Email Engagement

Has Social Media Dethroned Email?

6
Minute read
Has Social Media Dethroned Email?

Some people question the relevance of emails in 2021. They ask, “Can’t we just rely on social media to communicate with supporters?” To which my instinct is to rush to email’s defense and point to all the good times we’ve had together. Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs. There was that one time we were blocklisted. And don’t get me started on Microsoft Outlook. Oh, Outlook. But—who was still there for me ... when MySpace imploded? When I started that job? Every time I forgot and had to reset my password?

Once I get over myself, I can see that this is a very smart question. It’s important to anticipate where technology is heading. What works now won’t work forever. There are no guarantees. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask ourselves: could email be dying—or dead?

Here’s what the data tells us

Social media usage is trending upward, but not in isolation. Worldwide, email continues its steady upward climb. 3.9 billion of us are in the habit of checking our inbox. Expect that number to grow by 15% over the next four years. Should we be worried about generational skews? Not greatly. A recent study in the U.S. placed email usage at over 90% for every age group under 65.

Currently, most Facebook pages can only hope to reach the newsfeeds of up to 10% of their page fans. Typical email open rates, by contrast, are more than double that.

For now, email remains the most cost-effective and reliable way to reach a captive audience. But as global email traffic rises, so too will our competition. Savvy communicators will be rewarded. Lazy ones will be punished.

What email has that social media doesn’t

Despite every promise made by a new digital platform to “replace email”—it hasn’t happened. On both the sending and receiving end, no other medium has been able to replicate email’s unique qualities.

  • One-to-one connection. One sender. One receiver. That’s the key. Even ‘transactional’ and broadcast emails can (done well) cultivate and nurture one-to-one relationships with supporters. The potential for personalization is limitless. Unlike social media—where your supporters’ profiles are held at arm’s length—you define your email profile datapoints. This opens the door to rich, behavioral profiling, innovation, and segmentation.
  • Drip campaigns. Deep analytics and personalization lay a foundation for ‘intelligent’ marketing automation. We’re talking behavior-triggered email series that adapt and respond to individual supporter behavior.
  • Access. Even the world’s biggest social media giant—facebook—is a billion active users shy of the emailsphere. And access isn’t universal. Facebook is blocked in several countries, including the world’s most populous, China. Even in the West, it’s not uncommon for workplaces to block access to social platforms. Whoever heard of blocking work email access?
  • Trust. The email protocol is egalitarian. Any of us can decide to become an email provider (if we want!). The technology isn’t ‘owned’ by anyone. Therefore, no-one can change the privacy agreement on us without warning. No-one but you controls your contact list. No-one has the power to flip a switch and rescind access to the entire platform. The same can’t be said of social media.

The other thing that keeps social media managers awake at night is how tenuous social channels are. We live at the mercy of algorithms. One tweak to the formula and overnight your reach can be halved. It happened to us all on Facebook a few years ago.

Where we turned in a crisis

Digital communication was turned upside down—along with everything in the physical world—when the global coronavirus pandemic was declared in early 2020. There was no rulebook for this situation. And yet, businesses instinctively chose email to connect with customers—to issue critical updates and offer reassurance in a time of upheaval. The ‘COVID-19 emails’ became a phenomenon unto themselves. Why?

While many of us use different combinations of social platforms, just about everyone has email. It’s ubiquitous. Democratized. Email allowed for a ‘formality’ and pace that honored the moment. Unlike social media, it offered readers a space to reflect without distraction. It was personal. It was dependable. It was ‘safe’.

There’s no contest

Like email, social media has undeniable strengths. It brings us greater accessibility, transparency, and immediacy. It offers unique demographic insights. The cadence (or rhythm) of email and social media also differs greatly. No-one bats an eyelid if an organization releases half a dozen social posts in a day. The same volume of emails would trigger a flood of complaints.

So who wins? Neither. Attempts to identify a ‘superior’ medium are missing the point. Email and social media strengthen each other.

Used in concert, email can ‘set a tone’. Social can create buzz and keep it current. Email can make the announcement. Social can make it immediate. Email can build personal connection. Social can showcase to the world how you relate to and respond to others. Email can carry the bulk of your segmentation strategy. Paid off-site segmentation through social media can extend reach and capacity.

Email and social are two players on the same team. Any modern communication strategy needs to lean on both of these heavyweights to keep supporters engaged in 2021.

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Here to stay

Do you remember Netscape Navigator? MySpace? Digg? Email does. While countless ‘game-changing’ technologies have risen and fallen, email has stood the test of time. And not by accident. The same things that made email resilient to the digital disruptions of the past all but guarantee it a place in our digital future. You see, email has—and continues—to evolve.

Leaps in security, privacy, and spam prevention have safeguarded the integrity of the inbox. We’ve seen segmentation and personalization elevate email comms to new heights. And while some truly archaic HTML rendering has long irritated digital designers, that too is changing. Now, a new era of email clients brings us things like interactive email and dark mode. Get your nerd on and get excited.

What a long-term email strategy looks like

Should we worry about email ‘dying’ any time soon? It depends who you are. To the email marketer whose spammy Viagra pitches no longer work like they did in 2010—yes, be worried. To the rest of us, email is far from ‘dead’. The digital communication tapestry is getting richer. And email is evolving. Mostly for the better.

For now, email has earned its place in the digital media mix. Plan for it to stay. Design your email strategy to perform for the long haul. Here’s how:

  1. Cover the basics of effective online communication
  2. Build connection through email personalization
  3. Set the right pace with an appropriate email frequency
  4. Optimize content through routine analytics and testing
  5. Attract support with a list building strategy
  6. Retain support with a retention strategy

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Karen Nilsen

Hi there! I’m Karen. I’m on a mission to reach my former self. Had I known 10 years ago what I know today, I could have achieved more good, made fewer mistakes, and had more weekends. Every time we share what works, we win faster. Let’s create digital experiences that move people — that grow our base and fuel our movements. Are you with me? Please share this with someone you know who wants to up their digital game!

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