Email remains a popular way to share news, but for how long?

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 YorkTMZ 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.”

BuzzFeed says email referrals to sites in its network have dropped about 60 percent this year.

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 still a popular way for Americans to share news, according to research commissioned by The New York Times.

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.

Nearly 40 percent of teens never use email.

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.

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  • Anonymous

    I think that’s probably true, and they’re not capturing every referral that actually comes from email. That might account for a low overall count of email referrals, but it wouldn’t explain for the sudden change in the numbers this year.

  • Anonymous

    If they’re detecting these stats by web referer, they’ll only count email hits that came from web-based mail services (GMail, etc.), not mail read in an actual mail program on a computer (or smartphone), and probably not even webmail that’s, for instance, being read on a copy of SquirrelMail within your own domain instead of a “recognizable” mail domain like Gmail.

  • Michael Olson

    Insightful article – there is a lot of good data in here from Buzzfeed and the NYT that I had not previously seen. My company, Janrain, publishes quarterly data on social sharing preferences and trends, and yes, we are seeing Facebook and Twitter currently dominate the landscape – Full disclosure – this data is compiled/aggregated from sites using our technology. But sites out there (Dr. Pepper and Roadrunner Records are two example) are beginning to enable the ability to connect your Gmail or Yahoo! identity, browse through a list of your contacts on the site, and easily share with selected contacts via email. This is a good way to alleviate the challenges associated with email sharing today: that it’s not as easy as sharing via social networks. And this method also enables the private sharing method afforded to the email channel.

  • May Zayan

    I do that too Regina. Seems to be a solid way of sending notes to myself. And I have found that some news sites (which I rely on heavily) don’t have an easy email share option – only across social media platforms. I’m copying and pasting URLs and emailing to myself which seems a bit ridiculous considering the amount of options we are normally presented with in our exponentially expanding techie world…

  • May Zayan

    I think that at the heart of the matter lies the issue of privacy. Depending on the content being shared, that criteria alone will drive the decision for most users to either send material via email or not. By employing it as a means to exchange personal content, they are actively choosing to interact with a receiver on a more discreet or personal level. As you noted, not everyone wants their activities exposed to the public (a travel deal, let’s say, that’s shared via Facebook, or an article on fungal growth that’s being tweeted to Aunt Sally).
    Still, for companies, email blasts in the form of e-newsletters, seem to be less successful; where more users are considering them spam or junk mail rather than truly worthwhile email content – and for that matter, an intrusion on their privacy.
    A more effective method for companies appears to be in keeping their audience updated by establishing Facebook pages, Twitter handles and actively engaging with users on their company websites. In this way, privacy makes its case: for content that’s socially ‘sharable’ – post it. Otherwise, I think most people are still happy to click on their inbox.

  • Anonymous

    I have noticed that, too. Some people do that just by saving draft emails they can access across devices, rather than sending themselves the email.

    Kind of amazing that there’s not a better way to sync our own information across devices yet, but it all comes down to what the devices make it easy to do. The Chrome mobile browser does a nice job of letting me access the bookmarks and open tabs from my laptop, so I don’t have to email URLs back and forth.

  • Regina McCombs

    It may be driving less traffic, but an interesting report out from Google last month pointed out that emailing ourselves is an important way we complete tasks sequentially across multiple screens (moving from mobile to computer, for instance). That means it’s important for news organizations provide the ability to email articles from mobile devices, currently a mixed bag in news apps and mobile sites: