E-mail is here to stay

Despite hassles like communication overload, e-mail remains a useful platform; the key to its lasting success lies in creating engaging content, starting with the subject line.

Johannesburg, 11 Mar 2020
Read time 3min 50sec

Online, people can hold meetings, talk directly to one another, access documents in common folders, and more. This profusion of communication tools would suggest that the days of e-mail trails, version control on e-mailed documents, information overload, and the hassle of finding old or junked e-mails will soon be over. But this is not true.

E-mail traffic has grown by 50% over the last decade and is expected to grow by a further 5% every year. With almost four billion e-mail users, and 250 billion e-mails per year (15 billion of which are spam, and 120 billion marketing messages), the average worker deals with about 130 e-mails per day.

The usefulness of e-mail lies in its asynchronicity: it is a serial process with time elapsing between receipt and response. Simply put, asynchronous communication is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response. For example, you send an e-mail; the recipient opens and responds to the e-mail several hours later, having had the time to research, collect documents, or think before replying. This is what makes e-mail more aligned with, and appropriate to, communication across organisational boundaries.

Thus, while a case may be made for diminished e-mail usage inside organisations, the asynchronicity of the medium ensures that it will remain an essential part of organisational life.

Reviewing the composition of e-mails

The purpose of an e-mail is primarily to transmit information. It may also be used to meet contractual and governance obligations in inter-organisational communication. Users should consider if the asynchronous, contractual, persistent and non-verbal nature of e-mail is suited to the current communication need. Would a phone call or meeting be more appropriate, or even a more informal messaging medium?

Increasing e-mail open rates

In many ways, the e-mail subject line is more important than the e-mail body. Many subject lines are meaningless. In an overloaded inbox, “For your information”, “Attention” or “Update” e-mails are likely to go unread, or placed at the bottom of a to-do list.

Consider borrowing a news technique. Every article published has a headline. An e-mail with the subject line, “Please review this document and return to me by Tuesday”, or “Sales have decreased in the coastal region. Why?” may receive attention from the recipient ahead of other e-mails in the queue.

In composing the body of an e-mail, we can learn from academia. After the greeting line, a hypothesis or purpose is required.

In the first example above, the purpose may be, “Our client needs to receive this contract by Tuesday evening. I have compiled a draft contract and need you to review it by Tuesday morning at the latest.” The second example may have the following hypothesis: “I believe sales are down in the coastal region because our competition has set up a new branch there. Please review the sales figures, and either confirm my reasoning or offer an alternative conclusion. Either way, please suggest some future actions.”

The main body of the e-mail should be devoted to supporting arguments or documentation.

Finally, the e-mail should revisit the call to action stated in the subject and the opening paragraph.

To sum up

Obviously, situations differ, but the perfect e-mail should headline the topic and suggest an action. The first paragraph should state the purpose of the e-mail, and the body should provide supporting evidence. Finally, the last paragraph should specify what action is required of the recipient.

A cautionary note

Remember that few e-mails can be effectively recalled. Although recall is a great and helpful feature, it unfortunately has many requirements to work as well as several limitations. The original message must still be unread for recall to work, and there can be no rule, spam filter or add-in applied to the e-mail. Once sent, e-mails are effectively received, which is why users should compose e-mails carefully, and review them thoroughly before hitting the “send” button.

Takeout statements

  • With all the alternatives to e-mail, why is its use still growing?
  • E-mail is about asynchronous communication; it happens in series.
  • E-mail is most useful for inter-organisational communication.
  • The perfect e-mail has a subject like a newspaper headline: it demands that you read it.
  • Every e-mail should be a clear call to action.
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