Email's Future: User And Usage Shifts

You might have heard from some doom-and-gloom forecasters that email is becoming technological roadkill. You won't be hearing that from me, and not because I can't see the twin juggernauts of instant-messaging and social networks bearing down on me.

In my last Email Insider column, I established that email is just as innovative a medium, if not more so, than newer digital applications such as text messaging and feed syndication (RSS). This time, I suggest that email will not disappear in an era of new and more immediate messaging. Instead, it will adapt as communication needs shift with different audiences. It will even help facilitate these new emerging technologies.

Reinforcing, Not Replacing, Technology

Messiahs of a new messaging technology too often fall into the same old trap: Promote the new application by disparaging the old one. They're overlooking the key idea that email undergirds all technology use.



Each communication vehicle (email, IM, Web site, text messaging, social network) gets used differently depending on which groups are involved in the communication and how many people are involved at each end of the message.

For example: Text messaging is probably the most efficient consumer-to-consumer vehicle. We might never see a similar volume for business-to-business, but it does have a use for a smaller group need such as an appointment or Webinar reminder in B-to-B or a flight delay in B-to-C. Email and instant messaging also can send a message fast, but users need to be at desktop or laptop computers. Cell phones and PDAs simply are more accessible in the consumer world.

Laid over those models are the different audience sizes:

  • One to one (personal email, IM, text messaging, personal phone call, fax).
  • One to a small group (email lists/discussion groups, IM group chats, RSS, conference phone call).
  • One to many (broadcast or list email, bulletin boards, RSS).
  • Many to many (Extranets, wikis and social networks, list/group email).

    Which medium appears most often across these categories? Email, of course.

    There are also message factors including urgency, timing, content, size and frequency:

  • Text messaging is an effective one-to-one vehicle for immediate messages in both consumer and business models. However, it doesn't scale like email, it's hard to organize or retain messages, and it's limited to phone-to-phone use.
  • Email offers the greatest ability to scale for message size and number of recipients, organization, retention and format choice.

    How Email Accommodates the Shift Change

    No technology will go obsolete as long as an audience needs it. Instead, message technology shifts according to the audience size and needs I outlined above. Email's role is to facilitate those shifts, and that role will keep email a key player as the messaging world shifts and evolves.

    Witness these ways email already is being used to move messages from one medium to the next. Here are four examples:

  • Email newsletters evolved from static Web pages as a less technologically demanding means to communicate one to many and also to drive traffic back to the site. New Web applications made it easier for people to create and format page content, giving rise to blogs, which have replaced email newsletters for some companies. Now, blog postings are aggregated and emailed to subscribers to save time.
  • Email replaced postal communications and paper memos for fast communication for both consumers and business. IM then clearly emerged as the vehicle for right-now communication. However, it doesn't scale like email does; too many talkers in the process can cause confusion, and it's hard to organize or retain messages.
  • Personal or group emails also saved time and office paper. But today many users post this information on company intranets (hosted in-house) or extranets (in-house content on a third-party hosted application). New content, updates and changes get emailed as alerts to subscribers or approved users.
  • Email and IM provided faster and more private communication among friends. Social networks offer both private communication in a larger viewing world, but email is a key driver for alerting users to new personal content posted by others on their individual sites.

    Not that all of these have a link to pure email marketing or publishing; however, they help put email in front of users as a viable communication vehicle for all kinds of messages, including your commercial messages.

    So, email as technological roadkill? Hardly. Email is still in the driver's seat, and it's not about to yield its place.

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