Email has an image problem. It rarely gets talked about positively. But don’t blame the channel – blame the people who (mis)use it. And if you turn your back on email you may be missing a trick.
By Darren Caveney
Normally when I write a post I have a sense that some comms colleagues will identify with the content, the issues, the challenges, the learning. My posts are often based on the conversations and experiences I have of working with comms teams around the country.
This post? Not so much. In fact I may receive pelters for it but it’s something I’ve believed for a while. Anyway, here goes…
Email. Emma Rodgers wrote a great post about email recently and I agree with almost all of it.
But I also feel the need to defend email.
Why would he do that, some of you will ask?
Well here’s 10 reasons.
1. Email. It’s still an important channel
Email is a very important digital channel for reaching our customers. If it doesn't form a part of a strong digital comms strategy there would need to be some pretty good intel to justify that decision.
But isn’t email a bit old hat?
Yes, email has been around for a while. But so has the telephone, radio and TV. Let’s not be ageist about the channels at our disposal.
Do people even still use email in the era of social media?
Yes. 92% of UK adults have an email account. It top trumps every single social media platform for sheer numbers.
2. Email has a reputation problem. But there’s more to it than that…
Instead of just berating the channel it’s important to break down the types of emails we receive and send into broad groups. For example, there are big differences between emails we subscribe to, the spam we receive, an email from a customer and a marketing campaign email you’ve crafted. It can be a highly effective comms tool if well used.
3. Email is dead. We now use Slack
Emails between colleagues can be an important internal comms channel. But they’re often colliding and clashing head-on with other internal platforms these days.
Many teams I have worked with, and for, have trialled other platforms - from Yammer to Slack. In reviews I’ve led I’ve been quite taken by how much a platform’s success can vary so greatly from organisation to organisation, even ones from within the same sector. Yammer is a really good example – I’ve seen it fly and bomb. It’s horses for courses, same as it’s always been.
The good internal comms professional knows their landscape and works with that knowledge. But in every comms review I have carried out internal email still has a role as a part of the wider comms mix with staff
And sometimes an internal email is still one of the best ways to deliver a message to a large workforce because for sure they won't all visit the intranet, look at Slack or read Yammer.
4. But I receive too many emails...
I was a head of comms for a long time and believe me I have had my fair share of emails. It may even run into six figures. Some of them were rude, many unnecessary. And as Albert Freeman commented on Twitter just last week “those marked 'urgent' are almost never urgent.”
But this isn't the fault of email. It was the people who sent them.
What I almost never hear are people saying that they’ve spent too long on Facebook or watched too many videos on YouTube. I bet if you’re honest this is true for you sometimes?
For me an email inbox is just another thing you need to factor into your time management. In my experience the best performers in communications, and the people who grab the promotions, are the people who are strong at managing their time.
5. Spammy spammy spam spam
Are you really receiving so much email spam these days?
Spam filters are generally so good these days that very little nonsense email comes through to my inbox. The big email couriers have reputation scores to protect so they work hard to ensure as little spam as possible ends up in front of you. Check your spam folder sometime and you'll see what I mean.
6. Email. It's like dogs...
I liken email to dogs.
Dogs are great. Most of the time. But when they leave packages on the pavement or worse still bite or attack it's always the fault of their owners and not the dogs themselves. Same applies to email. It's on the owner, the sender, the author. Not the platform.
7. Deleting your entire inbox on your return from holiday: Good idea or bad?
Personally I think it's a really bad idea. And a bit disrespectful to your colleagues, actually.
Does the entire organisation know that you are on holiday? Not unless you work for a very small organisation. And why should a colleague have to resend a legitimate work email because you were sat in a deck chair for a week?
Your chief executive will be thrilled to be told to resend that important report they wanted you to read. Your head of finance will be delighted that the budget sheets he sent for your info bounced back with a 'thanks but no thanks message'.
And what if your customers, partners and suppliers choose it as their preferred method of communications? Are you going to delete their messages from inboxes too?
However tempting it might be what will their perception of you be? What does it say about you as a comms professional? It doesn't scream engaging communicator does it?
I used to work with someone who automatically deleted all of their emails whilst on holiday and added a gleeful 'resend them when I get back from my two weeks in Spain if it’s important to you' message. What’s your perception of that?
Don't be that person. Be the smart cookie who works with the senior leaders and advises them on finding better ways to communicate internally.
8. Help shape the solution for more effective internal comms
If email isn’t working for your organisation then work towards a plan and a solution which does. But you’ll almost certainly still have a role for email somewhere across large organisations.
Wouldn’t it be better to utilise our influence and knowledge as communicators to shape email protocols instead of just whingeing about emails? That is what I would advise a comms team to do. Shape the change and approaches which suit your organisation and remember that one size fits all almost never works in real life.
As someone who used to receive a stack of emails and calls outside of regular hours I love and fully endorse the Deutsch Telecom-style ‘no emails after 6pm or at weekends’ policy. Brilliant idea. Who wouldn’t like that as a policy?
If your entire organisation want to sign up to a 'delete all emails policy’, and it has the blessing of ALL of the senior leaders, then that's different. If Slack, Trello, Yammer or other platforms are how you can best manage internal conversations then that’s great. I’ve used them all and can see very clear benefits.
Sometimes you need to receive a spreadsheet to manage your budget or a long report to help shape you comms plan. It will probably be best sent by email. But if Yammer or Dropbox are better routes for your organisation then so be it.
Whatever approach you choose it has to reflect the cultural of the organisation and be led from the top - mirrored by the middle managers and stuck to by all staff. Because you only need a few to break ranks and the effectiveness of no emails out of hours or delete all email policies are quickly gone.
9. Managing your email inbox. Actually it’s a skill
In-tray and inbox exercises are still popular exercises at assessment recruitment centres. I had to complete them in the process of gaining both of my last two regular jobs. How people cope when a deluge of issues and challenges land is a part measure of how well equipped we are to do perform in roles. So if you want to gain a promotion or a new job see the way in which you manage your inbox as a real string to your bow. It isn’t difficult and it can be practised and refined.
Many of the emails you receive whilst on holiday provide a useful update first morning back. You'll pick and choose and scan those you need to read/file/delete. Most people are skilled at this these days - we're so used to scanning and choosing the posts we dismiss or look at in our social media feeds. So go the other way and make sure you’re hot on your inbox management. Never have a wad of unopened emails in your inbox – you just don’t know what perils, and opportunities, await there.
10. Be. Nice
We're often advised to 'be human' on social media. But unfortunately there are many human behaviours that leave a bit to be desired these days. Being human can sometimes translate to being a plonker.
So my advice is to be nice. Be polite. Be pleasant. “It takes strength to be gentle and kind”, as Morrissey once sang.
So in summing up my defence of email I think it's important to look beyond the platform at the bigger picture. It’s about how we behave and the cultures which we create, the things we do and things we say. It’s also about being slick and organised, managing our inboxes well and maximising the marketing advantages that email offers us.
Most of all we should treat our inboxes professionally. Our reputations are shaped by all of our interactions including email.
And, ultimately, if you're a plonker on email, you're probably a plonker in meetings, in real life and on the telephone. Switching to Slack isn't going to change that.
Darren Caveney is a creative communications consultant and co-creator of comms2point0
pic by me