You’ve seen the headlines: “9 Reasons Why Email is Dead,” Why Email No Longer Rules….And What That Means for the Way We Communicate,” or “Nielsen: Email Use Drops 28 Percent in One Year.” With the seemingly endless reports about the death of email, it’s no wonder that the commonly-held myth of decreased email usage exists.

The last headline referenced above is the latest article predicting email’s demise and is based on a recent blog post from Nielsen NetView. In their article “What Americans Do Online: Social Media And Games Dominate Activity,” Nielsen presented data that highlighted the top 10 internet locations where U.S. online users spend their time, including a statistic that shows percentage change in share of time. They report that consumers spent 28% less time using email between June 2009 and June 2010.

Despite the fact that Nieslen provided very limited commentary about this statistic, the media quickly began referencing it as further evidence that email usage is on the decline, creating more headlines and blog posts that cited this data as their primary argument.

There are several problems with this assumption:

The media generally overlooked other statistics included in the same blog post about a separate set of data focused on mobile use. This second data set shows that mobile email use (accessing email through mobile devices) is actually on the rise. As Nielsen explained in their blog post, “There is a double-digit (28 percent) rise in the prevalence of social networking behavior, but the dominance of email activity on mobile devices continue with an increase from 37.4 percent to 41.6 percent of U.S. mobile Internet time.”

Email usage’s percentage change highlighted by Nielsen is in direct contrast with our SUBSCRIBERS, FANS, & FOLLOWERS research, where we asked if consumers used email more or less often between October 2009 and April 2010, and 25% of consumers said they were using email more often. Only 6% said they were using it less often. Combined, these statistics suggest a net of 19% of consumers who are using email

To answer this question, we needed to determine which data is more reliable. ExactTarget’s SUBSCRIBERS, FANS, & FOLLOWERS research is based on self-reported consumer data. While imperfect, the national sample should at least be directionally accurate. In contrast, Nielsen measures all the internet categories (or channels) they list in their top 10 through the analyses of “website content categories.” more often. This begs the question: is this myth about email’s decline plausible or busted? In other words, Nielsen’s measurement of email usage is based on how often consumers access email through sites like Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail (i.e. web portals), not the time each consumer spends with email as an actual activity. Desktop clients like Outlook, MacMail, Thunderbird, and mobile devices are not included in the numbers reported by Nielsen.


Nielsen’s methodology was developed years ago, when the majority of personal email access did in fact occur through web portals or enterprise email servers. Today, this methodology is restrictive because it forces Nielsen to make an assumption that all personal email is accessed through webmail and not traditional desktop clients or mobile devices.

More importantly, this methodology doesn’t account for the fact that more and more consumers are using desktop and mobile email clients to access their accounts through providers that still maintain webmail portals. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo, and similar services can all easily be accessed through non-web-based clients by simply entering an email address and password.

Nielsen operates under the assumption that webmail access is a good proxy for measuring personal email usage, and this is simply no longer sufficient. How consumers access email is in fact changing, but the use of email continues to increase. The result? The myth that email use is declining is busted.

Source: Social Mythbusting. Part seven of ExactTarget’s Subscribers, Fans & Followers research series.  ExactTarget powers Event 360’s on-demand email marketing and interactive marketing programs.

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