"I only use email to communicate with old people"
Quote from the blog of Forrester web strategist Jeremiah Owyang, April 2007
Last week I had the pleasure of hosting a lunch with Robin Goad of Hitwise and a number of the UK's brand name PR and comms chiefs. We talked a bit about the impact of social media on comms.
One of our guests laid out her vision of how the currency of communication governs electronic interaction and the attention economy. Explaining her vision, she told how if you give someone a 9/10, you'll read their emails, messages, etc and give them your attention when they ask it. Give them a 1/10, and it's probably going to be a person who always CCs you but never for a good reason. You pay attention to a person when you give a good value to their currency. And this theory got me thinking.
Later that day my company's MD and I talked a little about email culture and its effects on us in the business. Heavy email traffic is certainly a challenge to deal with. But it's very efficient in other ways.
So it got me thinking about some of the articles JP Rangaswami has written over recent months about how organisations could use social sites more than email for business communications. And about how my department's use of Twitter and IM is helping change things a bit already.
The real issue I am struggling to deal with is that, day by day, email traffic is getting a lot heavier. And whilst the currency of communication theory that I was talked through makes good sense, how on earth can you tell if someone you value has even tried approaching you if you can't see the wood from the trees in your inbox?
Humans don't scale, as Jeff Atwood puts it in his email efail article.
Put another way, I get about 300 emails* a day, and if I step away from my inbox for too long it's almost impossible to see the ones I would place a high value on from the rest. I get:
- 150 company and client-generated emails
- 20 press releases from PR people trying to get coverage on my blog / twitter
- 50 Google Alerts
- 50 media feature alerts
- A pinch of spam
- 10 newsletters
- 5 diary requests
- A small number of random ones
- And that's not counting my spam filter which catches a lot of rubbish
- *update - then there's RSS feeds. I use a fairly straightforward but evolved way of managing my additional 597 RSS feeds which uses 30 folders (with currently 47,116 messages unread)
I know this isn't unique in my industry. Coleagues and clients tell me they're in the same boat.
The way I deal with it is look for the people I know I value, and that's usually clients, close colleagues and of course family. Then I miss some good stuff sometimes.
But what I'm getting at is that I believe that email is broken as a universal business comms tool. I appreciate that it's convenient in business comms to issue instructions to colleagues, clients, suppliers, whatever by emailing them a message. And I think there will be a role for email long into the future in business. But partly due to the way a growing generation communicates (it ain't by email) and partly due to the fact that humans don't scale, email will give way to comms technologies like IM, threaded conversations (like walls, portals or discussion rooms) and social Twitter-like things.
I'm really keen to find out what that new way is, and no, I'm not content with just persuading everyone I come into contact with that they must use Twitter :)
I have over the last few years put in place a few hacks that help deal with heavy email traffic. Here are a few. I'll update this over time:
- Use a fast mobile email device. I use a BlackBerry Bold which is very fast when you're working on email. I've used BlackBerry for only about four years [RIM is a Hotwire client I should add, but I've been a fan far longer than I've been here] and the Bold is the quickest. I have found all other devices I've used slower. Like this famous webby, I'm speed sensitive with everything in my life. Slowness makes me fume.
- Turn off the light and batch it. I have turned the blinking red light on my BlackBerry that tells you when you have mail OFF. Try it. It reduces twitchiness and lets you focus on non-email jobs when you have to without distracting you. This plays to the batching theory of email management.
- Folders. I read a book called GTD a few years ago and one thing I put in place straight from the book was a two-folder system of Inbox (to-do) and Actioned (done). Once I know an email doesn't have an action on it any more, whether that action is to read the mail or do a job off the back of it, I move it to my 2nd folder.
- Rules. I have a lot of rules set up in my inbox to archive emails I need to read but that are not urgent.