E-Mail Versus Twitter

Could Twitter replace e-mail as the supreme marketing vehicle? Like e-mail, Twitter is a push medium: pushing out its marketing messages, conversations, and endless blather to cell phones and apps around the world.

The advantage of Twitter over e-mail, some would argue, is that it represents a more interactive, more viral, more everything platform for the marketer. Marketers pay big bucks to design an e-mail campaign to go viral.

With Twitter, viral is the norm, as tweets and retweets multiply themselves. Let’s face it, the promise of e-mail as a dialogue between company and customer is a long unfulfilled dream, but with Twitter it’s a daily occurrence.

The whole topic of e-mail versus social media, specifically the impact of Twitter on the marketing community, has become one of the most hotly debated topics on The Inbox Insiders, a private networking list for the leading e-mail marketers. The debate was kicked off by a blog post by Bob Frady, a marketer most recently at Live Nation. In the post, Frady lists the reasons he dislikes Twitter, including:

  • Twitter is a news vehicle, not a marketing vehicle.
  • Customers aren’t as connected as marketers (and thus those who tweet represent a minor segment of the audience).
  • Social media is overrated as a marketing vehicle.
  • There is a high rate of burnout with Twitter users.

Frady elaborates on these and other points in his post, which clearly touched a nerve for many marketers and pundits who are heavily invested in the world of Twitter brand building (both personal and corporate).

The debate made me reexamine my own relationship with Twitter and take another look at a platform that I’d found little value in previously. To a certain degree, Frady’s complaints about Twitter mirror my own comments about RSS a few years ago and its value to marketers. Even now, Twitter is being looked at as an interactive replacement for RSS.

But there are differences as well, which make me not as sure as I was with RSS. There is value in Twitter to the marketer, but the question is of what kind and how much. And whether it poses a potential threat to e-mail’s supremacy.

First the negatives: Twitter has a daunting interface. It has the worst interface of any widely adopted technology in recent memory. Which brings us to the first business opportunity: the development of skins and interfaces that help make sense and organize the endless stream of drivel that gushes like a hydrant out of the Twitter faucet each second of the day. (One recent PearAnlytics study shows that 40 percent of all tweets fall into the “drivel” bucket.)

Applications such as TweetDeck add much needed organization and usability to the endless mess that is Twitter. It was after downloading and installing TweetDeck that the lights finally went off for me regarding Twitter: it’s a great pointing device. It can point you to articles, discussions, and (maybe) even offers. But why stop there?

How about a specialized interface that culls sales and discount offers from top brands and retailers? How about one that sits on top of an affiliate network, one that runs off a PPC (define) network? Could tweets replace subject lines in e-mails driving potential customers to offer pages?

The ability to have offers pushed to you like e-mail, without exposing your e-mail address, could threaten the e-mail marketing channel and reinvent the world of affiliate marketing. E-mail faces the greatest challenge to its superiority in this area. Get rid of the effects of exposing your e-mail address while keeping the offers in a targeted push format, add a dash of PPC, and we could see a huge dent in the world of affiliate e-mail marketing.

And as long as Twitter is going to pick up the cost, why not piggyback on its mobile marketing reach to send your mobile offers through Twitter?

Fortunately for those invested in e-mail (and despite the dramatic increase in links in e-mail messages to brands’ Twitter pages), anecdotal evidence suggests that marketers aren’t yet embracing the technology, with some notable exceptions, and that most agree with Frady’s assessment. One of the main sticking points for marketers is the lack of true measurement that something like e-mail can provide.

But regardless of whether they feel Twitter’s value as a marketing channel, marketers shouldn’t ignore its ability to tap into client sentiment. As a listening device, Twitter taps into the psyche of the buying public, albeit with a grain of salt.

The Twitter audience is skewed and is destined to remain so with its insider @ and # signs adorning many messages. This also speaks to the turnover of the Twitter audience and the high burnout rate that Frady’s post refers to.

I became frustrated with the tireless stream of nonsense — even with a TweetDeck interface — within 24 hours, which resulted in some severe pruning of the folks I was following. But slowly I came back, deciding not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Pointing and listening: not a bad use for a burgeoning technology. It’s enough to warrant close attention by every marketer. But don’t replace your e-mail programs just yet.

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