A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project discovered over 53 million Americans use IM (define) on a regular basis. Out of these, 46 percent of Gen-Yers (18-27 year olds) use IM more than email, while only 18 percent of Gen-Xers (28-39) and even fewer older users report using IM more than email. Twenty-one percent of IMers (11 million) use it at work and a whopping 77 percent use it at home.
Clearly, there are a lot of IM users out there, especially among the younger set. If you have a teenager in the house (or work with recent college grads), you don't need a survey to tell you that; you've probably seen it yourself repeatedly. But seeing the numbers really does have a way of putting things in perspective.
If you're a marketer who targets younger consumers, you're probably salivating right now and trying to figure out how you can use IM to reach those younger prospects. After all, if almost half are using it more than email now, the trend's bound to pick up, right?
It's safe to assume the answer is yes. Recent estimates say nearly 77 percent of all email is spam and nearly 97 percent violates the CAN-SPAM act. With those kind of percentages, people are clearly going to look for alternative ways to talk to their friends unencumbered by the junk they have to wade through in their inboxes.
What does this mean for marketers? The answer is still up for grabs, but if you look at IM's characteristics compared to email's, it seems pretty safe to say swapping IM direct marketing for email direct marketing isn't necessarily the way to go.
IM isn't instantaneous email. It's probably more like mobile phone communications than anything else. Contact is personal, one-to-one, and usually among trusted parties. And unlike email, a fairly asynchronous communications medium where users are in total control of what and when they read, IM is intrusive. It pops up unannounced and requires users to make an instant decision about what they're going to do about the intrusion. Simply buying lists of IM handles and sending messages to them is a sure way to draw ire.
This isn't really surprising. Look at your own behavior; even if you want a newsletter from a company or publication you trust, don't you hesitate to subscribe just a smidgen more now than you did in the past? Of course you do -- we all do.
When looking for the right marketing tactics to reach customers in an increasingly noisy media space, it's important to step back and consider how different modes of communication work and how consumers use them. E-mail has been effective because it's a good way to reach people in a relatively unobtrusive way (compared to IM and the phone) and present them with information that can range from text to video. It's a good way to send timely offers to a large group of consumers, then have the ability to measure the results. Basically, email is a push medium with a built-in feedback mechanism.
IM, on the other hand, is a lot more personal. It's an instantaneous communications tool. The expectation is communicating in real time with another human being. It's intrusive and immediate and demands attention. You can't put IMs away for later. You can't scan a list of subject lines and decide what to respond to. The buddy list is king: It's a list of trusted correspondents with whom you wish to converse. Breaking into that circle is the equivalent of showing up uninvited to a party and insinuating yourself into a group of friends having a conversation. Not a good way to get to know people.
When reading surveys about the growing importance of IM, realize how it's being used. Don't make the classic mistake of thinking it's "just like [insert medium here], only different." In the early days, the Web was seen as "just like" TV or print, only "kinda different." Most of the initial mistakes in everything from dot-coms (remember the big push for online video services?), advertising (static banners), and Web sites (Time Warner's Pathfinder) had problems because we didn't consider the unique aspects of the medium in our zeal to cash in.
IM can be a powerful marketing tool, but only if we consider what it's good for. It's becoming relatively ubiquitous (you can be sure usage will grow); it's good for short, one-on-one communications; and it's very personal, used for communicating among a trusted circle. Users have a fair amount of control over who does and doesn't IM them (via buddy lists or blocking features). They resent anyone who tries to circumvent that control. IM spam is worse than junk mail. It feels like stalking.
How do you use IM as a marketing tool? Take advantage of its unique properties to provide one-to-one communications with customers, effectively opening up your company and making yourself available to those interested in your products and services. Capture their interest immediately, when they are ready. Building a brand through superior customer service is another excellent use of IM, as is providing a feedback mechanism to answer questions. Any personalized communication that must happen on an instantaneous basis is fair game.
There's obviously a lot of work to do, but if you're not thinking about using IM now as an integral part of your corporate communications mix, you'll miss out. Today's Gen-Yers are your future high-value customers. If they don't use email, you may miss a big opportunity.
ClickZ & CMO Council Seek Your Views
ClickZ and the Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) Council, in cooperation with the Promotion Marketing Association, seek your views on where and how technology is effecting and influencing promotional strategies, activities, processes, functions, and outcomes. With interactive and digital media channels showing the greatest rate of growth among all promotional disciplines in 2003, we are most interested in your perspectives as a strategic marketing professional.
Please take 10 minutes to complete this online questionnaire. We'll share the results with all participants and provide a full report in mid-January, 2005. Of course, ClickZ will share the results with our readers. You can also request a report of this survey at the end of the online questionnaire. More information on the CMO Council is available here.
Please go to the survey site now via this link.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.
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