Interlaced: Email and Social Networks

Despite Having 300 Million Members, Facebook is Not The Largest Social Network
In my opinion, online social networks have three distinguishing features:  1) They have profiles that enable people to express their identity 2) Ability for people to connect to these profiles 3) To be successful, there’s a greater value created by a group of people sharing than as individuals who do not.

This week, Facebook announced it has ballooned to 300 million users, far more than MySpace and certainly Twitter.  Yet, I want to assert that Facebook isn’t the largest social network, email is (we’ve talked about this before).  Recent numbers from Microsoft showed that the number of active users (although the definition of ‘active’ isn’t explained) exceeds 375 million users for Hotmail.

When you combine all of the email networks from Gmail, Hotmail, AOL, Yahoo, and the millions in Outlook at corporations all over the world –it dominates over Facebook.

Not Everyone Agrees Email and Social Networks Are The Same
I took the conversation to my own community in Twitter, and while the majority seemed to agree others respectfully suggested that “email is not a social network because:”  1) It’s private, not public, 2) Lack of profiles, and  3) Lack of discoverability of people. I’d like to quickly address why I stand by that email is the largest social network:

Social networks can be private.  Just like in real life, some communities are not for the public.  In fact, Facebook is a closed social network, very little of your personal information can be seen by the public.  Secondly, some of the most successful social networks are deployed inside of companies, just ask folks like Telligent, Mzinga, Awareness, and Jive.

Email does indeed have profiles. Many argued that email doesn’t have a profile, yet, consumer email clients all offer profiles.  For example, see Yahoo’s, Microsoft Live, (which can spur from a hotmail account) and the Google profile.  We’re encouraged to put our handle, name, location, and other demographic information.  The second place to look is within the signature of each email you receive, people put their name, company, title, contact information and whatever else they want to self-express.  In both cases people opt-in to put that information in, and make their profile information accessible to those they want to share it with.

Email profiles are discoverable and social. Some who don’t believe email is a social network will argue that the profiles are not easy to find.  A social networks will help like-minded users find each other, and some social networks even recommend others to follow. Take another look corporations that have deployed exchange server have a large directory with individual names, profiles, and groups that they belong to.  You can search for titles, locations, and groups to find who in a company may have similar needs to you.  What about in the consumer space? Yahoo encourages it’s mail users to ask and answer questions from each other –even if you don’t know them directly.  In fact, in my Yahoo profile, there’s an area that suggests people I should connect with, one which is Shel Israel, who is certainly a friend, and Microsoft Live recommends people “like you” to connect with.

Agree or Disagree, Email and Social Networks Intertwine
A few more indicators that email and social networks are starting to merge: For public social networks like Facebook, Glassdoor, Yelp, and Twitter, email is a pre-requistite to register.  Messages that you receive in Facebook or Twitter, often end up in your email stream.  Email portals are already developing social features around them, have you seen the Yahoo homepage?  It’s starting to look like a social network.

Recommendations: Approach Email and Social Tech in an Integrated Strategy
It’s too easy to focus on the shiny microblogging tools and cast incumbent technologies by the side.  Savvy communicators should factor in how email and social networks fuel each other, they should:

  • Interlace email and social efforts. In your marketing efforts, make it easy for people to share content both on social sites and through email.  Use the sharethis feature on your websites encouraging people to post content on social networks –or email to each other.  In your email marketing, make it easy for people to also share the information on their social networking profiles.
  • Prepare for applications to be build on email platforms. Recognize that email portals are becoming social platforms, and brands will soon build or sponsor applications that interact with Yahoo Mail, Microsoft Live, and whatever comes next.
  • Focus on the relationships between individuals –less on the medium.  The medium isn’t as important as the relationships between the people.  When Twitter goes down, some shift to Friendfeed, or Facebook to communicate, people have a way to find each other regardless of the medium or channel.

I hope this triggers an interesting discussion, even if you don’t agree. Would love to hear a global perspective on mobile usage, how does that factor in?

Update: On a related note,this study indicates that email usage is being eroded away by social networking sites and instant messaging. This is the type of data that will send email providers scurrying to the product roadmap to quickly integrate into the social web as quickly as possible.