Thursday, October 22, 2009

Some New Ideas on Social Networking in Politics (Part 2)

Summary: Pondering the implications for campaigns if social networking replaces email.

Vertical Response, a blast-email company used by many political campaigns, sent an email to clients recently about a new debate in the communications world: will social networking replace email altogether?

It all started when Jessica Vascellaro wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal about why email will soon be a less significant form of communication than Facebook, Twitter, and upcoming Google products.

The argument was simple: social networking services are faster, constantly streaming, and more fun than email.

From the article:

Little wonder that while email continues to grow, other types of communication services are growing far faster. In August 2009, 276.9 million people used email across the U.S., several European countries, Australia and Brazil, according to Nielsen Co., up 21% from 229.2 million in August 2008. But the number of users on social-networking and other community sites jumped 31% to 301.5 million people.

"The whole idea of this email service isn't really quite as significant anymore when you can have many, many different types of messages and files and when you have this all on the same type of networks," says Alex Bochannek, curator at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Nielsen Co., however, took issue with this argument, and put it to the test.

From a post on their company blog:

We decided to churn some quick data to test our hypothesis that “Consumption of social media decreases email use.” First, we broke the online population into four groups. The first three are terciles of social media consumption in minutes. The fourth is a group that doesn’t use social media at all. We then looked at each segment’s time of web based email consumption over the course of a year. Finally, we subtracted the email consumption of those that do not use social media from those that do, basically to show a lift over possible external forces. Clearly, there are more robust approaches that could be taken (controlling for factors other than consumption for example) but for the sake of this simple experiment, we tried to keep it straightforward.

Then they graphed the results:

So if social media is supposed to be replacing email as the dominant form of communication, then why are the individuals who use social networking services the most also increasing their email consumption at a faster rate than non-social networkers?

Then Chris Crum at gave his Ten Reasons Social Media isn’t Replacing Email. Vertical Response CEO Janine Popick read those arguments and added ten more. Some of the twenty reasons were good, some were not so convincing.

Among the good ones:

2. Nearly all sites on the web that require registration require an email address.

9. More social media use means more email use.

13. You can't easily segment your friends and followers to do targeted marketing in Twitter & Facebook for the optimal response.

19. You are limited to 140 characters in Twitter leaving it impossible to put multiple messages in one Tweet.

20. You almost have to have separate social media accounts for your business and your personal life. Some customers might not care about that vacation you took where you...let's just say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

One problem with several of Popick’s ten reasons was that she was focusing on the company that is trying to send emails to clients or potential clients - not the clients themselves. For example, she notes that with social media the sender cannot track the message as easily, seeing who all clicked on what, etc.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that people actually will gradually move from email to Facebook or Twitter. Will they have second thoughts about doing it because then they won’t be able to help companies sending emails to them as easily anymore? Will they take into account the implications of tracking and response optimization on the part of those sending messages to them?

Of course not, those companies would have to adapt.

The same is true in politics. If social networking does end up replacing email as the primary form of communication, campaigns will simply have to start using these tools more aggressively and innovatively.

For example, let’s say your campaign has added a cool new page to its website and you want to let your supporters know. Additionally, you want to know just how many of them actually go to that page. Traditionally you would send out an email hyping it and including a link. With services from firms like Vertical Response, you can see how many supporters open the email and how many click the link.

You can still see how many hits that page is getting from your message on a social networking site so long as you use

But Popnick’s point about how much you can say when using social media is true - you cannot build the same message. This is troubling for prospects of campaign fundraising: currently Facebook and Twitter are not good tools for fundraising because you cannot explain to supporters just how critical it is that they make a contribution.

Luckily everyone recognizes the relevance of emails to this effect - no matter who you are you will keep an email account because occasionally you have a lot to tell someone.

It seems that - to this extent - social networking is not threatening to email. In fact, the Nielsen Co. study suggests that they are actually complimentary.

Sure, some campaigning and business will start being done more with social networking. At HSG, we typically become Facebook friends and Twitter followers with our clients and business associates. It’s quite possible that in the future we’ll be communicating with them about their races more and more using these services.

Some politicians are already beginning to communicate messages to supporters that would traditionally be done with email via social networking. For example, status updates are a great way to let constituents know what recent action just took place on Capitol Hill. But for more in-depth messages, emails will likely always be king.

It is critical that campaigns, politicians, and businesses utilize all forms of New Media appropriately.

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