As social media grows, intelligent e-mail thrives

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Over the past two years, the rapid adoption of social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace has transformed the way many consumers interact on the Web. Some customer segments, especially younger ones, now spend an increasingly large percentage of their online time on these sites and primarily use them to communicate with their peers. These same consumers, according to a recent report from JupiterResearch, are apparently spending less time in their e-mail inbox and may be paying less attention to the messages they receive there. This shift is causing some to question, perhaps prematurely, the future of e-mail as the dominant social networking tool. 

In his report, The Social and Portable Inbox, David Daniels quantifies this shift in alarming detail and, according to Jupiter, it may not be isolated to younger segments. Nearly one-quarter of e-mail users reported using social networking sites in this way. Fifty-three percent of respondents age 18 to 24 reported doing so, and 42% of those 25 to 34 also reported using social sites instead of e-mail for personal communications. The reason for doing so was consistent across segments: Too much irrelevant messaging in the e-mail inbox.

I believe that e-mail marketers who ignore social media, especially those that target younger audiences, may be missing a real opportunity. As it turns out, the social sites are excellent places to share information with friends, family, customers and prospects — the trick is to communicate with them openly, honestly and in a human voice. If relevance is the key to e-mail marketing, authenticity is the key to marketing in social media. Social initiatives that leverage messaging interpreted by audiences as fake or overly promotional will never get off the ground and, worse, may negatively impact brand equity. Marketers who are able to add value to the conversations within the social sites and who can forge honest, genuine communication streams that empower users to interact with a brand on their terms, however, will be well positioned to benefit from the social shift.     

Is e-mail dead? Far from it. The future of e-mail looks quite bright. Daniels acknowledges that e-mail specifically remains the primary reason that consumers connect to the Internet. For many customer segments, e-mail is still the social networking vehicle of choice, and it shows few signs of abating. Publishers who deliver highly relevant communications through the e-mail inbox increasingly command premium CPMs from advertisers who realize excellent returns from their investments. The recent sale of Daily Candy to Comcast for a whopping $125 million is just one of a myriad of signs that e-mail is alive and well. The social networks are helping to foster new conversations online, for sure, and I believe they can be extended and enhanced through e-mail - a ton of transactional e-mail messaging is already coming from the social networks in the form of updates and such things.

Consumers haven't given up on e-mail; they've just given up on bad, irrelevant e-mail. So, while launching engaging, authentic social media messaging programs is an excellent idea for many online marketers, the other near-term imperative is to allocate the resources required to drive truly relevant, timely email messaging based on data intelligence. Incorporating demographics, click-stream data, e-mail response history and other behavioral factors are good places to start.

The era of batch and blast is officially over. With the conversation spilling out of the inbox, it's no longer good enough.    

Nicholas Einstein is director of strategic and analytic services at Datran Media.

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