Email has always been Facebook’s Achilles Heel. In 2010 the ubiquitous social network tried to rectify this by launching its own email system, trying to attract its users to ditch their tried and tested providers.
However, it has not been plain sailing and the lack of consumer interest culminated last month with Facebook’s decision to close its email service accompanied by the concession from one spokesperson: “We’re making this change because most people haven’t been using their Facebook email address.”
Why did Facebook’s email service fail? To answer this, we must first look at the success of Google’s Gmail. It burst onto the email scene with 1GB of free storage and the ability to search emails with the familiar simplicity of Google web search, which left existing players like Hotmail scrambling to catch up. Facebook, rather arrogantly, entered the webmail market with a service that was inferior to existing mainstream services and failed to offer anything new.
Some commentators may claim that this is inconsequential and that email is not that important, but I would urge these people to look to the digital advertising world to see how important the ‘traditional’ way of messaging online truly is. Email remains a key differentiator for Google and Microsoft in the ongoing battle for the lion’s share of the global advertising market, worth an estimated $650bn.
Those beating the drum for social media will continue to say Facebook has done perfectly well for itself without relying on email, but bear in mind that Facebook and other social networking sites have long relied on email to draw users back to their site. Whether it’s notifications of messages from a friend or a friend’s upcoming birthday reminder, email is still the default digital channel driving customers to not only visit these social networks, but to keep coming back regularly.
This continued importance of the email inbox also means that the ‘grandparents’ of the internet industry, such as Google and Microsoft, still have access to millions of users inboxes to measure open and click-through rates, as well as gain visibility of every online purchase confirmation – whether they admit it or not. The latter offers a view of which business users have bought from and how much they’ve spent. Enabling these businesses to understand how a branding or promotional message delivered into an inbox is much more powerful than a display ad, even if that display ad appears on your Facebook page.
Inbox providers, particularly Google, have also fired a shot across the bow of social media networks by beginning to reduce the visibility of alerts and other emails by siphoning them out to a separate section of the inbox. By segregating these messages, primarily used to drive users back to their sites, Google (whether intentionally or not) is reducing their effectiveness. Since email is such a strong traffic driver and brand identification tool, will Facebook be able to sidestep this handicap without its own email product?
Mark Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona highlights that Facebook’s focus for 2014 will be on bolstering its mobile offering. However, whether its recent acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp will be enough to fill the gap left by not having an email service remains to be seen. In the meantime, the internet’s ‘grandparents’ will retain their control on the consumer inbox and the huge databases of loyal users that are invaluable for their advertising business.
Facebook’s decision to throw its email in the proverbial junk folder may yet prove to be a costly mistake. Social media is still in its relative infancy, especially when compared to email, and it has a long way to go if it’s to take on email as the heart of every online consumer conversation.
Dela Quist is founder and CEO of Alchemy Worx