The email world had a lot of fun last week with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's comment that email "is probably going away." (See "Teens Don't Drink Red Wine, Red Wine Will Probably Go Away".)
But now that the snickers have faded, let's look deeper at Sandberg's contention that email is dying because teens are shifting to SMS texting and social-network posts.
Sandberg's prediction probably is correct in part. The teens I know (like my own 15-year-old) text,chat on Facebook, call via Skype or use other means to communicate with each other more than they use email.
As many others have written, the way teens (and other age groups) behave now does not necessarily predict their future behavior. I raced motocross as a teen and haven't ridden a dirt bike, let alone race, since I was 19.
This doesn't mean text or Facebook chat will kill email or make it irrelevant. Recent research from Hotmail supports my contention that interest in receiving commercial messages is not only as strong as ever, it's also growing as a preference. (See "Hotmail Users Embrace Commercial Email".)
Some Technologies Die; Others Shift
Yes, some heavily touted technologies do die (Pointcast, anyone?), become irrelevant or simply not achieve email's critical mass. Others will simply shift in how they are used, the way real-time TV viewing is shifting to deferred viewing on DVRs, on-demand and online video.
Email use is beginning to shift as well. People rely on it less for personal communication and more for receiving communications from trusted sources, such as financial institutions or employers, and commercial messages, news sources and ecommerce providers whose messages they actively want to receive.
What Will Happen When Teens Hit the Job Market?
When my teenager enters the full-time workforce in 6 or 7 years (I hope), will she use email differently from her old-fogy father? Here are a few possibilities:
- She'll use IM, Twitter direct messages and text messaging for short messaging with co-workers, replacing some of those seemingly annoying back-and-forth emails that clutter our inboxes.
- She'll use email rarely to correspond with friends and family, except perhaps her mother, who prefers email for communications (and the landline phone). For everyone else, it will be Facebook, chat and text messaging.
- She'll get notices of news and new content via mobile apps, Twitter, Facebook and other social media feeds that probably don't exist yet. Subscribing to an email notice of new content is not a habit she is likely to adopt, unlike we who have been using email for many years.
- For commercial messaging, she'll readily opt in to discount coupons via SMS and location-based services. She will always opt for SMS flight alerts over email but will prefer HTML emails for vacation promotions from that same airline.
- Being fashion- and trend-conscious, she will absolutely opt in to promotional emails from her favorite retailers and brands.
Whether I end up being right or wrong on the specifics of my daughter's future media use and other channels, I'm confident she will use email, just differently from me.
Marketers Control Email's Destiny
Demographics will absolutely affect how people use email. However, email's viability as a commercial channel rests on how responsibly marketers use it.
The greatest danger to email's viability as a communications channel doesn't come from my 15-year-old's texting preference but from marketers who don't respect the channel or their customers and subscribers.
If we just "blast" out irrelevant messages, then we will have only ourselves to blame if email begins a rapid decline. If we step up to the challenge, delivering valuable content and offers to our subscribers and customers, then the channel will likely remain vibrant for decades to come.
What do you think? Am I off-base or do you agree that email is shifting but remaining a trusted channel for email communications? Let me know your thoughts in the comments space below.