Email’s Not Dead Yet

May 10, 2011

reports of the death of email have been greatly exaggerated

The death of email has been predicted for nearly a decade now. What could be more hopelessly 20th century? In today’s hyper-connected society, email is the equivalent of the handwritten letter — and we know what happened to that.

Those writing email’s obituary note a decline in use by teens. The young have abandoned email for social media like Facebook and Twitter, they say — leaving email with a graying demographic similar to those of newspapers and the evening TV news.

Eager to shovel dirt on the grave, detractors have pointed to a recent report from comScore , a media research company. In just the last year, comScore said, time spent using Web-based email dropped 59 percent among those aged 12-17. (Web-based refers to email traffic through outlets like Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! and corporate and academic institutions.)

“If you want to know what people like us will do tomorrow, you look at what teenagers are doing today,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told a tech industry conference. “Email–I can’t imagine life without it– is probably going away.”

Not so fast, Facebook exec. There are good reasons why email will be with us for a long time yet. Look at the usage chart. Sure, the kids aren’t spending much time with email. Well, duh. They’ve all got phones and they’re texting.

But look at the next group, aged 18-24. Their email use basically held steady. That’s because they’re moving into the academic and corporate worlds, where email remains a key communication channel. There’s a larger drop off among people aged 25-55, but I’d argue that it isn’t out of line with similar declines in consumption of other media.

People are spending more time on Facebook and Twitter, but it’s not just email that takes a hit from that. Time spent watching TV and visiting online portals is down, too. Meanwhile, use of email by senior citizens is rising — perhaps because some of them are still just getting online for the first time.

In fact, comScore reported, the percentage of the U.S. population that uses email actually grew slightly from 2007 to 2010, from 72 percent to 77 percent. That doesn’t seem like a medium on its deathbed.

Speculation about the future of Web-based email could be rendered moot if Facebook develops an effective email application that works within its platform. But for professional and corporate use, email will remain a valuable tool. It’s a dedicated channel where important communications can be preserved, sorted and shared with a select few or a wide audience.

And although spam will always be with us, what’s more distracting: a few dozen obvious spam messages that are easily deleted from the inbox, or the torrent of messages that flow through social media every second?

Email also remains an effective marketing tool. For example, studies have shown that about 60 percent of consumers who receive an email from a retailer are more likely to make an in-store purchase.

I don’t doubt that email use will change and even decline over the coming years. But I don’t think it’s likely to go away any time soon. It will remain an important medium for specific types of communication, especially in the business world.

Just ask Facebook. They still won’t let you open an account without an email address.

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for