Is it the end for email?


Managing email has become an essential part of billions of peoples lives for over two decades. A massive 205 billion emails were sent every day last year, with this figure on track to reach 249 billion by 2019, indicating email is showing no signs of slowing down. However, at least half of these messages are spam and an increasing number of emails being sent are machine-generated, like newsletters or receipts, as opposed to human-created communications. The rapidly growing number of emails, and the impact they are having on employees’ personal lives, has led high-profile Germany firms, including BMW and Volkswagen, to issue guidelines saying staff are not expected to open emails outside working hours.

“The employees and customers of today are time-poor and the sheer volume of emails exchanged makes it impossible for anyone to stay on top of their mailbox without compromising their productivity,” says Tim Stone, Vice President of Marketing for EMEA at unified communications (UC) provider Polycom.

Searching through countless unnecessary email threads, and having to retrieve long lost messages, may seem like minor inconveniences, but there is a real financial cost to businesses that don’t embrace modern communication platforms. A 2012 McKinsey report found that the average highly-skilled worker spends around 28% of the workweek managing e-mail, with the potential productivity improvements and cost savings of reducing this workload being considerable.

Stone adds: “Discussions are taking place in real-time and people are more likely to use UC tools, such as instant messaging, video, audio and content sharing, to make a decision in real-time. UC allows workforces to be productive while being mobile or working flexibly, remotely, or anywhere.” Although Stone does say that emails are still expected to be sent to summarise and confirm the discussion.

Tradition or innovation?

For years, tech leaders have predicted the demise of email. The then Communications Director of TalkTalk, Mark Schmid, said in 2009: “Based on the trends we’re seeing now, email could well be on its last legs by the end of the next decade,” with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg more recently saying “Email is probably going away.” So why is email still managing to hold its ground against innovative challengers?

The omnipresent technology – originally created in 1971 by American computer programmer Ray Tomlinson – is used by 83% of internet connected UK adults, making it the only communication service of its type that the majority of the population actively use. Not only does this make it difficult for up-start messaging services with minuscule user bases to compete, but email is still the best method available to reach the largest number of people.

Although the money gained through productivity increases considerably when a business adopts more efficient messaging services, these platforms usually charge a per user fee, whereas email is ‘free’. Of course, there is a charge to maintain email, like hardware, storage and server costs, but it can be hard to gauge the exact total and new platforms can appear to have a high-cost, as prices are presented as a simple individual fee.

Millennial disruption

Younger generations are far more accustomed to using messaging apps like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger than email, with a 2015 report by App Annie finding that 13 to 24 year olds spent eight times more time in the leading messenger apps than in top email apps. Many disruptive communication startups have been launched over the past decade, which not only provide improved functionality and connectivity over email, but offer a superior user interface. Future millennial and generation Z employees simply don’t see the value in email.

“In my own experience teaching millennials, email is largely irrelevant to them,” says Mark Brill, strategic brand consultant and a senior lecturer in future media at Birmingham City University. “At best, it’s a place where they might find the occasional offer from a brand, but it’s no longer a communication channel.”

Although younger people may favour modern, social media-based communication platforms, major companies are not going to overhaul their decades-old technology infrastructure overnight. “The impact from this generation on businesses and organisations is hard to gauge – there are lots of reasons why they will continue to use email. However, when (and it is when, not if) it’s no longer effective then brands will shift rapidly to messaging tools,” adds Brill.

New office communication services released in the past decade are directly competing with email and hope to persuade users to switch, thanks to the prospect of an empty email inbox. From Gchat and Viber to Yik Tak and HipChat, there are dozens of real-time communication services available today.

San Francisco-based startup Slack leads the pack and is used by over three million users daily, growing by hundreds of thousands of users each month. On the surface, Slack could be just another instant messenger, but many businesses have adopted this service due to its work-friendly features, like excellent search functionality and automatic archiving of all conversations. Corporate giants including Walmart, eBay and BuzzFeed all use Slack for internal office communications and many more SMEs have joined up to this burgeoning office communication platform.

Slack may be the most popular business-messaging tool on the market, but the recent launch of Workplace by Facebook could truly shake up this industry and reach a substantially larger number of consumers than any other similar service. Facebook’s built-in user base of more than 1.8 billion provides the social media colossus with a perfect opportunity to target people who already use the service in their personal lives.

Email is simply failing to match the features offered by innovative messaging platforms, with China’s WeChat showing where these services could go in the near future. “It’s all about messaging apps. They have grown beyond just a message to become a broad brand platform – we’ve seen this from the likes of Facebook and Snapchat, but perhaps the best example is WeChat, which offers a complete eco-system to users. Increasingly we’ll see these platforms supported by Artificial Intelligence and natural language processing which could enable brands to work smarter and deliver a true omni-channel experience,” says Brill.

The growing number of email alternatives, which cater to the needs of businesses of all sizes, can be expected to convert long-time email users who are looking for a more comprehensive messaging platform. From unified communications services that include video calling, instant messaging and conferencing all in one user friendly package, to new solutions like Workplace by Facebook, the position of email is slowly, but surely, being eroded.

“There will be a natural shift from emails as the next generation enters the workplace,” believes Stone. “I can tell from my personal experience as a father of three daughters that the younger generation do not to use emails. They prefer to be on social networking sites such as Snapchat and Instagram, and video communication is a part of their daily lives. This will surely have an impact on business communications over time,” adds Tim Stone of Polycom.

Case study: Unify

Virtually all major businesses still use email as their main communication platform, with most commentators believing that it will take many years for this technology to be successfully replaced on a wide scale. However, some companies have already taken the leap and moved away from email communications. Unify, an Atos company, specialises in collaboration and communication technologies and has worked hard to introduce more business-friendly communication services, while only using email where absolutely essential. So why did Unify decide to completely overhaul the way employees communicate? “To put it in the simplest of terms, we wanted to transform our business. Email first entered the mainstream in the 1980s and while there has been huge advances since, the tech has remained the same. This means that it is just not built for modern communication in businesses,” says Andrew Cheel, Head of Circuit Customer Success at Unify.

Unify found emails to not only be frustrating and expensive, but also damaging to productivity levels across the company, according to Cheel. The benefits of migrating to instant messaging services were well communicated throughout the business, but as with any major transition, problems arose.

“The first issue, as well as the biggest, was cultural. Firstly, we had to point out to all our staff that we were not getting rid of email entirely, instead our real objective was relegating it to a less critical role. This got more people on board, as many individuals grew up using the technology, making a shift somewhat difficult to stomach at first. This improved, of course, when people realised the positive impact of instant communication,” says Cheel.

As younger people leave school and university to enter the world of work, the current arguments for keeping email around will start to lose their appeal. “As more and more young people enter the workforce, email is going to be put under huge pressure. Already the technology is seen as akin to sending a letter and the most successful organisations will be the ones that recognise this shift,” concludes Cheel.

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