I wrote previously about how email and social media are both appealing to marketers for the same reasons. Both are inexpensive, scalable, relatively easy to execute in-house, offer immediate results and impressive ROI. But while they share attributes, email and social are very different channels, which require unique approaches in order to use them successfully.

Much of the conversation about email and social, in fact, focuses on these tactical differences in execution. Here is my greatest hits list of the differences between email and social, from the b-to-b marketer’s perspective:

Ambient Atmosphere: The inbox resides on a work computer, usually attached to a business’ domain name. Flanking your messages are email from colleagues, customers and suppliers, as well as industry newsletters. Work gets done in the inbox. In social channels, however, your message is bookended by photos from a college roomate’s trip to Vegas, and a check-in at the new gourmet hot dog place around the block. The point of view that social channels are not as conducive to business is defensible. (I will not say it’s correct, but it’s certainly a legitimate concern.)

Message Length: When asked how long a direct marketing communication should be, Lester Wunderman (the founder of direct marketing) replied, “as long as you can make it and still hold a reader’s attention.” That applies to email even today, though competitive clutter has lowered the ceiling of available attention for most of your subscribers. On social channels, however, messages are measured in characters instead of paragraphs. Communicating in staccato bursts requires skill and practice, and no single tweet or status update can do the work of a well-composed email. This does not make social channels better or worse, just different.

Message Frequency: What social messaging lacks in its compositional thoroughness it makes up for with frequency. Many businesses publish to Twitter or Facebook several times per day, and it is even permissible to repeat the same message at different points in the day (particularly in Twitter, where feeds are especially fleeting). What passes for healthy activity in social channels would be lambasted as spam in the inbox. On the one hand, this makes social channels appealing, but added frequency is a double-edged sword as it also requires more constant attention from internal resources. Social channels are not just managed – they need to be tended.

Conversational Expectations: I think this is the greatest difference between email and social channels – the expectations for conversation, or at least a response, from customers who choose to follow your brand. There is no do-not-reply address on Facebook and Twitter. Compounding the challenge is that whenever a question comes in through social channels, it is not just the equivalent of an email inquiry; rather, it is an email from a customer who has cc’ed 100 or 1000 or 10,000 other people, all of whom are able to eavesdrop on your reply (or your lack of one). The more successful a company’s social marketing is, the more conversations it generates for the brand to participate in. But as success increases so too does the resource requirement, creating the hidden cost of social media marketing. Planning for success means having resources at the ready to engage customers in their many conversations.

Insight and Analytics: I discussed the differences of the availability of insights and analytics between email and social in this blog post. The executive summary is that email has long had them, and social is just now introducing them.

So that is a lot which is very different. Social requires a different content strategy, staffing requirements and marketing objectives, all for a channel where marketers are just now able to start defining success metrics and key performance indicators. B-to-b marketers could certainly be forgiven if they conclude that social looks like more trouble than it is worth.

But the strategy for approaching social is fundamentally the same as email, and separates the two channels from every other marketing media available. Like email, social is Permission-Based. That means that even if you’re new to social, your experience in email gives you a competitive advantage. You understand what it is like to have to earn your audience’s attention every day, which is very different from magazine or outdoor or TV advertising, or even direct mail, where you simply rent it. You understand that the control of the relationship is in their hands, and that any decisions around subscribing and unsubscribing, following and unfollowing, are theirs and theirs alone.

Next time, we’ll go more deeply into how this significant strategic similarity between email and social can marginalize even the most daunting tactical differences.