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Social Media Vs. Email: The Debate Continues

To build on my colleagues' positions in previous postings, social media is eroding email's social use in spite of its reliance on the medium and desperate claims that these two mediums can exist symbiotically in their current forms. Just as email displaced the U.S. Postal's role as the primary choice for delivering love letters, summer camp news and vacation postcards, social media is rapidly overtaking email for these same correspondences for the 35 and younger crowd. If you're a B2B marketer you can skip reading the rest of this -- because I have yet to see LinkedIn and the like encroach on email's power in the business world. However, consumer marketers better pay attention, because your ability to achieve the same ROI year over year with email is going to be turned on its side.


Email was not built for socializing. The basics of email are still the same as they were when the medium was first put to use with DARPA net. Very little has changed over the past 40 years, with the exception of HTML rendering and a few other nuances. As a result of email's efficiency and cost, it had an easy win for displacing the U.S. Postal Service for social correspondences. However, as an incumbent against social media networks, email will sorely lose ground in the coming years because of its inability to evolve as a medium and the corruption of the medium by spam. Social media networks build on the email experience, enhancing its basic features with true interactive tools and providing a far superior experience.

Who cares If social media relies on email? In defense of email in this debate, many ESPs and email marketers argue that email is the backbone of social media, providing the timely alerts that prompt users to respond to one another. Based on this fact, they argue that social media and email exist symbiotically, feeding off one another's strengths and coexisting in a harmonious marketing world. I strongly disagree with this sentiment. Social media dilutes email's luster, as it diverts activity away from the medium to a closed network. This is not a symbiotic coexistence. This is one medium displacing another while reducing it to a cheap pager.

Stop thinking you can integrate email with social media. A lot of email marketers have come up with the thought process of, "if we can't send email to social networks, we should try to integrate the two." I have my sincere doubts that it's possible to integrate email with social media for every industry. Despite social media's infancy, people are already annoyed that their so called "friends" are constantly trying to pitch cosmetics, insurance, mortgages and other products and services, intruding on their "social" experience. Now email marketers are giddy about the prospects of someone receiving an email and posting it to Facebook or MySpace. Please! I don't doubt that this happens -- but thinking it will occur on such a scale that it will increase ROI using the same crappy content is ridiculous. If you want to create buzz, give them something real and unique to talk about. 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.

Your inbox will soon look like your metal mailbox. When was the last time you received a personal letter in that useless hunk of metal crap sitting on your front lawn? In fact, when have you found anything of value in there lately? Your inbox will soon be reminiscent of your mailbox, as social correspondence shifts from email to social media. Once you remove "social" email from your inbox, what's left? Junk, commercial email (some people will categorize commercial email as the former) and bill reminders. How social are those? Real fun! Something I really want to share with my friends and family. Face it. The inbox is changing and will be marginalized for social use.

The last holdout of hope for email to retain its crown -- From what I can see, there is one last hope for email to remain a superior marketing channel for the long run. If social media networks become the next inbox providers by opening their intra email systems, only then can email's luster be restored. I have been predicting this for the past couple of years and have been wrong... so far. My argument is that social media networks will need to continue to find ways to keep people glued to their screens for longer periods of time so that they can sell more ads or command higher prices from their existing advertisers. Since email is a major consumer of time, it's a natural fit for social media networks. While this scenario has not yet come to pass, I'm still standing strong by my prediction.

Email will not die -- just be marginalized. Just as direct mail isn't completely dead, email isn't going anywhere, either. It's still the most cost-effective marketing medium and delivers the biggest bang for the buck. However, email's effectiveness over time will become marginalized for consumer marketers as social interaction over the Internet shifts from email to social networks.

Since I'm the CEO of an email service provider, some critics might think I'm crazy for spreading the idea that email will soon become marginalized. To them my answer is, it was crazier for railroad barons to think they were in the railroad business when they saw their first airplane in the sky.


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