Gmail’s usage goes down, that is. We’ve been reading recently about shifts in consumer media habits, some surprising (don’t miss Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly’s analysis showing TV is the fastest-growing medium in the U.S., still far outpacing the Internet). And then we thought, we don’t check our personal email that often anymore, since we rely on Twitter and Facebook and messaging for intimate communications.
Here’s what Quantcast reports, based on direct cookie observations of traffic to the Gmail site. Down 50% in one year. It’s an amazing trend, and one to watch as Facebook enters the email space with its Messages.
Back in the old days, say 2007, if a huge corporation changed a product and you didn’t like it, your options were few: call to complain; write a letter or email to the company president; play your contacts in the press and hope that someone picks up the story.
Times have changed. When Microsoft announced that the 2010 version of its flagship email product Outlook will not render web pages correctly, but instead use Word as a “render engine” to give a strange, squashed version of HTML email inserts such as e-newsletters, users went up in arms. A group started a viral campaign using Twitter and the web site Fixoutlook.org to demand Microsoft rethink its strategy.
An old product change, but new user complaint tools
Microsoft actually made this change already in the 2007 version of Outlook. Prior to that, email newsletters appeared in Outlook laid out exactly like a web page (above left) while the 2007-onward versions of Outlook squished things inside Microsoft Word (above right). The issue will mostly affect marketers who push professionally designed emails into recipients’ In boxes, and could conceivably reduce email newsletter response rates — one of the few remaining bright spots in internet banner advertising CTRs.
User complaints are spreading: The top 10 ad blog Brandflakes led with the headline “Windows users: Another 5 years of crappy email?” and the topic is beginning to trend in Twitter. Microsoft has responded to the campaign noting its Word editor lets users create graphic-rich emails without HTML.
We can only guess at Microsoft’s motive: by entangling email tightly with its PC-based Word software program, it defends the Windows mothership against the rapid movement of users to other online, free, “cloud” communication options.
Unlike back in 2007, Twitter and social media have gotten a giant’s attention. Right or wrong? Look at the choices above and you be the judge.
We love Google. Its web email service, Gmail, has added a brilliant “custom time” stamp feature allowing you to set any date you want on an email — so if you forget to mail a business proposal or send Mom a birthday card, simply email a retroactively dated message, and it will pop up in the recipient’s inbox in the proper chronological order.
We can’t fathom why no one has thought of this before. Gmail offers an added bonus, you can have the email pop up marked as “read” or “unread,” so if your contact claims you never sent the message, you simply say, “Check your inbox — it came in last Tuesday,” and it will appear that it did and has already been opened.
No word yet if falsifying data creates legal issues, and we hear privacy advocates in the European Union are already protesting. Pity. Internet sociologist Lirpa Loof notes that shifting time stamps could lead to marketing fraud, but might help personal relationships strained by the cold typing of social media. “Now, even if you forget to tell someone you love them on your anniversary,” Loof said, “you can send a backdated poem and have it arrive on time. It’s still a lie, but one oh so sweet.”
Isn’t technology great? We can all now type memos at each other, using QWERTY keyboards invented back in 1874 by Sholes & Glidden, and attach photos, invented in 1826 by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, or even email presentations with drawings, invented in caves in the Upper Paleolithic era in 40,000 B.C. … um, a pattern is forming.
Why is introverted communication — in which we compose thoughts in silence on email or blogs or Twitter or PowerPoint, and then fire away to recipients when ready — now so popular? Maybe Carl Jung had it right. He suggested that the spectrum of introversion and extroversion is the core dimension of human personality. Studies have found that introverts tend to do better in academics and have more blood flow in the frontal lobes of their brains, the areas for planning and processing (take that, high school football team!). However, studies also show the extroverts are happier, seeming to have more blood flow in the groovier parts of the brain — anterior cingulate gyrus, temporal lobes, and posterior thalamus, yeah baby — that are involved in emotional and sensory delights. Such as putting lampshades on your head at parties.
Here’s what we think. (A) Introverts spend time alone, are drawn to studying and technology, so are likely early adopters of technology toys, but (B) extroversion fills the human need to connect, and we all long to move a little further down the cool-kid-with-keg-in-high-school party train. Typing fills the void, and it’s chased by colorful gadgets. Humans loved memos, then faxes, then email, then blogging, and now Twitter and Facebook, because we can be private and social at the same time. We protect our inner introversion and indulge in extroverted exultation.
All of which explains why your new smartphone has a QWERTY keypad.
What happens when social networking turns out to be an interactive feature and not a single company’s web site? Andreas Kluth has a brilliant essay where he notes social nets are today where the web was back when we needed AOL to get in. Eventually, just as web access and email became commodities, social networks will be a feature of every node on the internet. Your contacts and news will talk with our contacts and news. And Facebook will go away.
We call this going ambient, meaning social nets — like the web, and like electricity before it — will just become part of our environment. You don’t walk into a room today and go, wow, man, this room is electrified! There is no single electrical company or single web company. Same will go for social networks, in which our little personal sphere of communications will plug in to everyone else, without a single company making it happen.
This trend explains the slipperiness of today’s social media race. Friendster plummeted. MySpace got buzz before it got ugly. Facebook was valued at $15 billion before it bungled Beacon. Now, everyone is launching new social nets. Even Penthouse invested $500 million this month in sex-related communities. Kind of reminds you of Earthlink and Prodigy chasing AOL back in the day.
The trouble for advertisers is if social networks are just the new email–a new mode of communication, not a specific web portal–then advertisers are going to have difficulty intercepting our messages. Consider this: No one has succeeded in placing ads next to email, even the contextual attempts by Google. For example, if this blog post was an email to you, dear reader, a computer algorithm from Google might pick up the word “sex” in the above paragraph and insert text ads to the right of this copy block for Viagra. Is that relevant? Do you even care? Or, more important, if your mode of thought at this very moment is communicating with us on a personal level, aren’t you a bit removed from the hunting-shopping mode you enter when you search for products on Google.com?
We think Kluth is right–social networks are here to stay. About 83 million U.S. consumers visited social networks in October, or about half of all people who went online. As networks become unbound, and as we begin whispering with each other in new ways, advertisers may have a hard time bending our ear.