The digital research company eMarketer has just released its latest report on social media usage in the United States, "U.S. Social Network Usage: 2011 Demographic and Behavioral Trends," and the data is remarkable.
The report is notable for three reasons. First, we have hit the two thirds majority of U.S. Internet population for social network use -- 63.7 percent of U.S. Internet users actively use a social network. Second, social networks' rapid growth rate is slowing, which seems to be more a measure of maturity than decreasing interest. And finally, age is still a top indicator of social network usage, with the youngest generations (GenY, Millennial) accounting for the highest rates of consumption. (One note before I continue: I find the eMarketer findings compelling because they compare and contextualize their findings among all other top media measurement companies, so I believe the data on which the insights are based is solid.)
In short, social networks, and by that it seems primarily Facebook, is here to stay. People who grow up with it will simply assume its role in their lives just as others before grew up with cell phones and email and can't imagine a world without them. So given its omnipresence, where does the social network fit in with the current marketing communication models?
One surprising finding from the report is that email is still alive and, in fact, thriving. The percentage of the U.S. population that uses email grew slightly from 2007 to 2010, from 72 percent to 77 percent. This probably indicates that email usage has reached a penetration plateau but is not shrinking. And even when we look at email usage by age, we see pretty consistent numbers (62 percent at the young end, 55 percent at the older end). This compares dramatically to social network usage that has a much younger bias (60 percent at the young end, 13 percent at the older end). What this seems to say is that email is a well-established medium for certain types of communication (can we even say "more formal" when describing email?) versus the more chatty commentary found in social networks.
This is a critical point for marketers who are struggling with where the brand-to-consumer communication model is headed. What the eMarketer report indicates is that consumers are not eliminating communication types -- at least not yet -- but are probably using them for different purposes. Marketers then must also consider broader spectrums of message campaigns based on context, information, and the nature of their relationship with their customer. This unfortunately means the task of campaigning will become less top down, less centralized, more nuanced and, yes, simply more work to keep up with the modern messaging buffet.
For example, if a company wants to inform its customer base about a coming new product or promotion, email is still the standout medium to present the initial and complete message, with the opportunity to respond immediately. It also represents a tacit agreement between company and customer to communicate based on opt-in.
Social networks do not represent the same level of explicit agreement, one-to-one access, and potential segmentation opportunity based on purchase history; but they provide tremendous "dog pile" momentum once the word is out.
Again, we are facing a multifaceted communication stream that leverages both mediums to drive each other. For now, social networks and email are healthy compatriots in the marketing mix. However, we know that the speed at which things can change is jaw-dropping and Facebook in particular is continuing to explore ways to subsume more of the messaging components found in other places (email, text, chat) and bring them into the FB universe. But not yet.
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