Will Social Networks Become the New Inbox?

The “killer app” of the first part of the Internet boom was e-mail. Then came e-commerce, e-care, search, music, video, and now social media. E-mail has held on through the years as arguably the king of the Internet, used by the old and the young alike. However, the new inbox is shifting toward social media.

“I have a 16-year cousin and she listed off her favorite Web sites and applications and failed to mention e-mail so I asked her about it,” said Mike Peters, 37, of Detroit, Michigan. “I was shocked by the incredulous look on her face and even more shocked at her response that she didn’t use e-mail that much since it was too formal, she would rather use instant messenger on her phone or post comments based on people’s activities in social networks.” It turns out that Generation Z finds e-mail antiquated and passé, so they simply ignore it.

While this is shocking to some generations, it fits within the scheme of Socialnomics. E-mail isn’t entirely going away, it just may not be the first means of digital communication in a Socialnomic world. Foremost, the messaging is much easier to manage within social media versus e-mail because it acts like a real conversation among friends.

“As a sales person I see social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook as an invaluable tool,” said Allison Bahm of ResponseMine Interactive Agency. “It doesn’t necessarily shorten the sales cycle, but what it does is keep the information flow more open and also allows for a much deeper relationship than e-mail. I’ve started relationships and signed contracts exclusively within social networks. It is revolutionary for sales, it’s much easier than telephone calls and e-mails.”

Whereas e-mail functions in a non-fluid manner, open conversations within social media have an easier flow to them and replicate a normal conversation. Also, the conversational content is broken down into bit-sized chunks and are associated into more easily recognized compartments rather than just a long and daunting slew of 45 e-mails that you need to wade through systematically.

“Kids today prefer one to many communication; e-mail to them is antiquated,” said Bill Tancer, Hitwise general manager, global research.

Because people are updating their status, “I’m depressed,” “Got a new job,” it’s much easier to read this and stay connected than to send a series of e-mails asking, “How are you doing?” or “What are you up to?” In a sign of the times ahead, for the Class of 2013, and for the first time since e-mail was invented, Boston College will not be giving out johnsmith@bc.edu e-mail addresses to incoming freshmen.

“Are you on Facebook?” is the new “can I get your phone number?” The most underlying factor for this new inbox may be in the seismic shift in the way information is exchanged among people. Let’s take a quick look at the evolution in dating over the past 10 years. First, people used to give out their home phone number. Then people began to give out their e-mail instead of their home phone number.

At first it seemed odd to ask someone out over e-mail, but then it became quite natural. Then we progressed to mobile phone numbers because some people don’t have landlines anymore and it was easier to text message one another — it was less intrusive and awkward. “What are you doing tonight?”

Just as people use Google as a verb — Google it — they’re starting to use phrases like “Facebook Me.” People are no longer exchanging e-mails; they’re exchanging social media information. In many instances, they will never get this e-mail address. If they desire this type of communication, the social networks have inboxes of their own that replicate and replace e-mail.

This being said, executives are still holding hard and fast to the concept of the traditional inbox. A survey of 180 chief marketing officers of $1 billion dollar corporations, conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media, found that while 70 percent were decreasing their marketing budgets, the area they were least likely to make cuts was e-mail. You can’t necessarily blame them for this type of thinking. This has been one of their best performing channels for years and they’ve spent money building up and managing this database.

Now and in the future, they need to slightly adjust their way of thinking as it won’t be all about building out the existing database. Often, communication with fans and consumers will be on someone else’s database (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.). Yet many companies fail to recognize this and still try and cram e-mails into their database when these users want to be communicated through different ways.

We’ll go more in depth on this in part two of this column.

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