Death of Forward-to-a-Friend

  |  October 14, 2010   |  Comments

Inviting subscribers to share content with their friends and family in their trusted social networks is far more powerful than using forward-to-a-friend.

Flashback 1999. It seemed like a good idea at the time: create a form that your e-mail subscribers could use to forward your e-mail messages to their friends instead of clicking the "forward" button in their e-mail software.

A great feature for marketers trying to harness all of e-mail's power, especially its essential viral/social nature. No longer would marketers have to wonder how their messages were spreading. Now they could track how many readers clicked their "Forward to a Friend" links and how many referrals a message generated. Also, no longer would e-mail clients break images and links when forwarding the messages. What a gold mine!

Alas, forward-to-a-friend (FTAF) has some fatal flaws. Among them: it's still easier just to click the "forward" button and fill in a friend's e-mail address. And, there's the trust issue, because some subscribers don't trust marketers to behave responsibly with their own e-mail addresses, much less their friends' addresses.

The problem with FTAF is that it is marketer-centric, not customer-centric. In hindsight, it might be the stupidest idea e-mail marketers ever had, and its death is highly anticipated (at least by me).

Share-With-Your-Network Picks Up Where Forward-to-A-Friend Leaves Off

Today, more marketers are using two tools that could make forward-to-a-friend obsolete because they are easier to use, don't have the trust issue, and offer marketers more benefits:

  • "Share-with-your-network" (SWYN) links encourage subscribers to post message content within their own social networks.
  • "Community" links point to the company's own pages or sites on social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace.

Although more e-retailers use FTAF links in their promotions, newsletters, announcements, etc., than SWYN links, the social-network links are beginning to close the gap.

A new study from my colleague Chad White, Responsys research director and publisher of the daily Retail Email Blog, predicts that SWYN adoption will overtake FTAF in 12 to 18 months.

However, he also finds that community links are already far more popular in e-mail messages than either SWYN or FTAF.

Chad's research shows that 26 percent of the e-mail messages he tracks from major retailers include at least one SWYN link, compared with 44 percent of messages that feature a link to an FTAF form.


However, 75 percent of the retail e-mails he studied linked to at least one company-sponsored social network page, and that link was most often to the company's Facebook page.


Inviting subscribers to share content with their friends and family in their trusted social networks is far more powerful than using FTAF.

  • It takes just a couple of clicks to repost content. Some marketers even format the link and add a picture and explanatory copy for their subscribers. There is a lot less "friction" to a consumer sharing with their social network than sharing with a list of e-mail addresses.
  • SWYN retains all the tracking capability, because the marketer can track clicks on the sharing link.
  • The referring subscriber doesn't have to turn over any identifying information, whether her own e-mail address or those of her friends.
  • The viral potential is much greater, because hundreds or even thousands of other people can see the reposted content, as opposed to the one or two who receive a forwarded e-mail message.
  • Marketers can thank their most active sharers with special offers or other recognition.

Bottom line: SWYN has greater reach, and is likely to be used by a customer, because it is customer-centric not marketer-centric.

And perhaps more importantly, the interplay in using e-mail and social together is more powerful than using the two separately. One of my clients grew their e-mail list more than 50 percent year-over-year. And a full one-third of the new subscribers came from a Facebook signup form.

Kill FTAF Now

All this leaves you wondering. Why did we ever invent the forward-to-a-friend feature? Did we really think customers couldn't find the forward button on their e-mail software?

In the last year, use of FTAF dropped from 48 percent to 44 percent.

I think we are not moving fast enough. Let's let it die. Actually, please kill it. Make a choice. Use your precious screen real estate for SWYN. And get rid of FTAF.

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Ed Henrich

Ed Henrich is vice president of professional services for Responsys, leading the company's creative, campaign development, strategy, and analytics teams to produce award-winning and profitable client e-mail marketing programs. Ed is a pioneer in the e-mail marketing industry, having joined Post Communications (now Yesmail) in 1997 when it was a five-person startup. For eight years, he was the company's vice president of client services, then president. Before that, Ed was a venture capitalist at Internet Capital Group and a senior consultant with McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar to Australia in Control Systems Engineering, Ed holds a PhD and an MS from UCLA and a BS from Drexel University. Follow him at his blog, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

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