Is Email Old News? Social Networks as the New Communications Channel
When it comes to online communications, social networking has huge communities of people sharing information with each other. And its rise comes as people question email’s effectiveness—are social networks replacing email as a communications channel?
When it comes to online communications, social networking is the new kid in town. It’s hip, viral, and has huge communities of people sharing information with each other. And its rise comes as more and more people question email’s effectiveness—are social networks replacing email as a communications channel?
In short, no. But that doesn’t mean social networking is an insignificant trend. A Pew Internet and American Life Project recently found that 35 percent of all American Internet users (and a whopping 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-old adults) use social networks. Sites like Facebook, MySpace, Change.org and LinkedIn encourage users to post profiles about themselves and connect with friends and others who share their interests. The process creates an expanding web of invitation- and referral-based contacts.
As nonprofits seek to expand their communities of interest, social networks are a natural fit. A number of organizations, including the Nature Conservancy and the Genocide Intervention network, have made them an important part of their outreach strategy.
To investigate the rumors of email’s demise, we spoke with communications consultants and staff members from technically sophisticated nonprofits. We found that many of them perceive social networks to be a useful communications channel—but as an adjunct to email, rather than a replacement. Both media have their own strengths, and a place in a communications mix. How do they compare?
What Social Networks Bring to the Mix
Social networks introduce an interesting new model of outreach and communications with some advantages over email, including:
1. They can expand your audience.
Social networks can help you build a broad awareness of your organization in a way not easily accomplished through more one-to-one communications strategies like email. In the most general sense, email is a push strategy—you send information to known constituents. But social networking has both a push and pull approach— not only can you target messages to specific audiences, but people actively seek out connections, post to their profiles, and make friend-to-friend recommendations.
2. They help spread the word fast.
Social networks allow you to reach a lot of new people quickly. That’s a great way to organize a protest or get people to sign a petition when you don’t have a large pre-existing list. The networks’ viral nature lets people spread compelling messages to an ever-expanding group.
3. They reach out to where people are.
With 75 percent of young adults using social networking sites, this communications channel reaches a demographic that may no longer use as much email. Social networks also allow more informal communications and, done right, seem less a “message from the man” and more like corresponding with a friend. Part of the strategy is to use these networks to encourage others to pass the word informally—it can be uniquely compelling to hear about a cause from a friend as opposed to getting a message from the organization itself.
Where Email Fits In
Despite the advantages of social networking, smart communications strategies will continue to use email as part of the mix for the following reasons:
1. It reaches most people.
While certain demographic groups rely heavily on social networks as a means of communications, lots of people don’t use them at all. These networks are growing fast, but depending on your mission, you may miss a large group of potential members if you rely only on social networking. As a technology, email has a much higher penetration in the general public.
2. It lets you send well-planned messages to specific groups.
By definition, social networks expand without your direct control. That’s one of the trade-offs of being able to build a referral-based network—you don’t always get to determine the exact nature of the message, or to whom it is sent. Depending on your organization’s mission and culture, this trade-off may be troublesome. With email, you can more effectively segment your audience and provide more tailored and specific information.
3. It’s a great way to activate existing constituents.
Email is a strong and proven method for getting people to take action or respond to a message. Conversion rates are dramatically higher with email than with social networking sites, and experts say direct mail fundraising paired with effective email communication provides better results than direct mail alone.
Though social networks are a new and interesting communication method with great potential for advocacy and awareness-building, email is still an effective, widely used communications tool. It’s proven, nearly ubiquitous and well-understood, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Social networks provide a means to segment, customize and layer messaging, build awareness and gather feedback. They are a great way to build upon the constituency and outreach your organization already counts on. Email excels at developing those relationships once you’ve established them. A smart and comprehensive communications strategy will use both.
For More Information
The Role of Email in Your Communications Mix
A useful look into how Email fits in with the rest of your communications, broken out by communication goal.
Should Your Organization Use Social Networking Sites?
An analysis of the pros and cons of social networking sites.
Stella Hernandez is the Director of Operations and Partnership at Idealware, a nonprofit that provides candid information to help other nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to www.idealware.org.
Many thanks to Nonprofit Times for their generous funding of this article, and the nonprofit communications experts who were interviewed for this article: Heather Gardner-Madras of Gardner-Madras Strategic Creative, Sue Citro of The Nature Conservancy, Colin Delany of epolitics.com, Janessa Goldbeck of Genocide Intervention Network, Madeline Stanionis of The Watershed Company, Aileen Walden of Best Friends Animal Society and Mal Warwick of Mal Warwick Associates.