Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Social Media Engagement Tips: Don't Give Up on Email Just Yet

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

Also in this series: “Social Media Engagament Tips: Don’t Drop the Ball”

It’s fashionable these days to point out that email really sucks as a tool for collaboration. Email’s proliferation of attachments, CC’s, and “reply all” emails, coupled with constant spam, has caused email to emerge as the “tool people love to hate,” especially among social media evangelistas.

I admit it. I’ve voiced my share of concerns about email and how messy and inefficient it is as a collaboration tool. But it’s not going away. So the sooner we make peace with it, the better off we’ll be. Here’s why:

  1. Someone in the group always prefers the comfort of email.
  2. Email operates as an extended user interface for many applications.
  3. Software applications are becoming more focused.

1. Someone in the group always prefers the comfort of email.

In the real world, many work groups, especially outside IT, are composed of individuals with a variety of experiences and expectations. No matter how efficient a collaboration application or social networking platform is, there’s always someone in the group who insists on sending and receiving group emails. You can talk till you’re blue in the face, but especially if that person is a stakeholder or senior executive, you end up accommodating him or her. That means the group and the project manager has to manage multiple workflows to ensure that everyone stays on the same page. It’s a pain, but it’s how the real world works. Stop complaining about “technophobes,” “resisters,” and (my favorite) “old farts.” Learn to live with it till they see the light.

2. Email operates as an extended user interface for many applications.

Like it or not, many software applications use email as an extension of the user interface. Sometimes this is just to send and receive “announcement messages” (“Someone has commented on your change  to Document X”). At other times email can be used to interact with an application (e.g., see my Posterous blog where nearly 100% of the pictures and tags were posted via email).

Interestingly, among the greatest “offenders” in this regard are … social media applications themselves. Some social networking users, as far as I can tell, never figure out how to turn off their email notifications. As a result they become accustomed to a huge chunk of their email basically functioning as links back to a web page. Again, learn to live with it. (My personal preference is to rely as much as possible on the web interface to interact with collaboration and social networking systems, except for applications I use infrequently.)

3. Software applications are becoming more focused.

This is an extension of item 2 above. Applications are becoming more focused and integrated with their communication functions. It’s not just Google Wave that’s moving in this direction, it’s also the single-function “apps” that Apple’s iPhone has popularized and which will be the focus of much Android development.

When you start moving applications to a mobile device you have to take into account (a) simplifying the physical interactivity and (b) integrating the application’s functionality with the platform’s communication capabilities. The result: phones are not just phones anymore. Email, when it moves to a mobile device and sprouts application legs, no longer acts like “you father’s email.”

In conclusion …

Email’s going to be with us for a long, long time.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald

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