E-mail Faces Deletion

Web 2.0 applications such as Twitter will unseat simple electronic mail as the No. 1 business communications tool. Pro or con?

Pro: The New and Improved

E-mail carries many problems that new tools don’t. For example, e-mail isn’t a good way to share knowledge. When I left NEC (NIPNF), I had 1.5 gigabytes of e-mail, including a lot of valuable information that my replacement would have loved to have access to. But when I left, my e-mail account was turned off. I don’t have access to that knowledge now. Neither does NEC. Same thing when I left Microsoft (MSFT).

What’s more, spam continues to menace e-mail accounts in a big way. I have the best anti-spam technology, but it regularly puts important messages into my spam folder, and spam still gets through.

Finally, e-mail doesn’t work with groups very well. If I send a report to my boss, co-workers can’t listen in and add value. On blogs, on the other hand, that happens all the time. (The best ideas, I’ve found, come from people who aren’t directly involved in the project.) When I was writing a book, the audience made all sorts of improvements. If we had just e-mailed directly to the publisher, we would have lost all those group-work advantages.

So, let’s look at how I use Twitter and other Web 2.0 systems like Pownce and Jaiku.

With these applications, spam barely exists. If someone starts spamming the system, he or she gets “unfollowed” and the problem is solved. And everything gets a permalink and a URL. So if I want to link to it or pass it around or get it into search engines, problem solved. You can’t link to an e-mail.

Everyone has an identity on these applications—a picture. And you can see that people are online and answering stuff and what they are doing. Twitter has an API (Application Programming Interface), so messages can be used in new ways, like the display on twittervision.com.

Another advantage: With Twitter, I can watch the streams for things that interest me. For instance, I can have all messages that include the word BusinessWeek sent to me automatically. E-mail, because its main use-case is private, could never do that.

Furthermore, anything said on Twitter stays on the Web. So your knowledge doesn’t disappear; it stays there for your replacement at your employer to study and learn from.

Does that mean e-mail is going away entirely? No. E-mail is still useful for one-to-one messages that must remain private. But e-mail will find less and less utility inside corporations.

Con: A Solid Cyber-Friend

I sometimes joke with friends from my Web 1.0 generation that I have a killer idea for a Web 2.0 application. This application will provide businesses with a communications epicenter that employees can use to send and receive any type of digital media, including text, documents, audio, and video—all for little or no cost. Always on, this application will be based on an open standard that allows all employees to connect with the members of their social network regardless of what network they belong to or what Internet-enabled device they use.

My killer Web 2.0 application is, of course, the e-mail in-box—the very place where the overwhelming majority of today’s workers begin and end their business day. Notably, e-mail is also the primary promotional medium for today’s Web 2.0 companies. Social media stalwarts such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and MySpace (NWS) rely on e-mail as their principal way to connect and gain new members. YouTube (GOOG) and Revver leverage e-mail as a viral engine to extend the reach of their video networks. Even Twitter requires an e-mail address during registration so it can send members critical account information.

Admittedly, e-mail users do have some legitimate gripes with the medium. They wrestle with e-mail etiquette. Their stress levels rise when their unread e-mail volume increases. Their blood boils when unsolicited commercial e-mails circumvent their spam filters and waste their time.

I share these frustrations, but I also realize that the solution for business is not more applications—it’s better applications. Accordingly, I firmly believe we should view e-mail and Web 2.0 technologies not as competitors but rather as evolutionary partners. Their mutual goal should be to establish a spam-free in-box in which e-mail, SMS, RSS, IM, voice, and video—even “tweets” if you like—can co-exist and increase employee productivity.

Need a buzzword for this future vision? Call it “Inbox 2.0,” if you must—a communication center that consolidates all messages in one location while tapping the collective knowledge of social networks to filter out illegitimate senders, organize conversations across media, and prioritize content for employee response.

As for e-mail’s place in Inbox 2.0, I submit that it will be front and center, as it is today. Businesses are, after all, creatures of profit, and e-mail still provides the greatest value for the lowest cost.

Could e-mail’s primacy ever be threatened? You know what they say—never say never. For the foreseeable future, however, Web 2.0 pundits would be wise not to confuse e-mail’s maturity with obsolescence. To do so might be to miss out on the Web 3.0 opportunity of a lifetime.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

vaspers aka steven e. streight

I agree, Robert. Twitter is way better than e-mail, which younger generations don't even use anymore.

But when people whine about e-mail spam and overload, the solution is simple: Quit signing up for all kinds of newsletters you don't really need, never open a spam message, and start a new e-mail account for high priority personal communications.

Twitter is a revolutionary application, a rushing river of brevity, cool links, and what we ate for lunch today.

I love sharing links to relevant sites, and only occasionally linking to my own or client blog posts.

I think it's the instant reaction to messages, way faster than conventional slo mo blogs, that makes Twitter extremely addictive.

Thanks for leading me to Twitter, friend!

Jaiku and Pownce are also great apps. All musicians should distribute free mp3s via Pownce.

Steven Livingstone

Scott, e-mail is the best way to sent media? I remember Gopher being the way to share content. Mosaic did hypertext pretty well, so why did it die?

Justin

It'd be nice if e-mail could be replaced, but it's taken this long to get everyone using it. It's not going to go away. Everyone has an e-mail address now. Until everyone has a Twitter account or a blog, e-mail isn't going away. It's going to be another 15 years before e-mail is gone at least. Even then I have my doubts about anything overtaking it.

sarah gilbert

I agree with Robert and don't think that anyone's suggesting e-mail might go away--there will always be uses for it, just as there will always be uses for regular mail (much of which is sentimental, but sentiment can be lovely). Applications like Twitter and IM are fabulous, because they're immediate and I can engage in conversation with the certainty that the person on the other end is paying attention. And their enforced brevity means I'm able to get all of it without having to open a message.

However, I wonder if IMAP and Gmail will negate the central problem of e-mail, Robert: that your account is shut off when you leave a company. Many people in small companies and some of us renegades in larger ones now use Gmail for most business correspondence; you can take it with you, and it's stored on a server and won't be lost in a hard-drive crash.

Deva Hazarika

Robert,
I just wrote a long blog post on this, but I can summarize it all in one sentence: Every single problem you have with e-mail will exist in something like Twitter given enough usage.

Douglas Karr

I always chuckle when the demise of e-mail is discussed because "young people don't use it."

The equivalent is saying "the demise of the life insurance industry is just around the corner because young people don't use it."

As a senior in high school, my son probably sent five or six e-mails all year. As a freshman in college, he's checking and sending e-mail on a daily basis. Included in these e-mails are mandatory homework assignments sent and received to his professors.

As my son graduates college, I'm confident spam technology will improve and e-mail applications will be further integrated with other productivity suites--but I have no doubt that it will still be be a primary means of communication.

There is no substitute for e-mail. Where's the return receipt for Twitter? Where's the privacy? Calendar invitations? Vcard attachments? Search capabilities? Sorting by subject, by date, by sender? Order confirmations?

As well, now that Jaiku has been bought by Google, I'm confident that you'll see the demise of Twitter before you'll ever drop your e-mail account.

@scobleizer + 140 characters... this is the evolution of online communications? Not a chance.

Shashi Bellamkonda

The problem is not e-mail. The problem is consolidating the various channels that you can use to communicate. Scobleizer has valid points on what needs to improve in e-mail. Maybe one day you will need an option in e-mail that says, send to this distro list and post this to social bookmarks. That would have helped when I sent this link to friends in an e-mail.

sue

E-mail works well enough. The problem is spam. I agree that if Twitter sticks around long enough it will develop spam-like problems, too. Time would be better spent trying to block the spam.

Pushpendra Mohta, Vayusphere

The message has to match the medium.

I vote no to e-mail as the be-all of communication, but yes to a single presence-aware "action box" that combines e-mail, instant messaging, and Web feeds.

Several pieces of e-mail deal with perishable information. This information
is of no value past the "read by" date, or is often superceded by newer e-mail--yet these messages clutter your mailbox in perpetuity.

If it is news type of information, move it to RSS reader. RSS is the in-box for your Web. Here, stale information disappears automatically over time.

If is is urgent information, move it to Instant Messaging. It gets delivered in real-time, and it finds you on the device where you are most available for an instant response.

Another bane of e-mail between members of groups is the "out of order" response--members respond at their own pace but not necessarily in order. You have to second-guess if they did or did not read any preceding responses. For this kind of information, use a blog so all responses are available in one place, ordered.

If your need to gather responses is more urgent, use a group chat or persistent chat solution, part of several instant messaging programs.

Finally, instead of exchanging versions of documents in e-mail, use a Wiki.

It's time to transition from the in-box to an action box that provides the communication tools you need to naturally mirror your activities.

--pushpendra
(Pushpendra Mohta)


Michael Sivers

The question for this debate is "Web 2.0 applications such as Twitter will unseat simple electronic mail as the No. 1 business communications tool. Pro or con?"

The reality is no business in the foreseeable future would even consider using anything other than e-mail as the "No. 1 business communications tool," period. Therefore Web 2.0 has pretty much zero chance of "unseating" it.

You can't beat e-mail and the telephone (the best instant messenger available) as the most productive communication methods available to business, and this simply won't change anytime soon.

Web 2.0 applications have their place, particularly outside of business as individuals (and by that I mean 99.9% of the world's business that goes on outside of Silicon Valley--or the blogging world). But the trend in business at the moment (again, outside of Silicon Valley) is to block online applications like Facebook, Twitter, and IM as these are seen (and often proven to be) detrimental to productivity, and actually cost companies because of people communicating with their personal social network instead of working on their employer's business.

Let's get real. I appreciate Web 2.0 applications for what they are and the possibilities they bring, but let's not confuse cool and clever for productive, which at the end of the day, is what drives business.

Carmen Hughes

I agree with Justin, Deva, Douglas, and Michael. The business world is not going to shed the ingrained habits of workers who rely on e-mail, telephone, and face-to-face to conduct business. I cannot see in any foreseeable future the business world embracing "twittering" as a standard business process that could replace e-mail. While the phone and e-mail are far from perfect, they work and drive billions of dollars in business transactions. I'm not knocking cool Web 2.0 innovations, but believe I am being pragmatic about the likelihood of e-mail being laid to rest any time soon.

Chris Baggott

In full disclosure, I was a co-founder of ExactTarget and as such have a vested interest in the success of e-mail.

My point goes to support Scott's comment on "in-box 2.0" and is driven from relevance and data. The problem with e-mail throughout its history is the abuse by organizations that looked at the medium as cheap paper.

In that light, these people replicated a broken reach and frequency advertising model by applying those same mass marketing tactics to e-mail.

This is changing quickly. The beauty of e-mail as a marketing tool is the ability to leverage data and deliver the right message to the right people at the right time.

I may like Scotts Miracle-Gro, but I'm not going to subscribe to their RSS feed or visit their site very often. If they want my business, they have to recognize who I am and the best time to send me any communications. To be successful they have to pay attention to me. Know how I buy. Know when spring comes where I live. How big my yard is, so they send me the right products--that sort of thing. This is all something that Scotts and lots of other marketers do brilliantly via e-mail.

E-mail is the only way to have a dialogue and actual one to one conversation beyond face to face or the telephone.

It's been abused for sure, but the profits from e-mail abuse are diminishing, and market forces are driving e-mail marketers to become much more timely and relevant.

Kip

Thanks for the plug for Scotts Miracle-Gro.

I'm surprised nobody mentioned the differences in B2B or B2C communications. Is that not relevant? Robert's view is simply based on internal communications.

Imagine that in today's time-starved world, a colleague decides to use a tool like Twitter for communications. My thought would be, "Great, another software tool to figure out. When will it end?" And if I'm pressed for time, what about my bosses, and up the ladder?

Let's also consider that the average person online now has two to three e-mail accounts, separating them for personal, business, and transactional use. The reason is simple: E-mail users have adapted to the technology and how to incorporate it into their lives.

E-mail has not only a high adoption rate but also a simplicity and "always on" feature that has revolutionized business communications. My phone rang twice today, but I'm guessing I've read, created, or responded to 50 e-mails today alone. Good luck replacing that. (Now if I could just get my wife to e-mail instead of calling, the phone would never ring.)

Brock Butler

There is a reason the phone doesn't ring. We all use voicemail to filter our calls; just like we filter out the e-mails that don't add perceived value to our life or work.

Using multiple e-mail addresses is a crude form of filtering and prioritization. If every e-mail delivered value or extended an existing business relationship, then you wouldn’t need multiple in-boxes.

E-mail marketing still has a fairly low adoption rate. And most executives like it for the wrong reason--it is cheap. What are we going to do when our in-boxes are 10x or 100x our current volume? Something will have to change.

Web 2.0 is a relationship-based opt-in communication model. E-mail is a marketing driven opt-out model. You can send it, but I don’t have to open it and I can opt-out of future mailings. The CAN-Spam Act of 2003 was the first step toward a 100% permission-based opt-in e-mail environment. The authorization for a "do not e-mail" list is included in this legislation.

Is it possible that e-mail will evolve into a private communication channel, similar to the U.S. mail, which is regulated regarding what you can and can not send? What if the business customer must contact you first before you have permission to e-mail him? (This is not a current regulation, but it is considered best practice in e-marketing.) So, once bulk e-mailing is dead, how do you communicate and build relationships with prospective customers? You guessed it--Web 2.0 social networks and blogs.

So what happens? E-mail continues in a more regulated fashion and will always have a place, just like snail mail. Web 2.0 grows into a powerful relationship and collaboration environment and become a ubiquitous everyday tool that is included on your office productivity suite. Your in-box will become much smarter at managing multiple facets of your life and prioritizing the messages based on the relationship of the sender. In this vision, businesses would have to follow a new more customer-oriented model to attract and nurture permission-based interaction with prospective customers. They would work harder to offer "value first" for your interaction.

And the world would be a better place.

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