The Changing Role Of E-mail Communication


In 1991, three million people had e-mail accounts. By the middle of 2012 that figure had risen to 3.1 billion, according to eMarketer. So it might be surprising to hear, in the distance, the clang of a death knell, as legions of social commentators clamour forth the news: e-mail is on its last breath.

As if this was old – or reliable – news. Let’s look at the facts.

Electronic Evolution

Nothing in this world evolves faster than the internet. Every year brings a faster pace of change – new social networks and new platforms designed for connectivity.

Facebook now has over one billion users, and offers, as an accompaniment to your personal profile, an e-mail-type messaging system. That’s a lot of people sending messages without e-mails. And, of course, Facebook isn’t the only social media network.

It is a fact that communication via social media platforms is more suited to mobile devices than e-mail. By 2016, mobile IM (or instant messaging) users will, it seems, exceed 1.3 billion. That’s 1,300,000,000 – big number. It’s another fact that Twitter and its online social media brethren are more accessible than e-mail, with less button-clicking and less keyboard-tapping necessary to communicate.

Aside from these changes, e-mail has its own limitations. Around 90% of all messages flitting their way into e-mail inboxes are spam, and around 95% of the e-mails that aren’t filtered into your junk folder are deleted without being read anyway. This involves a lot of wasted time. A recent rise in enterprise social software such as Yammer, which provides easy communication within organisations, has led to the increasing replacement of e-mail inside the workplace.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

Here’s the thing, though, which the doom-laden harbingers forget. Social media is not a replacement for email. It is an alternative. In their place, social media is more useful than e-mail; more accessible, cleaner, less time-consuming.

But e-mail has its place too. I said before that 1.3 billion, the number of expected mobile IM users by 2016, was a big number. But reverse the 1 and the 3 to get another number I mentioned earlier – 3.1 billion, the number of e-mail accounts online today. This is a much bigger number, which also far exceeds the number of Facebook and Twitter users. E-mail is still the most official channel to communicate with employees in nearly all workplaces; with students in nearly all universities. Mass e-mail allows a single message to be sent to an entire organisation. To do that via social networks, you would first have to make sure that everyone was using the same social network, which, besides, were never built to distribute mass e-mails, and are not nearly as well kitted out as the traditional system.

E-mail is changing, of course, but it is not degenerating. It is adapting. As social media platforms are used more and more, e-mail can become more focused, with less white noise lingering in the background. Subscription websites nearly all require e-mail addresses as a verification tool, and this doesn’t look set to change any time soon.

And there are plenty of companies, such as Groupon, which rely nearly entirely on e-mail to generate custom, and could not survive without it. Indeed, e-mail is still the most effective way to drive online and offline sales in retail, and studies have shown that customers prefer being notified of special offers via mass email, sent by the retailers, than through other methods. A far smaller percentage of traffic on retail websites comes via social media than are brought through e-mail advertising.

One Final Point

Most people talking about the decline in e-mail point to the hugely plummeting figure of e-mail use amongst 12-17 year olds. Fair enough. The youth of today are more likely to use social media as a method of communication. But this portion of the population is yet to enter the workforce, where e-mail use is still the most necessary method of communication.

It seems, then, that this fear-mongering (which, it must be said, has been around for years) is ignoring the obvious. Of course e-mail usage is declining with the rise of social media. It is also, more importantly, being redefined. E-mail is re-establishing its place in the world online – changed, but here to stay.

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