I wrote previously about how social and email are tactically different. As marketers, we tend to zero in on the differences between the ambient environment, message length and frequency  and the conversational expectations of social, and conclude that social and email are highly differentiated and require an entirely separate communications approach. This makes social appear a little less appealing – it’s new, it’s different, everything we already know doesn’t apply here.

But everything we already know as email marketers does apply to social. The most important aspect of social media – which it shares with email marketing – is that the nature of the relationship between the customer and the brand is the same. Both email and social are permission-based. What’s more, they are the only permission-based channels. This strategic similarity gives email marketers a leg up on social media compared to marketers grounded in advertising, search and even direct mail.

The distinction is one of control. In permission-based channels the customer – not the marketer – controls the spigot. Full bore, trickle or off altogether is entirely in the customer’s control. This means that the communications within these channels must not only avoid failing; they must genuinely succeed in order to hang onto the customer’s attention. In other media, the price of failed messaging (insipid ads, poor targeting, clumsy creative) is mere non-response. In those channels, non-response is the norm, so they are built around high volume to compensate. In permission-based channels the price of failure is far greater. Unsubscribes and unfollows mean that the open line of communication with a customer who previously elected to hear what the brand has to say is now closed. With search or advertising or rented mail lists, marketers can simply buy their way into more audience. With permission-based channels, each new pair of ears has to be earned.

Sure, the actual format of the communications in email and social is different: 4 paragraphs or a rich graphical design in an email, compared to 140 characters or a conversation-provoking query in social media. But they are both built on the same foundation, common to permission-based marketing:

Respect: As email marketers, we have learned not to take our subscribers’ attention for granted. They have lent us their attention and to be successful we have to find the balance between rewarding them for the attention they give, and taking some advantage of that attention to fulfill our own business purposes. But we know that the golden rule of “do unto others’ inboxes as you would have others do unto yours” applies. The same holds true for social. Even though the execution is different, social messages that show a lack of respect for our audience will compel them initially to disengage, and ultimately to turn off the spigot entirely.

Empathy: In email, we talk about relevant and targeted messages. In order to send them we need to know what our subscribers are interested in. This is the double-edged sword of permission-based channels. On the one hand, because they have opted in (either through a subscription form or a purchase or some other means), we know that our subscribers are at least interested in us in some capacity. And the greater our history with them, the better we are able to tailor messages so that our communications with them do show empathy – that we know what they like, and that we are happy to provide it. The other edge of the sword is that by giving us permission, our subscribers expect empathy. Our relationship with them is on their terms, so relevance is not just a successful tactic; it is the cost of doing business. Social channels are similar, though we know less about the people who fan or follow us than we do through email. In social, the empathy test is less about targeting messages to individuals (which does not exist in the same way that it does with email) and more about targeting messages to the particular channel. Being relevant is social means knowing what your customers want from you within Facebook or Twitter, which may not be exactly the same thing they look to you for in the inbox.

Expectation: Messages in permission-based channels work better when they are anticipated. If someone expects your messages in the inbox, it may be because they arrive on a regular schedule or you send with enough frequency so that the communication channel stays open. It may also be because they have elected to hear from you by subscribing or making a purchase. Whatever the source of the expectation, it is always improved the more your brand appears in your customers’ lives. Social media is the same way. Your customers will pay more attention to your posts and tweets if they are meaningful to them and appear (and engage) often enough so that your brand becomes more relevant to them. Here is one of the greatest opportunities for email marketers moving into social. Having a strong social presence does make your brand more relevant to your customers, which can improve the expectation and performance of your email messages. And the better your email program is working, the more engaged your subscribers are with your brand, making them more likely to engage further on social channels. When executed well, social and email can be a truly virtuous cycle.