Email is old, dying and better for correspondence than conversation

You know what’s for old people? Facebook and email – apparently. This is according to both my twenty-something nephews and employees.

As an early adopter of email in the 90’s made possible by a SCO/Unix server and a CompuServe account, this is a bitter pill to swallow. My working day mostly consists of managing my email so that I can proudly achieve InboxZero and for most of my company’s sixteen year history – email has been the communication channel of choice.

But facts are facts. The number of instant messages sent surpassed email last year and email use generally is in decline – especially with 16-24 year olds (according to this August 2016 OfCom report).

This is a trend that has been developing for a couple of years with interpersonal communication; but it is also taking place in businesses too.

In my business, we have been working to wean people away from internal email for the past six months. We have implemented Microsoft Teams (similar to Slack) and its been a slow burner that is only now starting to gain momentum. I think that part of the reason for this lethargic adoption has been the lack of clearly defined guidelines covering when email is appropriate and when Teams was the better choice.

I lacked this clarity in my personal communication too. For the past few weeks, I have tried to cajole my friends across two continents to download one app or another to try and move my personal communication away from email. This has not yet been successful, even today.

Everyone my age seems perfectly happy with email or Facebook or if they really need to, sending a text message via SMS. My pleas to “give it a go” have fallen on deaf ears because I’ve offered no clear explanation on why one app is better than another nor why email is a problem at all.

It’s all about the conversation!

So recently, I’ve been asking as many millennials as I could about their preferred choice of instant messaging app and why. What I discovered is that they do not have one.

It turns out that they have all of the popular apps installed – Snapchat, Instagram, iMessage (iOS), WhatsApp, etc (but no Facebook). They are completely platform agnostic and simply go wherever the conversation starts; and that is when I had my moment of clarity – it’s all about the conversation!

Conversations are organic, fluid and often multi-media, multi-device. One might start with a photo, another with video, then text, and then back to a photo. Email is completely the wrong environment for the way people converse today – at least most of the time.

And so I have a much clearer answer for my old friends and for my employees when they ask for guidance on when to use email or messaging.

Email is for correspondence. Instant messaging is for conversation.

If you are communicating formally in the same way that perhaps you would have written a letter twenty or more years ago, then email is the correct choice. It is also the better choice if what you need to say is lengthy or if you need to save this correspondence for future reference – perhaps for legal reasons or as a formal record.

If you are having a conversation with colleagues, customers, friends or family then instant messaging is going to be the better choice. A discussion, a chat, a quick update – these “disposable” moments don’t need to be recorded, archived or referenced in the future and messaging apps will always deliver a better experience. They allow quick photo sharing, are built from the ground up for multimedia, they tend to present threaded conversations better and are also good at dealing with groups (large and small).

Messaging is a better choice for 90% or more of our personal communication and will probably soon represent 50% of our business communication too (certainly between colleagues and managers within an organisation).

Its time for all of us to step away from the inbox. To help us all adapt to this change, remember that email is for correspondence and messaging is for conversation.