Social Networks: The New E-Mail

I’m in Canada as I write this, catching up with family members and friends. Many I haven’t seen in a year. But I know what they’ve been up to, and nearly every conversation thus far has ended the same way: “Let’s keep in touch through Facebook.”

As in the U.S., social networks have found millions of loyal users up north, according to a recent study by Canadian research firm Ipsos Reid. The company found almost 40 percent of adult Canadian Internet users have visited a social networking site, and 30 percent have created a social networking profile.

Although a greater percentage of younger consumers engage in this form of social media (63 percent of 18 to 34 year olds have visited a social or community site, with 55 percent placing a profile there), 39 percent of 35 to 54 year olds have also spent time on sites like Facebook, Classmates.com, and MySpace. So have 20 percent of Canadian Internet users aged 55 and older.

The study also found that Canadians clock an average of 5.4 hours on social networking sites per week.

The New Communication Medium

That’s a significant number when you consider the medium’s novelty. Four years ago, when Facebook — Canada’s top social network — was introduced, these consumers were spending their time online doing something else. Instead of connecting with family and friends through the myriad messaging tools integrated into social and community sites, they used e-mail to stay in touch.

Marketers seized the opportunity by embracing e-mail marketing. But the climate changed across North America, and not just because social networks came onto the scene. Last year Ipsos Reid found four in five Canadian Internet users are registered at Web sites to receive corporate e-mail correspondence, but 82 percent use spam filters, a number steadily rising. It’s a similar scene in the U.S., where some 97 percent of consumers use e-mail, according to Forrester Research, but executing a successful e-mail campaign has become more challenging than ever.

Meanwhile, here lies a new online medium that’s functional and full of promise. Like e-mail, it serves the primary purpose of facilitating online communication, draws a sizeable user base, and spans demographic groups. It does it all, however, without ad-delivery issues that plague e-mail marketing.

All this raises the question: should we, like consumers, approach social networks as another form of business-to-consumer (B2C) e-mail?

Putting Dollars Where Dollars Are Due

For media buying, it might make perfect sense. Bundling e-mail and social networking into a single media category could free up some ad dollars to dedicate to the less-established of the two. It’s still difficult for marketers to argue social sites are a worthy buy when directly compared to large, content-rich portals — and especially when buyers would be forced to pull dollars from reputable properties for what many would consider an experimental effort.

Goodness knows the money won’t come from the search budget. That leaves e-mail, which I’m willing to bet has fallen out of favor somewhat with your clients in recent years. Why not reallocate some of those ad dollars to social media?

The two marketing opportunities have more in common than one might think. Though the delivery mode may be different, the goal of creating an engaging branded experience that results in product education and interaction is the same. So is the challenge of creating a meaningful, candid dialogue with consumers.

E-mail newsletter placements resemble social network buys, in the ad units displayed and in the audience’s relationship to the message. Each addresses an opt-in audience (newsletter subscribers versus social site members), and each offers the opportunity to target by context (sites like Facebook allow buyers to create content-specific sponsored groups and home in on networks to promote their product or brand).

We can’t yet discern the degree to which social networking will replace e-mail communication among consumers, though the swiftness with which it’s gaining penetration reveals a lot. Even more insight can be gained by observing the people around us.

I’m not suggesting social network marketing is without its flaws, or that it will ever overtake consumer e-mail use. If calling social media the new e-mail results in increased spending on properties we’ve only begun to harvest, count me in.

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