If you decide to share a link to this post with your friends, would you send them an email?
Or would you instead post it to your timeline, dash off a tweet or put a quote post on Tumblr? The role of email is in flux, particularly as a tool for sharing news. As Facebook surpasses 1 billion active users and Twitter dominates live news events, what’s left for our old friend the email?
The BuzzFeed network of sites — which includes The Awl, Atlantic Wire, College Humor, Short Form Blog, Capital New York, TMZ and dozens of pop culture blogs — has seen traffic from email services plummet by 60 percent this year.
“People are using email less and less to share stuff, for some reason,” Matt Buchanan writes. “…And while it’s true that sites in the BuzzFeed network tend to produce more viral things — social things you might say, geared toward sharing on Facebook and Twitter, it’s significant that, for these sites, email has steeply fallen off as a vector for sharing.”
Explanations are elusive. Buchanan says referrals from Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest all have grown rapidly — perhaps suggesting people are replacing email with social sharing.
But elsewhere around the Web, email seems to be holding its own.
A New York Times survey I wrote about last week found Americans still share most news through word of mouth and email, with social media link-sharing a distant third. The exception was among Millenials, whose use of email and social network sharing was about equal.
Email is driving about 5 percent less traffic to websites over the past six months, according to data from AddThis, the company that provides sharing buttons and analytics for 14 million websites. The amount of links shared via email also is down about 5 percent from a year ago.
AddThis product director Greg Cypes tells me he is not surprised by BuzzFeed’s observed decline in email sharing.
“Sites that publish topical news, such as entertainment news or tech news, have probably seen a sharper decline in email sharing,” Cypes said. “However, when you look at the entire Internet … email sharing is still the preferred method when it comes to topics such as e-commerce or finance. If I am looking at which hotel to stay in with my family in NYC, I am not going to share that via Facebook or Twitter, I am going to email or copy the URL of the hotel to my wife.”
It seems logical that a given website’s balance of social (semi-public) vs. email (private) sharing would have a lot to do with the type of content it creates. Sites like BuzzFeed consciously aim to create viral hits that readers will want to share with a broad group of friends. And for that you don’t need email when you have Facebook.
It also depends on the audience. Traditional news outlets with older readers may still rely more on email than would startup blogs with Twitter-savvy readers.
Where email still wins
Email retains outright advantages over social networks in some cases.
Despite Facebook and Twitter’s offering of private message services, email remains the standard for private, direct exchanges between small groups of adults.
Emails also get more attention: you don’t see everything your friends post on Facebook, but if someone you know sends you an email you’re going to open it.
As people transition to using smartphones and tablets for much of their communication, email remains their No. 1 activity on those devices.
So it seems fair to assume that the rise of Facebook and other social media has not killed email, but perhaps it will kill the mass email as a method of sharing a link.
These trends may mean news websites could downplay or remove “share by email” buttons on their articles. As previously reported, sharing buttons are less about facilitating sharing than touting the amount of sharing that already occurred. They can also make a website look “a little desperate.”
Email losing its relevance?
In the long-term, there appear to be generational shifts away from email usage.
The BuzzFeed network tends to have young audiences, and those sites are already seeing a drop in email traffic. And The New York Times research showed Millenials were about as likely to use social networks as email for sharing news.
If you look at even younger people, Pew research found that only 6 percent of American teens exchange email daily, compared to 22 percent who IM, 29 percent who send social media messages and 63 percent who send text messages.
Only 37 percent of teens use email at least once a week.
Maybe those habits will change as the teens grow up and go to colleges and to work for employers where email is still a standard of communication. But it seems at least as likely that today’s teens have moved on for good.