This week we learnt that more people are using social media than email. The 'Global Faces and Networked Places' report from Nielson places social networks and online communities as the fourth most popular category of online activities, ahead of personal email. The use and importance of these sites is certainly growing, with time spent on site growing at three times the rate for overall internet use. Now one out of every eleven minutes spent online worldwide is spent on an online community or social network. In the UK, this figure is one out of every six minutes spent online.
There are many reasons for this shift. On a structural level, people are taking advantage of social networks and online communities to provide them with multiple inboxes. They may use LinkedIn for messages on one subject, and an online community for messages on another, thus freeing up their regular email account. On a behavioural level, this reflects a shift in the way we use the internet to communicate. Email used to be the way that we communicated, taking a traditional process (sending mail) and using a new medium. Now we can connect and stay connected with friends and contacts like never before; and we can find and share common experiences and discussions with people we might not even know. In this environment it is unsurprising that social networks and online communities have overtaken email.
But what does this mean for business and in particular for SMEs? When I speak at marketing conferences, I like to ask the audience whether they spend more on email marketing or on social media. The answer is almost always email, and this is a shame. Not only are social networks and online communities increasingly part of everyday life, they can also be a better way of engaging customers. Email is very much in the 'push' marketing category, while online communities and social networks engage people. Most importantly, they encourage peer-to-peer marketing, which we know people trust more than messages from any brand.
Consumer use of communications is changing. We are shifting from wanting traditional mail sent by electronic means (email) to wanting to engage with other people around shared interests. SMEs are often looking to acquire new customers or to retain existing ones in what is currently a difficult economic climate. This is the time to innovate, and what better way to do it than by using a new way to engage and communicate with your customers. They’re using email and traditional communication less and less. Maybe it’s time you should too.
Matt Rhodes is Head of Client Services at FreshNetworks, a social media and online communities agency in London.