gift with a link to the Tiffany Web page.

Why? Because she's a smart girl, and she knows who her audience is (in this case, adults who prefer email). More importantly from a marketer's perspective, her campaign worked. She targeted her audience with a timely, relevant email. And, yes, I converted.

I put my reporter hat on and tried to glean some insight into my daughter's inbox and use of email. After enduring the usual eye-rolling and "You're stupid; go away" attitude, I uncovered the following points:

·       She doesn't knowingly opt in to any emails from companies.

·       She does receive emails from cosmetics sites she has ordered from, such as Sephora and Ulta. She expects confirmation/shipping emails but doesn't know why she gets their marketing emails. She rarely opens those.

·       When I asked if she ever unsubscribed, she said she "didn't know how."

·       She gets emails from random companies but doesn't know why. (I assume these are just spam.)

Email Use Will Evolve

When my daughter and her fellow teens get into their 20s, they certainly will use email less as a marketing channelthan older generations. Facebook and Twitter marketing messages, mobile apps and perhaps even SMS will comprise a significant percentage of the marketing messages she opts in to receive.

So, yes, I am certain generic broadcast email marketing messages will likely be relied on less for this next generation. They are also likely to be less tolerant of email, or other channels, that don't speak to them in a more personable, engaging and relevant manner. 

I grew up in the era of the four-page direct-mail letter. Today's teens are used to Facebook newsfeeds and 160-character text messages.

But let's be clear: Teens aren't active in many marketing channels now. For example, my daughter:

·       Does not "Like" many brands on Facebook

·       Doesn't receive telemarketing calls

·       Receives SMS marketing messages only from her mobile provider

·       Doesn't do Twitter, which she also asserts is "for old people."

·       Does receive catalogs and promotions via direct mail. 

What Marketers Must Grasp  

Email use will evolve as people move through different stages in their lives and as more emerging communication channels move into the mainstream.

It's up to marketers to ensure that email remains a vital and valuable communication resource in anticipation of the day today's text-reliant teens join the full-time-work, mortgage-holding world, where a baby-sitter is someone you hire, not what you do to earn spending money.  

Until next time, take it up a notch.

8 comments about "Teens: OMG. Email Is For Old People".
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  1. Rita from FreshAddress, Inc., February 24, 2011 at 10:54 a.m.

    Interesting summation of a generation gap but I also trust that email is used as a tool for permission based mobile applications so it will stick around longer than the naysayers might expect. Good to hear that you were converted by your teen's birthday appeal!

  2. Sandy Pochapin from Renewal by Andersen, February 24, 2011 at 11 a.m.

    Loren, you are so right! My son is 20 and half the time he doesn't even look at his email, even though he uses his college email address so what he does check is primarily school related.

    In fact, he is so non-email savvy that he has deleted important emails containing online ordered textbook tracking information because he doesn't even think to check the content -- he just skims and deletes.

    He also lives on his Droid (almost all text messaging, very few phone calls) and Facebook. My husband and I (like lots of parents we know) had to learn to text because it's not cool to talk to your parents...
    His media habits are completely different from ours.

    12 - 24 year olds today also don't know how to address an envelope or read cursive...

  3. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, February 24, 2011 at 12:11 p.m.

    Great article Loren. I love the family insights and how your daughters experience contradicts a lot of what the market WANTS to read into reports about teens digital communication habits. In our research, we have heard from a number of other teens who have very similar experiences, especially the one about liking catalogs. :)

    Just to be fair to comScore, they did a much better job in describing their research on email trends in an earlier release called "Email Evolution: Web-based Email Shows Signs of Decline in the U.S. While Mobile Email Usage on the Rise"

    For some reason, they only articulated half of this story in their "2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review," which is particularly surprising given that the two articles look to be based on the same overall study.

    Just speculating, but I think this is a case of poor communication between their research folks and the people who compiled this report.

  4. Loren McDonald from IBM Marketing Cloud, February 24, 2011 at 12:20 p.m.

    Morgan - thanks for that clarification on the comScore data - I'll take a look at that.

    Also, we have a client in the online video game arena that has just launched their email program - starting with a daily newsletter and are seeing 20-25% open rates. Their subscriber base is predominantly boys in their teens. The key in this case is - the content is incredibly relevant.

  5. John Rizzi from e-Dialog, February 24, 2011 at 1:46 p.m.

    It seems like February is “be the first to call e-mail dead month.” The recent comScore research that Loren does such a good job analyzing, resulted in headlines last week declaring the death of e-mail. Then a Pew study called Generations 2010 ( sparked the New York Times to speculate that blogs are on their way out ( Interestingly, that same Pew study also analyzes e-mail usage among teens. Check out Simms Jenkins’ analysis, debunking any e-mail is dead pronouncements coming out of that study ( What Loren and Simms point out so well is that teens naturally have little use for e-mail, but when they enter the workforce, e-mail will become essential. The other piece of the puzzle has to do with mobility. We live in a multichannel world. No matter who you’re trying to reach, you have to keep that perspective in mind. You can find more about e-mail’s shift from the web to mobile in my post on The Relevant Marketer blog (

  6. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, February 24, 2011 at 5:44 p.m.

    Yes, it's your market audience which is so important. Most of my clients are businesses which have adult customers. Let's use the loose demographic of 25 age up.
    Whilst a number of these are into Smartphones most still regard email as their main means of contact during office hours. With businesses banning Facebook interaction, personal mobile phone use; the email is still the best way to market to them during business hours. And these are the people with the disposal income my client's seek.

  7. Russell Fletcher from Port25 Solutions, Inc., February 25, 2011 at 6:42 p.m.

    I think we can all agree that email is a more mature medium. Once the teenagers of today graduate into the "real world" (not the MTV one), they will start using email more regularly in their corporate settings.

    However, a lot of Facebook (and other social media) is built on email. If you comment on someone's status/photo/like or if you follow someone on Twitter- these trigger an email notification.

    I'm happy to report my 9-year-old has starting using Web-based email, so there's hope for the next generation!

  8. Jamie Morton from Federated Media , February 28, 2011 at 9:56 a.m.

    I completely agree with your daughter's summation of her digital use. As a 23 year old, my usage is very similar with the exception of email. However, I believe my college usage of email is what converted me to a frequent email user. Professors insisted on communicating outside of the classroom via email, and it taught me to be more than just a "skimmer". I believe the younger generation will get there, its just not as shiny and new as it was for the older generation. We have to be convinced of its functionality and ease before we become believers.

    @Sandy...I promise I've never had a problem reading or writing cursive, and I've successfully addressed and mailed "snail-mail" my entire life. (shocking, I know)

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