Is email social media?

204 Social Media Marketing examples -- but does email belong?

Facebook is social. Twitter is social. Discussion and message boards are social. But more people would say that email is not.

Gartner makes two important distinctions as to why email isn’t social media:

  • E-mail is a distribution mechanism and social media is a collective mechanism
  • Mass communication is different from mass collaboration

Email isn’t social media. In fact it’s a communications tool that users shouldn’t employ for media consumption at all. However by some accounts email marketing is a $10 billion industry – not that size makes right.

During the Internet’s Democratization Era, my former Forrester colleague Charlene Li guided companies to a simple and powerful distinction when thinking about tools: email is to-do, RSS is to know. Users approach their inboxes with an obligation mindset, which is fine. They just need to keep in mind that oftentimes the problems they create are their own.

Making email work requires that internally, companies train their users on how to make use of an expanded communications toolkit. Externally, email integrates with social media, orchestrated for reach and frequency.

Join the Conversation


  1. Whether or not email should be employed for media consumption, it is. For better or worse, that is how many people use it. In marketing, it is also significantly better at driving sales and click throughs than other social channels. This doesn’t necessarily prove that it is social, it just proves that it works.

    However, I don’t think it is fair to say that email isn’t social because it is mass distribution. Looking at the numbers, you could easily say the same thing about Twitter.

    Twitter and Facebook are social platforms but there are plenty of ways to use them that aren’t social. I think email itself is also a social platform – in that it is a two-way communication tool.

    So, really, it comes down to how you use them. Treat any of them like a broadcasting channel and they lose their social aspect.

    The debate can go both ways, but I tend to see email as an extension of a good social program – when used right. We all know what happens when email is used wrongly.

  2. Agree with Garrett, email is a social media (as it involves conversations) depending on how you use it. Communication tools are generally social and conversational by nature (again depending on usage).

    It’s hard to define email marketing as social media though as it’s really a broadcast medium (at the moment). Although, well crafted email marketing campaigns can be the precursor to a social interaction if it has the right calls to action and is approached with a social/conversational strategy in mind.

    Google had the opportunity to turn email into a true social media with Wave but sadly didn’t integrate the product into Gmail. I would love to have been able to take an email thread into a realtime conversation as a Wave (if participants were online), with the ability to revert it back to an email thread in Gmail at the close of the conversation (and be able to pick it up again at a later date). That would have given Google the platform to leverage contacts, email, realtime conversation, presence and integrate it into docs and more giving them a really useful social aspect to their core tools. Sadly the Gmail API doesn’t make it possible to do this with third party software (I believe). If anyone at Google reads this and wants a product manager to lead an initiative to launch that, I’m available 🙂

  3. Great, concise piece, Peter. I’m interested in connections between obligation mindsets. A specific example comes to mind–blog subscriptions via email. While the communication is really one-way, the email is the portal to a larger conversation (hopefully), and a more interactive, social experience.

  4. I think your definitions need to be opened up in light of the way people actually interact with email in their inbox. And, as much as I really like and respect Charlene Li, I think we learned in the time after she went on record with that summary that although RSS is a great tool to push content, it has never proven to be the powerhouse we thought. If there’s a blog I’m really interested in, I opt to have it sent to my inbox so I won’t miss or overlook a new post which is all too easy with an RSS feed.

    As much as email might be seem nothing more than a distribution mechanism, I think you have to consider all the different ways people interact with an email, all the options that are built into any given email for people to take action, including sharing, and on and on. Consider an email as the catalyst to initiate a conversation.

    It’s much, much more than a mechanism.

    But, then again, I’ve been in love with email since the early 90’s and evangelizing the power of email communications through my company for more than 10 years.



    Lydia Sugarman, CEO
    San Francisco – New York
    Ph: 415.324.5825 – 212.260.0065

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Being: Peter Kim