When will the “death of email” die?

From Econsultancy.com:

Email is dying, again. If you didn’t know this, you must have been waiting for the email.

According to comScore, usage of web-based email plummeted again last year, and that means that the “email is dying” crowd is out in full force, once again promoting the notion that the mobile phone and social media are making email irrelevant.

comScore’s numbers are pretty dramatic: usage was down nearly 60% amongst teens aged 12 to 17, and dropped 18% for those aged 18 to 25. Even ‘older’ folks got into the act, with usage amongst 35 to 40 year olds and 45 to 54 year olds declining 8% and 12%, respectively.

But does this really mean that email is dying a not-so-slow death? If you just like numbers without context, yes. If you actually care about analysis, the story is much more interesting.

First, it’s important to note that comScore’s figures cover web-based email. Although web-based email is still very popular, it’s natural to expect that as internet users become more sophisticated, a greater number of them will access email through non-web-based applications. Second, using teens and young adults as a proxy for email usage is not necessarily a good idea given that many of these users have yet to enter the ranks of the employed, where they will inevitably find that email is still very much a necessity.

But recognizing these things, even if we assume that email has generally seen a decline in usage, it doesn’t mean that email is dying. That’s because for email to ‘die‘, it has to decline to the point at which it has no meaning or value. That’s not the case. What has really happened:

  • New communications channels have given individuals the ability to communicate more efficiently. Thanks to SMS, Facebook, Twitter, et. al., internet users don’t have to send an email when another channel is better-suited to deliver a particular kind of message. In other words, email doesn’t have a monopoly on digital communications. Needless to say, that’s a good thing.
  • New communications channels have created more opportunities for communication. Messages that may not have been sent previously are now being sent because the right kinds of tools exist. Take status updates, for instance. Chances are the vast majority of status updates sent via Facebook and Twitter never would have been sent via email.

Both of these are actually good for email. Instead of treating digital communications like a nail for which the hammer is the only tool worth using, email is now just one tool that can be used where appropriate. That means a lot less noise, and a lot more focus.

One need only look at online retail to see the implications of this. Numerous studies have shown that email is still one of the most effective ways to drive online and offline sales, and is the preferred method by which consumers are notified of offers. That’s obviously good news for retailers.

At the same time, for all of the hoopla around new communications channels like Facebook, it’s worth noting that only 3% of traffic to online retail sites comes from social media. Which begs the question: which channel has more value? It’s sort of a trick question, of course, because each retailer targets different segments of the consumer population. But most retailers would probably tell you that their ROI, both as an absolute dollar amount and a percentage return, from email marketing still far exceeds social media at the moment.

At the end of the day, the message here is clear: as technology changes, so too will user behavior and usage patterns. That means there will be numeric shifts in channel usage. Listening to those who focus on those numbers without quantifying the value of the channels in question is not only downright foolish, it’s also downright dangerous when key business decisions are being made

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