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Dead letters: Why email won’t just curl up and die

Often by the time we read an email it’s old news. Or we try to read it on our phone and it’s an ill-displayed jumble. And why use email when collaboration tools, live messaging and social media can be more fun and productive?

With so many alternatives, why have we not said goodbye to email? Jason Roberts, who’s been building the Kiwi email marketing and digital messaging venture LiveLink Connect for the last half decade, says there’s been no serious disruptor.

“Email has such a wide reach and such utility generally that it is difficult to ignore by both individuals and organisations,” he says. “Served email content is generally very safe, secure, and reliable. [It’s] one really important medium for the transmission of important personal and secure information such as logins for websites, files and important document delivery. It has a real hold in terms of being a critical part of the communications ecosystem.”

LiveLink Connect’s shiny new thing is Automator, a service for securely sending electronic forms and cutting down on paper and manual work. Roberts says it plays to email’s strength in transmitting confidential information securely – an area where he can’t see the medium being rivalled.

And no web-based productivity tool has so far equalled email’s scale of adoption, Roberts says. “When mobile phones came out they almost didn’t succeed because they needed mass distribution to be successful.”

We’ve long been told email is fatally flawed. Rewind to 2009, seemingly the year of peak email doom. “9 reasons email is dead”, wrote a PC Mag columnist, citing, among other things, inboxes filled with spam and constantly changing email addresses. “Facebook eats away at email usage on today’s web”, said ReadWrite, with stats showing that worldwide email and instant messaging site use had dropped from 46% in 2003 to 27% in 2009.

So where are we now, 44 years after the first ever email was sent between hosts on a connected network? Accounts and user numbers are on the rise globally – research outfit Radicati says accounts will increase from 4.1 billion last year to 5.2 billion by 2018, with user numbers to reach 2.8 billion. Email is as entrenched in business as office gossip and the coffee machine – of emails sent globally each day, 108 billion come from businesses.

Getting social, getting productive

Over in the social media world, there’s evidence consumers are branching out from email, with the majority of global social accounts held by consumers rather than organisations. Overall, Radicati reckons social accounts will grow to 5.2 billion by 2018, up from 3.6 billion last year.

But it turns out social media hasn’t killed email; they’ve taken complementary places in the business marketer’s toolkit and in the ways we communicate. If we get something cool in an email from a marketer, we’ll share it on social media. And we can add our email contacts to our social networks.

Email can be used to promote our social channels and vice versa. Plus email lists are the basis of social audience targeting.

Developers have been helping us bridge the email-social divide. The Rapportive browser plugin, for example, has been around since 2010 and fills Gmail with information about your contacts, including their social accounts. It’s since been acquired by LinkedIn. And after Microsoft scooped up corporate social networking tool Yammer in 2012, it’s deepened the integration between Yammer and Office 365 with things like a one sign in, putting Yammer conversations into Outlook and Skype for Business, and the ability to work on Office documents inside Yammer.

But social media isn’t email’s only challenger. “Say goodbye to email,” the website of team productivity web app Asana promises, adding, “Against the speed, complexity and scope of our modern work, email is no longer up to the task. Figuring out what needs to get done, getting on the same page, and finding the right information in email is inefficient. When less of your time is spent in email, you’ll have more time to get work done.”

Nowadays we can get around the Campfire for live web chat and file sharing. Then there’s team messaging app Slack or Trello for project management. And Facebook has opened Messenger to developers to get more people messaging eachother on its platform and not in email.

The scattergun approach

One of email’s big downsides is being static, says Roberts.

To be dynamic email relies on interaction with websites. That consideration takes on new importance as more and more emails are opened on mobile devices, where we expect the latest, most personalised and localised information to be at our fingertips. According to eMailmonday, mobile email will account for as much as 70% of opens by 2017.

Roberts says email also fails to hit the mark when companies take a “spray and pray” approach.

“The importance I think is to do with systems like CRMs [customer relationship management] where the email is very personalised to send people the right stuff at the right time, in the right way. That’s the key behind quality communications. It’s the likes of Amazon, who seem to miraculously know what you want to see at just the right moment.”

Chipping at the edges

Many companies have enhanced email, but there’s been no fundamental platform shift, Roberts reckons.

Sanebox, for example, helps prioritise important messages. Gmail’s Inbox app is also designed for a helicopter view and better organisation. And it was pretty cool when Google’s ‘undo send’ option started officially saving us from embarrassment earlier this year.

There are also exciting possibilities for inputting and viewing email with the advent of smartwatches, other wearables and gesture recognition. App maker Readdle says we’ll like our email again, and is one of the companies tempting us with new heights of simplicity in an iWatch version.

Spark Tip #10: Spark for Apple Watch from Readdle Inc. on Vimeo.

The importance of now

You might think New Zealand International Business Awards finalist Snapcomms, now eight years old, has the offering to end email. Although its desktop messaging platform could technically work between companies, it’s chosen to keep its offering within a customer’s walls.

Where some companies might send their staff an email, others use Snapcomms to put the message into a desktop alert, a screensaver or a targeted group bulletin.

“It isn’t designed for companies to get rid of email, it’s to bypass email for important messages,” says CEO Sarah Perry. “With certain types of emails you need to make sure they’ve been sent and possibly repeat them until they’ve been read.”

Snapcomms is also out to beat ‘spray and pray’ – it gathers information to prove targeted communication has been read and employees have received important knowledge.

“Most organisations haven’t got to that level of thinking,” says Perry. “They just send everyone an email and to hell if not everyone reads it. Other organisations understand the risk if someone doesn’t read it.”

She doesn’t think one tool will end email, saying there will be more governance about which tool is used for particular functions. Roberts, meanwhile, says email will stay strong, at least among businesses.

“Even when a major disruptor product comes to market, it needs to get effective and efficient distribution quickly. In order to replace this well-known format [it] would need to be a really compelling, secure and easily adopted product.”

And it’s a tech giant that’s more likely to successfully re-imagine our communication tools, he says.

“Someone like Google or Apple will crack this and make it very easy to say goodbye to email with a ubiquitous platform everyone can connect to,” says Roberts. “Everyone is working on the nirvana.”

Amanda Sachtleben is an Auckland writer and social media type, who's also Idealog's former tech editor and business journalist.

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