Kill email? No, devolve it

If I was email, I’d watch my back! Every day, another company launches another tool specifically designed to kill me. I’d be unbearably paranoid about the “teens who no longer use email”. I’d weep at the internal communications teams who constantly seek alternative channels to using me. Born 1962, mortally wounded in the 2010s, dead by …

Wait a second. Is this all real? Is email really dying? The facts suggest otherwise:  the number of email accounts is still growing at an annual rate of 5%; email traffic growing 3%. This is a channel still firmly in growth.

Where did it all go wrong?

Email’s problem is two-fold. Firstly, we’re all using email for things it really isn’t very good at and then we have the audacity to blame the tool.

  • Instant response messaging: email is an asynchronous channel but we all expect an email to hit the recipient’s inbox instantly, for them to read it immediately and then respond. Email is not a conversation tool but we expect it to work that way
  • Collaboration tool: I send you the powerpoint, you update it and send it back. We repeat this until the document is complete. Version control is a nightmare and tracking changes is patchy.
  • File storage: “I’ll just have a look in my sent folder for the file”. Sound familiar? Guilty. Email is not a file storage system but we often use it as a cloud doc repository.

Email is the jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none corporate tool. It’s not designed for the things we ultimately use it for. It’s not email’s fault. Stop blaming it.

What about the new kid, enterprise social networks?

The second big problem that email has is that there’s a new kid on the block — enterprise social networks — and they’re making email look outdated. Social tools are much better at the instant messaging and collaboration functions needed in the workplace, but don’t solve all our communication and collaboration ills. It’s lazy (but so so common) to declare King Email dead because of King Social.

Time for devolution

Email is good but to get the best from it, we need to use it for the things it’s good at, the things that social tools don’t do well. It’s time to use email for what it was originally designed for: asynchronous messaging and notification.

There are a few use cases for email

  1. Direct messaging to individual people:  Social tools have their own inboxes, you can also post to their timeline, but if you want to tell someone something, privately, email it. If you expect or need a conversation, use instant messaging.
  2. Messaging outside of the organisation: Some social tools allow for customer/client spaces but email remains king of messaging outside the company
  3. Group messaging with read-only reference materials: If you expect folks to want to refer back to documents, email may be the best tool.
  4. Important announcements: I think people find emails much harder to ignore than an intranet story or a posting to your social network. If you need to push an announcement, you’ve got to use email.
Like email, but better

There are lots of things that we could do with email that would improve the user experience and make it a better tool. Consider these next time you have to send an email.

  • Concise: Don’t waffle. Make your point. We’ve got jobs to do and reading email, incredibly, is not one.
  • Rich: Paragraphs of text are dull to read so break it up with appropriate imagery and branding. Make the user experience sing a little
  • Quick: Quick to load (so please, optimise images) and quick to read. If I have to scroll … scroll… scroll to read your email, I’m less likely to bother getting to the end
  • Track: Use tools to measure and analyse the readership and impact of your emails so that you get better at communicating. Campaign Monitor is one of many toolsets that allow you to understand how your comms were consumed.
  • Optimise: How do most employees consume their email? Desktop, smartphone or tablet? Analyse then act to optimise their email experience.

Email ain’t dead yet. Don’t write its obituary too soon.