January 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

End of E-mail?

The fears are overblown, but Facebook Messages may lead to changes in e-mail marketing tactics.

When Facebook announced in November a revamp of its Messages service, there was a lot of talk about what it means for marketers. Some alarmists called it an e-mail killer. And marketers were worried that consumers would not automatically see commercial e-mail in their primary inbox and that links to retail sites would arrive disabled.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was quick to say that Messages is not designed to undermine e-mail, positioning Messages instead as a streamlined personal communications hub that includes e-mail, instant messaging, text messages and Facebook messages. The idea is that however friends choose to communicate, their messages will show up in a single place.

This still leaves marketers with questions about how commercial e-mails to Facebook.com e-mail addresses would be delivered and if brands will need to change the way they communicate with fans of their Facebook pages.

Let’s look at some of the assertions about Facebook Messages to see if they are fact or fiction. And then we’ll discuss what online marketers should be doing to keep in touch with consumers.

‘Facebook Messages will shut marketers out’

Definitely fiction. Marketers can still interact with consumers on Facebook. However, e-mail marketers will need to make some changes for e-mail sent to Facebook.com e-mail addresses.

Retailers should change their subscription pages to let Facebook.com users know that, unless they act, messages from your brand will show up in their secondary Other folder on Facebook. That means marketers have to encourage consumers to take an action that’s similar to asking a recipient to whitelist a retailer in her conventional e-mail account, so that her e-mail provider always allows the retailer’s e-mail through.

In this case, a retailer should ask recipients to move the retailer’s e-mail from the Other folder to the Messages folder where it has a better chance of getting read.

‘Facebook Messages won’t show links to retail sites’

Technically, this one is both fact and fiction. It’s true that communications that go through Facebook Messages are mainly text, like SMS text messages or Instant Messages. Any HTML e-mails that end up in the Messages folder are displayed in text mode with inactive links.

However, there’s an easy way to see the full HTML message, and that’s by using the Expand button, located in the upper right corner of each e-mail received. This launches the HTML message in a new window with fully clickable and trackable links. Be sure to update your preheader (the text that appears at the very top of each e-mail above the creative content) and, instead of telling recipients to “Click here for images,” ask them to Expand the message.

‘Deliverability rules are out the window’

Fiction for sure. From our experience, Facebook seems to be using industry-standard deliverability rules, placing e-mails that seem like spam in the junk folder. This is great news for mainstream marketers who already do the right things to get their e-mails delivered by the major players, like Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, and Gmail.

But be aware that Facebook does not intend to create a postmaster to monitor e-mail delivery and respond to bulk senders, so if your messages are hitting the junk folder by mistake, you may not have anyone to appeal to for help. Facebook has set up a page which outlines how it handles mail at postmaster.facebook.com, providing information on what it will require in terms of authentication and how it handles suspicious mail.

‘Messages to Facebook fans will get priority’

As regards e-mail, this is definitely fiction. There is no connection between your brand’s Facebook page and your e-mail as far as Facebook is concerned. Even if someone Likes your page, messages sent to their Facebook.com e-mail address still get delivered to the Other folder, just like all the other bulk messages.

The only way to get your commercial message into the Messages folder is if the user moves the conversation themselves. Once a recipient does that, all future messages are delivered to the Messages folder. This is important, because on the standard user’s Facebook home page, users are only notified of new content in the Messages folder, not the Other folder. Only by clicking on the Messages folder do users see the Other folder and the number of new messages in that folder.

Making the most of Messages

So, now that you know the facts, how can you take advantage of this new Messages platform?

First, don’t panic. You haven’t missed the boat. Facebook is rolling out this new functionality gradually across its user base.

In addition, not all users will claim their Facebook.com e-mail address or hook up their cell phones to get text message alerts from Facebook. It is likely adoption will split along demographic lines, with younger users jumping on board first and more mature Facebook members waiting a bit to evaluate the risks, including privacy concerns. Making Facebook a central communications hub could feel like a risky move for consumers who aren’t sure how secure their personal information is within Facebook.

If you have an e-mail sign-up page or preference center on your web site, update it with information for Facebook.com e-mail users. In particular, let subscribers know to check the Other folder for your messages, and encourage them to move those messages to the Messages folder. Otherwise, your e-mail may go unnoticed for quite a while.

Also, take a look at the text versions of your e-mails. Getting a text version of an HTML e-mail is not a great user experience. In Facebook, these messages may come across as a block of text that can be difficult to read. Segment your Facebook audience and provide customers in that segment with a simplified text version that includes your primary message and asks them to Expand the message for full content.

More tips

Consider creating events on your Facebook page. Events can be anything from a store opening to a great sale. Once an event is created, you can message fans of your Facebook page about the event. In addition, the message can include HTML and it will link to your page.

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