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Issue Date: February 2011, Posted On: 2/7/2011

Don't junk business e-mail just yet

By Tom Gibson

Tom Gibson
Is e-mail sexy again? In August, Google introduced Gmail Priority Inbox, a new feature that learns to identify your important e-mail for you. Imagine, just the e-mail you need right now, right in front of you.

Then in November Facebook announced a major messaging rethink. Facebook Messages will be a “modern messaging system” that unifies e-mail, Facebook messages, chat and SMS in a single application. Like Google, Facebook also recognizes that some e-mails are more important than others. What’s important for Facebook? E-mail from Friends of course. Non-Friend e-mails will side-step the Inbox and land in the “Other” folder.

Two new but very different takes on an old e-mail effectiveness challenge: how to bring your important e-mail forward.

Gmail? Facebook? But most use Outlook at work, and most business e-mail users might be wondering how these and other social developments affect them. 

As for highlighting important e-mail, don’t expect help from Microsoft anytime soon. While Outlook excels as an e-mail program, it’s the Outlook add-in market we look to for productivity automation. On the social front there is hope. Outlook 2010 includes a Social Connector feature for passive awareness — a good start.

What has social got to do with business? Why now? In case you are inclined to dismiss social communication and its tools as only for younger generations (or to use when not at work), I challenge you to consider that our interactions at work couldn’t be more social. E-mail is often awkward and too formal in our social world of business.

That these emerging social tools better handle it outside of e-mail, and in a complementary way to e-mail, is now a re-defining opportunity for e-mail, and for you. Read on to learn how.

Three e-mail truths

To better understand how social media can help e-mail, let’s be up front about what we all now know to be true.

Truth No. 1: E-mail doesn’t do social.

An asynchronous medium, e-mail fails us for communications requiring real-time back and forth, discussions, emotionally sensitive issues, and urgent matters.

Truth No. 2: E-mail is for the keepers. 

E-mails to  set meetings and interim updates are annoying. In contrast, we like and want to keep e-mails that contain information to do our jobs with colleagues and clients, and external information like e-newsletters that keep us informed.

Truth No. 3: E-mail is the world’s most popular business information system.

Surprised? Where does your most important business information reside? Many haven’t noticed, but with automatic sorting and browsing tools, vastly improved searching and cheap disk space all converging, e-mail now rocks as a way to manage your information.

Up your e-mail game

  1. Use SMS and chat for throw-away e-mails.
    Your first surprise may come when you notice people who are unresponsive via e-mail often respond quickly to your text messages. And you’ll find chat surprisingly effective for clarifying things in quick Q&A sessions. It’s easy to set up free accounts.

    Is it professional? Absolutely, when used appropriately. You’ll see rapid and broad uptake of these tools this year. For your team, consider Yammer, a social networking product designed specifically for internal communications. Either way, start with those you communicate with most, and you’ll soon enjoy correspondingly fewer e-mails.
  2. Separate out your important e-mail.

    When helping clients we look to see how many newsletters they receive. If just a handful, Outlook’s Rules feature can handle the job. For more, we recommend Nelson E-mail Organizer, an Outlook add-in that separates correspondent (important) mail from bulk mail that can be read later.
  3. Keep all the Outlook e-mail you want.

    People who work hard deleting e-mail and religiously file to folders may feel efficient, when in fact they’re stuck in old ways. The trend today is to e-mail less but save more of it, and find it using new browsing and searching technologies instead of filing.

We help shift people into the new ways. For many, improving their workflow and how they use Outlook is just what’s needed. For those managing many external relationships, more is needed. Nelson E-mail Organizer has its own version of “friends” — it puts all e-mail (sent and received) from each person you correspond with into automatically-created NEO virtual folders. It makes it easy to browse to any e-mail you need.

For those who just want to improve on Outlook’s search, X1 or NEO Find can be a great fit.

Can social media really save e-mail? Not entirely. But increasingly it will take over the social exchanges e-mail is poor at. Then e-mail programs can do what they do best — manage the information we all need to better do our jobs.

Tom Gibson is principal trainer for Slipstream Advantage Group. He coaches busy professionals and trains companies in the new ways to manage e-mail. Contact him at Slipstream­AdvantageGroup.com.

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