Is the Email Era Ending?

Email is based on an antiquated physical model (the inbox and outbox), and better ways of communicating -- even collaborating -- with customers are emerging.   

a photo of three sets of hands on a wooden table. Two people are holding smartphones and one is typing on a silver laptop. There are drawings of email symbols above all three sets of hands.

Paradigms die hard, but they can eventually die. The idea of a carriage stuck around long after engines, rather than horses, began to power them, but the horseless carriage became the car over the course of a few decades. TV shows were initially just radio shows or Vaudeville acts done in front of a camera, but "I Love Lucy," "The Honeymooners" and others eventually pioneered a better way, just as cable TV has morphed into its many, many current forms after initially being just broadcast TV carried on a wire. 

Even though email has been around so long that many of us can't remember life without it, it's actually based on an antiquated physical model -- the inbox and outbox -- and the paradigm is showing signs of dying. While it's still not clear just what approaches will supplant email, they could make internal communication more efficient and, even more importantly, provide better ways of communicating -- even collaborating -- with customers.  

The limitations of the inbox/outbox model have been apparent almost since email became widespread. I remember once having breakfast with Steve Ballmer, then the No. 2 executive at Microsoft, and asking him what the next killer app would be for personal computers. Email, he said. Well, that breakfast was in maybe 1991, and, by 1993 or so, email's limitations were so apparent that Lotus Notes had become popular as an alternative that allowed for better group collaboration.

Email: from killer app to serious pain in two years.

Companies have been wrestling with email ever since, if only by encouraging a code of etiquette that limits the number of people copied. (Email has been described as a way for others to add items to your to-do list.) Relatively recent tools, such as Slack and Microsoft's Teams, have facilitated collaboration, and those sorts of apps will become more prevalent as we older types age out of the work force and as more digital natives age in. (If I forward something to my daughters via email... crickets. But if I DM or text them... whammo! They may respond immediately. And just imagine the interactions if I ever start to use Instagram.)

As a New York Times columnist wrote recently in a piece titled, "The Kids Are Right About Email, Too": "For them, email isn’t annoying. It simply doesn’t exist."

I'm sure companies will continue to find ways to use collaboration tools to work more effectively than they have been able to just through email. As I've written previously, especially here, I believe that a lot of the increase in effectiveness won't be through speeding communication but by slowing it down, or, more accurately, letting senders and receives sort communications better so the time-sensitive issues get addressed quickly while others are set aside so they don't upset the flow of the receiver.  

But what has really caught my attention is the potential for better communication with customers. They are moving faster than companies are to a post-email world and, as usual, will get impatient with companies that don't keep up. 

Connie Chan, a general partner at the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital firm, lays out some intriguing possibilities in this blog post. (She uses China as an example, and I realize China is a controversial topic these days, but I figure we have to find examples wherever we can.)

She describes a new form of communication called "private traffic," which she defines as "a customer relationship management (CRM) strategy that emphasizes direct communication between brands and customers" and is better than email marketing "because private traffic enables two-way conversations. Customers expect a real back and forth whenever they communicate with brands, and in some cases interact not only with other brands but also with other customers....

"Here's one example of how private traffic might work: Let’s say you go to a store to buy a barbecue set. The sales rep might make a recommendation for a specific grill and say, 'Hey, after you purchase this, why don’t you add me as a contact? You can message me if you have any questions about installation, or any aspect of using your grill. If I come across cool barbecue recipes, or accessories for your barbecue set, I’m going to send them your way.'

"You agree, allowing the store rep to start a one-on-one chat with you. What’s the impact? You’re more likely to buy the barbecue set because you have the store sales rep’s personal support, and you’re less likely to return it because you now have a direct connection with them. This kind of private, two-way conversation also helps brands understand their customer better, which in turn helps breed deeper customer loyalty."

Chan describes an approach that Ctrip, the biggest travel company in China, began offering a couple of years ago: "If you booked an international flight for a week-long vacation, you’d have the option of joining a group chat with other travelers who booked tickets to the same destination, around the same time. There would also be a customer sales rep in the chat to act as a travel concierge before and during the trip. They’d answer questions about anything from what to do about a lost passport to which type of outlet converter to bring. But the best part is, once your vacation starts, you’re not only asking the customer sales rep questions — often, you’re talking to other group-chat members too. You might ask how long the line at an amusement park is, or see who has sightseeing recommendations, or even invite people to meet up for dinner. Essentially, the group of strangers becomes a community."

It's easy to see how the private traffic idea could translate to at least some situations in the insurance world. After a flood or wildfire, an insurance agent could act as a sort of concierge for a community, not only helping with claims but answering other important questions about how families can get back on their feet and connecting families with each other for counsel and support. Insurers could also act as a sort of insurance-plus concierge for clients with similar businesses -- landscaping firms, pizza parlors, etc. -- advising them while they advise each other. In addition, insurers could plug themselves into private traffic arranged by others -- perhaps the auto dealer who is maintaining a relationship with customers would welcome an expert to answer tricky insurance questions as part of the dealer/customer private traffic. 

It's easy, too, to see how quickly private traffic could get messy. For one thing, it requires a significant time commitment. And what if someone in the community you organize says something bad about you? Or gives inaccurate advice? Who would be liable? What will regulators say?

But the customer is always right. Right? So, we need to find some way to stop just blasting those email surveys to customers or simply sending forms about policy renewals and to engage them in ways that they find meaningful and helpful. 

If we do, we can obtain what some marketers are calling "privileged insights." The idea is that you can get certain basic insights from market research or from customers when they buy the first product from you but can gain deeper insights -- privileged insights -- if you establish a relationship with them and build trust by offering good advice, providing prompt service, treating them and their data with respect, etc. You develop a virtuous cycle. Customers grant you insights that let you improve your product or service, which makes them trust you more and grant deeper access to their thinking, which lets you....

But part of building that trusting relationship with customers will require meeting them where they are, with text, chat, DMs, etc. and less and less with email.

Yes, I realize the incongruity of my sending you an email about the end of email and expecting you to read it. But I think email newsletters, which are currently so successful for so many, can change as your needs and habits do. I certainly hope this one will.