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Is email facing extinction?

Chris Marriot
Is email facing extinction? Chris Marriot

I recently sent an email to my 13-year-old son concerning the fantasy baseball team we co-manage and didn't receive a response back from him.  On the other hand, I text messaged him the other day on a different topic and received a response within five minutes. I was thinking about this when I re-read a January 2007 report released by Pew Internet & American Life Project that stated:

  • 91 percent of all social networking teens say they use (you fill in the blank) to stay in touch with friends they see frequently, while 82 percent use (you fill in the blank) to stay in touch with friends they rarely see in person.

  • 72 percent of all social networking teens use (fill in the blank) to make plans with friends.

Most of us who do not define ourselves as "social networking teens" would probably fill in the blanks above with "email." However, that's not the word I removed. In the report, titled "Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview," the original text in those blanks read "these sites," and referred to sites like Facebook and MySpace. And before you say, "Well, that's just a few teens who use social networking sites," a 2006 Harrison Group study estimated that 68 percent of teens have created profiles on social networks, and there were more than 80 million visitors to Facebook and MySpace in February 2007. According to the same study, the average teen chats via IM with 35 people for a total of three hours a week. But the average teen will only call or email seven people who are not on their IM list on a weekly basis.

The numbers don't lie
When you look at teens and text messaging (SMS), the numbers are equally startling. Parents surveyed by Jupiter Research earlier this year said that nearly half of 12- and 13-year-olds will have a mobile phone by the end of 2007, and text messaging is an integral part of their daily lives. Seventy-three percent of teens ages 13-17 are sending text messages from their cell phones. A recent survey by CTIA found that more than 158 billion text messages were sent in the U.S. in 2006. This represents a 95 percent increase over 2005. And the majority of these probably came for from the 15-25-year-old age group.

All of this makes me wonder whether teens today have adopted the attitude that email is "old school." Looking at their behavior, it's hard to escape that conclusion. When I asked a respected colleague that question, her reply to me was "duh!" 2006 research by Parks Associates showed that less than 20 percent of the 13-17-year-olds surveyed profess to using email to communicate with friends, compared to 40 percent of adults ages 25-54.

Everything points to IM, SMS and social networking sites as being substitutes for social communications among teens.

The push and pull approach
This phenomenon is not just limited to teens either. According to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 6, 2006), "College officials around the country find that a growing number of students are missing important messages about deadlines, class cancellations and events sent to them by email because, well, the messages are sent to them by email."

It's almost as if teens and college students use email like they would use their DVRs…you get your messages when you want to vs. when the sender wants you to get them. SMS and IM interrupt the recipient, which is not yet seen as a bother but rather a strength. And this is supported by a 2007 study by Empcom that reported 75 percent of online teens opt for instant messaging rather than email due to the greater immediacy associated with it.

What's particularly interesting about teens' use of social networking sites for communication is that it turns the whole "push" approach to communication completely around and makes it more of a "pull" model. By that I mean that those of us over a certain age are likely to attach email pictures of our latest vacation to an email (or use email to direct a friend to where the pictures are posted) and send it out to friends and family, whereas a teenager will likely post the photos on her MySpace page for others to come and view as part of their regular routine. Someone visiting that page can then post a message to that friend's profile, page or "wall." No email involved!

What does all of this portend for email marketing in the future? Maybe nothing, though it is becoming clear to me that between IM, SMS and postings on sites like MySpace, today's teens are using very different public and private digital communication tools than the rest of us. (Like the song from the show "Bye Bye Birdie" laments, "Kids! I don’t know what's wrong with these kids today!")

The crystal ball of email
In my public speaking, I often talk about the "Internet Crystal Ball." This refers to the fact that internet behavior and digital device usage tends to stay fairly constant as age bands get older. In other words, a marketer trying to gauge the propensity of 30-year-olds to use mobile search in five years time should look at what 25-year-olds are doing right now. 

For those of us doing email marketing, it would be a mistake to assume that today's teens and early twenty-somethings will shed these habits and become email addicts like the rest of us as they get older. Of course, they might do just that (and completely contradict my Crystal Ball theory). But just in case they don't, now is the time to begin learning about SMS, MMS, mobile advertising, mobile search, GPS targeted text messages and social networks.  This doesn't mean you should be throwing marketing dollars at these areas, in fact that's something I've continually advised against. However, you should become a student of user behavior around text messaging and social networks, and you should do your homework on companies already operating in these spaces so that when the time comes, you can integrate these tactics into your broader digital marketing strategy. At Acxiom Digital, where it makes sense, we are already integrating SMS into some of our client's email programs.

In conclusion, one could make the argument (as others have) that as young people enter the workforce and begin to use email as a critical part of their daily work, their perceptions of the value of email will shift. They will certainly be using it more routinely, which means they will be checking their email accounts more than once every couple of weeks. Even that would be a big improvement!

P.S. I'm still waiting for my son to reply to my email.

Chris Marriott is vice president and GM, Eastern Region, Acxiom Digital. .


to leave comments.

Commenter: Chris Marriott

2007, September 18

Jennifer: Thanks for your comments! I think you raise a very interestting point about the limitations of IM and networking sites within corporations. These may very well force today's teens to rely more on "older" technologies like email to communicate with friends from work.

Commenter: Jennifer Newell

2007, September 17

I really enjoyed this article and I would like to add a couple of thoughts. I have some friends who don't really respond to email, like your son, but will IM a response right away. However when these teens get hired, they are going to have to rely on a mobile device to SMS. I work for two large corporations and MySpace is blocked. The IM clients we use at work are intranetwork only...no IMing friends who don't work for the same employer. Most of them are going to have only network email to work with, as even personal mails as Yahoo Hotmail Gmail are also blocked on the networks. I agree that email is here to stay and that more attention will need to be given to MySpace and other social networks but also SMS. Thanks for a great article.

Commenter: Bob Glaza

2007, July 09

Great points, Chris - there's no doubt SMS is here to stay (thanks, btw from a dinosaur, for noting those 3 letters actually mean text messaging). I witnessed a 20 yo recently smoke through a series of messages on the bus - fingers furiously flashing - and I was stunned. I appreciate your article not being another "this is the end of email". It seems the challenge is where to fit email into the mix. It will be somewhere or the newest apple gizmo will fall flat. Didn't they sink a lot into making it email capable? These are exciting times to be in communication fields.