Is Email’s Future Really in Doubt?

The headline appears to be a little alarmist but there are articles written all the time that appear to be trying to bury e-mail as a communication tool for now and the future. In most cases I can’t tell if this is intentional or not but oftentimes it looks like e-mail gets painted as something for those who are older, less tech savvy and, dare I say, uncool.

Here is a demographic breakdown (courtesy of comScore by way of NY Times Bits blog) of year over year web based e-maill usage rates for e-mail by demographic segment. On the surface, one could say that e-mail is definitely on the decline.

In a recent article from the New York Times the picture of how the younger set views e-mail is summed up in this assessment.

The problem with e-mail, young people say, is that it involves a boringly long process of signing into an account, typing out a subject line and then sending a message that might not be received or answered for hours. And sign-offs like “sincerely” — seriously?

Lena Jenny, 17, a high school senior in Cupertino, Calif., said texting was so quick that “I sometimes have an answer before I even shut my phone.” E-mail, she added, is “so lame.”

On some levels, I get that. I myself am not a big text user and actually probably use instant messaging as my communication tool of choice if an e-mail or phone call is not involved. Of course, I grew up in the generation that saw e-mail as the ‘newest, coolest and fastest’ way to communicate when held up to things like snail mail and faxes.

My concern here is not that young people don’t use e-mail but rather this assumption that e-mail will ride off into the sunset as the older generations pass away. It’s pretty dangerous to be even considering this. Why? Because while these young people may not like e-mail they will still need to understand it and have the skills to manage it when they get to the ‘grown-up’ part of life with a, gulp, job.

If personal use of e-mail drops off then that will impact marketers who are trying to reach people in their spare time away from the office. E-mail in the business environment will remain essential because of the digital paper trail it leaves and the ability to manage archives of conversations and ideas vs. text and instant messaging. Who is really at risk are the Yahoos and HotMails of the world.

The numbers testify to the trend. The number of total unique visitors in the United States to major e-mail sites like Yahoo and Hotmail is now in steady decline, according to the research company comScore. Such visits peaked in November 2009 and have since slid 6 percent; visits among 12- to 17-year-olds fell around 18 percent. (The only big gainer in the category has been Gmail, up 10 percent from a year ago.)

Here is an instance that makes this scenario very clear as to the disconnect between the way that the younger set communicates vs. the way they will have to communicate when they age out of the OMG, RU and other abbreviated forms of communication that they consider is normal communication.

Adam Horowitz, 23, who works as a technology consultant for a major accounting firm in New York, spends all day on e-mail at his office. When he leaves it behind, he picks up his phone and communicates with friends almost entirely via texts.
Yet he sometimes feels caught between the two, as when he texts with his younger brothers, ages 12 and 19, who tend to send even shorter, faster messages.

“When they text me, it comes across in broken English. I have no idea what they’re saying,” said Mr. Horowitz. “I may not text in full sentences, but at least there’s punctuation to get my point across.”

“I guess I’m old school.”

Old school? At 23? What does that make the rest of us? Octogenarian school?

As marketers this difference between the young vs. the older and personal vs. business use of e-mail will shape how we try to reach particular market segments. It’s not easy to figure out is it? My question is not so much as to whether e-mail will or will not survive but rather where will it survive? Will e-mail marketing to personal e-mail addresses become a T-Rex? Will e-mail marketing providers like Constant Contact, iContact and others see a shift in their business as less and less people turn to e-mail for personal use?

What does your marketing sense say about the future of e-mail as a communication device and a marketing tool? RU buying into the ‘death of e-mail’ talk? Where is this all headed, IYHO (In Your Humble Opinion)?

  • http://blog.memberhub.com Matt Harrell

    Good thoughts here Frank. There are plenty of conversations about this indeed. IMHO I think you’re spot on with the “where will it survive”. Plus you made the point that’s so obvious…sure it may not be used as much, but it won’t go away. There are new communication tools, sure, but I for one don’t think email will ever die. Here are of my thoughts on why email is not dead, from back in August http://blog.memberhub.com/email-is-not-dead-5-signs-email-is-alive/

    Have a Merry Christmas Frank!

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      @Matt – Thanks for stopping by! Merry Christmas to you and your family as well!

  • Steve Dicheck

    The graph from Comscore says, “…from Desktop Computers…” I assume that doesn’t take into consideration laptops, smart phones, or other devices. If I’m not mistaken, time spent on email could have shifted to other devices, which could better explain the decline from Desktop usage. I find that much more believable than a drastic decline in web-based email overall. Besides, it’s likely that frequent flyers do a majority of their email reading on mobile devices at airports vs. desktop computers. Otherwise, I enjoyed the post. Thank you for sharing.

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      @Steve – Good points. I suspect that the usage drop amongst the youngest users is closer to real but that’s just a gut feel and no research to back it up. As for the rest, I know I use my smart phone to handle my e-mail chores whenever I can and that includes when I am at my desk.

  • Cynthia

    It’s funny, email used to represent instant communication. No more waiting for a letter to arrive by mail. But now, texting and social media updates feel more instant than email and we’re such an impatient bunch it seems only natural that email would start to take a back seat.

    Come on, I know you’ve stood in front of a microwave saying, hurry up!

  • http://www.constantcontact.com Eric Groves

    At Constant Contact, we’ve seen continued strong customer growth this past year, demonstrating that email remains an effective marketing tool. That said, businesses and organizations can’t and shouldn’t depend on just one method to reach their customers and prospects. Today’s savvy marketers are combining some mix of email, social media, text messaging, and traditional channels to reach their customers. Email will never go away and service providers like us are continuing to adapt to the changing communications preferences of our customers and their customers.

  • http://internetmarketingcoachingclub.com/ Kai Druhl

    As for marketing, reaching consumers, I think that instant communication isn’t as much of an issue, as is convenience and safety, absence of spam and viruses. So, the main competitor for email may not be the text message but Facebook.

  • KidQuick

    Agreed on many points above and a good topic of conversation.

    Email gets the shaft sometimes because for all the articles in 2010 promoting Twitter/Facebook as the solution to all things online marketing, email doesn’t get mentioned nearly as often.

    But, Email marketing is HUGE business for companies. Just because young kids don’t email doesn’t mean that email is going away. Email is an established player and sure, it will change but I don’t see the whole “email is dead” conversation as relevant for at least another 10 years.

    For all the talk about mobile, the dollars really aren’t there yet. I may sound like a dinosaur here but if you’re a business and you have to decide where your money goes to, email rarely disappoints.