Email Is (Still) Important And Here Is Why

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Social media is more than a buzzword. It’s now a lifestyle decision for a lot of companies. Many individuals and organizations have abandoned a traditional web presence (which used to mean a website and email address) in favor of a Facebook page coupled with a Twitter account.

So, where does this leave email? Has the @ symbol lost its meaning as an address, and instead become the signifier of a Twitter name? I think that we need to radically reconsider our approach to email in this changing landscape and understand that it can be a powerful tool when leveraged correctly.

Screenshot1
Have we lost our love of email?

Changing Habits

While I disagree with the assertion that “social is killing email,” evidence shows that email use among the younger generation is declining: a 59% decline among US teens between December 2009 and 2010, according to comScore2. In the same study, only the over-55s had increased their use of email. This is especially significant if it represents a long-term shift away from email and towards social media and SMS as preferred methods of communication.

Losing Faith In Email

Email has been around forever (it predates the web), so it’s not surprising that, for some, it has lost its lustre. For one, it’s not exciting enough; other social media platforms have come with fanfare. Twitter has hosted world headlines, and Facebook has been the driving force behind many campaigns. In 2009, a Facebook Group3 even succeeded in getting Rage Against the Machine’s single “Killing in the Name” to the UK’s “Christmas number one” spot ahead of the X Factor single.

This level of drama appeals to business types who like their social media “sexy,” and for this reason Twitter and Facebook push all the right buttons around the boardroom table. By comparison, an email marketing campaign may seem tired and old fashioned.

Screenshot4
Email in a social media landscape.

For another reason, it lacks tangible value. Valuations of Internet companies (and particularly social media giants) have skyrocketed. In May of this year, LinkedIn was valued at $10 billion (roughly 41 times its 2010 net revenue). Facebook is still a private company, but rumors of a public offering in 20125 include a valuation that could reach $100 billion. While many in the industry see this as a portent of a second dot-com bubble6, for a lot of businesses it is simply a compelling reason to invest in these services.

Email is non-proprietary, which means that no one is pushing its agenda, and, unlike the LinkedIns, Groupons and Facebooks of the world, it cannot attract a market worth. Value theory tells us that if something has no market value (such as air, water, etc.), it is often taken for granted. I think email has suffered a similar fate.

Finally and perhaps most significantly, it lacks the pack mentality that most of social media thrives on. Despite the growth of marketing, email is still mostly private. No one knows which lists I am subscribed to or who I write to from the privacy of my inbox, even if by virtue of Facebook they know what I ate for breakfast. In stark contrast to the insidious evils of “like” culture7, my email behavior does not broadcast itself all over the Internet, which for marketers is a decided disadvantage.

Email Is A Currency

Screenshot8
The currency of email.

Everyone Has It

It’s true that email is fighting with other services for online communication, but it is still ubiquitous in a way that other social media networks are not. As of May 20109, 39% of US Internet users had never used a social network, compared with only 6% who had never sent or received an email. If you want to reach the majority of your audience, email is still the safest bet.

It’s a Unique Identifier

It’s worth noting that people tend to be members of multiple social media websites simultaneously, with varying degrees of involvement, but they usually have only one or two active email addresses. The email address remains the unique identifier online; you use it to log into almost everything, so it would take a lot for it to become obsolete.

It’s a Coveted Resource

According to research conducted by the Direct Marketing Association10, email marketing is expected to generate an ROI of $44.00 for every dollar spent on it in 2011. This is due in part to the fact that more customers are engaging via email: 93% of email users have opt-in relationships with a consumer brand, as opposed to 15% on Facebook and 4% on Twitter (according to Chris Brogan11, president of New Marketing Labs).

This value has been recognized by most social media networks. Facebook launched Messages, which provides each user with an @facebook.com email address, because it understands the importance of email in the social graph. Google+ is also tying email more directly into social media activity, blurring the distinction between the two.

Overcoming Obstacles

I hope I’ve managed to convince you that email is still a powerful part of your social media arsenal. But before you leverage it to the best of your ability, let’s understand some of email’s most notorious limitations.

Screenshot12
Understand the limitations imposed by email.

Spam

This incarnation of junk mail is relentless. It plagues users, who must be cunning to distinguish genuine mail from hoaxes. Email clients require elaborate algorithms to sift the wheat from the chaff. And perhaps most vexing, Internet marketers have to struggle to get anything commercial through to their subscriber lists.

Unfortunately, Twitter and Facebook are not safe havens either. Business folk are not the only ones taking a bigger interest in social media; scam artists are, too. As of April 2011, spam alone occupied seven full-time employees at Twitter13. This is a drop in the ocean compared to email (over 73% of all messages sent are spam), but it might be a relief to hear that we are experiencing the lowest levels since 200814; at least things are looking up!

Broadcasting

Social media networks encourage multi-way conversations between many users. Even those who are not involved directly in the conversation can often “overhear” what is happening. Email is much more direct; it is usually between just two people and does not invite additional participants. Understanding this limitation of email will make it your greatest ally. Unless an email is personal, it will not get a response; however, it is one of the best ways to deliver direct messages, such as newsletters and alerts, which do not invite discussion so much as action.

Presentation

HTML email is far more effective than plain text for marketing, but you’ll need to know the tricks to make it look good across different browsers. Writing code for email usually means going back to 1998, which is enough to put most people off it entirely. Luckily, Campaign Monitor15 and MailChimp16 offer some great templates to get you off on the right foot. But make sure to use a tool to test the email across different clients before clicking the “Send” button, or else you could do more damage than good.

Making Email A Part Of The Conversation

Bonnie Raitt once sang about giving people something to talk about, and that’s what you have to do with email marketing! Spark that discussion and keep it going on your blog, Twitter and Facebook.

Rien van den Bosch17

Email is difficult to ignore. Unlike social media streams, in which content is disposable, an email demands your attention until it is read. Use this to your advantage: write newsletters; push your most engaging content in front of your users; adapt your offers so they match your audience.

Screenshot18
Use email to provoke conversation.

Also, email is a much calmer medium. Inbox zero19 is a difficult (yet achievable) goal, whereas staying on top of every stream, tweet and status update is not only stressful, but well nigh impossible! With email, you can take time and give thought to your words; you can dedicate some time to the person you are communicating with. Email not only gives your thoughts some room, but gives you time to write them down clearly.

If you’ve heard of the Slow movement20 (which advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace), then you might want to consider how email fits into Slow Marketing. Is it possible that cultivating brand advocates over time who have more than a fleeting interest in your product could bring long-term benefits? Could you talk to these customers in a more respectful way, one that leads to substantial, meaningful conversations?

Think Twice Before Hitting “Send”

If you’re not put off by the shortcomings of email and you find 140 characters more limiting than liberating, then you’re well on your way to incorporating email in your social media campaigns. Chances are your email subscribers are your most loyal audience, so treat them with respect (which means offering valuable content, and not too often), and they could become your greatest advocates.

While reams of articles are devoted to creating social email campaigns, here are just a few tips to get you started:

  1. Have something to say.
    Sounds simple, but while your daily musings are permissible on Twitter, your email audience will be less forgiving.
  2. Make it digestible.
    Email doesn’t limit your word count, but you’ll need to apply some editing of your own. If it’s a long article, include an excerpt and link through to the website for the full story. This has the added bonus of enabling you to track the most popular items.
  3. Be regular.
    Set a schedule of emails that you know you can keep to. A monthly or quarterly newsletter can be a good guide.
  4. Be personal.
    Tailor your tone to the audience. Most email services offer invaluable segmentation tools. You wouldn’t speak to your spouse the way you talk to your bank manager; neither should you address your entire audience the same way.

Don’t forget that email is only half of the conversation. Find out where your readers hang out (you can use their email addresses to locate them), and continue the discussion there!

(al)

Footnotes

  1. 1 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/love-for-email.jpg
  2. 2 http://www.comscore.com/Press_Events/Presentations_Whitepapers/2011/2010_US_Digital_Year_in_Review
  3. 3 https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2228594104
  4. 4 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/email4.jpg
  5. 5 http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/06/14/facebook_ipo/
  6. 6 http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2011/feb/20/is-this-the-start-of-the-second-dotcom-bubble
  7. 7 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304584004576415940086842866.html?mod=e2fb
  8. 8 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/email3.jpg
  9. 9 http://pewinternet.org/Static-Pages/Trend-Data/Online-Activites-Total.aspx
  10. 10 http://www.the-dma.org/index.php
  11. 11 http://www.chrisbrogan.com/
  12. 12 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/email2.jpg
  13. 13 http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/apr/07/twitter-internet
  14. 14 http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/spam_hits_lowest_levels_since_2008_did_you_notice.php
  15. 15 http://www.campaignmonitor.com/templates/
  16. 16 http://mailchimp.com/resources/html-email-templates/
  17. 17 http://www.socialemailmarketing.eu/author/riennier/
  18. 18 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/email1.jpg
  19. 19 http://inboxzero.com/
  20. 20 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slow_Movement

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Lead Interface developer at Fairfax Media focused on delivering usable, standards-compliant and innovative web solutions. My role is to advise on accessibility and front-end coding practices; create opportunities for my team of developers and get my hands dirty in the code too. I don't always strike the right balance but I nearly always have fun trying!

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  1. 1

    I think most people still spend most time reading each email message than each social media message. If an email is well written, it has a much larger impact on the customers.

    But of course, social media should be well prepared to support email marketing strategies.

    4
  2. 3

    You should add a space here:
    “… asecond dot-com bubble …”

    Awesome facts!

    3
  3. 4

    You know, email among the means of digitally augmented communication remains one of the topics where it is most obvious that marketing people can’t be bothered to do research before making grand claims. For all the self serving ethnocentrism of “the state of the internet” it might be interesting to note that the email protocol is by no means being replaced by sms around the world. In Japan mobile phone messages happen to rely on the email protocol to name but one example of where knowing how media evolve through cultural conventions and path dependancies might help you understand and use media. Then again, few people in the US even know just how broken their telco infrastructure is and what modern standards elsewhere entail. Developed nation my …

    -11
    • 5

      Wow, Jakob, you seem to be an angry little guy. Perhaps you should get off the internet and find some Yoga classes or something to help you relax.

      I have to admit, your well being wasn’t my reason for leaving a comment. I was wondering why you felt the need to mention the US in your little rant? Did you assume the author was some dumb American who failed to do their research before belching out a blog post? It certainly seems as if you did. And if that is the case, I would hope you noticed that she is actually Australian.

      While I can appreciate your passion for this subject, I can’t help but feel that you could have disagreed with the author in a bit more professional manner.

      2
      • 6

        I apologize for having been too abrasive.

        It was not so much the original post that irked me but rather the massive influx of uninformed let-me-explain-the-internet social media zealotry that at best is looking at the English speaking part of the web only. Unfairly I projected that anger at an article that does better than many and surely was written in good faith. Yes, Felicity was the undeserving victim of my pointless rage. Sorry Felicity!

        The reference to the US was misdirected and out of context. I just recently joked with a US friend of mine (in spite of my apparent online manners I do at times muster the social skills to get to know people) that compared to parts of asia the US looks last century when it comes to mobile services. Unfortunately the exchange came to mind when I posted my reply and I tacked it on.

        This was not the place to add even more gratuitous sarcasm, as no one could possibly take the reference as anything but an insult and I apologize for that as well.

        11
        • 7

          Firstly Jakob, thank you for your humility – which is a rare trait and rarer still online. As one person pointed out I am an Australian (and British too when it suits) so was fast asleep and remained undisturbed by your *rant*.

          I am not an expert in this area, merely a social commentator so apologies if my thoughts showed the same American bias you have observed elsewhere. I, and I’m sure others, would be interested if you could post links to some of the more balanced studies you referred to.

          3
          • 8

            One place I like to go to find research is the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication that curates articles in this field.

            A recent article that looks promising to convey the scientific take on social properties of email in a comprehensible way is “Shyness, sociability, and the role of media synchronicity in the use of computer-mediated communication for interpersonal communication.” Don’t be put off by the title, I find that the article does a good job of introducing you to the terminology you might be unfamiliar with.

            http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-839X.2010.01335.x/full

            2
  4. 9

    Pixeno Web Host

    July 25, 2011 6:27 am

    E-Mail is much more personal, compared to twitter and facebook which are just full of statusses and tweets I don’t really want to read. Good writeup!

    5
  5. 10

    Dinesh Thapa Magar

    July 25, 2011 6:28 am

    Very good resource on email. I agree with 1and1mail people spend most time reading email than message on each media.

    2
  6. 11

    The thing that’s nice about email is it’s independent from any other application. It’s a protocol, not a product, so no one owns it. It’s truly open and a constant in a world of changing preferences for social networks. It’s no fun to want to send someone a message only to realize they aren’t on the service you were planning on using. That just doesn’t happen in email, which will make it be around probably longer than any of us are.

    13
  7. 12

    I totally agree.
    I feel like many important massages get lost in tones of tweets and status updates. It’s so hard to keep up! However, there the speed of spreading the news by FB or Twitter is just unbeatable.
    Email, on the other hand seems more personal and because of it has more power.
    We definitely need both approaches for successful campaign.

    2
  8. 13

    I think the importance of email is shown by sites all around the world which still ask for an email address so they can contact you if they need to. Even sites that let you sign in with Facebook or Twitter still need you email for larger messages or constant updates.

    Actually, both Facebook and Twitter send you email updates when something happens to your account.

    Perhaps this is why we have services like Swiftlogin that highlight the importance of using this unique identifier.

    2
  9. 14

    I completely agree, email is not going away anytime soon and is a major source of communication. Just be sure that if you are sending out HTML emails that they look good in each email client. A great resource for testing HTML emails in each client is http://www.emailonacid.com.

    Great email write-up!

    2
  10. 15

    eventually, people will get tired of facebook. hanging out there would be a preserve of the people with lots of time on hand. retired people, homemakers, people needing to connect very often , etc. people will eventually stop spending ALL of their times on facebook. it will be a craze, for a few years, and they will wonder where did my youth go!!! and they will get out and meet the real people :)

    email is a protocol – like someone mentioned here, and people like facebook are plain criminals – exploiting your information without even a pretense! they are a sham and a shame – unless they correct themselves. (which I do not see it happening) . the day we cling on to any service too much – then we will find ourselves in the dock someday or the other. email sets you free and you can shut shop and move elsewhere!

    3
  11. 16

    Email? That’s like what, .. like those dead trees analogue people call paper, but digital or something? I remember that from the old ATH+ 0 0; dailup days.

    -18
  12. 17

    wait, did someone say that email wasn’t important anymore? how did i miss that?

    this is dumb.

    2
    • 18

      Mike, a lot of people have been claiming “email is dead” although it is true most of them had their own agenda, so you do well not to listen!

      Sorry if you hadn’t been misguided by this message, but I felt many (particularly in the marketing sphere) had which is why I wanted to correct the fallacy.

      2
  13. 19

    without email, you can’t signup to fb or tw. :p

    9
  14. 20

    I find far more spam on twitter than in my inbox. Maybe Google will come up with Glitter or Gwitter or something catchy that filters Twitter spam as well as Gmail filters spam.

    4
  15. 21

    Couldn’t help but notice that I had to leave my email address to leave this post.

    I agree 100%. Email is not dead and has advantages (and disadvantages) over other media. I will quibble a bit with the statement that no one is pushing email’s agenda. All those email marketing companies like Constant Contact etc. should be if they’re not.

    Sp@m is email’s kryptonite. Perhaps companies with an email agenda should simultaneously work toward solving the sp@m problem. Just an idea. (It’s not like other people aren’t working on solving that problem but geez, it’s still a mess.)

    Great article.

    1
  16. 22

    [quote]
    “While I disagree with the assertion that “social is killing email,” evidence shows that email use among the younger generation is declining: a 59% decline among US teens between December 2009 and 2010, ”
    [/quote]

    I have not read the entire comScore paper, but is there a breakdown on what sort of communication this is? It would be a good idea to distinguish between casual emails and business/formal emails. Perhaps, it might also be a good idea to look at email use across various demographics, across various industries.

    The current love affair with social networks may or may not be a long-term order of things. There might easily be a new disruptive form of communication just peering out on the horizon ready to topple Twitter and Facebook and establish a new paradigm. Yet amidst all these flux, the humble email remains steadfast, serving its owner when called upon to do so. I liken tweets and status updates to the raucous cacophony of shouts in the streets, each one attempting to draw attention to itself, only to succeed in getting a short nod… and that’s it…. the message is soon forgotten. Email, on the other hand, is the orator who speaks but once in a while… and yet once it gets hold of your attention… you stay attentive and and remember its message for a longer time because it is more direct and more personal.

    1
  17. 23

    Interesting how the article mentions that some organisations have abandoned the “traditional” web presence in favour of Facebook and Twitter. The same thing happened when My Space was huge. But personally if I encountered a My Space, Facebook or Twitter account, but couldn’t find an actual website on the organisation I would find myself losing trust.

    I don’t know why but personally if a company or organisation is too lazy (or savvy, however you like to see it) to tie a personal website in with social media, then I would be cautious of the company and it is highly likely I will never do business with them.

    0
    • 24

      I’m suspicious of any company that doesn’t give me a phone number somewhere on it’s website. I guess there will always be expectations that we associate with professionalism, and I think having a website is still one of them.

      1
  18. 25

    Vladislav Melnik

    July 26, 2011 12:22 am

    I agree. Great article. Thank you. I think e-mail is easily the fastest way to communicate over internet. And time is a very important issue in business :)

    2
  19. 26

    Great post…thanks for the way you deliver your message, it makes life so much easier if we don’t have to figure out your message before we can figure out the problem. Big ups!

    1
  20. 28

    Agree…………email…………fastest/direct/no frillscomunication.Say n write what you want to be heard n understood …THAT EASY!!.

    2
  21. 29

    simple question. it’s simple, old and recommended from all other Internet services. all social networks wants email address for register process.

    maybe mobile confirmation system can stop email but email is free, sms confirmation is not

    1
  22. 30

    Far from dead… not only does it still have a pulse, but it remains a critical component in BUSINESS communications. There are many regulated entities that are not even allowed to use messaging, text or other “less documentable” forms of electronic communications for conducting business. These include financial services and many Federal agencies and their contractors.

    A small amount of concern exists with web based “free” email applications still, given they are known to have crashed and content has been either lost or remains unavailable for a period of time, but that’s a risk some organizations have elected to take. As we’ve seen, it doesn’t matter if they have bought into a paid version of G-mail (for example) or another similar service, they WILL periodically fail… but some find that more acceptable than the cost of supporting email apps internally and hosting it themselves.

    Consideration also needs to be given to the whole host of applications known as “email archiving solutions” which are neither a true archive OR a solution, they are simply a repository that organization scan use a one possible tool to assist them in maintaining or managing their email. One of the problems these tend to create is a ‘digital haystack’ that is either difficult to search through or requires a lot of overhead to support the indexing of content, along with the use of de-duplication which can at time unintentionally delete critical information such as distribution lists and receipts or acknowledgements.

    While these are not always of value, in 36CFR there is a requirement for Federal Records in email that BOTH remain available- and this doesn’t only apply to Federal agencies, but to their contractors (and some sub-contractors) as well.

    1
  23. 31

    Totally agree… like in real life interaction, email is face to face conversation, it’s very personal and direct while tweet and facebook is like hangout together or eating together and talking at the same time.
    Great article.

    2
  24. 32

    Email, as with the common letter are vital communication tools.

    The reason that so many people struggle with the debate of whether email is dead or not is that they are trying to leverage a communication method to their own personal gains. This isn’t true for some, Campaign Monitor for example use their newsletters effectively providing informative data which is intended to benefit the recipient. I am sure of course that their marketing team will utilise this in the same way as any other in attempting to upsell to existing subscribers and create stronger lead generation for those who are not already clients.

    That is where the downfall occurs on so many occasions. Initially the general view was to replicate mass post of advertising – which we called junk mail, because it was… well junk! Most frequently unsolicited bombardment of the latest pizza menu and double glazing deals. It went straight to the bin as an annoyance.

    Because this format was initially replicated for email marketing it created a stigma, save money on print but do the same job for a whole lot less.

    For a communication device that has been around for so long it is still a child in terms of its use. Today I received campaign monitor’s latest newsletter to talk about their new template editor, indeed an exciting thing to be informed of, but for me it also holds within in everything that I think is wrong about email marketing – content consideration and strategy.

    Far too much emphasis is put on great engaging design and whether you can use media queries now in mail client XY or Z and not enough on the what, when and why.

    0
  25. 33

    Yes, I agree that e-mail marketing is still very effective. It acts as if a marketing executive visited the customer & left his business card with them.

    User can search his mail for the service / product we offered. I am happy to read this article, found so many new reasons why e-Mail is still effective & not obsolete.

    2
  26. 34

    I rarely read newsletters, I don’t even know why I am subscribed to them in the first place. I read the only one that have no graphic design, images are only for screenshots, other is default plain text.

    -1
  27. 35

    I found this article really interesting – as well as reading all the subsequent comments. eCircle (the company I work for) recently completed a 3 part study which took place over a 6 month period and looked at email marketing and social media. It’s the biggest European social media study ever conducted. The sample taken was over 5,000 consumers and 600 key marketing decision makers from businesses across Europe.
    The research showed that the vast majority (75%) of marketers are aware that they can integrate the two channels, however only a third are doing so. Whilst 57% of European companies asked are using email marketing and 44% are using social media, few are managing to fully integrate the channels and only 30% had used this method. I totally agree with Felicity that this is where the problem lies. (If you’d like to see the full results of the study, you can download it at http://bit.ly/nEnfbx)

    2
  28. 36

    I agree with you that email marketing is still important. Especially now a lot of people have smartphones – they can read their emails on the move, or if they’re on public transport and don’t have anything else to read. I don’t think social media is killing email marketing, I just think it’s another method you can you to market products and services on top of marketing methods.
    We tend to use emails to send our newsletters, which really works for us. I sometimes think general marketing emails could be seen as spam to a lot of readers and they won’t bother opening it, but email newsletters are different, the reader has had to opt in and sign up for them themselves so they are interested in hearing about the organisation’s news and what they have to offer. It builds relationships and helps to create loyal customers. We send a montly email newsletter and once it’s sent, we have the most activity on our site for the whole month, there’s a good article on email newsletters, hope it’s usefull http://www.lucidica.com/blog/online-marketing/email-marketing/top-tips-on-email-marketing-with-newsletters/

    0
  29. 37

    Nice article! If you hate building HTML emails go here for 100 free templates in PSD and HTML. These emails are even formatted for mobile.

    0
  30. 38

    First, I love your comment blurb: “Yay! You’ve decided to leave a comment” etc. It sets a lovely tone. :)

    Second, I’m going to steal it.

    Anyway, I use email marketing (of course) but if I got anything like a $44 return on every dollar I spend on it this year I’d be very, very rich. If I got half of that return I’d still be rich. Now I’m sure I could do my marketing better, but I think that figure’s very suspect. What are other people’s ROI experiences with email?

    0
  31. 39

    Email Marketing strikes many as old-fashioned. More fashionable venues like social media and mobile marketing get all the attention, and some people will even try to tell you that email marketing is dead.

    Unfortunately, reality doesn’t agree. In fact, with a strong content marketing approach, email is more powerful than ever thanks to social media. Why? Because it moves the conversation about your business or information product to a more personal environment — the in-box.

    It’s also amazingly cost-effective. With an ROI of around 4,300% (according to the Direct Marketing Association), email practically pays for itself … and saves a tree or two. It’s what you use when you want to move from “conversation to commerce.”

    I am totally in favor of Email Marketing if you are doing it smartly..

    -Aamir Shahzad

    0

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