Internet Industry

Email Is Not Dying

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Image courtesy of husin.sani

This week Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg claimed email is probably going away. This claim is more self-serving marketing fluff than a serious prediction that’s likely to be realized. However, it does point to an important shift in electronic communication: the center of gravity of personal communication has shifted away from email and instant messaging to social media and text messaging. The providers of email and IM including Yahoo, Google and AOL will be hurt by this shift as users pay less attention to the older mediums. However, email is not going to disappear anytime soon.

The primary shift is in personal  communication. Status updates substitute for emails or IMs. Picture sharing is easier and more satisfying by Facebook than by email. The broadcast nature of social media means it takes less effort to keep friends and family up to date. And even when person-to-person communication is desired, the context rich nature of the social media means a Facebook message is often preferable to an email. Some of the best evidence of the size impact is Neilsen’s recent study in the UK showing that instant messaging has has dropped from 14% to 5% of internet usage time.

Email is not going to disappear though. Email is an asynchronous messaging medium thats private, addressable to a particular person and ubiquitous. Such a medium provides enough value that it won’t disappear without one with similar properties taking its place. EMail is needed for notifications for everything from my credit card bill is ready to there’s a sale at my favorite retailer. Conceivably these could move to another mechanism with similar properties like Facebook message but then my Facebook inbox would be just overflowing as my email inbox. Today, part of the value of social media messages for person-to-person communication is that the channel is free of spam and relatively uncrowded. If Facebook opens up it’s messaging to these business-to-consumer communications, it becomes just another crowded channel and while I may care what my friends are up, I really care very little about what bank did today so the inherent advantages of the social mediums no longer matter.

The other reason that email won’t disappear is that there’s no viable substitute for business communication. An email replacement for business communication requires both ubiquity so anyone can talk to anyone and the ability to keep the communication within an organization both private and secure. There’s nothing on the horizon that meets these requirements. Google Wave is a contender but the slow adoption thus far is an strong indicator that it’s going to be really hard to get people change their established behavior. Additionally, Google Wave’s complexity is hindering its diffusion outside of the earliest adopters.

Sandberg’s thesis is what teens do today is predictive of the future and since only 11% of teens check email daily, email is going to disappear. The flaw in this argument is that teens don’t have the needs that drive email usage. They don’t need to get notifications from their bank or cable or cable company that their bill is ready.  They have no business communication needs. They only communicate person-to-person or person to small group and that’s the area wher the shift away from email has happened.

A big impact of the center of gravity shifting will be on marketers who have been effectively utilizing email. Without personal communication, the value of email to users is lower since it’s now all notifications or stuff that only might be interesting. Lower value means less of the mental attention that email marketers and advertisers on email services need to connect with audiences.  It’s akin to the difference between scanning the news headlines to see if there is anything of interest and reading an article in depth. There’s less mental engagement and less time spent on a scan.

The long run solution for marketers will be the same one Sanberg advocates which is add social media to the  marketing mix. But there won’t be a dramatic death of email, at least until there is something it supersede for notifications and business communication.  The teens of today will start using email when grow up an have the need for it.

Internet Industry

Value of Twitter (vs Facebook)

There’s a lot of talk of whether Facebook can crush Twitter.  As I said in my post on the network effect, the only way for a smaller player to compete in an area where the network effect is prominent is compete in a way the bigger player can not match.  The major difference between Twitter and Facebook status is that Twitter defaults public and Facebook defaults private.  Public status has value and Facebook can not compete in the public status arena because it’s entire positioning is around privacy and user control.  Defaulting status message to public would undermine this positioning.

Twitter with its public status is the first time its been really easy to find out what people who you don’t know know are thinking.  Blogging does reveal what bloggers are thinking but it’s much higher effort to blog so only a amMW subset of people will do it.  Plus, even those who blog do not just drop passing thoughts into their blog.   With Twitter, tweets about a product being great or awful are much more common since the medium encourages those kind of messages with its 140 character limit.  In a tweet, there’s little pressure to say something profound or even meaningful since there’s so little space.

Public status allows for search which is an incredible tool.  I’ve personally used Twitter search to do in an hour what would have previously taken weeks and a big check to a market research firm to accomplish. Even just for entertainment, services like Twistori give a view into the thoughts and lives of others that previously was hard to find.

Even if there is plenty of value in consuming tweets, there still have has to be value for the authors.  Being a big Twitter fan, I like the easy channel to talk to the world.  I get replies from people I don’t know that sometimes contain useful information or are just though provoking.  None of this is possible with private status.

I won’t venture a guess as to whether Twitter will be a big financial success.  There definitely value for companies to use to as a communication and research tool and if Twitter can extract some of that value, it’s a viable business.  However, there’s no feature that Facebook can add that will make Twitter disappear.  The public vs. private status distinction creates value for Twitter than Facebook can not grab.

Internet Industry

The Network Effect

Of all the things I learned in during my MBA, the strategic importance of the network effect is the one I see most misunderstood in the tech industry.  The network effect is present when the value of the a product or service is in large part determined by the number of other users of that product or service.  EBay is perfect example of the network effect.  Creating an Internet auction site is not very difficult and is an extremely lucrative business.  EBay had a gross margin of 74% in 2008 because the business never handles physical goods and the cost of running any auction marketplace is low.

So why does EBay have no serious competitors in the US?  Amazon tried to break in to the auction space without success.  EBay’s competitive advantage is the network effect.  If I want to sell something, all the buyers are on EBay.  If I want to buy something, all the sellers are on EBay.  Moving to another site as a buyer or seller means I’d lose value since all the other participants are not there.  Thus an auction site could be better than EBay and cheaper or even free and still not succeed because the value for either party is driven by the presence of the other party.

The principle applies to Craigslist as well.  It would not be difficult for someone to build a classifieds site with better features than Craigslist which still looks circa 1999 .  Web technology has advanced considerably in the last decade but Craigslist is in a time warp.  When I look for furniture on Craigslist, it’s incredibly annoying that I can not see my search results with pictures without having to click through to every listing.  However, I do not use a more functional classifieds sites since the number of listings is too low to be useful even with better features.

Facebook also benefits enormously from the network effect.  Social networks are useless unless your friends are there.  Since Facebook is the largest and almost ubiquitous in some circles, the only general purpose social network it makes sense for people to join is Facebook.  Thus, social networking is very likely to have an industry structure similar to Internet auctions where one player dominates and the 2nd and 3rd place players are dramatically smaller.  To counter the network effect, the smaller networks like My Space have to carve out a defensible space where Facebook can not effectively play for some reason.

Internet Industry

Content Economics

A few months back there were a series of analyst reports and subsequent blog posts about how much money YouTube was losing for Google.  What struck me about this coverage was that many people seemed surprised that YouTube would be hemorrhaging money since they had a lot of users.  Since then I’ve realized much of the industry does not think about the economics of serving content.   The smaller content is in terms of the bytes the better off the provider is.  Large content like video consumes tons of bandwidth and storage both which cost real money.  User content like YouTube uploads is even worse since there is a lot of it store and much of it is rarely if ever used.  Even photo storage and serving is a significant expense.

To offset these costs, heavy content needs superior monetization and since consumers rarely pay for content on internet regardless of what the old media types want to believe, this means advertising.  Video has the advantage that video ads have much higher CPMs than standard display.  However, any user generated content suffers from the problem of much lower CPMs than editorially produced content since the brand advertisers are wary of associating their brand with such unpolished and potentially offensive content.

Profitability data on individual properties is hard to come by since most properties are part of the big providers like Google, Yahoo, AOL and MSN but if it were available, I’m confident that the ratio of revenue per view to bytes served per view would be a strong predictor of profitability. As an approximation, ad CPM / bytes served per view would work and ad CPMs are easier to estimate from the outside since the CPMs of most ad types does not have that much variance across similar properties.

At the other end of spectrum of the content, Facebook recently announced they are cash flow positive.  Most of Facebook’s content is the news feed which is very small in terms of bytes.  Facebook does have the challenge of keeping track and assembling small pieces of content which has its own expenses but from what I’ve read, Facebook engineers have been able to make that process reasonably efficient.  Facebook also had to invent a new type of advertising to get to positive cash flow.  Traditional display advertising has never been high CPM on user generated content.

I haven’t done enough analysis to know whether YouTube can be profitable on its current model.  Google has advantages of both scale and scope.  From their other businesses, Google knows how to run massive data centers cheaply.  Being a huge purchaser of bandwidth and infrastructure hardware surely gives access to rock bottom prices.  If Google does mange to make YouTube profitable, these other advantages will protect them against new entrants.  My guess is that without a new advertising model that raises their revenue per view, YouTube can not over come the costs of serving video for free.