Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Social Media vs Email: Which Is A Better Marketing And Communication Channel?

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Is social media marketing a more effective approach to online marketing than traditional direct email marketing? Do direct marketing and social media marketing need to be at odds with each other? Are they mutually exclusive tactics?

Photo credit: Vacuum3d

My personal observation and experience leads me to think that nonetheless everyone is super-excited about the immense traction and exposure potential that social media marketing can offer, email retains a great deal of untapped potential.

What I think in this case, is that it is not so much the medium per se that determines its value and communication potential but the communication approach we use through it that determine results and other people perceptions of it. And so, it is not a technical limitation or infrastructural limit if we keep using email to spam people, or to send them unattractive and uninteresting emails boasting how good our product or service is.

And so, possibly without even realizing it, you may have come to focus more on how to leverage and optimize your social media marketing investment than in thinking anew how your email communications could take your online business to a different level.

My view is that email has a large untapped potential for more direct, intimate and socially rich conversations. Even when it comes to marketing.

Using email in the handicapped and restrictive ways spam marketers and traditional corporate salesman do, offers as little gain as the pathetic social media campaigns I am seeing online alongside the useless rush to increase your Facebook/MySpace/Twitter friends count with a mind of a mass marketer who hasn't understood how the social thing really works.

My proposition is to look with new and open eyes at the marketing potential that email could offer, as blinded by negative past experiences and models and distracted by the huge momentum that social media is having, we may just be overlooking what is right away, simple, powerful and effective, if only utilized in a more appropriate way.


Email vs Social Media Marketing - Key Differences

Traditionally, with email an offer is created based on what the company wants to sell, while social media marketing efforts focus more on involving communities with creating the offer as well as promoting it. But though this has been the typical approach, it doesn't have to be this way.

Email can be definitely used to engage, ask and get valuable feedback on a one-to-one basis. Email is great for real conversations and can be much more powerful than social media in involving intimately someone else into looking at something. Popular social media destinations tend to be relatively superficial. If you want to engage in a real exchange email may be again your very best social media tool.

Social media seems to have other stronger traits, including a greater ability to monitor discussion on social communities and networks for key conversations, keywords and topics as well as to identify top concerns relevant to what the company is promoting or trying to sell.

Social media further helps you identify influentials in the social communities, bloggers and authorities - and to easily ask their opinions. In social media settings your messaging needs to be aimed at building community rather than at selling or promoting specific products as the SM community is very reluctant to being sold to. In general, it is therefore very difficult to tie conversions to specific social marketing efforts.

Two key characteristics of social media environments are that your content is often user-generated, can get viral and through online social word of mouth marketing, gain lots of visibility and exposure. But you as a marketer tend to lose direct control of your marketing message in favor of a community-based, distributed and shared conversation.

Focusing on developing solutions based on what the audience wants, then involving the community in developing and promoting creates evangelists for the promotion. Recognizing participation energizes the community and can multiply the speed and breadth of message distribution, discussion and action.

This is why social marketing invests in social communities with useful content/solutions as well as participation and recognition. While "traditionally" an email offer is created based on what the company wants to sell, a social marketing effort focuses more on involving communities with creating the offer as well as promoting it.

With direct marketing approaches like email, is much easier to control message, test marketing tactics and measure ROI. And marketing initiatives are directly tied to conversions. On the other hand, when you use social media as your key marketing communication vehicle, ROI is much more difficult to measure.

There are very strong and deep differences between social media marketing and traditional direct email marketing approaches, but it is written nowhere that this is a static situation and that the two can't contaminate each other in positive ways.

Could not email marketing adopt a more conversational approach, drop some of its formalities and take up some of the typical social media attitudes?

Email Marketing Communication Strengths

If the budget, timeline and resources warrant it, a combination of both sets of tactics can be very appropriate. It makes no sense to ignore traditional media in favor of blogger relations for example.

Why do I think that traditional email, if properly used, can be as or more effective than social media when it comes to effective online marketing communications?

Here my main reasons why:

1. Direct

Email is direct. It gets directly in your inbox just like your bank statement and your boss report. Unless it falls in your spam inbox automatically, there is little you can do to miss it. In fact, most social media networks reach out with their messaging and invitations to engage with you via your own very email.

2. Attention Catcher

Email is a great attention catcher. Your email subject is your first hook into this, and as you well know by now, it doesn't just take to scream something in capital letters to avoid your subscriber fast moving finger sending your message straight into the trash bin in no time at all.

3. Undivided Attention

Once you have gotten your reader eager and motivated to open your email, you have her undivided attention for at least a good number of seconds. If you can raise interest, engage, involve your reader into a story that gives her something of value, you suddenly have realized one of the most powerful marketing challenges to be faced: having a direct, one on one conversation with your customers. Once you have them reading, you have their undivided attention at a much higher degree than the attention level and focus a reader may have on a web page, when his eye vision is continually distracted by other colored visual elements screaming for attention.

4. Private, Confidential

An email remains a private conversation between you and someone else. It is not a public statement you make in front of everyone else to draw attention or make yourself look good. Email is like inviting someone you meet at a party to come and talk to you in a separate room. Social media marketing is chatting with him in front of everyone else. Though there may be nothing so secret that may warrant such privacy, the psychological implications of talking to someone privately and directly are quite powerful. Think of it.

5. Familiar

Email feels like a familiar place. While all kind of undesired intruders can get access to it, email still feels like a personal, intimate place where important stuff, that needs to be checked quite often, passes through. This, by the definition itself, seems to be a good enough reason to engage this communication channel in ways that utilize best elements of what we have learned so far about online communication.

6. Interactive

Email remains a two-way medium. Notwithstanding the bad use that much direct marketing has made of email for its campaigns, email remains a full two-way conversational medium. You can use it to fire out announcements, promotions and news of all kinds, but unless you use emails innate ability to let two parties have a conversation, you may be losing on one of emails key strengths.

What else am I forgetting?

Help me out.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Email is a preferred communication channel most of us use avidly. Too eagerly discounting email potential as uniquely powerful tool from the negative experiences of junk email and spam as well as from the persistent mass media communication approach utilized by many commercial companies rather leaves an enormous opportunity for email to be leveraged in many new creative ways to communicate effectively with your customers and raving fans.

"A traditional brick and mortar company with an older target audience may be more hard-pressed to invest in marketing initiatives that have no clear-cut ROI. A new tech startup targeting teens and young adults may want to invest in viral web apps and establish a strong presence in the online communities where their audience hangs out."

(Source: Lorna Li)

The idea that social media is a better tool to develop one on one relationships with other people is true only to a certain degree. You can develop really powerful one on one relationships via email as well.

Maybe what needs to be changed in your email communication strategy is to inject more of a social media, direct, spontaneous approach rather than the typical traditional mass marketing approach of typical companies or the outright recognizable spam communication approach.

What if you built a social media communication strategy and then used your newly developed community relationships to direct market to them via email?

Or what if you used email to build your social media marketing community? You could build an email list of fans, supporter and raving fans and get them to get together and explore your newly created online social community.

From what I can see the issue stems from seeing things too separately while not attempting to contaminate them and to use the best parts of each one also when using the other.

For example, direct marketers are more "push-oriented", while generally social media marketers try to slip their messages in through the back door, in more elegant and diplomatic ways, causing a so-called "pull effect".

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Nowhere it is written that marketing emails need to be written in a spammy style, or that they need to be targeted and sent to audiences that have nothing in common with each other. It is a false myth to believe that to have an impact with direct email-based marketing approaches you need to trick, lie or cheat to convince the reader to click on your link offer.

And who knows, we maybe able to invent further and more innovative ways to better mix the unique traits of email with the powerful ones of social networks and media.

What do you think?

Originally written by for MasterNewMedia and first published on May 29 2008 as "Social Media vs Email: What Is The Best Marketing Communication Channel? *The Conversation Is Via Email"

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posted by Robin Good on Thursday, May 29 2008, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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