A few weeks ago I came across a research study which indicated that peers were losing their credibility as a source of recommendations. This flies in the face of everything I had seen over the past 5 or 6 years, and certainly much of what word-of-mouth marketing relies on. The study hit me pretty hard (a more complete version is available on Advertising Age – subscription required), so I tackled it in my column for MediaPost this month. The column is reprinted below, or you can read it on the MediaPost site. Feel free to leave comments here or there – I read and respond to both.

SWYN Vs. FTF: Does Social Sharing Remove Too Much Friction?
by Mike May
published on 3.10.10 in MediaPost’s Email Insider

A lot of ESPs are now offering share-with-your-network (SWYN) functionality, and I can attest first-hand that inside the email industry we’re pretty excited about the email-social media integration that SWYN affords. “It’s like forward-to-a-friend on steroids,” we (collectively) say. Instead of subscribers passing your message on to a friend or a handful of department colleagues, they can now push it out to their 350 Facebook friends or 1200 Twitter followers. What a huge lift for your readership and ROI metrics, right?

Maybe — for now, anyway. Social sharing is appealing for marketers (email and otherwise) because it removes a lot of the friction from word-of-mouth marketing, and can amplify an audience exponentially. We’re all suddenly very organized about learning now to build campaigns optimized for SWYN functionality, tapping into the huge viral lift social media affords.

I was an analyst with Jupiter Research from 1999 to 2001, and if I had a nickel for every startup that brought in a PPT deck with the word “viral” at the top of the marketing section, I certainly wouldn’t have as many regrets about where my stock options ended up. Then viral went out of vogue for a stretch, when it became pretty clear that for most companies it wasn’t usually a marketing tactic, but a marketing substitute.

Now viral is back, made more appealing (and seemingly achievable) than ever through social networks. Let’s play it forward a few years. What if it actually works? What if a sizable chunk of your Facebook and Twitter subscribers start passing along your messages? If you crack the code, so have your competitors, so your subscribers will be passing along other messages as well. And the hundreds of millions of other social media denizens will also be dumping the contents of their inboxes into the socialsphere. If all your Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn friends pushed just 1% of their inbox into your news feed every day, on top of what they’re already sharing, how long before your preferred social network would be too cluttered to be of use?

If that happens, we’ll have on our hands a success disaster not seen since the heyday of spam. At the height of the spam epidemic, email itself was threatened with obsolescence. The channel was so easy — and frictionless — to penetrate that the legitimate messages from disciplined marketers were either buried, or wrongly lumped into the same offending category. As email marketers — legitimate and shady alike — clambered to reach the top, they caused an avalanche that blocked the high road.

We may be in danger of causing a similar avalanche in social channels today. Last month Edelman’s Trust Barometer Survey was released, and the findings were troubling for marketers lined up at the frontier of social media as if it were the Oklahoma border in 1889. “The number of people who view their friends and peers as credible sources of information about a company has dropped from 45% to 25% since 2008.” CEO Richard Edelman believes that social media “absolutely” contributed to the decline.

So what are we as email marketers to do?

1. Keep the long view. Let’s keep pushing forward and carving out our own best practices in social networks, while at the same time being mindful of the big picture and the state of the channel.

2. Look ahead, remember behind. Even though we’re not the only ones interested in marketing in social networks, I believe we’re uniquely qualified — through our experience in handling the spam crisis — to take a leadership position in social marketing as well. Let’s not forget what we’ve been through. Our experience may be called on again.

3. Don’t abandon the one who brought you to the dance. SWYN may be FTF on steroids, but FTF is pretty awesome even without the steroids. Don’t stop writing messages that are arresting and targeted enough to compel some action. Sometimes the extra effort required to share individually makes all the difference to credibility and ROI.