Is Email Old News? Social Networks as the New Communications Channel By Stella Hernandez

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By Stella Hernandez, January 2010

When it comes to online communications, social networking is the new kid in town. It’s hip, viral, and has huge communities of people sharing information with each other. And its rise comes as more and more people question email’s effectiveness—are social networks replacing email as a communications channel?

In short, no. But that doesn’t mean social networking is an insignificant trend. A Pew Internet and American Life Project recently found that 35 percent of all American Internet users (and a whopping 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-old adults) use social networks. Sites like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn encourage users to post profiles about themselves and connect with friends and others who share their interests. The process creates an expanding web of invitation- and referral-based contacts.

As nonprofits seek to expand their communities of interest, social networks are a natural fit. A number of organizations, including the Nature Conservancy and the Genocide Intervention network, have made them an important part of their outreach strategy.

To investigate the rumors of email’s demise, we spoke with communications consultants and staff members from technically sophisticated nonprofits. We found that many of them perceive social networks to be a useful communications channel—but as an adjunct to email, rather than a replacement. Both media have their own strengths, and a place in a communications mix. How do they compare?

What Social Networks Bring to the Mix

Social networks introduce an interesting new model of outreach and communications with some advantages over email, including:

1. They can expand your audience.
Social networks can help you build a broad awareness of your organization in a way not easily accomplished through more one-to-one communications strategies like email. In the most general sense, email is a push strategy—you send information to known constituents. But social networking has both a push and pull approach— not only can you target messages to specific audiences, but people actively seek out connections, post to their profiles, and make friend-to-friend recommendations.

2. They help spread the word fast.
Social networks allow you to reach a lot of new people quickly. That’s a great way to organize a protest or get people to sign a petition when you don’t have a large pre-existing list. The networks’ viral nature lets people spread compelling messages to an ever-expanding group.

3. They reach out to where people are.
With 75 percent of young adults using social networking sites, this communications channel reaches a demographic that may no longer use as much email. Social networks also allow more informal communications and, done right, seem less a “message from the man” and more like corresponding with a friend. Part of the strategy is to use these networks to encourage others to pass the word informally—it can be uniquely compelling to hear about a cause from a friend as opposed to getting a message from the organization itself.

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