Recognizing The Declining Value Of Email

Many people and businesses rely on email as their dominant method of communication, but the value of email has been declining in recent years and this creates problems on a number of levels particularly for businesses that need to decide what to do about it.

Here are some of the signs from my own experience that indicate the declining value of email.

  • The ratio of deleted to read items – These days I delete more email than I read, particularly on my personal account. The messages that I am deleting are not personal messages though. They are messages sent by businesses with whom I have signed up to receive email, but most of the time I really don’t need what they are selling. I should probably take a few moments to unsubscribe from some of those lists (and sometimes I do) but I think the fact that I don’t bother is another sign of the growing ambivalence toward email.
  • Social network updates eclipsing email updates – Most of the news that I get from friends and family comes via Facebook these days. Many of the professional updates come via LinkedIn.  A few years ago I would get  these updates via email but now everyone expects that you will see their updates. So they don’t bother sending the separate communication via email. I reciprocate by doing the same thing and even use Facebook or LinkedIn direct message because I feel like that type of message is more likely to be seen and responded to.
  • My mobile device is always in hand or nearby – Nowadays it seems like I am never more than a few feet away from my iPhone, which makes it easy to check email but also contains a stream of other updates from push notifications and text messages. So when I pull down from the top of my screen to see all the notifications email is put on the same level as weather updates, sports scores, text messages, news alerts, etc. Even when I’m sitting at my computer with Outlook open I glance at my phone a few times an hour to look at the latest updates.

The signs listed above represent trouble on the horizon for businesses that rely primarily on communication with their customers via email. After all, what’s the point of sending a communication that is not likely to be read or responded to? It’s true that email delivery is inexpensive but the time and effort put into developing good messaging and sales promotions costs money. The answer to this problem might seem obvious. Many companies are moving (or duplicating) their promotions onto places like Twitter and Facebook where messages can get equal time along with friend updates. I don’t see that approach as a problem solved though.

It’s important to remember that Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. are merely places. Places on the Internet are anything but permanent. If you move your customer service and promotions to one of these places now then be prepared to duplicate that effort as the value of an existing place falls and the value of a future place begins to rise. I know that at the moment it seems like Facebook is the only place that businesses need go to attract consumers but history has shown us that the time for every Internet place comes and goes. So I think that the problem in what to do regarding the declining value of email is largely an unsolved one although many people think it might be solved.

I think that the extent of and the answer to the problem differ from business to business. That means there is no one size fits all solution. Each business first has to recognize the problem and ask the question, “What is the best way to communicate with our customers and business partners now and in the future?” The question is really a core aspect of business strategy that was important before the Internet existed. I don’t have any concrete answer to the problem. If  I did the title of this post would probably be something like Solving The Problem Of The Declining Value Of Email.

I do think that one piece of the puzzle involves the ability to leverage past communication efforts in support of future communication efforts. So if a business is small, and decides to use Facebook and Twitter for customer service then what happens when the business gets larger? Those conversations that occur on Facebook could be useful in the future for customers and employees of the company. It seems to me that it would be very smart to have a way to capture those conversations so that they can be memorialized in a centralized location to leverage in the future. Those discussions are assets and should be recognized as such. The approach that I’m suggesting lessens the lock-in effect of the social network (a condition that social networks would rather that you ignore) but doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with the data once you have captured it.

The final thought that I’ll leave you with is one that offers a possible solution that attacks the problem from a different angle. Let’s say you decide to forego the use of social networks to forge a more valuable communication avenue with customers and business partners. If that were the case then what would be the biggest barrier to making an approach like that successful? Would it be the time and cost related to the technical set up or attracting customers to use your chosen platform? My perception is that for most businesses that problem would be the latter. So perhaps the more important issue to address is the weakness in the customer/partner relationship that leads them to take the path of least resistance in communications with your business.

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