My good friend Colin Delany over at ePolitics.com has been emailing a dead horse for several years making the compelling case that social media will not replace email in advocacy campaigns. His most recent foray into this discussion was spurred by Luis Hestres' Facebook post that "email is the Jason Bourne of online apps: somebody's always trying to kill it."
Delany makes the basic and true argument that email and Twitter do different things:
The basic dynamic: Twitter and email both send information over the internet, but that's about all they have in common as communications media. They simply do different things! Twitter is a giant social conversation involving millions of people. It's great for injecting ideas into the public dialogue around an issue, and if your audience is big enough, for broadcasting your political content. It's also a useful tool for reaching "opinion leaders," the journalists, bloggers, activists and loudmouths who set the tone of the political debate. And it CAN be a good for political organizing, if your targets are in populations with high cell-phone and/or Twitter usage (for instance, younger - and plugged-in - urban black and latino voters).
Email is a very different animal, since it's the opposite of a "social" channel - it facilitates one-to-one and one-to-many communications. The internet excels at helping us maintain contact with many people at once, and email remains a near-perfect tool for that purpose - when a message arrives in your inbox, it's in your inbox whenever you want to read it. By comparison, tweets or Facebook post are ephemeral, since they drop out of view within hours or even minutes. Plus, essentially everyone who goes online at all has an email address, while far, far fewer people in the U.S. use Twitter at all, much less regularly.
Aside from my personal influence over Colin's explanation of Twitter's value to advocacy (especially its ability to target influencers), I think we need to take it a step forward. Twitter, and social media in general, can make your email campaign more effective. The interaction between tweets and wall posts about your advocacy campaign and your email messages to mobilize people to action is akin to what advertising agencies call source amnesia. Essentially, social media posts fertilize the ground in which your emails will take root.
As the source amnesia story goes, if people are exposed to your message enough on social media, when they get your email, its message will sound familiar, even if they can't quite remember where they saw it before. This increases the likelihood that people will give extra attention to the email and thus be more likely to do what it is asking.
Before the advent of social media, short of over burdening people with repetitive email, we had to rely on other, more expensive or more filtered channels to create source amnesia. We could pay for ads (TV, radio, print, direct mail) to fertilize the market before sending out our emails, but that was an expensive proposition, especially if it involved precise targeting. Alternatively, we could pitch our issues and campaigns to the press, but we were at the mercy of their interpretation of our message and usually received severely limited inches or minutes of coverage.
Social media puts the amplifier in the campaign's hands. You can tweet your message as often as you want... for free. You can post it on Facebook, Google+, tumblr and Pinterest for free. And with a little time and effort, you can get your best activists to retweet, like, +1, share, and repin your original post (avoiding the filtered versions you get pitching the press).
So, while I agree with Colin rather than Twitter killing email, it serves a different purpose, I also think Twitter (and social media) can be email's best friend. A good social media strategy will make your email campaigns more effective.
Social Advocacy & Politics is a weekly, exclusive column for Social Media Today by Alan Rosenblatt that explores the intersection of politics and social media. Look for the next installment next Tuesday morning.