Digital’s Great Teenage Misunderstanding

A lot of data has come out on how people’s digital habits are shifting. None has been as controversial or frankly inaccurate as comScore’s assessment of Web-based e-mail usage for teenagers.

Even this publication ran an article, “E-Mail Usage Plummets as Teens Turn to Mobile, Social Networking,” about the report. To quote, “most noteworthy was the shift in e-mail usage, particularly among young people. Total Web-based e-mail use was down eight percent last year, led by a walloping 59 percent drop among 12 to 17 year olds.”

I must reemphasize, the data is only for Web-based e-mail usage (think Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Gmail, etc.) and that’s an important distinction. A decline is a decline, but this certainly doesn’t fully cover how e-mail is consumed in today’s digital world.

No less an authority on teenagers’ digital consumption than Mark Zuckerberg offered this at the Facebook Messaging announcement:

“High school kids don’t use e-mail, they use SMS a lot. People want lighter weight things like SMS and IM to message each other.”

It’s hard to argue with this thesis. There are two significant issues that must be added to the conversation though:

Mobile’s impact: The typical smartphone user spends almost half of her time on e-mail. This makes comScore’s metrics marginal since it evaluated only Web-based e-mail usage.

As e-Dialog CEO John Rizzi thoughtfully points out on a recent blog post:

“In the 18-24 age group, unique visits increased 9%, while time spent decreased 10%. To me this points to the increasing use of mobile to triage inboxes on the go, and the desktop inbox being used to access specific e-mails and perform tasks like getting a code for a sale, or composing an e-mail reply that would be too onerous on a mobile phone. In fact, comScore found that 30% of respondents are viewing e-mail on their mobile phone, a 36% increase from 2009, and those using mobile e-mail daily increased 40% on average.”

Pew Internet recently evaluated how Internet users of different age groups spent their time online. Guess what? Even 90 to 100 percent of Millennials (ages 18-33) used e-mail. As you can see in the chart, below, e-mail was the top activity across all age groups.*


Source: Pew Research Center report, “Generation Online in 2010”

Teenagers become adults: I may not win any scientific breakthrough awards for this statement, but people are missing the boat on this piece of the puzzle. What happens when a teenager becomes an adult in the workplace? Not only do they dress, speak, and act differently – they use different approaches to communicate, too.

The first thing a new employee typical gets is…an e-mail address. And guess what? They use it, even if they have been reliant on social, IM, and texting for their primary communication channels. They will correspond for work via e-mail and opt in to e-mails from their favorite brands (including brands that they certainly did not like as a teenager). They likely will also “Like” their favorite companies on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and opt in to SMS offers as well. They will also expect different value and information in each of these channels.

I culled some great and simple statements from the Twittersphere that sum up this dangerous notion of “e-mail is dying because of the teenager.” For the e-mail is dead/will die crowd, I offer up Exhibits A, B, and C.

Most teens don’t drink red wine, red wine is probably going away #e-mailisdeadanalogy – @LorenMcDonald

Most teens don’t have kids, there will be no children in the future #e-mailisdeadanalogy – @mostew

Kids don’t drive. Therefore, cars will soon cease to exist. #e-mailisdeadanalogy – @MartinLieberman

The inbox won’t be gone in the next five to 10 years. However, it will look a lot different. That means e-mail marketers should ensure they innovate and deliver compelling value to the inbox regardless of a subscriber’s age and where she reads your e-mails.

*This column has been updated to include this chart. Due to a production error, an earlier version of this column displayed another chart from the Pew study.


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