Tim Ferriss, author of the 4-Hour Workweek and the 4-Hour Body once joked that the major fears of modern man could be boiled down to two issues: getting fat and having too much email.
True enough. Much of the advice on Lifehacker seems to consist of email overload workarounds. Productivity books inevitably prescribe first and foremost that you limit your exposure to email, perhaps checking on a couple of times a day at regular intervals if you can stand it. In the modern workplace, email is often used as an Orwellian leash used to rein in employees when they’re out of the office.
The backlash against email is gaining momentum though both in the office and among younger consumers whose preferred mode of communication is other channels such as texting and social media. As a result, email’s long dominance may finally start to wane, much to many marketers’ chagrin since it has been such an effective communication channel.
The Office Backlash
If you hate email at work, for instance, you’ve got lots of company. Among them is Julia White. White, a general manager at Microsoft, likes to rail against email as an inefficient time suck. At Microsoft’s Ignite conference in early May, White presented the company’s internal social network, Yammer, and the real-time video capabilities of Skype as a viable alternative to the dreaded email. “
“Email is a lovely, wonderful thing that has a place in the world, but it is inherently a one-to-one communication,” White told The Economist. However, “the insights aren’t discoverable to other people who aren’t getting that directed piece of information.” In White’s view, if you have a general question for staffers, you’re much better off crowdsourcing it on Yammer than dragging down everyone else’s productivity with an unwieldy email chain.
Then there’s Slack, the hot office productivity unicorn that “may finally sink email” if The New York Times is to be believed. Like Microsoft’s suite of products, Slack aims to supplant email with social media crowdsourcing and chat.
Teens Just Say No
While corporate tastemakers are bashing email, teens are also turning up their noses. According to the Pew Research Center, just 6% of teens exchange emails daily. “They reserve email for official communications, or venues like school where alternatives are banned,” The Wall Street Journal mused.
Instead, teens use Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook’s Messenger and texting to communicate. It’s unclear whether teens will maintain these habits throughout their lives. However, for marketers who want to reach teens, email is clearly a non-starter.
One successor might be Line. Most of the big texting apps, including WhatsApp, Messenger and iChat, are ad-free zones. The Japan-based Line is different though. Some 200 advertisers including Coca-Cola, Nike, Adidas and McDonald’s run ads on Line. At an industry event in Prague in May, Shintaro Tabata, Line’s senior executive officer and head of corporate sales, predicted that, plagued by paltry open rates, email will die “slowly but steadily.”
Facebook is holding the line on allowing advertising on Messenger and WhatsApp, but the latter cost the company $22 billion. Recall that Facebook waited a while before bringing advertising to another, much cheaper acquisition, Instagram.
Email vs. Social Media
Many will cheer if email goes the way of Friendster, but marketers won’t be among them. A 2014 study by McKinsey found that email is “significantly” better for acquiring customers than social media, 40X or so better though it still lags search by a wide margin.
The report also found that adults were using email less: Respondents spent 20% less time on email in 2012 than a comparable group did in 2008 as social networking, mobile and instant messaging picked up the slack, so to speak.
With email on the wane, social media appears to be a much more agile way to interact with consumers. If you’re a consumer, it’s more satisfying (and effective) to publicly shame a brand on Twitter than to send an email.
As a marketer, you risk turning potential customers off by spamming them. On social media, a consumer has either opted in to follow your brand or she has somehow indicated a likely preference for your product or service at some point.
As Facebook has argued for years, using a click-through-rate as a measure of an ad’s success is also problematic. Much of the ads that appear on Facebook these days are branding ads, not direct response. Email communication is designed for nothing else than to generate clicks. A better measure is ad spend versus return. In 2014, The New York Times profiled the marketers of MegaRed, a premium alternative to fish oil pills. MegaRed ran a very targeted Facebook campaign that earned twice its ad spend. It’s hard to believe an email campaign would have gotten 40X that.
All of which is good reason marketers should cheer to looming marginalization of email. As Ferriss notes, everyone would be happier with a bit less inbox time.