Email: Digital Marketing’s Original Snapchat?

Okay, hear me out.

Social media platforms haven’t been shy about copying Snapchat’s features lately. In fact, many brands (Snapchat included) made fun of those copycats in their April Fools’ Day pranks this year. So with everyone rushing to out-Snapchat Snapchat, they’re obviously the cool kid that everyone wants to be right now. Right?

Well, when it comes to the core tenets of digital communication, Snapchat is hardly doing anything email didn’t do first. Granted, social media startups probably don’t lie awake at night plotting new ways to rip off email. But the core elements that Snapchat has packaged up and placed a shiny filter over are largely the same fundamentals of email that make it the go-to for users and digital marketers alike. Here are a few of those characteristics.

1. Personal 1-to-1 communication. Snapchat’s young user base is “kids who lied about their birthday to join Facebook in 5th grade.” It’s the first generation to grow up with their lives fully on digital display, so it was only natural they’d rebel against public, performative social media to seek out a low-pressure way to interact privately. We’ve come full circle; email did 1-to-1 communication first.

The personal nature of the inbox allows comfortable communication between individuals. It’s what keeps users coming back to the inbox, regardless of social media trends, and what email marketers turn to for its audience development potential far beyond that of the platform.

2. Sending pictures. 
When Snapchat first popped up, many people scoffed at the idea of talking through images (probably the same people who now pepper their text messages with emojis). While we can’t claim email invented picture communication without invoking the ire of a few Egyptologists, it was certainly a pioneer in digital picture-sending.

Once the novelty of sending text emails wore off, the next step was to use the inbox to share our favorite pictures with friends. (Maybe hieroglyphics predate email, but it certainly seems like that dancing baby GIF has been circulating for millennia.) The GIFs have changed, but the allure remains: marketers turn to images to tell stories in a way words cannot.

3. Making communication pretty
Speaking of gimmicks, Snapchat’s quirky filters were also dismissed as just that. Nevertheless, they’re one of the most endearing parts of the platform, keeping users in the app swapping faces for hours. The shiny visual elements worked for Snapchat just as they did for email marketing. Email aesthetics have even attracted their own share of naysayers.

Oddly enough, some 1990s purists were against bringing HTML to email. They felt it got in the way of the message. Those critics quickly came around; while text-only email still has its place, the widespread adoption of HTML and CSS means our inboxes are filled with rich content that converts readers and looks pretty doing so. Not that HTML doesn’t still get in the way sometimes, as any email developer can attest.!

4. A new way to reach new audiences. 
Once Snapchat gained traction, marketers naturally turned to it as a way to reach its uniquely young audience. That isn’t to say there haven’t been growing pains. It’s been tough to craft content that works on the platform, and it’s been even tougher to get that content before the right eyes. All in all, the most success Snapchat’s seen with advertising isn’t even inside their own platform; it’s those DJ Khaled commercials.

The story of the first “marketing email” is well-known among marketers: one person revolutionized marketing with a single email. He sold millions of dollars in computer equipment and found a new digital audience to reach, even if some of them weren’t too happy about it. While your email marketing program probably isn’t quite bringing those same returns, email’s 3800% ROI still stands high above other digital marketing avenues..

5. Content opportunities for publishers. 
In an effort to make sure those audiences are met with quality content, Snapchat’s making the hard sell to publishers. They’ve promised that the resources required for Snapchat publishing will be worth it, but the mixed results say otherwise: reach has fluctuated wildly, and the monetization question is still up in the air. Try as they might, social media can’t replicate the results of email for digital publishers.

Despite platform publishing’s promises of reach and greater awareness, media companies are better off directing readers to owned content through email. Email was the first way to deliver self-contained digital content to readers, and it’s still the best. The most successful publishers are investing in email newsletters-as-products, bringing easily-digestible content to readers in a way that just so happens to be really good at driving subscriptions too.

6. Group chat.
Though users came to Snapchat for the 1-to-1 communication, they still wanted a way to interact with groups. The chat function is everywhere, and for good reason. People like the immediacy and continuity of chat; it’s no wonder marketers have increasingly turned to chatbots in an attempt to further connect with their audience.

The limited functions of chatbots render them hardly more useful than an automated email (which, again, was first), but how did email predate the group chat? With the humble email chain; though as anyone trapped in a neverending reply-all will tell you, Snapchat definitely made some improvements. While email is best used as a direct link to individuals, Snapchat’s group messaging is far more fun than the irrelevant replies, chain letters, and forwarded urban legends of old.

(Email chains: the original fake news.)

7. A space for expression
With any new medium comes the urge to be funny through that medium, and cyberspace is no different. Like most platforms, Snapchat has become home to its own idiosyncratic brand of humor. Facebook has memes caked in layers of irony, Twitter has surrealist jokes, and now Snapchat is the post-Vine destination for concise cinematic comedy by both teenagers and the brands marketing towards them.

Of course, the oldest form of internet humor is forwarded joke emails. Remember any of those jokes? Of course you don’t; they’re terrible. Still, while email chains are uniquely unfunny, the email marketing space has never been funnier. Email allows brands to communicate informally, letting their brand voice shine through. Humorous brand messaging is tricky to get right, as this year’s crop of corporate April Fools’ pranks demonstrated, but the returns are just too great to resist.

This Conclusion Will Disappear in Ten Seconds.

Let’s be clear: in a time of neverending copycat startups, Snapchat has proven itself a true original. Their Stories feature has been stolen by almost everyone at this point (I expect to see a new Stories feature every time I open LinkedIn), and the ability to send messages that disappear is the envy of everyone who’s ever rage-sent an angry email only to regret it afterwards.

Still, at its core are the basic elements of digital communication that have existed for decades, the ones that email delivers in its own way. That’s why email is the preferred channel of marketers who know the pitfalls of blindly chasing after the latest digital fad. It’s cheap, it’s established, and it gets results. Despite what the latest platform may promise (at the risk of sounding like that old guy who tells you how all your favorite music is “just ripping off The Stones"), email did it all first.

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Editor, PostUp PlayBook