Parts of the online communications community have been abuzz the last couple of days over reports that Ben & Jerry’s ice crean is dropping its email marketing program in favor of Facebook and Twitter. Turns out, the change only affects the company’s fans in the United Kingdom; U.S. ice cream addicts can still get their inbox sugar fix (for now, at least). But the announcement drew attention in part because it goes against the conventional wisdom that social media marketing and email marketing complement one another and in fact work better in concert.
Ben & Jerry’s claims to be dropping email because of cost and the preferences of its customers, but those rationales seem sketchy. If people aren’t happy with the emails, for instance, why drop the list entirely? The company could have put resources into finding out why the emails weren’t delivering value, then turn around and revamp their campaign in response. As it is, they’re effectively abandoning tens or hundreds of thousands of customers, many of whom AREN’T on Facebook or Twitter and will hence lose any online connection with the brand.
The cost question is even weirder, since an email database is still dirt-cheap to host and to use, even if you’re maintaining a million-strong list. The real question should be the cost-per-contact, and it’s important to realize that social media AREN’T free (those accounts are managed by paid staff) and almost always have a lower response rate per-message than email. For instance, most people will miss a given Tweet or Facebook Wall post because it’s pushed out of site quickly by newer content, meaning that customers need to be paying attention to the channel at a time near when the company contacts them for the message to have any chance of doing its job.
By contrast, email waits patiently in your inbox until you open it, which may be hours or days after it arrives. Yes, Facebook Page administrators can send an “Update” to all of their fans, but these messages drop into a dedicated inbox that many people don’t even know exists, and you DON’T get an email notification when one arrives. In practice, a given email message can have a response rate ten or more times higher than a given Tweet or Facebook post, making email more cost-competitive than the raw numbers would suggest. The long-time rule of thumb for political communicators, at least, has been to fish for new supporters in social spaces but move them onto an email list as soon as possible, at least if you want to get actual work or real donations out of them.
The Ben & Jerry’s decision, unless (as my NMS colleague Soren Dayton pointed out) it’s being driven by some kind of U.K.-specific restrictions that make email marketing less effective, seems to reflect one of two things: either a bean-counter followed the instinct to cut costs in the short term regardless of the long-term consequences, or a marketing executive took a big drink of the social media Kool Aid. Either way, I suspect that it’s a decision the company will come to regret.