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March 20, 2009

Should you email participants in your social applications?

by Josh Bernoff

A question is lurking in the back of many of my conversations with marketers who are pursuing social applications. In light of recent conversations, now's the time to ask.

Imagine for a moment that you are creating a community, a blog, or some other forum of social application for your customers and other people interested in your products. Being intelligent, you've set this up to best serve the needs of those people, and are hoping that it will benefit you.

Which statement would you agree with?

A. I should create an opportunity for them to opt in to my email lists, perhaps even during their registration. They're here because they're interested in my company, so they will potentially be interested in newsletters or product updates. And that's one of the ways I can prove this social application is worthwhile for the business.

B. The groundswell is about productive social interactions, not email! Running an application just as a feeder to the email list is missing the point. The application is this new marketing, not just a way to get emails.

Have at it, folks. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


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Frank Schultheiss

"The application is this new marketing, not just a way to get emails." That's true, but that don't except your options to communicate by Email. The groundswell does not cut electronic communication channels like email - they are part of it.


Rather timely, I've had this conversation a couple of times recently.

I'd go with A. Let the customer/reader decide how they prefer to interact with you. If your aspiration is to create a truly interactive means of communication, you can't force people to participate in the way that you think they "should" do. Let them operate in read-only mode for a while and make their own decision about when and how they they want to do things differently.

As far as "running an application just as a feeder to the email list" is concerned, I think that's a rather odd way of looking at it. Think of e-mail as a lo-fi RSS feed, yet another channel for communication. You don't run a blog "just for the RSS feed", it's simply another way that people can receive your content if that's the way they prefer to operate. It's their choice, not yours.

Nick Smith

Don't think you've presented two alternatives.

So, I agree with A - we live in a world where people want choice as to how they interact - why would I preclude e-mails if that's what they want?

But, also, I largely agree with B - if I see this as JUST as a feeder to the email list I'm missing the point entirely - because again I'm failing to hand the choice (and power?) over to the customer.

So, as with much else, it's a both / and world. not an either / or world

Michael Della Penna

A. In today's world it is all about offering the consumer choices and control. If you do offer email, make sure it is timely, relevant and offers incremental value to the experience.

Jeremy Hilton

Put another point on the board for A.

A key takeaway from the recent Marketing Sherpa conference was this very important and relevant stat - "Email is still driving more online purchases than other online media."

At the end of the day, marketing is about selling products. In my opinion, ignoring a powerful marketing platform like email in favor of a pure social solution would be foolish.

Peter Buechler

The unobtrusive checkbox to allow "opt in" is not enough to email fatigue let alone irritation. In a forced choice I go with B, but this option is a doctrinaire.

A problem with A in practice is that we always get too much email until we unsubscribe out of frustration.

It would be useful to be able to sign up for extremely targeted messages, e.g. remind me of your quarterly conference call or a episodic email, which is a summary of links to all messages in the last X months.

Jeff Stolarcyk

A. From a marketing perspective, email works. And as long as it's presented unobtrusively, an email opt in is a good idea.

A social app is a lot like a business card - why wouldn't you put all of the ways people can interact with you on it? Just make sure they aren't gaudy.

Aad 't Hart

The community should be attractive enough for people to visit. It should not be place to distribute newsletters. However, members should be able to opt in for receiving email notifications on the topics/discussions they select.

Chris Grayson

Answer: A. (...is half right.)

Stay customer focused- You should give the end user the choice of how they wish to communicate with you, not dictate the channel to them.

This, however, does not mean that you should use email registration as the metric to judge the effort's success.

E Shenfield

B in theory
A in practice

Remember, so long as it is permission based, it is OK, and probably welcome until it is no longer welcome.

Dave Levy

A. Create as many opportunities as possible for your audience to get information. Let them decide how they want. If you leave things out, you'll lose someone.

It isn't hard to build/maintain and, yes, some people still rely on "ol' slow e-mail" over bite-sized microblogging. Why risk losing them if they can be a key part of the movement?

Eric Hoffman

I say A, with the caveat that the more personalized your email program is, the more successful you will be in merging email with your social media efforts.

Nicholas Kinports

Email should be included in the mix - although it should be used sparingly and on an opt-in basis only. Just my opinion!


David Henderson

The application is the new marketing (B), if and only if, it natively lives within and across existing social graphs. If you're building walled garden communities on your web site and trying to recreate your own social graph (user please fill out yet another social profile and invite your friends to yet another social service), then (A) your better get those emails at registration.


Neither. People must be given a choice of how they want information, when and where. What about a little option that sends out an alert to my fb profile, a little tweet from @groundswell tht readers can follow, a feed grabber option tht can push feeds of headlines to my email and others- and let people comment in through all these portals, including email replies... that gives the reader the choice!


Cast another vote for the post:
B in theory
A in practice

Old school marketing votes A. But companies still have trouble quantifying benefits of B. Therefore, in most larger companies - A wins.

Brenda Ballard

Another vote for A, but with the addition of a mobile opt-in and demographic info.
I don't think A, distracts from the idea of social applications, I think that we need to look at the idea of multi-platform options, including platform agnosticism.


I think A. I use my email to track all of my social stuff. I'm not going to go back to your site to interact unless I'm reminded by an email from you. Then I go, "oh yeah, I wanted to check this out more" and click through to socially interact more.

Jay Collier

Option C: Both/and, instead of either(A)/or(B). Integrate push AND pull methods to support social engagement.

For the times people want to browse, search, and find content (pull), show current and archived contributions, in context, via a Web browser or mobile app.

For the times people want to know what's new (push), allow them to receive notifications via their method of choice (e-mail, SMS, RSS).

Provide options for participating in the social experience to best support participants.

Josh Bernoff

Thanks for all the comments!

I knew many would try to choose both. If you tell a social audience to pick A or B, they always try to pick both or neither -- but the discussion is enlightening.

I think creating a social application as an excuse to generate emails is wrong (and I hear this "strategy" too often) but I'm pleased at the number of commenters who approve of email as part of the strategy, and it's certainly important since it's measurable.


Without a doubt A. But with some restrictions. The email should be bespoke to the social side of your marketing strategy, about bringing consumers closer together through your products. Not to just push your price cuts, sales etc. How about a social marketing e-mail strategy that plays alongside the application? e.g. here are some other cool things we thought you would be interested in... oh and by the way we do these things as well.

I would be pretty annoyed if I signed up to a Dell Ideastorm application for example and then all I got was discounted Dell products via email.

Manu Chatlani

Definitely alternative A tough it also can be ran with different options: it could be trough a email or, to avoid the "spamming" effect, you can also create a micro marketing strategy with a "hot site" that has the permission marketing request.

Google Fan

B and only B. I get enough email. I prefer rss feeds. I want my email to be from people I know and directed to me. Most everything else is spam, unless you are giving me a coupon or a special deal. One exception to my rule is if you publish a daily feed that I am interested in like a stock market update. I'll take that in my email. Otherwise, keep me on your "no call list."

Stephanie Miller

Josh, very provacative ;) But the wrong question.

The question must be: How can we use email to enhance and nuture all customer and prospect relationships?

Email is still the most powerful digital marketing tool, with the highest ROI, and so that is why marketers are looking to engage with as many people as possible through this channel. Very smart.

The social nature of our digital lifestyles requires email marketers to adapt to the "social inbox." This includes thinking past permission and never taking the priviledge of an email address for granted.

- Stephanie Miller of Return Path, @StephhanieSAM


Neither! Make it so that they are on your email list at the time of registration, but then give them an opportunity to opt out by putting an opt out link at the bottom of the email.

Scott Hepburn

As always, I'm a little late to the party. My apologies Josh!

Last week, I received an email from (apparently) the admin/moderator of a group I belong to on LinkedIn. I'm not the least bit active on the group and didn't recognize the sender -- I must have joined the group on a whim once upon a time.

The email was a call to arms: The moderator was miffed that LinkedIn was changing its rules to prevent group moderators from acquiring and sending to the email addresses of group members. He called for group members to voice displeasure to LinkedIn.

I was ticked off LinkedIn let someone email me in the first place. After I read what the sender wanted, I was even more pissed -- at LinkedIn AND the sender. Did I sign up for this sort of junk?

Why did the sender want to include me in his email blast database? Opting into a database to be sold to is not what I join social networks.

I unsubscribed from the group immediately.

Even as a marketer, I detest the notion of using social networks to scrape together an email database. Is it right or wrong? Don't care. Does it work? Yeah, probably, but still don't care.

My objection is on an opportunity cost basis: Why would you sacrifice the benefits of a robust, dynamic community on a social platform for the sake of building a mass marketing list? Seems like you'd lose at least as much as you gain.

John A Robb

I just started following your blog and noticed this post in my reader ... does that mean I've already opted for option B?

No, I opt for option A. The problem with email isn't that you receive email it's that you receive the wrong kind of email. Send meaningful email and in my opinion, subscribers won't leave. Send the wrong kind of email (see CatherineW's comment above) and you'll get angry subscribers. It's not the medium that causes frustration it's the message.

John A Robb

Sorry ... I was referring to Scott Hepburn's comment.

Rebekah Donaldson

How I wish all the top marketing automation software execs saw the options as either A and B. But Shocking Marketing No-Nos come to my inbox from the most surprising of places.

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